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Escape from Zoo-York: Behind The Scenes of Madagascar

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First-time director McGrath talks about the message, the menagerie, and the method used to bring DreamWorks’ new 3D-CGI film to life.

In real life, Madagascar is a large island off the East coast of Africa. The fourth largest island in the world, it is about 230,000 square-miles in size, situated in the Indian Ocean some hundred miles or so off the coast of Mozambique. There are fertile coastal plains, a rugged central plateau, and a warm, tropical climate. Exports include coffee, rice, sugar, vanilla, and now, with DreamWorks’ new animated film by the same name, this somewhat obscure land will also export a tale of friendship, inter-species tolerance, and animal-level self-discovery, if only by reference.

Director Tom McGrath (who co-directed with Eric Darnell), laughed at the observation that full-colour newspaper ads for the film strongly resembled the album-cover artwork for Paul McCartney’s band Wings on ‘Band On The Run’ from the 70’s. Here we have Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, and Gloria the Hippo, backed up against the brick wall of a New York zoo they have just escaped from, with a spot-light making it obvious they are ‘on the run’, and the looks on their faces showing a sense of panic. Fans of Wings will remember the ‘Band On the Run’ cover art-work, and so did McGrath. So, which one is Paul?

In an interview on May 18, Tom blamed the Wings connection in the ads on the DreamWorks marketing department. “Actually marketing came up with that,” he laughed. “We saw that and it seemed funny.”

But there is another link in the film to the legendary rock star McCartney, and The Beatles. This involves a key sequence in ‘Madagascar’ in which a group of very up-set penguins take over a ship full of animals and toss the stars overboard, and thus on to the title island. McGrath and producer Mireille Soria had been developing a project called ‘Rockumentary’ before ‘Madagascar’ was begun. The rather brilliant concept here was to do an animated re-make of the early 60’s Beatles film, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, in which the Fab Four would be portrayed by penguins. DreamWorks couldn’t get music clearance, and the project was shelved, but Tom said the use of penguins in the sequence in ‘Madagascar’ began there for him.

“The day I was hired at DreamWorks, it (‘Rockumentary’) went on the shelf,” said McGrath.

To be clear, there are no penguins on the real island of Madagascar, nor would there be in this tropical climate.

However as the film’s story un-folds, Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria end up on a ship crossing the Atlantic. Along with them are other animals, including the penguins, who resist being shipped to Africa and strongly wish to return to Antarctica, which is far more suitable for them to be sure. So, rather than getting his lead characters to the island by use of the standard storm at sea, Tom came up with the idea of his penguins staging a revolt, taking over the ship, and booting the heroes into the salty sea in all the excitement.

“I was in a restaurant, thinking about what to do with the storm,” McGrath said. “I thought it would be great if there was an animal revolt. When we first put them in the film, people were saying, ‘What’s with the penguins?’”

The penguins are played against type as a sort of commando-unit, and McGrath provides the voice of Skipper, the tough-as-nails top bird. He said he patterned his voice-work for this on the famous baritone of actor Robert Stack, “with a little Charlton Heston mixed in.”

He also acknowledged that doing a character-voice in his own film is a tip-of-the-hat to director Brad Bird’s voice-work for the diminutive super-hero fashion-designer character in ‘The Incredibles’. “What Brad did with that character was just so out there,” McGrath said. “It’s been happening in animation for ever that animators would just throw in a voice. A lot of these guys just do it themselves, because it’s easy. You can just run into the recording booth. I’m sure he (Bird) just started playing with that voice and it was just funny.”

Story From Character

However there’s a lot more to ‘Madagascar’ than penguins. As many as 240 artists and others worked on the project for four years. McGrath said the story started as a one-line idea from the DreamWorks development department, and that it took as long as two years to refine the four lead characters. Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) is the king of the urban jungle and the main attraction at the New York Central Park Zoo. Despite his status as a predatory carnivore who might be expected to eat a Zebra, his best friend is a Zebra at the zoo named Marty (voiced by Chris Rock). A neurotic giraffe named Melman is voiced by David Schwimmer, along with a feminine hippopotamus called Gloria, voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith.

