Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 2
(An Early Arrival, A Light Lunch & A Bookcase Full Of Booze)

Missed Part 1? Here's a quick recap:

I'm all like, blah, blah, blah. I want, I want, I want. Then I stop talking about myself long enough to introduce you to Kristen (DreamWorks' online marketing wunderkind) and Daniel (the assistant to Croods directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco). Then I immediately go back to talking about myself (surprise!), and then WHAM -- Kristen sends me the following email:

Do you live in the area? I was thinking maybe you could come visit [DreamWorks] sometime if you do! We're looking at lunch + some... fun stuff afterwards :)

We now return to our trip report, already in progress...

The Early Arrival

"Do you live in the area?"

This was the first line in Kristen's email to me, the magical email where she invited me to visit her at DreamWorks.

Do I live in "the area"?

If by "the area" Kristen meant Earth, then yes, I lived in "the area." If by "the area" Kristen meant America, then I do solemnly swear my long-standing citizenship. But if, as I sorta suspected, Kristen meant Glendale, CA, then the answer would have to be no, I do not live in "the area."

The truth is, I live all the way across the country in puritanical New England. But my kid sister, Caroline, lives in sunny CA. More specifically, in smoggy L.A. And even more specifically, a mere fifteen minutes from DreamWorks. Not only that, but I'd already been planning to visit her the first week of December for an early Christmas. Our ONLY Christmas together this year. A trip to DreamWorks would make the perfect present for me!

I emailed Kristen all of this extraneous information, and she not only invited Caroline along, she set a solid date and time: December 3rd at noon.

(Here's where you need to imagine one of those little plastic planes flying across a large map of the United States, leaving a dotted line in its wake. Now zoom in on your imaginary map 'til you see me groggily disembarking a cramped airplane at a crowded LAX. Fast-forward through a quick stop at Pink's Hotdogs and a large slice of strawberry cake at Alcove, past a fitful night's sleep that started three hours later than I'm used to, and to just after I awaken at the ungodly hour of 6 AM PST. Yuck. My mouth tastes terrible. Don't get too close. Better yet, put your thumb back on the fast-forward and zoom ahead another 5 1/2 hours 'til you see me and my sister parked just outside the large, ivy-covered archways of DreamWorks Animation Studio. Can you picture that?)

Wow. You're good.

Okay, so it was 11:30 AM. Caroline and I were a half hour early for our lunch with Kristen. My sister was trying to tell me something about the red paint on the curb beside our car, but I was having trouble paying attention. My mind was racing. My stomach was churning. When I looked down at my hands and saw them trembling like little mice feet, it suddenly dawned on me: I WAS NERVOUS.

Why was I nervous? I had no idea. Thus far, in the limited contact that I had had with Kristen, she'd been nothing but super kind and supportive. Yet there I was, n-n-n-nervous.

I tried to calm myself by concocting an impromptu set of soothing affirmations. They were meant to remind me of the purpose of my visit (to get new info for this blog), my preferred headspace for the visit (cool, calm and conversational), and that this could be my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfill my two secret wishes (tell Chris Sanders how much his films mean to me, then politely ask him for a signed sketch of Stitch). I don't know why, but I said all of this out loud. Repeatedly. By the third go-round, my sister had joined in. By the sixth time through, we were singing it to the tune of My Favorite Things.

There was a reason we hadn't yet driven through the DreamWorks gates. We were trying to be respectful of Kristen's time. "Too early is just as bad as too late," my sister insisted. This, less than an hour after spending waaay too long walking her tiny dog around Los Feliz while I anxiously awaited her return.

"What if we go in early," I suggested, "but ask the guy at the gate to wait a little while before informing Kristen of our arrival? That way we won't seem rude or desperate or like we've got nothing better to do on a Monday morning."

Caroline nodded. I figured that this meant she agreed, but she was actually motioning towards a cop car pulling up behind us. "I told you," she said. "You can't park in a red zone."

That decided it. We were going in.

