- Title: Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
- IMDB: link
We recently sat down for a roundtable discussion with director Eric Darnell about his new film Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Here’s what he had to say…
Some execs from Warner Bros. music came looking for new ideas for music videos and they liked this film I was working on, and so they called me in and he said “I was thinking, you know, there might be a few bands who would be interested in your style.” And they happened to be my three favorite bands at the time. It was REM, Elvis Costello, and the B-52’s. And I was like, sure! I didn’t think anything would come of it and a couple weeks later, at my home, my wife picks up the phone and it’s like “Hello, this is Michael Stipe.” And she’s like “Oh yeah, hi Michael Stipe,” thinking it was one of my friends. And he called asking if I would do a music video for him. That was fun.
Yeah, it’s huge. And from Antz to Madagascar, and even from Madagascar to Madagascar 2. It’s stunning and part of it is the technology is getting better, the processors are getting faster; we’re also getting more of them. And we’re also getting better at it. There’s a lot of people who have been in this field now for 25 years, and it’s a new medium and it’s maturing. I think today we’ve finally reached a point where if you can think of it and you’ve got the talent and the time and the money, or some combination of that, you can do it. It used to be there were things it didn’t matter how much money you had or how talented you were it was just impossible. That’s the crest of the hill that this computer animation has gone over the last couple of years.
Is that all DreamWorks?
DreamWorks; I think the other studios as well. We’ve all reached this point where we’ve gotten good enough at this technology where if you can think of it you can do it. So that’s pretty exciting.
What I found so interesting was the extensive storyboarding. It sounds like you acted out the story. Did you tape all that?
We did. We did a couple of things. One is the traditional, tried-and-true Disney Snow White method of storyboarding the movie first. It’s a quick way to get the ideas up on the screen. The difference is instead of doing it on paper and pencil we do it on a Syntec, which is a flat screen that you can draw on with feedback much like pencil. You apply pressure and you can smudge it and things like that. So it’s almost the same as using a pencil but it’s easier to get layers going, and as soon as you have a drawing you like you can ship it to editorial and they can cut it right in. So we can be really iterative with that and work on our storytelling that way. But then the other thing we did for the first time on this film, which we’d never done before, was a Guillermo Navarro, who was the cinematographer for Pan’s Labyrinth and won an Academy Award, came to consult with us on cinematography for the film. And the first thing he said was “I know these storyboards are a tradition, but you’re starting with a still image. And you start with that still image and it’s going to plant that sill image in your mind. You’ve got to break out of that and find other ways to think about how you might shoot the movie.”
And so his plan, and what we ended up doing, was if there was a scene in the airplane we went into a big space and put some chairs in a row and we got people to sit down. Not actors, just the layout artists, the cameramen, the animators, and we’d play the audio of the scene and have them act it out as best they could and then shoot it with a cheap hand-held video camera. It was a great discovery process for us; you learn so much about your scene that way that you never can when you’re just trying to draw one frame at a time. It was a big, big help for us and a breakthrough in how to give us another tool in how to create these films. After all, once you get into the computer, it’s in the computer but you still have a three-dimensional set, you still have a camera with a lens on it and a depth of field. And you still have all this volume. It’s a great way, and cheap dirty way, to generate ideas for how you might photograph it.
How long, from the initial idea to the final cut, did you spend on Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa?
Three and a half years on Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, a little more than four on the first Madagascar film. Antz took a little more than three, but when we were done with that [Jeffrey] Katzenburg said, “Ah, you’re just lucky, it will never happen again. It never happens that fast.” And he’s kind of right. We chanced into that one. But you can bank on three to five years which sounds like a lot of time but when you think of live-action films they have a few months of shooting, but there’s been a great deal of preparation getting up to that point. Sometimes years and years and years of script writing and rewriting, and casting and recasting, before you get to a point where you can actually greenlight something.
