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From Kansas City to the Congo: How Former Kansas Citian Eric Darnell Became an Animated Hit Maker

Directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath with producers Mark Swift and Mireille Soria and their co-workers. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.
by Dan Lybarger

Kansas City is best known for primo barbecue and swinging jazz. But it’s also where many of the greatest innovators in animation grew up and in some cases worked before finding success in Los Angeles.

Walt Disney and his right-hand man Ub Iwerks tried to make animation their living in Cowtown before they hit paydirt in California. This was not an isolated phenomenon.

Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, who founded the animation departments at Warner Bros. and M-G-M, and Friz Freling, the Oscar-winning director of the Speedy Gonzales and Sylvester and Tweety cartoons also hailed from KC. So did Warner Bros. musical mastermind Carl Stalling and cartoonist Ben “Buggs” Hardaway, who provided the voice of Woody Woodpecker and inspired the name of Warner Bros. most beloved creation, Bugs Bunny.

The ties between Kansas City and cartooning haven’t ended with the golden age of animation. Cowtown is the home of Universal Features Syndicate and Andrews McMeel Publishing, which introduced the world to Dilbert and Doonesbury.

The KC suburb of Prairie Village is also the boyhood home of computer animation specialist Eric Darnell, who helmed the 1998 hit Antz with Tim Johnson and teamed with Tom McGrath to direct the 500 million dollar-grossing Madagascar.

With box office numbers like that, it was only a matter of time before Darnell and McGrath teamed up again for the sequel to the 1995 film. Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa drew Darnell back to his hometown to promote the film.

Now an Angelino (they all have to leave KC to be successful), Darnell, a 1979 graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School, doesn’t take his return to his home town lightly.

On Monday, October 20, Darnell visited a local elementary school to demonstrate his handiwork to the students and then attended a screening of the film that evening. After the screening, he took some tough questions from the youngsters who’d just finished watching the movie (“Why were there sad parts?” one child asked).

The next day, he took a few questions from other journalists and me at the Hilton in downtown KC. One of the people grilling him was a writer for The Harbinger, the student paper at Shawnee Mission East. Darnell wrote for that paper as well before he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and a master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts).

According to Darnell, improvements in technology since his 1993 animated short Gas Planet have made animated filmmaking easier in some respects. But he and his collaborators had a formidable challenge revisiting the characters they’d created in the earlier film.

Making It Harder
This time around the Central Park Zoo animals Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) find themselves stuck in central Africa after the penguins who have piloted their plane crash it. Who knew penguins could build or fly planes, much less crash land them?

“The technology is getting better,” said Darnell. “The processors are getting faster. We’re also getting more of them. And we’re also getting better at it. Now there’s a lot of people who have been in this field now for 25 years.

“We know our characters, so we don’t have to spend time getting to know them and introducing them again to the audience or to ourselves. So that made it easy. We could just dive into the next part of the story that we wanted to tell with these guys.

“What made it harder, like you’ve got just on that poster for the first film, there’s 11 characters: strong, quality characters who can all carry a scene. And then we added more. We added Alec Baldwin, Sherri Shepherd and 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 the one clear, coherent story.”

To create a different way of visualizing the story, Darnell and McGrath consulted with Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to find ways to tell their story visually. In addition to traditional storyboarding, the filmmakers developed other techniques.

Darnell recalled, “One of the first things Navarro said was, ‘I know these storyboards are a tradition and everything, but you’re starting with a still image. And you start with that still image, and it’s going to plant that still image in your mind. You’ve got to break out of that and think of other ways to think of how you might shoot the movie.’

“And so his plan was and what we ended up doing was, like for the scene on the airplane, we just went into a big space with some chairs in a row, and we got people to sit down, not even actors, just the layout artists, the cameramen, the animators. We’d play the audio of the scene and have them sort of act it out as best they could and then shoot it with handheld video cameras.

“It was a great discovery process for us. You learn so much about your scene that way that you never can if you’re going to draw one frame at a time. It was big, big help for us and kind of a breakthrough in how to give us another tool in sense to create these films.”

The Human Factor
One key factor in the success of the first Madagascar was the all-star cast of voices. Darnell says that the actors that he and McGrath work with do more than simply recite their lines. Many times he and McGrath altered the story based on the recording sessions.

“They’d say, “Oh, I’ve got a better word for this.” Or they’d say, “What if we played the scene this way?” And then we’d do something that was completely off the page,” said Darnell.