Driving through the gates, I gave the guard our names and asked him to hold off on calling Kristen for at least another fifteen minutes. He rolled his eyes as I tried to explain the reasoning behind this, but agreed.

(Turns out, it's part of a security guard's job to only PRETEND to agree with such odd-ball requests. We found out later that he'd actually called Kristen immediately, telling her all about our inept attempts to respect her time and to not look too desperate. Thankfully, Kristen was willing to play along, waiting 'til Caroline and I finally did check in -- only five minutes early! -- to come claim us, and thus making us appear -- if only to ourselves! -- that we respected her time and were not too desperate. VICTORY!)

In the meantime, Caroline and I had nearly half an hour to roam the grounds of DreamWorks, snapping pictures of the Mediterranean themed architecture, the 'boy on the moon' topiary, and the lush green landscaping that borders the studio's stone piazza.

Wandering around, I was reminded of something that I'd recently read in Neal Gabler's book, Walt Disney. In a chapter describing the completion of Disney's Burbank studio, a New York Times reporter wrote that a "walk across the lawns at noon was a like a walk though Central Park on Sunday." In the same chapter, Hedda Hopper was quoted as saying that "the whole atmosphere is conducive to the light-heartedness and gayety that you find in Disney’s pictures." Ditto for DreamWorks.

Here's The Part Where I Lose My Ability To Speak -- Just In Time For Formal Introductions!

When we finally entered the studio's main building to 'officially' check in, my sister and I were stopped in our tracks by two GIANT Croods displays. One was the light-up, 3D, movie theater standee that I'd linked to last month. The other was a 2D version of the same standee, only book-ended by a large Rise of the Guardians poster and a snow-capped Christmas tree. Considering that for all intents and purposes this week was our Christmas, we took it as a good omen.

After introducing ourselves to the fellow behind the front desk, we sat back and waited for Kristen. I was ogling the concept art hanging in the lobby (there's a Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron painting that's just GORGEOUS), when who should appear but Kristen! And Daniel! And they had posters!

Introductions were made, and it was immediately apparent that the cheerful and kind email versions of Kristen and Daniel were completely in sync with their cheerful and kind, flesh and blood counterparts. In fact, the only one NOT acting like their internet selves was ME. Gone were the endless streams of words, the mixed metaphors and the annoying inclination towards alliteration. It was like I'd been zapped with a curse that had transformed me from a relentless rambler to a mumbling near-mute. I was seriously considering asking for a pen and paper so that I could try writing instead of talking when Daniel suggested that we head to the studio cafeteria for lunch.

Lunch! Yes! That was the answer! If I could keep my mouth full of food for the duration of the visit, no one would ever have to know that my tongue had died.

A Light Lunch Takes A Dark Turn (KIDDING!)

The DreamWorks cafeteria is a study in controlled chaos. With its multiple food stations, dozens of dining options and hundreds of people moving every which way, it's a little like driving on the 101, only with slightly better signage. But as the four of us carefully navigated our trays, I found myself feeling a slight sense of relief. With all of the hustle and bustle in there, there was no way that Daniel and Kristen would notice I'd been struck dumb!

"I saved us a table outside," Daniel said, pointing to the piazza. "It's quieter out there, so we'll be able to talk."


For the record, it's not like I hadn't said ANYTHING thus far. It's just that I hadn't said anything particularly interesting. Or witty. Or even mildly entertaining. I find that I'm really only able to relax and be the loud and loquacious jabberjaws that you read here when I'm familiar with my surroundings. Some folks can just walk into a bar and immediately become the center of attention. Not me. I'm the sort of fellow who sits off to the side for an hour or so, trying to get a feel for the room, and only then lets his lips off the leash. But I didn't have an hour or so to get comfortable around Kristen and Daniel. I had one lunch. And what if we happened to run into Chris Sanders while returning our trays? What then?! Just the thought of it was starting to make me feel star-struck. Luckily, my sister was there. She'd probably say that she's shyer than me, and she might be right. But there's one HUGE difference. Where her shyness disguises itself with smiles and laughter, mine chooses the far less photogenic furrowed eyebrows ( my 'angry eyes,' as Mrs. Potatohead called 'em) and a taffy tongue. Like I said, I'm lucky my sister was there.

