Here is an image to cherish: Guillermo del Toro, as a young boy, “watching a TV series on the floor, on my belly, with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies.” It represents more than just a pleasant memory for the director when it comes to “Trollhunters,” the new animated series he co-created for Dreamworks and Netflix. In crafting the story of Jim (played by Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away earlier this year), a young man who gets chosen by a mystical amulet to serve as protector of a hidden troll kingdom, del Toro hopes to capture the spirit of the shows he grew up watching, including classic adventure series like “Jonny Quest.”
While the visual master is best known for dark tales of childhood like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labrynth,” “Trollhunters” represents him reconnecting with “the joy of being a kid,” as he explained to IndieWire last week. We spoke with del Toro just as the director was putting the final touches on the 26 episodes of “Trollhunters” Season 1, and he shared what might be different about making something for children versus adults.
Understanding the animation process is something to which del Toro has been committed for years now, after taking on an “apprenticeship” at Dreamworks to work behind-the-scenes on films including “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Puss in Boots.” Below, he reveals what he learned along the way, as well as what was behind the choice to bring in Alexandre Desplat to compose two key themes for the series.
Most importantly, we found out the real reason that del Toro had only one choice when it came to casting the role of Blinky, Jim’s guide to the troll world. Kelsey Grammer, it turns out, has been an essential part of del Toro’s filmmaking process for years — thanks to “Fraiser.”
What, to you, is different about producing for children, versus producing something meant for adults?
It’s been a great process because I’ve been doing animation since I was a teenager, but it was only stop-motion — my early movies, when I was a kid. I then had a company for 10 years that did makeup effects, prosthetics, and stop-motion animation in Mexico. Then, in 2006, I approached Jeffery [Katzenberg] and said, “I want to be part of Dreamworks and I want to have an apprenticeship as a producer to learn, as best as I can, the medium.”
Jeffrey said to me, “Look, if you’re coming in as a producer, I’m going to give you an apprenticeship to study. You need to really come to every screening, go for every reaction of an audience, go through all the tracking. Really go to every creative, crucial moment.” It’s been six years of that. By the time I started “Trollhunters,” I felt very confident that we can deliver it.
What was the biggest thing you learned during your apprenticeship?
When you’re working on a big movie, what I think is the creative algorithm in visual storytelling is that it’s always budget against creative ambition. When you’re talking about live action, the nature of the budget is set construction, wardrobe, special effects. When you go to animation, there is a completely different language of creative expectation on budget. By the time I was done going through all my apprenticeship in the last five years, I was able to make “Trollhunters” look ambitious, big, and beautiful on a budget that was still a TV budget. That gave me a lot.
Then, narratively, I was able to truly get in tune with the way I felt as a kid, watching a TV series on the floor, on my belly, with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. I really came in contact with not the bittersweet chronicle of childhood that I’ve been doing in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Devil’s Backbone.” I really reconnected with the joy. A joy that was very pure, that I connected with, for example, again, on “Pacific Rim.” “Trollhunters” is just the joy of being a kid. There’s a purity to that that is great.
What did you watch as a kid with your milk and cookies?
When I was a kid, my childhood was very unusual. I had all the Hanna Barbera stuff, the Warner Bros. cartoons, all the UPA cartoons. “Mr. Magoo,” “Gerald McBoing-Boing.” I had “Johnny Quest.” All the American animated shows. But I also had a huge influence of anime because Mexico was equal, toe-to-toe with Japan when the shows were released. I don’t know why, but I had a lot of anime and a lot of the Kaiju shows, like “Ultraman” and “Ultra Seven,” “Space Giants.”
What I remember, beautifully, when I was a kid was there was a sense of adventure on something like “Johnny Quest,” that was really, really a thrill. There was no irony to the shows. They were really earnest and emotionally beautiful. I wanted to bring that sentiment to “Trollhunters,” which is really a show about not ironic, not post-modern, adventures. To bring a sense of adventure that is somewhat pure.
Do you feel like we’re shifting away from the idea that everything has to have a sense of irony to it?
In all my movies, I have never been ironic. I don’t try to wink at the material. If I’m doing a giant monster, giant robot movie, I don’t try to blink at the audience. I’m doing that premise with the believe that if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re not in, you’re not. I’m not going to bury it in adult concerns. I want to enjoy it. I think when I look at romance, I do a Gothic romance with all the overwrought melodrama and so on and so forth. I think I’m just a believer in what I do, with a passion. I come in at it as a lover of genre, not somebody that over-analyzes. I’m not about the material, I get high on my own supply.
