Joe Strike talks to the creators of DreamWorks' first spin-off series, The Penguins of Madagascar, which has proven to be a hit for Nickelodeon, with more projects in the works.
Two veteran Disney Afternoon writer/producers are at the helm of DreamWorks Animation's first spin-off TV series, The Penguins of Madagascar (Nickelodeon, Saturday, 10: 00 a.m./9:00 C). The flightless avian quartet all but stole the original Madagascar movie out from under its stars, earning the black-and-white birds their own original short, A Christmas Caper on the movie's DVD release. The penguins had a high-profile role in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa even as their own TV series was in pre-production.
"We really lucked out," says Robert Schooley, half of the show's exec producer team. "Mark [McCorkle, Schooley's partner] and I weren't looking for another movie-based series, we'd done a fair amount of that at Disney," where they worked on the Aladdin, Hercules and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command series. "We were finishing up and heard DreamWorks was looking for someone to run Penguins. As soon as we heard 'penguins' we told our agent we loved the characters; if they're still looking when we're available we're interested. We ended Kim Possible on a Friday and started The Penguins of Madagascar Monday morning."
McCorkle and Schooley jumped on a train that was just beginning to pull out of the station. "A pilot animatic was already in the works," adds McCorkle. "We came in, rolled up our sleeves and took it in direction we thought it should go; so far, so good."
The first thing the pair did was simplify the pilot. "We did cut a few characters," McCorkle explains. "Very often the first pilot gets jammed with so many ideas -- not that they're bad ideas, but there's just so many it's hard for the audience to wrap their heads around following one story. We'd simplified it to how funny the penguins and lemurs are and how different their approach to life is -- that conflict informs a lot of the story."
The Penguins of Madagascar lifts those two species out of the feature and into New York's Central Park Zoo (where Alex, Melman, Gloria and Marty are still absent, presumably on the road somewhere between Africa and New York). The conflict McCorkle mentions comes from clash between the penguins' self-styled commando zeal and King Julien and his cohorts' oblivious party-hardy lifestyle. Urbane chimps Mason and Phil are on hand as well, together with an assortment of brand new supporting characters who are being gradually introduced as the series progresses. One of the first to appear was Marlene, an otter who (as described by Nickelodeon's publicity material) "spent her formative years in Northern California's Monterey Bay Aquarium."
According to Schooley, "she can be sarcastic and funny, but she's a lot more clued into reality and not as deluded as either group of guys." If her description reminds you of SpongeBob SquarePants' undersea squirrel Sandy Cheeks, "that was no accident," McCorkle admits. "We were looking at [Sandy] as a great example of a character that can be funny in her own right but when you have a show with a bunch of crazies, you need someone who's a little more grounded."
Other critters have already started showing up, including Max, a mangy alley cat and Roger, a neurotic alligator who lives in the sewer beneath the zoo; Schooley promises kangaroos, koalas and rhinos, oh my, will be joining the cast as the series progresses. No matter how large the menagerie may grow, McCorkle and Schooley intend to keep the focus on the penguins and their battle of (half-) wits with Julien, his second-in-command Maurice and their uber-cute hanger-on Mort.
As popular as they were in the Madagascar movies and their first short, the penguins needed a few cosmetic and personality changes to make them, so to speak, leading men: "Part of the joke in the movie was they all kind of looked alike," Schooley says. "We've redesigned them slightly to make them easier to render and a little bit easier to tell them apart.
"Each guy has a different silhouette now. Kowalski is the tallest, Rico has a scar on his face and little bit of a feathery Mohawk. He's taller than Skipper who's short and barrel-chested. Private looks the most like he did in the movie because in the movie he was the most different looking to begin with."
McCorkle goes into further detail: "In the movie, Skipper got the lion's share of the laughs, Rico didn't speak at all and Kowalski was a very straight character who didn't have a lot of lines. It was easy to see what Skipper and Private were going to be like, but we went to movie's directors [Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who voices Skipper] and asked how do we find more in the other two without violating their movie personalities?"
Fortunately, Darnell and McGrath had a solution in hand. "Even before the Christmas short Eric and I wrote a screenplay for a penguin movie that explored their characters in more depth," reveals McGrath. "Even though you don't see it in the movie, you have to have it on paper to know how to write the character; we used those characterizations in the series."
With Darnell and McGrath's help, McCorkle says "Kowalski became our science guy, our Mr. Spock -- and Rico turned psychopathic." "Rico's the most insane of them all," Schooley agrees. "We've had a lot of fun with him, he can pretty much hock up any prop the penguins need," including dynamite, crowbars, flamethrowers, cinderblocks and even a can of flatulence-inducing beans. For his part, McGrath says that Schooley & McCorkle have "pushed the personalities farther" than his and Darnell's original conception. "They've taken the ball and run with it."
As he has since the original Madagascar, McGrath is back on hand to voice Skipper, going he says for a combination of The Untouchables' Robert Stack, "a little smarmy Charlton Heston and maybe some Peter Graves every once in a while." "It's great to have Tom there," says McCorkle. "He knows characters better than anybody and gives us input when we need it; we get input from whole [feature film] team on everything we do."
John DiMaggio -- Futurama's Bender-- gave Rico his voice in the Penguins' Christmas Caper short and now provides it for the series. Veteran voice artist Jeff Bennett speaks for Kowalski, and James Patrick Stuart does Private, "the most emotionally open and vulnerable of the quartet," according to Nickelodeon's production notes.
