Spotlight On: Eric Darnell

Close up of co-director and writer of the Madagascar trilogy, Eric Darnell.

Co-director and writer of the Madagascar trilogy, Eric Darnell.

In celebration of DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition, we thought we’d ask our friends at the world’s largest animation studio to give their insights into their journey from sketch to screen.

Eric Darnell directed DreamWorks Animation’s first computer animation film Antz with his partner, Tim Johnson. He then teamed up with Tom McGrath to direct and co-write the first three films in the Madagascar series. He is currently directing a film starring the Penguins from the Madagascar movies with his partner Simon Smith, which is scheduled for release in 2015.

How did you begin your career at DreamWorks Animation?
I started out my career at Pacific Data Images (PDI) in Northern California doing primarily TV commercials. I found my way to DreamWorks after I decided to move from client based service work to entertainment. In less than a year DreamWorks partnered with PDI and I was back in the Northern California to direct Antz with Tim Johnson.

Where do you get your inspiration?
In my line of work I deal with many talented specialists – actors, animators, composers, writers, designers, cinematographers, technicians and more. I’ve found that to be an effective director it is very helpful to be inclined to find inspiration anywhere and everywhere – movies, music, books, photography, fine art, science, history, language, relationships, etc. You name it.

Can you describe your typical work day?
The title “Director” can be taken very literally. All the specialists who work on these films are perfectly capable of doing something wonderful without me telling them how to do their job. But the work probably wouldn’t add up to anything if there was no way to coordinate everyone’s efforts. So in a sense, my role is simply to move from one department to the next making sure that everyone is heading in the same direction – that we are all making the same movie.

Animated movie making is a grand collaboration. Rarely am I doing one thing for more than an hour or so. It’s meeting after meeting, working with each of the many departments that are busy with the job of making the film. This means time in editorial looking at the cut, time with animators discussing the physical performance of the characters, time with Production Designers, the cameramen, the effects artists, and the list goes on.

On rarer days I may be travelling somewhere to record one of our voice actors, or meeting with Hans Zimmer at his studio in Southern California to listen to his latest compositions for the film.

If you had to choose the most memorable experience from working on the Madagascar films, what would it be?
The first time we showed the movie to a real audience the film ended, the credits started to roll and many of the kids in the audience spontaneously got up and started dancing to the “Move It” song. It was a surprise and a relief to see how we had so effectively connected with the audience. That was a pretty satisfying moment for me.

What’s the key message to take from the Madagascar trilogy?
All the films had their own thematic tent-pole. The first movie focuses on civility and savagery. The second film is about not letting others dictate the sort of person (or lion) you were going to be. The third film concentrates on the importance of honesty and selflessness.

But, ultimately, our primary goal with all the films was simply to allow people laugh and have a good time

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Madagascar (2005), artist Yoriko Ito. Courtesy DreamWorks Animation.

How do you juggle writing, directing and acting in the films?
Directing is all about juggling. Not just juggling the writing and the acting, but all the other components that go into a film.

Writing and acting are smaller components of the larger job of directing. Whether Tom and I were writing the script pages ourselves or working with the many talented writers we partnered with, we, along with our producing partners, Mireille Soria and Mark Swift, were always concerned with two primary things – story and character.

I think of the director’s job as the caretaker of the story and the characters in that story. You must know your story and characters inside and out. This is how you insure that everyone making the movie is making the same movie. And this is how you find the best way for the characters in the film to move through their stories.

Armed with this knowledge we collaborate with the writers and the actors (and the rest of the creative team) to make sure the writing, acting and all the other components of the film blend into a unified whole.

Can you give us a rundown of your co-writing process?
We like to start with an idea – something that anybody can understand. Something that makes you say to yourself, “That’s a story I want to tell. That’s a movie I want to see.” In the case of Madagascar the “big idea” is something like: “What if you took four civilized New Yorkers and dumped them into the savage jungle? How would they survive? And what if these civilized New Yorkers happened to be animals – residents of the Central Park Zoo?”

Once we have the idea, the key “creatives” for the movie get in a room together. This could include producers, directors, writers, story artists and development execs. Together we plot out the story. The short description of the idea becomes a few page description of the story we want to tell. The few page description becomes a 10 page treatment, which is expanded into a larger outline.

Then we’ll go through the outline and start to lock down the scenes. This process can take weeks, or even months – all before anyone has written a single page of the script.

Only when we really feel that we know the characters and the story do we start writing the script. Of course, if we think we know exactly how our script is going to end up, we are deluding ourselves. The detail of story and character has changed dramatically on every film I have worked on. Sometimes the resulting movie is almost nothing like the first script.

In the case of Tom and me, we might each take a scene and then toss it back and forth, each adding ideas, editing ideas out, trudging off in new directions. The back and forth process continues until we feel we are ready for feedback. From there, Mireille, Mark and others offer their input, then more writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and… you get it.

In fact, we never stop writing, even when we are in production. There is never a “locked” script. If we have the time to make it better, we will. And it seems there is always an opportunity to make the movie better. Eventually we just run out of time and/or money. As Leonardo daVinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

How are technological advancements impacting the DreamWorks Animation filmmaking process?
More, better, faster. When I started in the computer animation industry in 1990 it was pretty imperative that you could program in a computer language like C++. Things are very different today. The computers have gotten more powerful and the software has gotten better and more intuitive, opening up this creative tool to many more users. And perhaps most importantly, the creative talent that has grown up with the industry is more talented and experienced than ever.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a career in filmmaking and animation?
The best way to get a job in the arts is to have something to show for yourself. Everybody wants to be judged by what they believe they are capable of doing, but usually the world is going to judge you by what you have already accomplished.

So just make films. Anybody can make a film these days. Anybody can buy some inexpensive animation software and do incredible animation on a home computer, as long as that individual has a degree of talent and, most importantly, put in the time and effort.  I’ve never met any truly successful filmmaker (genius or not) who didn’t work incredibly hard to find their success.

Can you give us any hints about what to expect from The Penguins of Madagascar film?
You know if it’s the Penguins, it has got to be funny. 

Check out Kendal Cronkhite (Production Designer), Tom McGrath & Eric Darnell (Directors) discuss the different worlds explored throughout the Madagascar films and how exploring real locations helped designers caricature the Madagascar world more realistically.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition runs from Thursday 10 April – Sunday 5 October 2014. 

Check out the full program of events and don’t forget to visit our ACMI DreamWorks Online Hub for exclusive behind-the-scenes videos, concept art, articles and insight into the world’s largest animation studio. 

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