An Interview With The Writers & Directors of Madagascar

by December Lambeth on June 3, 2005

in Uncategorized

Scarlet gets the scoop on the making of Madagascar
Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell gives Scarlet and a group of local critics the ins and outs of creating a successful and funny animation. Madagascar took over 4-years and hundreds of artists to create. While watching the making of on HBO, I realized how excited you have to be about something that you never see, but have to guess at to do voice over. All the actors, but Chris Rock, seemed to be head over hills about their characters and what they contributed to the film. My favorite little characters in Madagascar are the monkeys and penguins. Did you know the penguins started out in a parody of The Beatles “Hard Days Night”, but the music rights were impossible to secure and Tom and Eric decided to move on to a different adventure in Madagascar.
The artwork in Madagascar originated from the Golden Books series and the comedy comes from a type of Laurel and Hardy technique. Using a squash and stretch method to animate the characters expressions and give the audience a laugh out loud experience.
[B]Q[/B] – What made you choice Madagascar and not New Guinea or some other place?

[B]A[/B] – They were worlds apart New York and Madagascar. The languages, culture, if you went to Africa for example you’d run into some of those animals and that’s not the story we wanted to tell. We wanted these guys to be completely out of their element. Also Madagascar is this unique place. There are a lot of people we’ve run into, while doing the filming, who didn’t even know Madagascar was a real place. This was okay with us because we’re creating this sort of Shangri-La or Bally Ha. They have these amazing plants there that you don’t find anywhere else on the planet and animals exclusive to this area. What great characters to introduce into our film and create this magical mysterious place. On the other side of the coin, the local Madagascan would have never seen these aliens that dropped in, so it worked well.
[B]Q[/B] – It takes about four years to put this whole process together. How do you keep it together? You’ve got all these individuals that are working on different things at the same time. Does it come to the point where an actor says “maybe I should have this kind of character or that kind of character?” How much can you change? How do you keep it all together?
[B]A[/B] – We changed a lot! What we do is start with the writers, original writers, Eric and I also wrote and we have this incredible team of story artist and what story artist do is they take the script and visualize the entire movie beat for beat like a comic book and that’s how we work our movie. So we have the storyboards and script to start the film and drafting process like we do a movie. The story artist are writers themselves and they’ll create really funny gags or dramatic moments. Like in the script it may say, Alex and Melman reunite on the beach and one by one Alex helps them out of the crate. This is where the story artists takes us to the visual of Alex grabbing a palm tree and tries to ram Melvin out of his crate, and the sparks goes flying and that’s the visual of the story. We do this for two and a half years working with these story artists, and we record our actors who have ideas and we draw those up. We make our first film that way using the drawings just audio before we start the animation process. Once you get to the stage where 100’s of artists are working on it, you want to make sure; at that point, your film is in a tight format.

[B]Q[/B] – From the four-year process what characters have changed or grown? Or have they all stayed with in their original creation?
[B]A[/B] – They’ve all grown! You start with this idea of, what if you took these New York City zoo animals and stuck them in the wild, and what would be funny about that. We all know New Yorkers and we all know they’d never get along in the wild and that’s pretty much what we started with. We all have these elements of civility and savagery. We made a lion and zebra best of friends while they were in a controlled location and then we turned prey and predator into the wild to see what would happen. Of course we are not trying to tell a story that has been done, the whole “don’t eat your best friend” schtick; so you see what rises to the surface and what becomes the heart and soul of the film through this process. In this case it’s about friendship and we have these characters throughout the film who define themselves by where they are, not who they are.
Alex is in New York, that’s who he is “I’m a New Yorker I’m a star, this is who I am I would never go anywhere else, why would I ever want too?” And Marty is this guy who says “the only way I’m ever gonna know who I am is to go somewhere else for a while”. So they go to the wild and this location is telling him something else and he finds out that in the wild you have to act a different way. And in this we realize what our film is all about. All these characters, even the penguin defining themselves by where they are in this world. Really what they all have to learn is it’s not about where you are but who you’re with that matters. When we found that core idea it was a eureka moment for us. That’s what people can identify with, the power of friendship, and that defines what’s important in our lives.
[B]Q[/B] – Who came up with that wonderful line, “I’m going to kill you, I’m going to bury you, I’m going to dig you up and clone you and then kill all your clones”?
[B]A[/B] – Eric Darnell – The important line after that is “and then I’ll never talk to you again”. Well it was Tom and myself who shared the writing credits. We’d come up with these lines and then the actors would bring them to life and other times different writers contributed.