“And sometimes, like that bit where Julien (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) comes in singing ‘Private Dancer’ off on the side of the screen, that was not in the movie anywhere at all. At one point, Sacha goes, it would be very funny if he goes, ‘I’m your private dancer.’ And he had the coconuts (on his chest) and everything, and he was acting it out.

“And (after recording) we had this scene, and it’s a lock off camera, and we’re looking at their backs, and we’re seeing this pretty picture. And we had the story point we needed to get out where it’s like ‘This beautiful; this is where we belong.’ This one shot was neat to do, but we needed something. We needed something else to just take it over, and then we remembered we’ve got that ‘Private Dancer’ stuff. Bring Julien in.”

The filmmakers didn’t simply recruit stars for the vocal roles. For a brief scene where the audience views Alex’s childhood, the filmmakers recruited Ben Stiller’s son Quinlin to play the younger version of Alex.

When asked how one goes about directing a toddler, Darnell bluntly replied, “Well, you know, you can’t. You can’t coach him. Ben was doing most of it. He was trying to get stuff out of his son. And probably the best, most valuable thing was like when he didn’t want to sit in the chair. And he was like, “No! I don’t want to sit in the chair.” And we had the mike on him, and we could use that when he gets thrown into the crate. We weren’t really able to coach a performance out of him as much as we were able to just follow him around with a mike and get what you can get from any toddler running around the room.

“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. And she was great, and Jada came in, and Will (Smith) came in and helped encourage her and give her advice and stuff. And that really helped us because of course the kids are going to respond to mommy much better than they did to us.”

While the number of A-list names in the cast of both Madagascar films is impressive, the actors recorded their lines separately. Darnell says this is standard practice. “We almost always record everybody separately, which often is just logistics: somebody’s in New York; somebody’s in Chicago,” he said.

“So you just do one at a time. It also helps us focus, you know, 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. But we did bring Ben and Chris together and did a session with them in the same time. It was really great. They riffed off one another. It’s the kind of thing you want to do after you’ve got the material you really need. Then you bring them in, and you let them run with stuff.”

Where Credit Is Due
Darnell has spent three to four years of his life directing each of his feature films. Nonetheless, it’s rare in conversation to hear him use the words “I” or “me.” After the film had finished screening, Darnell pointed to the credits as they rolled, letting his young viewers know that he needed hundreds of people to help him make the film.

He’s also grateful to have a constant collaborator like McGrath. “We do have different talents, but we try to stay joined at the hip as much as you possibly could. What’s nice about having two directors is that if somebody needs a day off or “my kid’s got a recital or something” then I can take off. And Tom can run the show until I get back, and that helps,” said Darnell.

“And there’s also the sheer number and volume of decisions that have to get made. But mainly, it’s having that equal partner to bounce ideas back and forth often. Quite often I think that the sum is greater than the parts, however you say that. We’ve gotten more than we could have gotten out of either one of us.”

Ancient History
Before Gas Planet caught the attention of DreamWorks honchos Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Darnell cut his teeth creating the video for the REM tune “Get Up.”

Darnell said, “Some execs from Warner Bros. music came to Cal Arts looking for new ideas for music videos. And they liked this film I was working on, so they called me in, and they said, ‘I can think of a few bands that might be interested in your style.’ And they
happened to be my three favorite bands at the time: REM, Elvis Costello and the B-52s. I was like, ‘Sure.’ And I didn’t think anything of it, and a couple of days later, just at my home phone, my wife picks up the phone, and this guy goes, ‘Hello, this is Michael Stipe.’ Oh, yeah. Right. ‘Hi, Michael Stipe,’ thinking it was one of my friends. He called and asked us if I wanted to do a music video for him.

Darnell is certainly proud of his Midwestern roots, but they aren’t immediately obvious in his films. Whereas the early Mickey Mouse cartoons that Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks made featured dozens of barnyard gags, both Antz and the Madagascar films are loaded with New York-based humor.

“Yeah, but (producer) Mirelle’s (Soria) from Cleveland. And Tom, no, he’s from Seattle,” said Darnell.

“But my wife is actually from New York. I have spent a lot of time back there. In the first (Madagascar) when Marty’s looking up at the schedule and says, “I’m going to have to take the Stanford Local.” That was the train my wife always took when she left Manhattan. 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 where you’re going for.

“That was actually a big challenge for Madagascar 2 because with Madagascar we could almost treat like a fantasy world. We could do whatever we wanted to. It was ‘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.”


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2609
originally posted: 10/30/08 16:05:16
last updated: 10/30/08 16:07:49
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