It’s no secret how
much I enjoyed DreamWorks’ latest computer animated offering
Silly and exuberantly entertaining, I started giggling pretty much
right at the beginning and didn’t stop until well after walking out of
the theater. So it was with great pleasure I had the opportunity to
spend some time with the film’s co-director and co-writer (and former
Pacific Northwest native) Tom McGrath.
Many times these
interviews are chore, trying to come up with questions and queries
that don’t let on how little you actually enjoyed the filmmaker’s
feature. No so this time. If anything, I found myself being a bit to
effusive in my joy in regards to Madagascar, the two of use
smiling and laughing our way through the brief 15-minute conversation
so frequently I kept having to poke myself in the gut to remain
No matter, McGrath
is a smart, witty artist and, if anything, did a better job of
directing our conversation than I did. Probably something I shouldn’t
admit, but seeing as I enjoyed his company almost as much as I did his
movie, I guess it’s not that bad a thing to cop to.
So, I have to ask,
when you were putting it together and fleshing it out what was your
chief inspiration behind the film?
You know, just
really tell a good story. The concept of the film was always pretty
interesting and it was just a one-line idea. “If you took four
civilized New York zoo animals and took them out of the zoo and
through them in the wild, what would happen?” They wouldn’t know how
to survive, of course, but then neither would most people, and that’s
pretty much the sort of comparison or analogy we were trying to make.
Of course, that’s
where most people would be surprised. They look at the situation and
think, “Oh, that’s where animals belong; out in nature.” The reality,
though, is much different. Domesticated zoo animals wouldn’t fare any
better in the wild than you or I would. Really, that seemed so perfect
for an animated film, to be from the point of these animals but to
make these characters that are sort of like us – we even have our
hypochondriac – and from there try to tell the best story with that
Took us a while to
do it, of course. This whole thing was like four years from start to
When you say four
years to make it, how much of that is getting the script right and
then how much of that is actually animating it?
Well as opposed to
like live action where you would do as many drafts as possible before
greenlighting script and then put it into production, animation is a
bit different. We start with the basic script that would never be
greenlit by any means at all if this were a physical production, but
than start developing it from there. What we do is we start both our
casting process and we also begin drawing it beat-by-beat. How’s this
going to visualize into a movie? What works and what doesn’t?
There’s a lot of
artists that contribute ideas and lines of dialogue during this
process. It’s entirely collaborative, people calling out and providing
ideas and helping flesh out the characters. We listen to the actors to
see if they would be a great animation voice and part of the casting
that was great was that we wanted to get people like Ben Stiller and
Chris Rock and David Schwimmer and Jada [Pinkett-Smith]. Particularly,
not only are these guys funny but their good actors, so we’d have
these believable characters, but also that they are very collaborative
and we wanted them to help us figure out who these characters were.
They really helped out in the regard.
So we do this
process of drawing the film and looking at it and then filming the
drawings and then looking at them like they are the [movie] with the
voices and temp sound effects and music. This helps us keep editing it
and refining it. We do this for three years before we even start a
single frame of actual animation.
Wow. You actually
have more freedom, then, in an animated film to get it right than in a
In a way you do,
and that’s part of the philosophy. There is no excuse for a bad
animated film because you can make the film before you actually
make it, if you know what I mean, and see how it is going to play.
Are these scenes working? What’s funny? Are the dramatic moments
working? Are the characters connecting to an audience? So for the
filmmaker that is great because this three year period is your
editorial process, you can sit in a theater and watch it and go, “Ugh!
That scene isn’t working,” and then go back to work and hammer it out
That said, we do
rely heavily on script. Eric [Darnell] and I were partners writing
after the original writers had moved on to other projects, so that was
great for us. I mean, we wanted to work together on a film [for some
time] so by being writing partners we really solidified how we wanted
to play out the film. Animation can be very demanding when you have
hundreds of people onboard so we were able at many times to sort of
dived and conquer, if you will, and know that the left hand knew what
the right hand was doing. That was a nice part about the writing
I know that, in the
past, Jeffrey Katzenberg over at Dreamworks has a reputation of having
a solid – almost an iron – hand when it comes to animation during his
tenure at both Disney and Dreamworks. How much freedom do you actually
get as a director to make the film you actually want to make?
involved, but he also gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of trust.
But, his opinion to us was really invaluable. Every couple months or
so we would show him what we were working on and he’s got thirty years
of experience with this stuff so what’s great about him is that he
doesn’t tell you what to do but he offers suggestions in a way where
is able to somehow put himself as an audience member watching the
feature. He’ll say, “This isn’t clear to me,” knowing full well as a
producer what we are trying to do, but as a member of the audience
knowing it isn’t formed enough to catch on to. Often times you’ll then
step back and realize he’s right, knowing that you didn’t set
something up or it happened too quick.
