COVER STORY: 'MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA'
REDWOOD CITY, CA — In Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, it wasn’t just the characters who discovered a different environment it was also the filmmakers. The world on the island of Madagascar, as in the original film, was filled with rainforests and lush jungles. To accurately create a look and feel of mainland Africa, the film’s creative team from PDI/DreamWorks (www.dreamworksanimation.com) took a 10-day safari to the great continent.
Two of those on the trip included Escape 2 Africa directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath — who wrote the film along with Etan Cohen. The pair, who directed and helped pen the first Madagascar (2005), have been working together as a team since McGrath joined DreamWorks almost nine years ago.
The writers came up with the story for Escape 2 Africa before the first Madagascar was even released. “When we got the greenlight, we already had the story in mind,” reports McGrath, who says their biggest writing challenge was “trying to tell the most funny, emotional, cohesive story we could.”
Another challenge, this one on the technical side, was the filmmakers’ desire to accurately depict the look and feel of Africa, where the lead characters end up after escaping from Madagascar. “The thing you get a great sense of is the scale of the place and the space,” says Eric Darnell of the group’s trip to the Dark Continent. “We had to find a way to take the design we developed for the first film and apply it to this completely different landscape. It was a challenge because you have fields of grass going off for miles to the horizon, and it all has be generated and wave in the wind.”
GRASS & FUR
The team would basically create an organic block that would describe where the grass was in the environment, and the blocks would have different heights and be set dressed into place. “We’d work with that for the cinematography and moving the characters around,” explains Darnell. “We wouldn’t see the final version of the grass until it was final rendered because it was computationally expensive.”
He says the guys at PDI/DreamWorks did a great job with the system. “When you step back from it, it looks like a field of grass and you can see it naturally interacting with the wind.” As you push in and look at some of the detail, “it takes on an element of design that is our own reality, so there is a degree of stylization to the grass.”
To set dress the grass in scenes, production engineer Robyn Rindge designed a grass set-dressing tool for the layout department that runs in PDI/DreamWorks’ proprietary animation and layout app, Emo.
“Layout artists draw simple closed curves and place them onto the ground of the virtual set,” explains head of effects, Scott Peterson. “The grass placement tool turns each curve into a polygonal fence and puts a ceiling over the fenced area to create a slab of grass turf. Layout artists hand hundreds of overlapping turf slabs to our surfacing department, who then convert these slabs into grass.”
The surfacing department uses a fur geometry shader, part of their proprietary rendering and lighting toolset, to create the grass. They start by filling each slab full of straight grass. They alter parameters to clump the grass into patches, bend it, randomize the lengths and directions. “They also add stylized stalks and weeds to the grass in order to break up the texture,” describes Peterson. “A stalk of grass is a single tapered curve, but weeds are actually small models created by our modeling department. We copy these weeds into the grass by deforming each weed model to curves generated by the fur geometry shader.”
The effects department animates the grass with wind and character interaction, says Peterson. Wind is applied to grass by creating procedural wind maps connected to the fur geometry shader. Character interaction is produced by running a proprietary fur collision response tool called Smoosh. “On top of Smoosh, we also add secondary animation by running gas simulations in Maya or by applying procedural wind textures. Secondary wind enhances character impacts, or helps herds of running zebras produce wind in their wake.
Darnell says it’s essential to have a system that is smart enough to know when to present the detail and when to leave it out. “When the computer does drop into the grass, it’s just as rich and textural as you would expect it to be when you are up close.”
He reports that this is similar to what they did with crowds of animals in the film — more than they have done for any other PDI/DreamWorks production. “Fur is really expensive, and the systems that compute the images of the crowds go in and figure out how far the character is from the camera and then they adjust the computation.” This way the system is not dealing with more data than it needs to. When characters get far away they no longer have fur, he says, instead “they have what we call a ‘fur shell’ that looks enough like fur that from a distance you can’t tell the difference, but it’s much cheaper to render.”
When the creative team returned from Africa, they had over 10,000 pictures — they used these as reference material for the sky and the way the light falls at different times of day. And they discovered some surprises while there as well. “When we were in the environment of Madagascar, green backgrounds were one thing… but when we took these animals that were from Africa and put them into this world — even a designed world like ours — you realize that lions get lost in the grass,” says Darnell, adding, “I suppose in hindsight, it’s obvious.
“So we would have a sunrise with this beautiful magic-hour lighting — gold and orange across the grass — and suddenly our golden lion would disappear,” he continues. “We had to do things to actually take down the saturation of the environment sometimes so that our main characters would pop.”
He points to the same thing happening with some of the other characters. And that was the challenge they had with lead zebra Marty. “It’s part of the story we are telling with him, where he finds all these like-minded zebras in Africa — all voiced by Chris Rock — and at first he loves that they are like him but this leads to an identity crisis.”
There were times when the filmmakers wanted Marty to blend in, but when they wanted him to come off of the crowd, they would find a way to get a little more light in him or tone down the other zebras around him, making him stand out.
THE WATERING HOLE
Water is a big part of life, especially in Africa, and the writers made this the central gathering place for the animals in Escape 2 Africa. It also becomes a key factor in the story later on, when the watering hole dries up.
While in Africa, the team looked at a lot of watering holes for reference. “We wanted just the right reflection of the sky coming off the water and we needed to find ways to keep the reflections in the water,” says Darnell. They surrounded the watering hole with lush green plants and moist, red earth to give it a “life-giving feel.” But when the hole dries up, the rich, moist earth turns into cracked mud and the water is reduced to a tiny puddle. Even the environment around the watering hole dries up — the leaves come off the trees and the air fills with dust. “It’s a set we return to more than any in the film, and it was interesting to take it through all of these transitions — and then in the end, when the water returns, we can return it to its original beauty.”
When the hole dries up it’s also reflected in the look of the characters. The filmmakers found ways to get in and tune saturation and other aspects of the characters so they would appear dustier and less vibrant. “There is also a quality of light that is less flattering,” Darnell explains. “There is a little more dust in the air that gets between the camera and the characters, and tends to gray them out — all of that is intentional. Not only is it necessary so we could pull our leads off the background, but it was also part of the storytelling — the color being sucked out of the world.”
The filmmakers took advantage of the time between the two Madagascar films to subtly upgrade the main characters, thanks to advances in technology. “Typically, it was in problem areas related to the hair, like Alex’s mane or his shoulder,” says Darnell. “So it was great to be able to go back in to the characters we had that were already working great and give them all an upgrade.” He says for the first film they would ask, “Can we do it?” and with this one it was more like, “How much can we do it?”
Again, the crowd shots were a challenge. “To get thousands of chimps in one scene or something more complex, like having thousands of animals surrounding the watering hole, is difficult, says Darnell. “Some are on two legs and some are on four legs and they want to be with their own group, yet they all sort of have to intermingle and look organic and natural. It’s one thing if you have crowds of people or one kind of animal — they all basically walk the same way and you just change their outfit or body type; it’s different when you have different species of animals, all at different sizes.”
Tom McGrath sums up by saying one of the most fun — and most difficult — things about this film was not only having all the characters from the first film return, but adding new ones as well. “You are juggling all these great characters, but they all have to work within the main storyline. It’s challenging and rewarding,” he says. “So that’s my favorite thing, taking all these characters and working them into a story to be entertaining and serve the story purpose.”