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‘The Boss Baby’ Takes Charge

Director Tom McGrath goes for a classic animation style in the new DreamWorks animated comedy.  

Helmed by Tom McGrath, DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby, which hits U.S. theatres March 31st, tells the story of how a new baby's arrival impacts a family, told from the viewpoint of his wildly imaginative seven-year-old brother named Tim Templeton, who quickly discovers that his new brother is actually a secret agent. Scheduled for release March 31, the film stars the voices of Alec Baldwin, Miles Bakshi, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow and Tobey Maguire.

McGrath, who directed Megamind (2010) and co-directed the first three Madagascar films, explained that The Boss Baby was originally going to be a PDI/DreamWorks project. After Megamind, he was looking for a project to develop and the company had recently acquired the rights to the 2010 book of the same name written and illustrated by Marla Frazee. “It was just a simple, 30-page book that was a universal metaphor for how, when a baby comes into a parent’s life, it takes over the house and bosses them around. It’s a really cute book,” he says. Right away he realized, "I haven't seen this in animation before. It might make a really good story."

At that point he started working with screenwriter Michael McCullers, (Austin Powers) to blow it up into a bigger story about sibling rivalry between a kid and his new baby brother. 

“It just felt like at the time there was nothing else even similar to that and there were a lot of things that hadn't been touched in animation and so ideas kept rolling and we really honed down a script,” explains McGrath. “That took about three years before we felt great about the script.”

But in the interim, PDI’s San Francisco facility was shuttered, and amalgamated into DreamWorks in L.A.

“I was worried I wouldn't get to work with a lot of the people I had done four movies with at the time, but they uprooted their families from San Francisco and moved down,” he notes. “My production designer, my art director, head of animation, a lot of supervising animators. So, I felt really lucky and they really felt connected to the movie and they really sacrificed a lot to come down.”

Producer Ramsey Ann Naito explained that she had known McGrath for over 20 years, and that throughout the years they had always talked about working together. “I was so thrilled when Tom sent me this script,” she says. “I was living in New York and moving back to L.A. and when I read the script I thought this movie mirrored my life, because I'm a mother and my first son was seven, just like Tim Templeton, when my second son arrived. So, you could only imagine how relatable the story was for me because I live in a household with tough sibling rivalry and witnessed my son feeling the fear of being replaced or having less love as a result of having this little boss baby around.”

Overall, production lasted about three-and-a-half years and involved over 400 animators.

McGrath explains that stylistically, he was inspired by the works of such artists as Maurice Noble, Iván del Río and Jeff Jones, and how after the realistic style of Megamind, he was looking for a more classical style of animation based on the animated films of the ’60s and ’70s. “I wanted to do a movie that was more of why I got into animation, which was 30 years ago -- more art-driven and feeling like more of an enchanted world to step into,” he says. “That was the stuff I loved animating when I was an animator. And there's a whole wave of new animators that love that style, with much more squash and stretch and character timing.”

The story itself is set somewhere in the ’70s or ’80s, before cellphones and computers. “So we really wanted to go a little more retro to fit the story. It was kind of a period film anyway,” notes the director. “And so we licensed toys from Mattel and Hasbro -- the toys we grew up with. We wanted to make the parents our age feel a little nostalgic.”

According to McGrath, the studio wasn’t necessarily used to animating in the retro style. “So we had to create our own pipeline for some of the fantasy bits in the movie…We actually had to have classes in classic animation from the ’40s and ’50s and look at the ’60s design sensibility, even if it was graphic art, to find the shape language.” He adds that for the animators, production was almost like a school in that sensibility.

McGrath credits Carlos Puertolas, animation director, with helping to teach classical techniques to some of the younger animators. In addition, “David James and Ruben Perez came together to not only push the film towards the style of the golden age of animation, but also teach it. We had to kind of create our own school to teach it,” he notes.

“Anyone who came on the show, we'd show them the beginning of Lady and The Tramp, because it's a simple palette, but it really directs your eye, and then everything on the sidelines, the peripherals would kind of wash out and fall away,” explains McGrath. “We really want to lead the audience around with what we want them to look at. But, that said, you can't just build for one size fits all. We had to be very shot specific, so instead of just surfacing everything to begin with, we actually looked at it through the camera and figured out, ‘Well this is very important to surface, and this isn't.’ And then when we did surface things, we didn't want to feel photographic, so even wood grain was painted by an artist and then mapped onto the surface. We wanted to feel kind of handmade.”

Certain sequences, like depicting a child’s imagination or the pop-up book sequence called for special treatment. Says McGrath, “We kind of created these little mini pipelines so the specific artists could take ownership of those and we'd still have consistency throughout.”

McGrath credits previs director Kent Seki with single-handedly engineering the pop-up book sequence. Andy Schuhler designed all the fantasy sequences.

In terms of technical challenges, McGrath explains that “the jiggle of baby fat was kind of challenging, because every parent knows what that looks like. So we had to have people writing algorithms for how that works.”

Of course, a perennial challenge for animators is clothing. “With the shots, the baby would be in a suit that would have little wrinkles in it,” notes McGrath. “The clothing we'd have in the past was more like skin diving suits, where it felt very rubbery. [In Boss Baby] the kid’s clothes were more asymmetrical, because kids never wear their clothes right and they are always hanging at odd angles.”

He adds that the animators are always trying to push what they can do with hair, but they had to be careful “not to over surface environments, because the difference was like the difference between a realist painter and an impressionist painter.”

Overall the director says that biggest challenge was cutting the film down to its 85-minute running time.

“We had so much fun material,” he says. “Our first internal screening was two hours long and it was entertaining, but then there’s the process of having to whittle down all the material. So, a lot of my favorite scenes are on the DVD extras or went to the wayside, and that was the hardest thing -- that, and trying to do something different than our normal films.”

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.

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