Interview: Filmmakers Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith talk ‘Penguins of Madagascar’

At one point in time, animated films catered to children almost exclusively. Wholesome messages and brilliant art propelled these films to great heights. Thankfully, for nearly two decades now, the animated film has evolved to include parents into the proceedings. The new Dreamworks spin-off adventure Penguins of Madagascar is a prime example of a cartoon made for both kids and adults and the results are actually really fun. I had a chance to speak with the directors of the film (Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith). Here’s how it went:

What is it about animation that fascinates you guys?

I think it’s that you can create these amazing, awesome realities that feel real and they don’t necessarily look realistic, but you can feel them with the pair of CG and the stereo filmmaking, you can reach out your hand and touch them. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about the advances of CG in the last few years, and we work really hard to control the stereo filmmaking to make sure it’s painless and fluid and it helps to accentuate the story, and I think that’s one of the great things about CG filmmaking.

The whole sensory experience.

Yeah.

There’s also this opportunity with animation to exaggerate reality and to take that, you know, we’ve got a talking wolf and penguins that can fly vertical take-off and landing gear all of a sudden. These are not the kinds of things that you would get away with in the real world and in many live-action films, you know. So it gives us so much freedom to just be inventive and creative and find bizarre comedic scenarios, which is especially good with the penguins. Their tone and their humor is just really off-the-charts wacky and unexpected.

What’s the process like of casting voice actors? What do you look for?

Well, we first started off, we first talked to John Malkovich, and we were very lucky in this film. Our number one choices were John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch, and when we first started, we just wanted to have a villain. We knew we were going to have a villain, obviously, in the movie, and we wanted somebody you could empathize with and somebody who could bring some really, really strong character. But really, the main thing was that we wanted someone who you were never going to forget, who is going to be an indelible villain and somebody who is completely unique, and I think you can’t get much better than John Malkovich. He’s such a unique character in so many ways, and I went to pitch him on the story and I said, “The story of your character is he’s an octopus,” and he said, “Yeah, I’d love that!” And he thought that was a really fun idea.

What is the inspiration behind Dave?

Again, early on in the process, I came up with the idea of these octopus ninjas who are henchmen, and Dave was originally a person, and we start developing these henchmen, and inside the computer, they look so good and just thought, this is another facet to Dave’s character. Wouldn’t it be great if he was just also this fantastic disguise as animals, he could disguise himself really well, and then we realized, oh, well, Dave has to be an octopus He has his double life as a human and an octopus.

The animated film genre largely caters to children, but since Antz in 1998, the humor has shifted to appeal to adults. Is it difficult striking that balance?

You know, we worked together on Antz too, but the thing that we really do is try to make the best story we can. Try to make a movie that we like, that we enjoy and with the kind of comedy and action and whatever it is that gets us jazzed, you know, and then from there, it’s just recognizing who the audience is and making sure that we’re bringing everyone along for the ride, you know. If you’re going to use a 12-syllable word when a four-syllable word will work better, then you use the four-syllable word and make sure the five-year-old understands. But a lot of times, that isn’t necessary as long as there is something kind of happening for everybody, you know, and often there is by default because the kid doesn’t understand what people are talking about, but there’s still talking animals up there doing some funny schtick on-screen. Everybody can come along for the ride, but, you know, we were talking about this earlier today, some of my favorite times when going to movies or watching television with my dad is when we’re both together, enjoying it. And I might not know why, but as a kid, my dad is laughing at something, humor that was intended for him to understand, but I just love the idea that I’m sitting next to him and he was cracking up, and I’m enjoying something too and I’m laughing, and it’s like…

Infectious.

Yeah, it’s like infectious and it’s like something that you share, and so for us, it’s a great opportunity to be able to make the kind of film that we hoped that families could go to and have a shared experience, you know, where kids aren’t going, “I don’t get it,” and parents are looking at their watch. This film and I think the Madagascar films franchise in general kind of allows people from age 4 to 104 to have a good time.

With video games becoming more and more advanced, do you think film and gaming will combine to give audiences a truly interactive entertainment experience?

Well, I think games are delving deeper into characters and storytelling. I think it’s a tricky thing with games because you are playing one of the characters and controlling one of the characters and so it’s a tricky balance because as an audience member in a movie, it’s easier to invest because you’re presented with a character on-screen, and you decide if you like the character or not, or you believe the character or not. In a lot of games, you’re playing the character. Your character has its own volition, so I think it’s a tricky balance. The writing in games I think is so much better over the last few years, and I think that’s the key is the writing because there’s so many great games out there that I think, there’s always going to be cinema. I’m sure someone is going to make something too, but like there’s always going to be cinema, always going to be games. I think the writing on TV has got amazing, some amazing TV shows over the last fifteen years, and so everybody’s just got better writing.

There is something, and I agree with everything you’re saying, and I love video games, but there is something magical about sitting in a darkened theater and kind of being a fly on the wall in this other person’s journey and wishing and hoping that they make the right choice and being surprised by the choices that they make and what happens because of those choices, and it’s just completely, in my mind, a completely different experience than being the one making all the decisions. Then it becomes much more about me and it’s a different kind of work.

Ever since The Lion King, Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control group have been used in almost every animated film. What do you think it is about Zimmer and his group that attracts animation?

I don’t know what would attract him to animation. Well, I think it these juicy characters. I think it’s juicy characters and, you know, amazing journeys with characters. You know, we pitched this story to Lorne Balfe.

And he worked on all the Madagascar movies too.

With Hans, yeah. He worked on Bee Movie with me.

Great score, by the way.

Yeah, yeah.

Love that score.

