It all began in Oklahoma City’s northwest suburbs in the 1980s. Mike Mitchell had a Mongoose bike, an 8mm camera and several buddies. Perhaps more importantly, he had imagination.
“We went all over to creeks and on the back roads,” Mitchell recalled during a recent Oklahoma Gazette interview. “At that time, you didn’t have to travel very far before you ended up in the middle of nowhere. We were just riding our Mongoose bikes, but we ended up in the middle of nowhere and we began to make films.”
Mitchell never heard any complaints when he pulled out his camera and began to capture his friends. He also frequently visited the dollar movie theater near his home. As technology progressed, he got his hands on a camcorder with batteries the size and weight of bricks. In high school, he constantly fielded invitations to drop by garages to film classmates’ bands. By the time he graduated from Putnam City North High School in 1988, he had amassed a bunch of short films and a strong desire to enter the filmmaking biz.
Mitchell has become one of Hollywood’s top creators, bringing to life the stories of familiar characters Shrek, the Chipmunks, SpongeBob and most recently the Troll dolls in the 2016 hit film Trolls.
“Why do we make films?” Mitchell asked. “It’s not for us to go home and watch them by ourselves. We really make them for an audience. When you hear a whole audience laugh, that is a really nice feeling. It means they are with you and enjoying your story.”
Mitchell’s dedication, tenacity and accomplishments have earned him an Oklahoma Film Icon Award at this year’s deadCenter Film Festival. Mitchell joins actor and Tulsa native Gary Busey and Junie Lowry-Johnson, a casting agent originally from Oklahoma City, in accepting the Icon awards in conjunction with the 2017 festival. The honor is bestowed upon Oklahomans who have made a major impact on the film industry. Past winners include film editor Carol Littleton, actor James Marsden, producer Gray Frederickson and Chris Freihofer, a Norman-based actor, casting director and producer.
Icon winners Mitchell and Lowry-Johnson will participate in this year’s festival. From 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Saturday, Lowry-Johnson and Freihofer will discuss the role casting directors play in developing film or television shows on a panel at ACM@UCO.
At 1 p.m. Saturday, Mitchell will present how an idea becomes a billion-dollar blockbuster animated film at Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Following the panel, Trolls will screen.
When the computer-animated film Shrek hit movie theaters in 2001, box office results signified that audience tastes were shifting. The story of the green ogre and his pals pleased childhood audience, but with its sly in-jokes and characters voiced by top Hollywood actors, the film struck a chord with adults.
At that time, a new era in animation was brewing in Hollywood, and recent California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) graduate Mitchell was ready to contribute. He believed animation, like live-action, was an art form filmmakers used to tell their stories and those stories didn’t have to be classic myths and fables.
“When I went to school, the only animation jobs were Disney features and Scooby-Doo,” he said. “By the time I left school, animation was all over the place. It was a really an inspirational time.”
Before the Shrek team recruited Mitchell, he signed with studios to direct live-action films like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, starring Rob Schneider, and Surviving Christmas, a romantic comedy with an all-star cast including Ben Affleck, James Gandolifini and Christina Applegate.
In 2004, when Shrek 2 was released, Mitchell rolled in the credits as an animator. He stayed on, contributing to Shrek the Third. When it came time for Shrek Forever After, Mitchell was named director, contributing to the world’s biggest animated franchise. Part of Shrek’s success is the lovable characters and the relatable yet entertaining story.
“Often, most people think since a film is for families and kids, it just has to be funny and colorful,” Mitchell said. “Personally, I go into every film always thinking about what the movie should be about. … I always look for a message. Those messages help make the film better, and it becomes a story I want to tell. These films stand the test of time.”
Following the release of Trolls, which earned considerable critical acclaim, Mitchell signed on to direct The Lego Movie Sequel, which is set for release in 2019.
Mitchell’s advice for aspiring filmmakers is simple: Make a movie. With advances in technology and easier access to equipment, he encourages people to create.
“Follow your passion no matter what,” Mitchell said. “If there is anyone who doesn’t believe in your artistic talent or dream, you have to get them out of your life immediately.”
Print headline: Making magic; deadCenter Film Festival honors Oklahomans making an impact on the film industry, like Mike Mitchell, who created Trolls and other well-known family-friendly films.