The Penguins Have Landed

Nickelodeon and DreamWorks bring The Penguins of Madagascar to the small screen.

Now that they have won the hearts of audiences around the world with their slap-stick cameos in DreamWorks Animation’s blockbusters Madagascar and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and starred in a holiday special, the action-loving team of penguins have scuttled on to television in Nickelodeon Animation Studio’s new 26 episode series. The Penguins of Madagascar finds Skipper, Rico, Kowalski and Private back where it all began: Central Park Zoo. Their efforts as a crack squad of top secret operatives (in their minds, at least) are often hindered by the antics of King Julien and his lemur subjects. But, justice never rests, and neither do our conniving feathered friends.

‘After the success of Madagascar, DreamWorks Animation was interested in developing the penguins further,’ says creative consultant Tom McGrath, who directed both features, ‘[We] started writing a penguin feature to be a prequel to the Madagascar movies. Central Park Zoo would be their H.Q., and they essentially could go anywhere in the world by mailing themselves via overnight delivery. It opened up a lot of possibilities for story. DreamWorks Animation and Nickelodeon saw it as a potential series with the addition of King Julien.’ When exec producers Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley (Kim Possible, Hercules) came on, the project instantly clicked.

‘The development process was well underway when we came aboard,’ says Schooley, ‘Our first day on the job, a work-in-progress animatic was being screened for the Dream- Works team and the Nickelodeon folks. We were fresh eyes and fresh voices in the process, so everybody was open to our input.’ Mc- Corkle adds: ‘That first episode picked up momentum from that point, then we blinked and we were in full bore production!’

Though the pressure of adapting a feature property for TV, especially in CG, seems daunting, the two studios turned out to be a perfect match: ‘The combination of DreamWorks’ experience in creating the hit movie Madagascar and Nickelodeon’s expertise in creating hit TV shows is a one-two punch,’ muses Nickelodeon’s president of animation, Brown Johnson, ‘Mireille Soria, Tom McGrath [and Eric Darnell], the producer and directors of the features, were amazing partners.’

‘It’s a great relationship,’ McGrath concurs, ‘[Nickelodeon] is very accommodating, considering their tight deadlines!’

Feature Looks on TV Time

There was a time, not long ago, when uttering the words ‘CG animated series’ caused visible wincing in animation fans. Looking at the remarkable quality of Penguins, it’s hard to recall the sometimes painful steps the industry took to bring the magic of feature-quality CG to the tube. But for this crew, aside from schedule adjustments, translating the look of Madagascar was pretty painless.

‘In features, we have two years to make eighty minutes of animation, while they create somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 hours over two seasons of television,’ marvels McGrath. Johnson explains how Nickelodeon’s CG experience has culminated in this new show: ‘Nick Animation Studio currently produces the equivalent of 12 CG-animated features every year. As in any new field, we’ve experienced a huge learning curve,’ she admits, ‘But now, we’ve got the CG machine humming.’ ‘The CG team here at Nickelodeon has set up a creative process and a production process that far exceeds anything that has been done for television in the past,’ notes Mc- Corkle, ‘There is a great deal of control that happens here in Burbank, and there’s a constant back and forth between the team here and the studios overseas.’ Schooley enthuses, ‘The animators have really risen to the challenge. We always see little touches and extra nuances that show how much fun theanimators are having with this project. We have been blown away by the CG work on this series.’ Though the films and characters were created using DreamWorks’ proprietary software, EMO, the studio re-rigged the little guys in Maya to make it easier for Nickelodeon’s animators. McGrath says he is impressed by how well the TV crew was able to adapt the feel of the features, finding ways to simplify highly complex renders like fur, water and large sets while maintaining a superior-quality look.

A key part of this transition was supervising director Bret Haaland (Father of the Pride, Futurama). McCorkle and Schooley describe Haaland, who makes the rounds between directors, storyboarders and CG artists, as ‘part zen genius, part traffic cop.’ ‘Not to mention, the man is the best storyboard pitcher in the business’the man can do any voice!’

One aspect that did provide a challenge was finding a way to differentiate between our stout, two-toned heroes. McGrath says the original designs seemed too ‘homogenous,’ so steps were taken to individualise each bird: ‘For example, their eyes are different colors. Rico was given a spiky plume and a scar. The differences in height are more dramatic, which really helps to quickly distinguish the characters from one another.’

Diving in with the Penguins

No doubt plenty of fans are excited to see the surly group of fowl take their rightful place in the spotlight (a sneak peak drew 14 million viewers last November). And so are the creative gurus behind the move. The new urban setting and the dynamics between penguin and lemur open up a world of possibilities.

‘We play the penguins as very much at home in New York. They can come and go from the zoo as their missions demand. King Julien and the lemurs are new to the city and to the human world in general ‘ So we get to milk comedy out of Julien’s discovery of this new life,’ McCorkle says. ‘Chaos vs. control!” as Johnson punchily sums up. While Julien (voiced by Danny Jacobs) struggles with his king-of-everything mentality, the penguins function as a tight-knit team: Muscle head Rico (Futurama‘s John DiMaggio), brainy Kowalski (Jeff Bennett), courageous Private (Patrick Stuart) and their no-nonsense leader, Skipper. McGrath reflects on the appeal of the former bit-players: ‘There’s something fun in watching little waddling penguins with a Kirk Douglas complex whose ability to overcome the most extreme circumstances far exceeds the tools nature gave them.’

He also notes that in the series format, audiences will get a chance to delve into each critter’s unique POV and particular brand of craziness’leaving open plenty of opportunities for hijinx! Though the mix of loveable characters, adventure and plenty of humor are a classic combination, Penguins is upping the game for TV animation. ‘We can say that we have never worked on show like this before,’ Schooley says proudly, ‘Each episode is scrutinized and revised over and over again. It really is a hybrid of a feature approach and a television approach.’ McCorkle adds that, ‘Even after many drafts of script, we make story changes during the multiple versions of the animatic. Writers, storyboard artists, directors, editor ‘everybody is trying to elevate the material.’

On a show striving for perfection, McGrath has a unique way of relaxing’by reprising his role as penguin-in-chief Skipper! ‘It’s a lot of fun for me to go in an hour a week to record,’ he says, noting that the temptation to bark orders in the manner of a surly sea bird is hard to fight outside the studio. As for the perks of stardom: ‘I never imagined I’d ever hear myself coming out of a Happy Meal toy, but it made my mom happy.’

The Penguins of Madagascar premieres March 28 at 9:30 p.m. on Nickelodeon, then moves into the 10 a.m. slot April 4.