Really good score, and Lorne was part of that team. We pitched him the movie, and he came back with these themes, and I think what’s fantastic about the music on this movie is really gone back to old-school traditional themes for each character. The penguins, Dave, the North Wind, and Private, and it’s just beautifully, beautifully woven. I couldn’t be happier about the music from this movie. It’s so good. I’d listen to it in the car, but I’m waiting for the CD to come out! Honestly, it’s so fantastic.

Will there be a score album coming out?

Yeah, there will be, yeah.

And there’s this great song that Lorne wrote that’s ‘Dave’s Theme’ but with lyrics. We couldn’t put it in the movie in time, but it’s going to be on the soundtrack. It’s an amazing, fantastic, villainous song.

That sounds great. What would you compare it to with other villain songs?

Well, it’s a classic sort of ‘60s villain thing.

Kind of like a Bond villain.

Sort of.

It’s got the big brass thing.

I can’t wait to hear it. That would have been great in the movie. Why was it cut?

Well, Lorne thought of it at the last minute, and he wrote the lyrics and recorded it. We were mixing it at the time, and he goes, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” He had the idea, but it was just too late.

Just couldn’t get it in.

But it’s going to be on the album.

I look forward to that. So you’ve worked with John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Rupert Gregson-Williams, what’s it like working with such talents, such musical geniuses?

It’s unbelievably humbling. One of the most exciting things is going to London to record the score. They have these amazing musicians playing all these instruments. Like, the lead violinist is worth 3.5 million pence, and you sit there and the people behind the glass are equally as talented as the people in front of the glass. Lorne and his crew are so good at spotting nuances and making variations and like, the cello should do this and the violinist should do this, make sure the brass is hitting here. It’s just an amazing experience, and the people who are playing are unbelievably talented. They’re the best in the world, and they come in and they’ve never seen the music before, and bang, they nail it the first time.

Movie magic, right?

It makes you tingle, it’s unbelievable.

So what direction do you see animated films going?

Well, the sky’s the limit, I think.

Yeah, no end for the Madagascar franchise yet.

I don’t know about that.

When we get this movie out into theaters, we’ll see.

I definitely see the North Wind group as an animated series.

Oh, perfect!

Just an idea. So, Benedict Cumberbatch, he has a distinctive voice, were there any other actors considered for the part?

We thought we’d go to him first, and he said yes.

We feel really lucky because, you know, Simon was aware of him because of his British roots, but this was before he’d become sort of this sensation, so we were just really lucky that we got to him in time. But both he and John are amazing to work with because they just put themselves into it completely, and they totally embody these characters, even though they’re just standing in a room with a microphone, you know, and a little stand with a script page on it. These movies are a collaboration, you know, it’s not just like, here’s the script, read the words. You have an opportunity, and you want to take the opportunity when you bring these really talented actors in to leverage off of what they can bring and how they can help develop who these characters are. Both John and Benedict played a huge part in finding who their characters were. A lot of improvisation and physical exploration which soon became a real inspiration for the animators because we’ll videotape all the recording sessions, and the animators will look at that. It’s not motion capture, but it’s inspiration. You see how John moves his arms around…

Oh, he actually did that?

Yeah, and we went through and said this stuff is fantastic.

So the actor voices the role and then you animate over it?

Yeah, everything is driven from their performance. Get the goals from their voices and the performers, you can feel the power of the acting through their voices, and then the animators, they see these little cameras that we shoot the voiceovers with and you’re thinking, “Oh my god, okay, I get it,” and it’s such a powerful thing when you get that performance.

What’s that process like, though, matching the animation with the actor’s voice?

Well, it’s part of the process because then the animators use the voice and what they’re seeing to go take it up another notch in animation. It’s all about, you know, sort of maximizing that choice and accentuating to the fullest, so they use that as inspiration to do their volition.

Like John said, it’s like, he goes, “I move around as best I can to suggest the possibilities of what animators might be able to do.” And then the animators take that as inspiration to then turn the inside-out, literally. Okay, I can’t literally turn myself out, but I can suggestively.

You can try.

Are there any voice actors that you haven’t worked with that you plan to in the future?

Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.

Yeah, you really shouldn’t start with an actor, start with an idea for a character, and then you start to think, you know, well what’s a-sometimes what you’ll even do, a casting director might come in with a, just a bunch of sound files and say, “I’m just going to play you their voices. I’m not even going to tell you who they are.” And then you just listen to the voices and, you know, that one! Sometimes you know who it is, and sometimes you don’t, but it’s, you almost don’t want to look at them. You want to just hear the voice and imagine it coming out of a character that you have designed, and at the end of the day, a lot of times people say or they’ll ask, “Why did you design that character to look like the actor?” And quite often, the answer is that we didn’t, but once we got the voice in there and we got the spirit of the performance in there, then suddenly that role kind of does look like Benedict Cumberbatch.

Are there any foreign animated films that you guys enjoy?

I haven’t seen one recently.

I like the tone of Miyazaki’s films.

Yeah, yeah.

You know, most people in animation do. Those are fun to watch. They just seem so inventive and they kind of come from another world in a way. They’re not the kind of thing that I could ever imagine coming out of a Western studio.

Yeah, that’s true.

They’re just magical.

Have either of you considered making a jump to live-action, like Brad Bird?

I really love animation. I really love animation for all the reasons that we talked about, and you can create anything and go anywhere and, you know, make it ridiculous and illogical and powerful and all the things you can do in live-action and more, so that’s what I think is so fantastic about animation. You can push the limits.

Yeah, I haven’t either. I think, like the tone and the craziness of this penguin movie and the kind of things that we do, you know, and the places we can take the audience, and the insane characters that we can present. You know, you just couldn’t get away with that in a live-action film.

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