With us, he was
just really very supportive because this was something different than
Dreamworks has done before style-wise. So he was cool, and one thing I
don’t think people know about Jeffrey is that he’s really funny. When
Eric and I would think, “Hey! Let’s have an old lady beat up
Alex at Grand Central Station with a purse,” Jeff would then
look at it and say, “Aw, you know what guys, she’s really got to kick
him in the nuts and then mace him.” And, of course, he’s right, the
joke just doesn’t work is she doesn’t do this. So, in a way, he was
really inspiring because he wanted to push [the movie] out there even
more than we at first realized.
Am I wrong, but is
there a lot of Tex Avery and Looney Tunes-inspired stuff going on in this movie? Almost
Madagascar was an homage to all those short cartoons that used to play before the
features began back in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s?
Yeah, I mean,
that’s what I grew up on and that’s what kind of got me involved in
animation, watching a lot of that stuff on Saturday morning TV. That’s
where I really started with traditionally animating on paper and Eric
and I both really liked that style of animation and we hadn’t really
seen it yet in the computer realm. Computer animation was really
striving for that photorealism, really trying to take it to that
ultimate level, and we thought wouldn’t it be great to have these
characters move and look as entertaining as anything else? That was so
great about those old cartoons, I mean the way them moved was as
entertaining as what they did.
So we did a lot of
the over-the-top caricature animation like you would see in a Bob
Clampett or Tex Avery cartoon. But we also wanted to do animation that
was sophisticated because we needed it for performance as well as to
be able to do subtle acting as well. In features, you can easily get
bored if characters eyes are just bugging all the time and the whole
thing never slows down, so we tried to balance it out where we could
have subtle performances but we could also have bigger-than-life
acting and comedy, too.
Well, I have to
say, I was getting kind of sick of Ben Stiller over this past year,
and you made me remember how much I liked him as an actor and
comedian. Not only was his voice work great, but the performance you
gave Alex the
lion, especially towards the end, I thought was really remarkable.
That’s great! Very
cool. I’m really glad you enjoyed that. Ben was a joy and Alex was
totally great to bring to life.
All that said, I
simply cannot let you go without asking about the penguins. Where the
heck did the penguins come from?
they weren’t exactly in the original script or planned for this movie.
There’s a long a story there and a short story. I guess we’ll have to
stick to the short story.
penguins weren’t planned for this at all. In fact, before I came to
Dreamworks I had been working on a penguin film that never really got
off the ground. When I went to [the studio] to see what they were
working on, and that’s where I met Eric Darnell, and he was working on
this film Rock-u-Mentary which was sort of this A Hard Days
Night with penguins and I knew right away I wanted to work on
that. We immediately clicked and we talked about the film and we were
totally excited about making a movie together, and then as soon as I
got hired that movie was shelved.
Yeah, I know. What
can you do?
So, anyway, we
started working on
sometime later and there was a scene where the crates get washed
overboard because of this storm at sea. I was just playing around with
the scene and though, wouldn’t it be funny if there was a clerical
error and all these animals that were meant to go to Africa where they
belong and then there were these penguins erroneously in there, too,
and how would they feel about that? Wouldn’t it be great if they
revolted and turned the boat around to Antarctica and that’s how the
other animals really got swept overboard? That’s kind of genesis of
that. From there, no one really understood why they were there, so we
kept having to put them in the movie more, adding scenes so their
espionage and takeover in the middle made more sense.
As we were
developing, like I said earlier, over this three year process we often
use temporary voices we don’t have the cast or actors yet for the
particular role, so I stepped in and was just barking orders like,
“Rico! Kowalski! How’s that tunnel coming?” And we recorded those
lines thinking wouldn’t it be great if we could cast Robert Stack, and
then of course unfortunately Robert Stack died shortly after we had
the idea and we totally didn’t know what we were going to do. So, of
course, Eric was like, “You know what, Skipper sounds fine, and you’re
doing great. You do it.” In the end, I just sort of stayed in there
and ended up being Skipper. So that was really a lot of fun for me.
I’m glad you did,
because I have to admit I just could not stop laughing every time I
saw those penguins. For like two days after, now, I’m still laughing
about those silly penguins.
(Laughing) Thank you. I appreciate that. I never expected them to be
as popular as they’ve turned out to be, that’s for sure.
I know we’re
running out of time, so I just want to ask what’s next? Any ideas on
what you’re going to be following up
No, not yet! We’re
still in the process of getting this one out there. Eric and I,
though, just really enjoy working together, so we’re just trying to
decide what other animated films we could do. If this does really
well, who knows, maybe we can use these characters again. I mean, half
the time spent in [Madagascar]
is developing them and once you’ve got that done you start to think
how great it would be for other things to start happening to them.
Right now, in our
spare time, we’re just kinking around ideas; talking about the
penguins, other things, things well beyond
We just have to see where all those ideas take us.