It's been three years since a band of sophisticated New York City zoo animals escaped from their enclosures and found out what life was like on the other side of the world. No, not Samson and friends from Disney's release of The Wild made by C.O.R.E. Feature Animation and Hoytyboy Pictures, but their far more successful DreamWorks counterparts. Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria are back, along with Directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath for Madagascar's first sequel, Escape 2 Africa (opening today).
It's both easy and hard to follow up on a film with a huge cast of idiosyncratic (and funny) characters that concluded on an open-ended note. Easy, because "what happens next?" is a natural question; hard, because... well, how do you take them all to someplace new, both in terms of locale and their personal stories? How do you make sure your characters' challenges affect each other and not go off in four separate directions?
"We had to keep a lot of balls in the air," admitted Darnell. "It was hard to fit everything into 80 minutes. We had so much material from the cast, they're great improvisers. It was an embarrassment of riches, material that had us in tears."
Escape 2 Africa relocates the New York foursome, lemur King Julien and his sidekicks, urbane chimpanzees Mason and Phil -- and the four commando penguins, of course -- onto the titled continent. Winding up in a protected game-preserve, the main characters meet others of their own species for the first time, leading to complications -- romantic and otherwise -- for all. The filmmakers spent a year and a half trying to work the film's story around its original villains, poachers threatening the preserve's animals; while the film's opening flashback reveals how said poachers were responsible for Alex's eventual arrival in New York, Darnell and McGrath ultimately decided that villains who couldn't directly interact with the animals had to go. Instead, they reached for a character whose scene-stealing cameo was one of the original film's highlights.
"We had the grandmother on the [wildlife tour] jeep," added McGrath, referring to the tough old lady who took down Alex shortly before he was shipped off to Madagascar in the first film. After the penguins hijack their jeep she becomes de facto leader of the stranded tourists and the animals' unwitting antagonist. Nana, as she's now called, "always had in it for Alex," continued McGrath."We already had her in the film and her role just grew. As it did, she became more of an obstacle" for the film's heroes.
"We both have relatives back east, aunts and uncles who are like tanks. A tough New York woman who can survive in jungle seemed like a good character. It was a breakthrough for us. Sometimes you go down these roads and you're able to change the movie for the better because of it."
Escape 2 Africa's animals are fairly high up the anthropomorphic evolutionary scale, closer to Bugs Bunny than The Lion King's Simba. Even though they spend most of their time standing upright, Darnell and McGrath still wanted them to exist in a naturalistic environment and put all of DreamWorks' technology to work to that end.
"We actually took a trip to Africa early on and went to eight preserves in 10 days," Darnell explained. "When you get there it just opens up. Two-thirds of what you see is the sky, and it feels like you can see the curve of the Earth. It's a huge scope and we wanted to catch that in the film.
"When we started animating we couldn't do the things we needed to do -- show crowds of animals and millions of blades of grass stretching to the horizon. But our people put their noses to the grindstone and made it happen."
A now flat-nosed Scott Peterson is the film's effects head. "Grass -- that was a big one," he said in a reflective voice. "The African plains are vast, big vistas, where you can see a couple of miles out. Our challenge was to fill those plains with grass and do it in a way we could manage.
"We designed a tool for the layout department that would distribute grass by positioning geometric chunks of it in a shot. From there it went to the surfacing department where they handle its density: how it clumps, how scraggly it looks. They add accent grass and come up with the overall texture.
"Then it goes to the lighting department. They had to develop tools that would regroup those chunks of grass into layers that make it easier to render large amounts of geometry. The surfacing department had to come up with a way of changing the grass' density -- have it very detailed when it's close to camera and more coarse as it get further away, but do it in such way that the audience doesn't notice the transition. We spent some time implementing that, making it efficient and coming up with intuitive controls for them to set up.
"On the rendering side, one of the ways we fixed the 'buzzing problem' [between the grasses' differing textures] was from a trick I learned at SIGGRAPH. It was the same one they used to fix King Kong's fur, which was to make the grass transparent as it gets skinnier -- it makes it blend better."
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa boasts some of the busiest, most populated shots ever rendered for a CG-animated feature. "We did spend some time on that," Peterson casually added. "We have probably the largest crowds and amount of crowd shots than any of our films by fairly significant margin.