Parts are easier. We know our characters so we don’t have to spend time getting to know them and introduce them to the audience or to ourselves. So that made it easy. We could just dive into the next part of the story we wanted to tell with these guys. What made it harder is we have, just on that poster there from the first film, 11 characters, strong quality characters who can all carry a scene. And then we added more. We added Alec Baldwin, Sherri Shepherd, Will i Am, and Bernie Mac as Alex’s father. So now we have four more all of the sudden and we had to use all of these guys to tell one clear coherent story. So it was a big challenge because all these characters, they’re separated a lot, have their own motives and goals. And to try and make all that try to weave itself back together was a real challenge.
You co-wrote the original Madagascar and the sequel. Did you have help with that?
On both films we had a writer come in and take a pass at the script and that’s usually just to get some fresh ideas. That’s usually a few months process, and it’s invaluable to get some fresh blood and some fresh ideas in there. But then they go away and Tom [McGrath] and I work on the script the rest of the time. That’s how it worked on both films. Etan Cohen came in and did a great pass on this for us to get us going and then Tom and I went back in over the course of the next two to three years and rewrote everything. So we share writing credit with him, and that’s sort of how it works.
Does your partnership with Tom make this an easy division of labor and duties? Do you have different talents in different areas?
We do have different talents but we try to stay joined at the hip as much as we possibly could. But what’s nice about two directors is if somebody needs a day off or my kid’s got a recital then I can take off and Tom can run the show until I get back. That helps. There’s also just the sheer number and volume of decisions that have to get made, but mainly its having that equal partner to bounce ideas back and forth off of. Quite often I think the sum is greater than the parts. We got more than we could have gotten out of either one of us.
Did you have two units going at once in a film like this?
More than that. There’s probably like four simultaneous pipelines that are always overlapping. You’re animating a sequence and then it goes into lighting and there’s another sequence underneath that’s overlapping and another and another. So there’s this multiple tier as you take a sequence through. There’s probably, at any given time, anywhere from four to eight, or more, sequences in production.
You worked with the son of Ben Stiller for the young Alex scenes. What was it like to try and coach a young non-actor like that?
You can’t coach him. Ben was doing most of it, he was trying to get stuff out of his son and the most valuable stuff we got was things like when he didn’t want to sit in a chair and he was like, “No, I don’t wanna…” and we had the mic on him and could use it when [young Alex] gets thrown into the crate. So we really weren’t able to coach a performance out of him as much as we were able to follow him around with a mic and get what you would get following any toddler around. Jada’s daughter however, who does the voice of the young Gloria in the movie, is a little bit older and so we were able to work with her. She was great. Jada [Pinkett Smith] came in and Will [Smith] came in and helped encourage her and give advice. And that really helped us because the kids are going to respond more to mommy than to any of us.
Do you record the actors separately or try to arrange recording sessions for multiple actors for certain scenes?
We almost always record everybody separately which often is just logistics – someone is in New York and someone is in Chicago, and so on. So you just do one at a time. It also helps us focus on their performance and you don’t have to worry about any weirdness if you’ve got multiple actors who need different types of direction. We did bring Ben and Chris [Rock] together and did a session with them at the same time and it was really great. They riffed off one another. It’s the kind of thing you want to do after you already have the material you need. Then you bring them in and just let them run with stuff. They did a lot of great back and forth that ended up in the movie. And it’s just entertaining, even if you don’t use it in the movie
Many of the cast members including Sacha Baron Cohen, Chris Rock and Ben Stiller who are renown for their improve. Did they stick to the script?
We’ve gone with the script and they would do what was on the page or they might change the wording or say, “I’ve got a better word for this,” or “What if we played the scene this way?” And then we’d do something that was completely off the page, and sometimes, like that bit where Julien comes in singing “Private Dancer” off the side of the screen was not anything in the movie at all. At one point Sacha just suggested, “It would be very funny if I come in and sing ‘I’m a private dancer…’” He had the coconuts and everything and was acting it out and it had nothing to do with anything and we just sat there and laughed for 15 minutes while he did different versions of “Private Dancer.” And later we had this scene and it’s a lock-off camera and you’re looking at their backs and you’re just seeing this pretty picture and you have the story point we needed to get out where it’s beautiful and this is where we belong. That’s what that one scene was really designed to do, but it needed something else to really take it over a little bit and then we remembered we had that “Private Dancer” stuff and brought Julien in.