What was most important to you, in constructing the season?
What was important for me is to actually give the main character, Jim, a bittersweet journey into what it is to be a hero. I didn’t want it to be just a power fantasy. You can start like that, but you want to go to places that really mean he has to make choices that are hard. That was important for me. That way I always thought it would be great to make the series a long format narrative, rather than a feature or series of features. I wanted to say, “Look, you can be in high school and you can have your problems. Then you get all these powers and then you have a different set of problems. There is not such a thing as a final, great outcome.” That’s seldom the case in this heroic narrative. You get a magical object and it solves everything. I wanted to really be able to do that.
What do you think kids are going to be most excited about?
I think that what we got excited about were the characters. One of my favorite characters to be with is Blinky, Toby, Arrrrrrgh, Jim. They are just really characters that I find very endearing. Then the sense of adventure is really, really beautifully pure, you know? There is a really nice sense of the scope of the world.
In terms of actually doing the writing, did you ever find yourself having to pull back at all, because you were remembering that this was for a young audience?
No. I think that we are like a Russian doll, all of us. We have the essence of our childhood is there, the essence of our teenage years are there, the essence of our young adult years is there. When you become the Russian doll, if you’re accessing the right level of your person, you write for that level and you never go off character.
If you ask me, this is how deranged I might be, but “Hellboy 1” and “Hellboy 2” are kids’ movies. They are movies that I made for kids. They have a good heart, they are fun, blah blah blah, but they are PG-13. They have moments of violence or action that may be too intense for children, but I never had a moment on the “Hellboy” movies where I said, “Oh, I’m writing something too disturbing.” By the same token, when I’m writing something like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and I come across a very disturbing moment, I know that it’s a movie about kids but it’s not a movie for kids. It’s a fairy tale for adults. I never found myself going off message.
In terms of the voice cast, how happy were you to be able to get Kelsey Grammer involved?
It was unconditional, because the first note I ever made on my notebooks about “Trollhunters,” the first note to myself was, “Blinky must be voiced by Kelsey Grammer.” I knew it because I’m a massive “Frasier” fan. Every night, after I finish shooting a movie, I watch a “Frasier” episode during the shoot because it relaxes me. For me, it’s like a glass of brandy. In this case, sherry, a glass of sherry. I think “Frasier” is one of the great series, in terms of comedic timing and great tempo in the delivery. That’s why I worked with David Hyde Pierce on “Hellboy 1” to voice Abe Sapien. I really asked the studio to allow me to go after Kelsey because I think his voice, there has never been and there will never be another voice like Kelsey’s. It’s one of the most treasured voices I think you can encounter in any other visual medium.
I think what really impressed me about it is that it has such gravitas, but it also has such humor to it.
That’s the thing. “Frasier” was a mixture of truth serum and emotion, with an impeccable sense of comedic timing and delivery. When I directed with Rodrigo [Blaas] the first two episodes, the pilot, I went to direct Kelsey absolutely besides myself. I called my wife the day I went to the booth to direct him and I said to my wife, “Guess who I’m with?” My wife and I have watched the 11 seasons of “Frasier” at least four times together. It was fantastic.
Was she excited?
You know, she was. What was great is he was so precise, as an actor. He’s a machine that you can calibrate and have fun with to the most minimal degree. You can truly ask for variations upon variations and he will deliver everything with enormous precision and enormous heart.
I wanted to ask about getting Alexandre Desplat to write the theme. How did that come together?
Alexandre is also writing the score for “The Shape of Water,” the movie that I’m doing now. He did the score for one of the movies that we did at Dreamworks, “Rise of the Guardians.” We got along really, really well and I came out of that project in awe of his talent and his music. We knew from the start that we wanted him to write the main themes of the series.
When you have a show about heroism, having a great hero’s theme feels like it’s really important.
Yeah. If you play the theme again of “Trollhunters” and then you go to, let’s say, the theme music of “Johnny Quest,” you will see that they have a similar spirit. They have this really ’70s adventure feel that is really, really good.
“Trollhunters” premieres Friday, December 23 on Netflix.