Tom said casting his lead roles was a key decision. Brand-name marquee star power is always nice, but he and co-director Darnell wanted the characters to become real and take the breath-of-life from performers uniquely suited to each unusual animated creation. “We thought, well, who would be great to play these characters?” he said. “So we would just listen to them and see how they play. Because they’re great comedians, we wanted them to find these characters.”

Stiller commented on the role of Alex the Lion in the studio notes: “Alex is very happy in his world at the Central Park Zoo. He lives a very pampered life and he loves the adulation of the crowd—-he never in a million years would think that his friends could be the food he eats. But once he gets out in the real world, his instincts start to take over, which is scary because it happens to be his best friend that he’s suddenly dreaming about eating.”

Chris Rock gives voice to Marty the Zebra, whose adventurous streak will give his friends a walk on the ‘wild’ side. “Marty is bored with the routine of zoo life, so he wants to get out and experience the wild, even though he doesn’t really know what that means,” says Rock. “When they get to Madagascar, they all experience a culture shock.”

The giraffe, Melman (Schwimmer), is apparently concerned with health care. “Melman has many fears and phobias,” Schwimmer comments. “But at least at the zoo, he has his routine and regular visits from different doctors. Melman needs his routine for stability and security, so when he’s cast into the wild, or even leaves the premises, he’s completely thrown and terrified. His journey is one of coming to terms with the fact that he can survive, with a little help from his friends.”

Another Beatles reference (Ringo Starr, ‘I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends’)? Well, maybe. Here’s Jada Pinkett Smith on her role as Gloria the hippo: “She is the only female in this group, so she’s very maternal and also has a take-charge attitude. She feels it’s her responsibility to look after the guys and make sure they don’t hurt themselves. And playing a character in charge of all the boys is not very far from what I do in life anyway. Gloria throws her weight around quite a bit, but she is very loyal to her friends, which I found very endearing. I think it makes her beautiful inside and out.”

The script was written by Mark Burton and Billy Frolick, along with Darnell and McGrath. Tom said they started with just a treatment, and began working out the visuals right away, making the story process collaborative between an entire team of artists and writers as the script was worked out. “We wanted to tell the story visually,” he said. “We start with an early draft of the script that is kind of in the ballpark. We consider all this really malleable. So, we take these drawings, these story-boards, and we film them. We start watching sequences to see how they play.”

Thus, as the story was worked and re-worked, we see that the strong lead roles are placed in a ‘fish-out-of-water’ set of circumstances, moving from confinement in the zoo, to the streets of New York, and then to the jungles of wild Madagascar. The theme or message is friendship.

“At the heart of this film is always this story of friendship,” says McGrath. “Between a lion and a zebra, who we all know shouldn’t be friends. You know, don’t eat your best friend. So we have this kind of ‘Green Acres’ sort of conflict. And then they end up in Nature, and then Nature defines who they are.”

Style All the While

Expectations among animators and fans for a new Dreamworks 3D-CGI film are high. ‘Madagascar’ is McGrath’s first feature film as director, while co-director Eric Darnell also directed an early CGI hit for Dreamworks with ‘Antz’. McGrath has 15 years of career-level work in animation on projects like ‘Cool World’, ‘Space Jam’, ‘The Ren and Stimpy Show’, and others. Darnell also worked on ‘The Prince of Egypt’ and award-winning shorts. Producer Mireille Soria is also very experienced on films like ‘Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas’, ‘Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron’, and many other successful projects. Music for ‘Madagascar’ was provided by Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer.

So, you can’t miss with a team like that, right? McGrath said the animation was done using a proprietary software program called Emo, which is owned and controlled by Dreamworks. Eighty-percent of the work was done at the PDI-Dreamworks ‘Northern campus’ in Redwood City, California, and the rest at a similar facility in Glendale, also in California. Dreamworks also partnered with Hewlett-Packard for technology infrastructure, including a 1500+HP ProLiant server renderfarm and advanced artist desktop work-stations.

Typical of a big animated feature, McGrath said the process was slow. With himself and Darnell divided between meetings, and production issues, and hundreds of artists busy as monks working on scenes, five seconds of on-screen animation could take a week. The final film has 40 sequences and 1,153 shots. Locations had to be created for the zoo, New York’s Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Times Square and Rockefeller Center. Sixty-one different characters were designed. 14,000 plants and 4 million leaves swaying in the wind were created for the jungle scenes. Hair and fur for all the animals, including lions, zebra, and thousands of lemurs, was painstakingly rendered to the most demanding standards of modern CGI work. Numerous crowd shots, with large groups of pigeons, people, lemurs, and kids were created in extensive detail. And then you have water, sand, and all those penguins, to bring to life in a wash of action and visuals that would not disappoint.

