A jungle’s classic roots

Special to The Times

It all started in the wild.

The filmmakers behind “Madagascar” turned to beloved ‘50s and ‘60s animators like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera, and to period children’s books to imbue their characters -- a hippo, zebra, giraffe and lion that find themselves stranded on the island of Madagascar after busting out of the Central Park Zoo -- with a retro, cartoony look. To create the backdrops against which the story played out, they dug deeper into the art world. For the look of New York, the crew studied the works of contemporary realist painter John Register and children’s book illustrator Michael Sowa. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz was another source for the look of the city at night.

But first, before any of that, filmmaker Eric Darnell braved the jungle.

Darnell, who co-directed the newest animated comedy from DreamWorks with Tom McGrath, studied actual Malagasy plants and photos of them, especially those by German photographer Karl Blossfeldt, known for shooting plants in extreme, beautifully geometric close-ups.

For the bigger picture, Darnell turned to Henri Rousseau, the turn-of-the-(last)-century artist best known for his large, naive jungle paintings.


“The thing about Rousseau that struck me was how he organized plants,” Darnell said. “He still created a very exotic jungle in the paintings that he did, but there was a formality to it, and a composition, in the way things were structured within the frame, that was exciting to me.”

In those early stages, studying Rousseau’s style helped the animators come up with a way to take the complexity of a jungle and simplify it for the computer. For Kendal Cronkhite, the production designer responsible for the look of everything on-screen, Rousseau’s style -- his colorful palette and well-organized spaces -- was particularly well-suited to the needs of the film.

“We knew we had this kind of quirky, New York-style comedy,” Cronkhite said. “Jungles used in films are usually claustrophobic, mysterious and frightening. We needed a jungle that was exotic, very different from New York, obviously, but also really friendly and colorful. And Rousseau was perfect for that, because he kind of has this childlike view of a jungle.”

She added, “Rousseau always considered himself a realist painter, but he had actually never been to a jungle in his life. I think that’s why the work has a naive quality to it.”


But the work also provided a basic challenge -- taking the look of Rousseau’s two-dimensional art and creating 3-D computer animation. So Cronkhite and company painted the characters onto copies of the paintings as practice, to see where the problems would lie and how to fix them.

“That told us a lot about the environment,” Cronkhite said. “And then from there we built our own style.”


They kept much of Rousseau’s palette, his compositional structure, and some of the plants. They then turned to their other stylistic motivation: classic cartoons.

Up until this point, DreamWorks has mastered “reality and hyper-reality” in animation, said Cronkhite. “[But] we really wanted to make a cartoon. This was the story for it.”

The result was a clean, graphic look for the animals, with hard angles and simple curves, inspired by their favorite cartoonists from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Then the job was to merge the styles so the characters fit into the jungle surroundings.

“[Character designer] Craig Kellman designed the characters without caring one way or another about Henri Rousseau, and that was fine,” said Darnell. “We had to modify our original concepts to make a unified film.”

To that end, they took the clear, defined lines and shapes of the retro style and incorporated it into the organic world of the jungle, making every tree and plant, down to the veins on each leaf, look clean and cartoony.

The resulting environment was still exotic enough to facilitate the characters’ “fish out of water” experience, while remaining a coherent part of the whole.


For all this, though, the filmmakers don’t expect anyone in the audience to recognize the Rousseau influence when the movie opens May 27. But they were grateful for the inspiration.

“It gave us a jumping-off place for the jungle -- that we didn’t have to duplicate Madagascar in a realistic way, that we could do something stylized, and designed, and composed,” said Darnell. “You’ve got to create all this stuff one way or another -- you might as well give it a style.”