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December 2014
Issue: November 1, 2008

WORKING AS A TEAM

By: Randi Altman
Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath co-directed, as well as co-wrote, along with Etan Cohen, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. The two have been a team for almost nine years. So how did they divvy up the work on this sequel to the popular Madagascar, a PDI/DreamWorks film that stars the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith, among others?

“We are pretty much joined at the hip for the whole time,” says McGrath. “We’d go to animation and do layout and cinematography together.” When one of them got really busy the other might do animation while the other checked on lighting, and they would swap around a bit, but most of the time they worked as a team.

On occasion, Darnell and McGrath swapped jobs during the writing stage. “One of us would be looking at the drama and the other was coming up with ideas for comedy,” explains McGrath. “We are pretty interchangeable with our hats that way. We really tried to just work as a team.”

And this team was able to take advantage of some technical advancements that occurred between the original Madagascar film, which came out in 2005, and this one. McGrath points to one specifically: “We didn’t move the camera much on the first movie; we wanted to, but the rendering time for the backgrounds was enormous. If it’s a lock-off shot, they just have to render the background once, but if you are moving a camera — which we really wanted in order to sell the scope of Africa — that takes a lot of rendering, and you have crowds in the background on top of that, and it adds up. Luckily, computers are faster and we have more of them now to break those boundaries.”

Explaining how the writing and production are so tied together, McGrath says they write the story without worrying about possible technical limitations until the shoot. “For example, water is very expensive to do. So we ask, ‘What’s the best way to shoot the water or the grass so it becomes less taxing on the computers?’ You don’t really have to forfeit so much of what you want.”

And it always comes back to the story, he says. “There are a lot of technical challenges, like, ‘How are we going to get a million zebras in a shot, or a moving camera through all these CG sets?’ But it always comes down to the story we can tell. We wanted to tell a better story than the first one. It’s about two best friends, and their savage sides come out, but it’s not as relatable as a father/son story or a romance that you can wrap your head around and emphasize. It’s funny. You try to do a moving story, but it’s really a comedy.”