The real work of final animation did not even really start until the last year-and-a-half of the four years of work, Tom said. But even with all the high-tech wizardry, creative fire-power and skilled artistry, the highest goal for the directors was to give the film a look and style that would ensure the coveted ‘wow-factor’ with sophisticated global audiences. The answer was an old-fashioned ‘squash-and-stretch’ cartoon style, and elaborate, florid jungle sets with an ‘enchanted’ look.

McGrath said the animator’s “holy grail” of photo-realism was abandoned for characters with “over-the-top kind of expressions.”

“And it seemed like we hadn’t really seen that in CG animation before,” he added.

“Our characters are very stylized and not based on reality, so we could have a lot of fun with how they looked and how they moved,” says Darnell in the studio notes. “They are very 2D inspired, but created in the 3D world of the computer. It gave us a lot of license because this is clearly a cartoon.”

Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katsenberg also weighed in on this phenomena: “The technology of computer-animated movies continues to be explosive, but even though all the bells and whistles are fantastic, what they really do is empower our story-tellers to imagine more. We don’t have 200 ‘mad scientists’ trying to invent gizmos that we then have to figure out how to use. It’s the reverse of that. We come up with the story knowing we’re going to need a lot of special tools to bring it to life, and that’s what those 200 mad scientists go off to do. Ultimately, it’s all about telling a great story.”

And, as head of effects for the project Scott Singer says, “The single biggest effect in ‘Madagascar’ is the jungle.” The primary inspiration for the island’s jungles came from paintings of renowned French artist Henri Rousseau. Rousseau never actually visited the jungle in his lifetime, but created wonderful, exotic paintings of these fantastic, mysterious tropical locales, with an almost child-like, naïve vision. More than 50 plants were designed for the film, including seven baobab trees, and 12 flower or fruit trees. A unique motion system was also developed for the jungle vegetation scenes. As characters move through the jungle, the jungle moves with them, as well as in the wind, etc.

Tom is hoping the result is pretty spectacular. “We wanted to depict Madagascar as this Shangri-La,” he said. “The whole idea was to create this mysterious island.”

A Message for Troubled Times

So as yet another E-Ticket animated feature ride from a major studio rolls out for audiences around the world, what’s in it for kids and families? Talking animals with identity issues are great, but what do they really have to say? Lions and zebras in real life don’t usually hang out, unless one is on the menu. In this story, predator and prey have become an unlikely band of friends, with the idea that from changing circumstances they can learn about each other and themselves. Each character faces his own fears, prejudices, challenges and obstacles. It looks like a lot of fun, of course, but the ‘definition of friendship’ is what Tom and his team want to teach the young and maybe vulnerable real-life humans who may enjoy the program.

“Laughter is the best medicine,” said McGrath. “Kids are really sophisticated these days. They get assaulted with a lot, maybe things they shouldn’t be (assaulted with). We just wanted to make a film that wouldn’t talk down to kids.”

What the kids will watch flying by in about two hours in a local theatre (now on DVD), may be greater than the sum of its parts. Alex the Lion may be indicative or allegorical of any well-heeled urban dweller who is the king of his hill, but thrust into the jungle with his friends, where they all supposedly came from, perhaps any of us First World-types would learn a thing or two.

“Alex finally figures out that it doesn’t matter where they are as long as they are together,” says co-director Darnell.

“Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria go through a journey where they find out that it makes no difference what society says or even what Mother Nature tells you,” says producer Soria. “If your friendship is strong enough, you can overcome any difference. I hope that comes through.”

Music featured in the film includes the classics ‘Born Free’, ‘New York, New York’, the BeeGee’s ‘Stayin’ Alive’, the theme from ‘Hawaii Five-O’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’, Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ and others. The cast also features Cedric the Entertainer as Maurice, Andy Richter as Mort an Sacha Baron Cohen as Julien. ‘Madagascar’ is being distributed by Dreamworks Distribution, LLC

Items mentioned in this article:

Madagascar [DVD]

Madagascar [DVD]

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