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Keeping Control of the Zoo

Tom McGrath Directs Madagascar to Laughs


By Sara Michelle Fetters


It’s no secret how much I enjoyed DreamWorks’ latest computer animated offering Madagascar. 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 professional.


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 idea.


Took us a while to do it, of course. This whole thing was like four years from start to finish.


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.


Madagascar Directors Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell


Wow. You actually have more freedom, then, in an animated film to get it right than in a live-action film.


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 some more.


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 process.


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?


Sure, he’s 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 as if 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?


(Laughing) Well, 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.


Seriously, the 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.


Oh no!


Yeah, I know. What can you do?


So, anyway, we started working on Madagascar 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.


That’s cool. (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 Madagascar with?


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 Madagascar. We just have to see where all those ideas take us.


Movie Review: Madagascar


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