No one could screech and warble as a sentient cookie quite like Conrad Vernon.
DreamWorks auditioned “actual actors” to play the Gingerbread Man in Shrek, but nothing compared to the high-pitched gold of the storyboard artist’s own scratch dialogue track. Director Andrew Adamson and his crew saw no alternative: Vernon was their molasses-based man.
And 20 years later, he’s still got the goods. When I ask him over Zoom how he achieved the downright disturbing sound of a Gingerbread Man gasping for air while being dunked in milk, Vernon replicates the effect with a quick wagging of the tongue. (He thinks there may have been some actual water involved, too.)
While animators voicing key roles in their own movies or shows is common now (The Mitchells vs. the Machines director Mike Rianda voiced dinosaur-obsessed son Aaron and the Furbies in the recent Netflix feature, for instance), it wasn’t back in 2001. But everything was a little more off-the-cuff on Shrek. When Vernon, a veteran of shows like Rocko’s Modern Life and Ren & Stimpy, joined DreamWorks to work on Antz, he broke from the traditions of most storyboard artists, who would visualize the script as written. Instead, he did what he did on TV gigs: pitch wacky jokes and sequences. He impressed boss Jeffrey Katzenberg enough that he was assigned to Shrek, which had been through countless drafts and design overhauls. “It was a struggling movie,” Vernon admits, “and they said, ‘Well, why don’t you go in and breathe some life into it.’”
So the storyboard artist pitched the Gingerbread Man sequence, using a voice he came up with as a gag with his animator buddy (and future Shrek Forever After director) Mike Mitchell. “We’d be talking about our babysitting days,” he recalls, “and how we always had this little kid that was just a little too precious. That was the voice.”
Expert Gingerbread gargling was not Vernon’s only vocal contribution to the Shrek franchise. After taking on directing duties with Shrek 2, the animator also loaned his services to the sequels’ new character, Puss in Boots. While Antonio Banderas eventually voiced the character, Vernon recorded his own track to pace the comedy of the scenes, and once again, aspects of the scratch dialogue were just too good to cut. “They liked what I did for him coughing up the hairball better, so they left me in for that chunk.”
Though Vernon moved on from Shrek to direct films like Sausage Party and The Addams Family, he says he’s committed to resuming his squeaky line-readings for any theoretical Shrek 5 or beyond. He’s stuck to the promise so far, appearing in everything from Shrek video games to belting “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies in a Shrek-themed karaoke video. He’ll forever voice Gingerbread Man … as long as other directors take it easy on his larynx.
“For some reason, people are under the impression that the Gingerbread Man just screams all the time,” he says. “And so whenever I did those shorts or video games, I’ll do the voice, and then they go, ‘No, bigger’ and ‘Yeah, scream it!’ They want every line screamed because that’s the way Gingerbread Man talks. But he doesn’t talk like that! And by the end of it, I’m chugging tea with honey. So it’s incredibly difficult to do.”