Kevin Michael Richardson has replaced Cedric the Entertainer as Julien's right hand lemur Maurice and Andy Richter is back as mega-cute, big-eyed Mort. Voice-wise, though, the biggest challenge McCorkle and Schooley faced was finding someone to replace Sacha Baron Cohen as the infatuated-with-himself lemur king. The directors turned to Danny Jacobs, who had already filled in for Cohen on the Madagascar 2 videogame. "We were blown away" by Jacobs, McCorkle says. "He was incredibly prepared and has great comic instincts." According to Schooley, "even Tom said it's like Danny is just channeling Sasha, the language and everything." Whenever you do a sound-alike," McCorkle muses, "it's a challenge. You want someone who sounds close to the original, you don't want to differentiate too much. Danny sounds like the original character but brings his own sense of comedy to it."
While Conrad Vernon continues to voice the erudite chimp Mason, his primate silent partner Phil presented an entirely different kind of dialog problem: not unlike the celebrated gorilla Koko, Phil 'speaks' in sign language – and the producers take pains to make sure the monkey gets it right. "We felt strongly it should be real," reports McCorkle. "We have someone on staff who makes sure everything is authentic. Sign language can be very subtle, there can be misunderstandings if you don't do it just right." It's a nod to a segment of the TV audience that usually makes do with closed captions – but it's something the show isn't afraid to have a bit of fun with. "There's a scene where characters are sleeping," McCorkle confides. "Mason is snoring out loud while Phil is signing 'z-z-z…'"
The Penguins of Madagascar is animated overseas at the DK Ent. and Paprikaas studios in India (four early segments were produced in Taiwan at the CGCG studio) but the penguins and their pals were built and rigged at Nickelodeon's Burbank animation studio.
Dean Hoff, Penguins' CG line producer, explains that the decision was "based on the fact that we had to use multiple studios to produce the animation on our schedule. We needed to ensure that we had aesthetically and technically consistent character assets that could be used in the animation pipeline at any studio. This has given us tremendous quality control -- we think it's what separates our animation from others on television."
Even though they had already appeared in two feature films, for all practical purposes Nickelodeon had to start over again and recreate the penguins and lemurs from scratch. The reason, according to Hoff: "DreamWorks produced the Madagascar films at PDI up north." PDI "uses proprietary software to build their models. We were only able to receive gray-scale models of the characters and sets -- and they were in a format we couldn't use. So essentially we used those files as 'approved design' only and rebuilt everything.
"Also, the characters from PDI were much larger files than our render farms and timelines could handle for series production -- we had to down-res the characters to something more suitable for television work. Finally, we could not afford the time or money to do fur for the series, so we needed to develop a stylized solution that would work for us."
The textural difference between the film and TV penguins isn't particularly noticeable, but the lemurs have traded in their fuzzy coats for a sculpted look that suggests fur. However, from McCorkle's perspective "the key is character animation, the staging and funny jokes. Hopefully people aren't watching the show and going 'he looked furrier in the movie.'"
At the moment, Nick's audience seems to be watching the show. Penguins' March 28th premiere was the highest-rated series introduction in Nickelodeon history, bearing out the network's early confidence in the series when it ordered a second season before the show even premiered. The teaming of animation powerhouses Nickelodeon and DreamWorks might have been facilitated by the corporate relationship between the two companies (Viacom's Paramount distributes DreamWorks' animated features); "it certainly didn't hurt," says Brown Johnson, president of Nickelodeon Animation. "No one made both companies work together but the notion of it happening was a no-brainer."
The partnership continues: this past week Nickelodeon revealed a Kung Fu Panda series will be joining the network's schedule (with Po and the Furious Five "protecting the Valley of Peace from threats of all kind") followed by the announcement that the cable network has additionally ordered a Monsters vs. Aliens pilot.
It's obvious that the KFP series will take place after the events of the feature film -- but what's the relationship between The Penguins of Madagascar and the penguins in the Madagascar movies? How did the lemurs wind up in the Central Park zoo as foils to the arctic birds -- especially when they never interacted in the films? (The series' opening credits show the penguins prying open a crate bearing the Madagascar logo and finding the lemurs inside.) And will Alex, Melman, Gloria and Marty turn up to reclaim their cages someday? (In one establishing shot, silhouettes of Alex the lion and Marty the giraffe are quickly but clearly visible on a banner hanging above the penguin's enclosure.)
It's a question one might assume would be of concern only to animation geeks with too much time on their hands, but the producers have wrestled with that riddle as well. "There's a definite school of people who want to know that," says Schooley. "On the spinoff shows we did at Disney, we did worry. Aladdin's continuity was after the movie, Hercules' was within the movie. We kind of expect that with feature spinoffs, but with this one…"It's evidently a puzzler, but he has a theory: "We do occasionally sort of refer to the movie. King Julien is definitely from Madagascar; he refers to 'when I was in Madagascar.' We're just sort of doing it as if someday after all the feature continuity, somehow the penguins ended up back there and the lemurs just sort of tagged along."
"We talked about linking [the two] early on," McCorkle adds, "but when we started the series they didn't have an ending to Madagascar 2 yet. We definitely tried to come up with some convoluted reason for all this, but it just seemed like when you're doing 11-minute stories, there's never time for much backstory; maybe someday we'll do a half-hour special, 'The Day the Lemurs Showed Up.'"
We'll let McGrath, voice of Skipper and half the team that dreamed up the characters in the first place, have the last word. "It's not specifically before or after the movie, I just wanted them all back at the zoo. I think of it as taking place in a parallel universe."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.