"The way we addressed it was to create a separate department just to handle the background animals. If there are more than 10 animals onscreen we call it a crowd shot. The challenge was how to mix and match the different animals and the variations within each species in believable ways. Scattering them randomly doesn't work right: we needed to choose the right height for each animal to compose a shot.
"We developed new software that generated low-res, coarse level-detailed characters. We can put roughly a thousand of them in a scene for the same cost as 10 or 20 hi-res ones."
That software faced its biggest challenge in the scene where zebra Marty tires of being part of a herd of thousands of near look-alikes. "We had 12 or 24 basic stripe patterns, plus eight different body and head combinations," McGrath recalled. "We blended them to get what looks like infinite number of zebras, all very subtly different."
Giving them all Chris Rock's voice was a bit of challenge as well. "Chris recorded every voice for them," Darnell continued. "Skywalker Sound did great work, varying the pitch slightly for each one. That shot went on for so long we didn't have enough audio of him to cover it all the way through. We wanted it to sound like a million zebras talking so they put their hands on every scrap they could find, even Chris talking between takes to fill it out. All the voices blended together so you couldn't hear what he was really saying."
The film's creators are justifiably proud of the effort they put into creating its fanciful, yet realistic environments and filling those massive African skies. "Clouds were a great challenge for us," said Peterson. "One of our toughest problems was how to split up the work between various departments, but even before that we had to help the layout artists figure out how to place clouds in the sky and give them something to work with. We came up with a library of geometric cloud shapes they could use to rough in their location and shapes. Then we figured out a way to give them more detailed texture and turn them into transparent, translucent volumetric shapes.
"We don't have a very mature set of volume rendering tools, so we had to write software to help us break the clouds down into particles. The particle tools were a challenge for us: how do you take a simple shape like a dome or a sphere and turn it into particles that look detailed and have a cloudlike texture?
"We got good mileage out of that," Peterson added, in particular referring to a shot where the light from the setting sun shines through those 3D clouds." On the other hand, "the clouds we were delivering were incredibly contrasty. They had realistic lighting on them, but there was just too much visual noise. It was just as easy for the matte painting department to take over the entire element" and create 2D clouds. "Between all the various departments involved and the rendering time, we found out clouds are expensive. In one sequence we had to take out some of the contrast and detailing. There was too much busyness everywhere -- in the sky, the ground, the trees and the characters. That's not a good thing -- it's a little bit hard to focus on everything at the same time."
Thirty million hours of rendering time went into Escape 2 Africa, two-and- a-half times more than the original Madagascar, and it shows in the film's flawless IMAX projection. There'll probably be a few less hours involved in next spring's spin-off Nickelodeon TV series starring the conspiratorial penguins. In the sequel, the quartet not only steals Nana's jeep, they come close to stealing the entire movie.
McGrath -- who voices Skipper in the upcoming series -- said that when he first pitched the penguins as an element of the original film, "I liked the idea of Robert Stack or someone like that" for the penguin mastermind. "Eric and I wanted to cast him in the first movie but he passed away. In all honesty we had to get these characters animated. We didn't have time to cast anyone" and McGrath's temp track went into the movie. "I throw in a little smarmy Charlton Heston, maybe some Peter Graves every once in a while.
"We're trying to get the series as close as we can to movie quality. It takes place in kind of a parallel universe to the movie with the penguins back in the zoo with their command center hidden under their enclosure. King Julien and [his lemur cohorts] Maurice and Mort are there as a foil for the penguins. We get a lot of fun out of Skipper and Julien's different perspectives on life." While Borat fans may be disappointed to learn that Futurama voice actor Danny Jacobs will take over from Sacha Baron Cohen as Julien in the series, McGrath said that "Eric, myself and Mireille [Soria, a producer on both Madagascar movies] consult with the show and review all the scripts and animatics."
And what of Madagascar 3, announced months before the new film's release and due out in 2011? "It would be nice to get them back to New York," commented the directors of their animal stars, "and find out how the city is different for them now that they've gone around the world. We have some secret plot lines as to what they go through -- there are still some places they might have to travel to before they get back to New York."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.