Animation: Not Just A Push of a Button

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008

All told, "Madagascar," and its sequel, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," took 400 people 8 1/2 years to make.

But back to back, the two movies wouldn't even take three hours to watch.

"The trick of these movies for the filmmaker is that they have to create this sort of fun, energetic experience, but the actual process of making it is anything but," said Ben Stiller, who does the voice of Alex the lion. "It's very, very painstaking."

Directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who led the production efforts on both movies, talked to us from their Los Angeles offices about what that process entails.

The beginning:"With animation, it often just starts with a good idea, concept," McGrath explains. In this instance it was the thought of zoo animals with New Yorker attitudes being asked to survive in the wild.

Next the writers work with storyboard artists to illustrate an outline of the movie as if it were a giant comic book. Before any animation has begun, actors are brought into recording studios to give voice to the characters. "We're lucky enough, especially in these 'Madagascar' films, to be working with some of the best people in the industry, who are not only great actors, but great comedians and improvisers and filmmakers," Darnell says. "And they then become a part of creating their characters."

The long, long middle: It's the job of computer wizards and artists to basically build an entire digital universe for the characters and the story. Once a style is refined (in this case, the directors were inspired by Warner Bros. classics such as Loony Tunes) the technical team creates the first digital version of the setting and its characters. Animators will come in later to breathe life into that world. Even something as seemingly simple as making sure the grass moves away when a zebra walks through a field requires some of the movie's most sophisticated technical work.

Once the digital environment is constructed, animators get to work. They often use video of themselves acting out scenes, in addition to video of the actors recording each line, as springboards for animation. Which explains how you get a group of animators strapped into an upside-down couch replicating how a lion's mane might behave in a crashing airplane.

"People say, 'Oh, it's a computer, just push a button and it happens.' But it's not," Darnell says. "A computer has no humanity and would have no idea how to get these gestures and performances out of the characters. Each animator can typically, on average, do five or six seconds of animation a week."

The end: Once the animation is complete, the filmmakers edit the movie as they would a live-action film. Actors are asked to record new lines and rerecord old ones to fit new versions of scenes.

A musical score, special effects and lighting are painstakingly added to give elements of the animated world an authentic sheen.

The whole endeavor "becomes a very artistic, creative, technical challenge," Darnell says. "By the time we're finished, Tom and I look at each other and go, 'How the heck did we do this?' "

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