It’s kind of like you end up with this great reservoir of material that you can go back to. And Julien’s a great character for that kind of stuff, there’s all kinds of really great funny bits Sacha did and at some point we just don’t have enough time. We’ve got to stick to our 78-80 minute rule and we can’t always stop for 45 seconds of hilarious comedy if we’re not driving the story forward. That one bit where he sits on the elephant as is explaining about Gods and sacrifice that doesn’t really drive the story forward but ultimately we thought it was so funny we just had to keep it in. You make your choices.
Is story more important than the animation?
Story is everything. Without that you don’t have anything. I remember years ago going to an animation festival and there were two stand-out animations. One was beautiful, every image was like a fine European Dutch oil painting, 24 frames a second, ten minutes long. Somebody literally poured their life blood into that film. And then there was another one that was done with stick figures that had a hilarious story with a great conclusion that was two minutes long. When everybody was walking out of the theater they were talking about the stick figure cartoon. That’s just an example of how important the story is. As a director that’s really our primary job is to be the caretaker of the story. You want people who are better at what they do than you could ever be. Better animators, better artists, better cinematographers, what have you, and they don’t need me to tell them how to do great art their way. But what I can do is help direct them so that what they’re doing will serve that story the best. That’s really my primary function is to help them them not waste their time drawing a beautiful sunset if the scene is supposed to take place at noon. That’s a simplification, but it’s really the main thing that I do. You have to be able to talk with all different artists and technicians to do that kind of thing, and that for me is what’s so fun about it. I get to work with the computer scientists and it helps if I know something like what a logarithmic progression is, and I get to talk with an artist and it helps if I know something about tone, hue, saturation or value, and with animators, and with actors. To be able to speak to all these different specialists about what it is they do is a privilege. It kind of makes me a jack of all trades, master of none.
Your three features have all been heavy with New York humor, but you’re actually from Prairie Village, Kansas originally?
I was going to say Mireille [Sorea], but Mireille’s from Cleveland. But Tom, no, he’s from Seattle. But my wife is actually from New York and I have spent a lot of time back there. In the first movie when Marty’s looking up at the schedule and says, “I’m going to have to take the Stamford local,” that was the train my wife always took when she left Manhattan. I also think everybody knows something about New York City. It’s an iconic place the way Africa is an iconic place. As long as you hit it with broad strokes everybody can connect and know what you’re going for. And that was actually a big challenge for Madagascar 2 because Madagascar we could almost treat as a fantasy world, we could do anything whatever we wanted to with the island. People didn’t know a lot about the island; some people still don’t realize it’s an actual place, believe it or not.
Everybody knows, or thinks they know, something about Africa. They’ve all seen the other films that have been done there and the documentaries. Knowing that people are already going to have these preconceptions it was a real challenge for us in this film because we wanted to bring an Africa people would recognize but also bring it to them in a way they’ve never seen before in a way that matches the style and the art direction conceived in the first film. So that was a big challenge. Basically Madagascar was walls of foliage that provided the backdrop. Now we knock those walls down and shoot off ten miles to the horizon and generate 10 million blades of grass and a thousand herding animals moving across the savanna and it became a big technological and creative challenge.
Are you going to do another one of these or do you have other projects in mind?
We’ll see how this film does first. It would be hard for anybody to walk away from something like this that you’ve spent eight years for me of my life creating. So we’ll so how well the film does. I hope it’s well received and I hope it gives us the option to consider doing more if that’s what the audience would like.
Would you like to see there characters make it back to New York or are they home in Africa?
Eventually I think I would like to get them back to New York. I have this idea of them back in the zoo and Marty saying something like, “You know, we never made it to Connecticut,” and so the last shot would be a freeze frame of them jumping over the wall for one more adventure.