Talk over lunch ranged from teen girls' movie viewing habits (illegal downloads, mostly), to Tumblr's effectiveness as a marketing tool (it's great for reaching teen girls, only they watch most of their movies via illegal downloads so...), to the contents of the upcoming (now released) second trailer for The Croods. I finally figured out how to speak during all of this. I can't be sure, but I think I may have even contributed to the conversation.

At some point near the end of our meal, one of DreamWorks' higher-ups came over and introduced himself, quickly running through a long list of dos and don'ts to adhere to during our visit. Cameras were prohibited in the areas where cameras are prohibited. Information that is given off the record must stay off the record, and so on. I completely understood and agreed with everything that he was saying, but somewhere between his no-nonsense tone and my 'angry eyes,' my sister became convinced that I had somehow screwed over the studio in the past. And she said as much as soon as he'd left the table.

"Oh, my God! I don't know you! What did you do to make them not trust you?"

My sister's complete lack of faith in her favorite older brother came as no surprise to me, but it certainly did seem to entertain Kristen and Daniel. I swear I saw them suppressing laughter as I vainly tried to convince Caroline of my innocence. It took a few minutes, but by the time I'd finally vindicated myself (I did, didn't I?), it was as if the energy around us had changed. The mood had lightened. No longer was it two tour guides and two outsiders. Now it was just four people who had shared an equally awkward moment and come out of it smiling.

Thank you, Caroline.

It's What All Of You Were Waiting For: The Studio Tour!

With our tummies full and my tongue untied, the four of us headed off to tour the studio. As Kristen had already heard about me and Caroline wandering around unattended (damn you, tricky gate guard!), she and Daniel decided to take us to the less obvious areas we might have missed. And we'd missed A LOT. Although the studio doesn't seem especially spacious when you first enter, when you're being shown around by two seasoned veterans, you realize it's actually a miniature walled city. There's a doctor's office. A cafeteria. A studio store. An interconnected series of small fountains and shallow ponds housing some seriously expensive koi. Oh, and should you ever need one, there's a waterfall around back.

When I mentioned that the studio looked like a really nice, really posh, private college, Kristen said that Jeffrey Katzenberg had intended it to feel like a campus. She said that most DW employees even refer to it that way -- as 'the campus.' Daniel took the college comparison one step further, pointing out a small group doing yoga beside a long, rectangular reflection pool. Apparently, after lunch yoga classes -- and sculpture classes, life drawing classes, painting classes, etc. -- are offered free of charge to any and all interested employees of the studio.

It was right about then that I began to wonder: Was DreamWorks a cult? Was the studio their armored compound? Was I in the process of being brainwashed into their ranks?

I sure hoped so. I've always wanted to learn to sculpt.

As we approached a large building at the center of the campus (uh-oh! lingo alert! the brainwashing was already taking effect!), Daniel mentioned that from this point on, cameras were a no-no. Flashing back to my sister's baseless and incendiary accusations, I immediately switched my phone to airplane mode, turned down the volume, and clicked the power off. I would NOT give her the satisfaction of being right!

The building turned out to be a lot like the koi pond -- a complicated combination of smaller, interconnected buildings housing some pretty expensive sh*t. Pretty much every aspect of an animated film's creation was contained therein. We were shown the newly constructed recording studio. The subterranean mo-cap room. The producers' offices. The animators' cubicles. The editing bays and the writers' rooms.

Wall after wall was lined with long, banner-sized printouts of production art from The Croods, How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Me and My Shadow. There were so many new characters, creatures and landscapes that I had to quickly give up on trying to remember them all. Eff the Louvre. This was the Museum of Modern Art to me.