[B]A[/B]- Tom McGrath – When we were working on that section we made it a complete monologue “how many ways you can kill something”. Other times we’d just throw these scenes back and forth and keep at it and laugh to ourselves. A lot of the lines did come from the actors, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Ben Stiller and Jada Pinkett Smith, they would use their own words and improvised; we encouraged them to play with it and that’s how we came up with a lot of the dialogue.
[B]Q[/B]- What’s it like doing voice over, do you just put a microphone in front of them for the first time and turn them loose or do they have some kind of guideline, like you’re going to be the character of the…?
[B]A[/B] – We have a script that they work from and we’d give them direction or get feedback and most of the time all of us would improvise. Sometimes they need that refocus on where their character is going to end up, so we’d go back and refocus on the script. If it’s their goal to do it a different way, that’s fine by us, we will give it a shot.
It’s hard, because when you start these things a lot of the talent are not familiar with voiceover work so you have to contain your ferocity and projection to the mic and for us as directors all we can do is help visualize the scene. 500 dancing Lemurs in a jungle and visualizing the New York Zoo can be a leap of faith and imagination. You have to pretend you’re running, jumping, dancing all at the same time doing your lines. The actors have to believe in us and what we are telling them to do; there may not be any true visuals to put onto a screen in front of them at the time they start their parts. They have to put a great deal of trust in us coming into this environment where they have to imagine everything that is happening around them. And believe that it’s going to add up to something in the end. Because they’re not working with the recording studio or other actors so they don’t have that to play against. That is why it’s okay to try stuff, its okay to bomb a line because it doesn’t matter, its part of our process to collaborate with these guys to take advantage of their incredible talent.
The big names on the marquee are great, because that’s what gets people in the theater, but the reason why these guys are big names is because they’re so good at what they do. We leverage off that as well and make them part of the process.
Knowing it’s a great day for us when we do have animation of these characters and actually show it to them and they get to see their voices coming out of the character it’s always a great moment and they’re like “Oh! that’s me, I’m that character”. From there it gets a little bit easier because they can visualize on their own what to expect from their character and the other characters.
[B]Q[/B] – When you write the story, how much do you think about the animation and how it plays into it? Or do you just write the story and make the animation work afterwards?
[B]A[/B] – You have to have confidence in what the animation will do. Sometimes there are things going on, multiple things happening at any given moment. You may have an incredible environment the character is moving through, you may have wonderful dramatics that are helping to drive the scene forward. Or maybe you’re planning on some really great music; sometimes what you’re pinning all your confidence in is animation. We talk about this one scene that was storyboarded where the penguins come down along the deck of the ship on their way to the bridge and have taken over and in the storyboard they come down fairly typically they just sort of waddled down the ladder and got off. The next step in the process that we begin to realize in the computer is called layout, it’s like walking your actors on the set and placing the cameras during the cinematography. From that point you can see things like the deckhand walking past and the penguins knocking him out and dragging him around the corner; we’re like “yeah that’s great, that’s a great idea” and so that took it to the next level. Keep in mind none of the animation was done, they just sort of blocked in the position of all this. Then the animator came along and took those penguins and the rest of it (old film term “shoe leather” literally characters walking from point A to point B) and turned it into this fun animation where the penguins are being all crafty and doing shoulder rolls and this Charlie’s Angels stuff. You do have confidence and hope that every step of the way you can pluck and take these scenes to the next level.
[B]Q[/B] – Melman was one of the ones who stuck out to me.
[B]A[/B] – We knew that he was going to be kind of neurotic, hypochondrias psychotic in a loveable funny way, but we didn’t want him to be a complete downer, that’s how David Swhimer came to mind and as his voice was coming out of that giraffe it just worked wonderfully.
He loved it and he took it really seriously, all these guys their pro’s, they don’t just come in and read lines on a page and then walk out. They were always standing up for their characters in a way and seeing what was on the page in their characters eyes, that’s what made them so great and brought the characters to life.

[B]Q[/B] – When they’re going to save Marty and they want to take the subway they didn’t even know what to do and Melman had the answer, but it’s so unexpected.
[B]A[/B] – Yeah, Melman comes up with the most unexpected lines for his character like his whole hypotheses that the jungle was actually the San Diego Zoo.
[B]Q[/B] – Did either of you do any actual research about the animals or did you have people who did that and reported back to you? Tell us a little bit about the choice of animals you used in the film. What animals do in the wild and what they would do in the zoo?
[B]A[/B] – It’s all us in the beginning; we did a lot of research. We didn’t even know that certain animals existed until we did research about Madagascar. You study these animals and use it to work your way through the story. We did take a lot of liberties with the animal characters
[B]Q[/B] – As directors how hands on are you with the animation process?


[B]A[/B] – We worked with them like we would actors, they’re really talented people and sometimes we would want subtle acting and some times you’d want to take it over the top and have a really broad cartoony animation. We would act out together, ask the animators how this or that could happen with visible humor, it was a collaborative effort. A bunch of hams getting up acting out ideas, it was so funny. In the mornings we’d meet with the animators and give them ideas and direction how to proceed, they would always have a video tape popped in the camera in the corner and you’d have to leave your inhibitions at the door and just get up and go for it. Tom would go “good, go for it perform” and he’d be “no do it like this” or the animator would come down and say “do it like this”. The animators had us all over the place because that’s how the best ideas come to the surface; a lot of thought and suggestions.
[B]Q[/B] – So you were up for suggestions if someone came to the table with them?
[B]A[/B] – Sure! That’s just part of the process
[B]Q[/B] – Do you agree with the assessment that 2D animation is a thing of the past? Do you think it will ever come back?
[B]A[/B] – Traditional animation will make a come back and I just love it. It’s going to take someone who does a real great computer animation style of film and have everybody running over there oohing the animation! Just like the pencil, when the pen came out or got popular, people were like “ooh a pen yea”, they put down the pencil in favor of the pen, so that’s kind of where we are with the whole computer versus old style of animation film thing. Folks are telling us that we should find this style of animation very refreshing and yet it’s classic old school animation. This is stuff we grew up on Saturday morning watching Warner Brothers shorts of the 40’s and 50’s….this played to our advantage, because of the fact that it is traditional animation, there weren’t a lot of animated films coming out. The animators who have worked in the traditional form had to learn the new style to stay a float; but as you can tell, it’s not just the style it’s all about the talent. When we started computer animation there weren’t very many people over 25 doing it and now there’s people who’ve taken to it and really learned how to use the computer in animation.
[B]Q[/B] – The ending kind of hints at a sequel. Two years from now are we going to see a sequel?
[B]A[/B]- We didn’t intentionally set it up to be a sequel, it just worked out that way to get the most interesting ending

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