We were circling the darkened environs of the DreamWorks animators when Daniel held up his phone and frowned. "I have to leave for a little while," he said to Kristen. "Maybe you could take them to the secret room."

The secret room?

"Can we take them to the secret room?" Kristen asked.

Caroline elbowed me, widening her eyes like, 'Say something!'

"You can't just mention the secret room and then not show us the secret room," I joked. Only, it didn't quite come out like a joke. Remember, I'd only recently regained the power of speech. "I mean..." I stammered, pointing towards an empty cubicle, "...the least you could do is tell us that THIS is the secret room. Then our curiosity would be sated, and your secrets would be safe because we're too dumb to know better."

Daniel and Kristen looked at each other with pained faces. Caroline slowly shook her head. I wished I'd stayed a mute.

"I'll take them to the secret room," Kristen said.

"I'll call as soon as I'm able to meet back up with you guys," Daniel said, and took off down the hall.

Caroline was delighted. "To the secret room!" she shrieked.

"To the secret room," I repeated. "But you'll always be MY secret room," I whispered to the empty cubicle.

That vow of architectural chastity lasted right up until I entered the REAL secret room. It was hidden -- as all of the best secret rooms are -- behind an old bookcase. To get inside, you first had to find the copy of War & Peace hidden amongst a bunch of other boring books. Then you opened the cover to War & Peace, turned the tiny knob located inside, and voilĂ  -- the bookcase slid open, revealing the secret room!

The inside of the secret room is a comfy-cozy blend of prohibition era speakeasy, Twin Peaks hunting lodge, and Indiana Jones' den. There's a roaring plastic fire, a fake bear skin rug, red velvet chairs and a fully stocked bar. Sitting in there with Kristen, listening to her tell us the story of the secret room's creation, was a welcome respite from the otherwise awe-inspiring, nerve-wracking, pulse-pounding, tongue-tying visit. When Daniel finally called Kristen, asking us to meet him upstairs, I felt the most relaxed that I'd been since pulling up in front of the studio gates.

Taking the elevator upstairs, Kristen, Caroline and I chatted. What did we chat about? I don't know. It doesn't matter. The fact that I don't remember is EXACTLY what made it so special at the time. I was as I'd wished to be: cool, calm and conversational.

Then the elevator doors opened, we stepped out into the hallway, and there was Daniel, standing next to CHRIS F**KING SANDERS!

Bye-bye calm, cool me.

In Part 3's Star-Studded Installment:
Chris f**king Sanders! Kirk f**king De Micco! James f**king Baxter! Oh, and lots more awkward silences from yours f**king truly!

See you Friday!


  1. i had so much fun reading this!

    ''You can't just mention the secret room and then not show us the secret room," I joked. Only, it didn't quite come out like a joke. Remember, I'd only recently started speaking English again. "I mean..." I stammered, pointing towards an empty cubicle, "...the least you could do is tell us that THIS is the secret room. Then our curiosity would be sated, and your secrets would be safe because we're too dumb to know better."
    ROFL. i feel bad laughing at this...

    1. I'm so glad you're enjoying this! The visit was WONDERFUL. Writing it up like this is kinda like getting a second chance to experience it -- only calmer, and with a lot less stammering!

  2. Nice trip report so far but I didn't expect it to end like that...I don't know if you've got ambitions of entering the entertainment business but that is one heck of a cliffhanger. I can't wait till Friday.

    1. I can barely meet the minuscule demands of the blogging business. The entertainment industry would CRUSH me!

      (I'm glad you're digging this, though!)

  3. For those with a 3D TV/Monitor that can play YouTube trailers side-by-side. You can see both videos here.

    Trailer 1:

    Trailer 2:

    1. Coincidence! I actually have those waiting in a que to be posted tomorrow. But thanks for scooping me on my own site just the same. ;)

    2. Ooops! I feel bad now. Sorry!

    3. No, no, no! NEVER stop sending me links. For every one that we find at the same time, there's ninety-nine that I never would've seen without your help. You're like a divining rod for Croods news. You're COMMENTER BOB!