Tuxes with squarepants

Times Staff Writer

Atop the Nickelodeon studios in Burbank is a larger-than-life cavalcade of the cable network’s signature animated characters. SpongeBob SquarePants is up there. So is Dora the Explorer, as well as a handful of others. Joining them soon, hope the network’s executives, will be Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private -- the raucously comic penguins from the DreamWorks Animation film “Madagascar.”

Thanks to their Viacom Inc. owners, the two entertainment powerhouses are teaming up to produce a new computer-generated animated comedy series for television that spins off the half-billion-dollar worldwide grossing success of the DreamWorks film. In the kind of synergy other corporations may wish upon a star for, the new series, whose working title is “Penguins,” is slated to premiere in early 2009 -- just a few months after the sequel, “Madagascar: The Crate Escape,” hits thousands of theaters nationally.

For Nickelodeon, the new series is part of a major ramp-up in production at the already humming animation studio. Next year, the 28-year-old company is poised to crank out some 225 half-hour cartoons, an increase in its animation of nearly 50% -- a total that bulks up the output of the nation’s largest producer of TV animation. The expansion also represents a broader network strategy to maintain its enviable winning streak as the No. 1-rated cable company for nearly 14 years -- a feat performed in the face of increasing competition from other entertainment outlets, notably crosstown rival Disney.

Of the more than 40 original animated series the studio has launched since 1991, few have come with bigger expectations than are now being carried by the quartet of wisecracking penguins. Nickelodeon is no doubt looking for the kind of phenomenal success it has enjoyed with “SpongeBob,” “Dora” and “Rugrats,” which together have raked in billions of dollars in product sales.

Even though SpongeBob and Dora debuted before the millennium, both are still going strong, but like the Rugrats before them, they are not invulnerable to the shifting viewing habits of their core 2- to 11-year-old audience. In short, the studio could certainly use another franchise hit, one that a schedule can be built around -- and the wobbly little penguins just may make that kind of splash.


“These movies from Pixar and DreamWorks are very, very popular with kids and families, and Nickelodeon is very smart to capitalize on it,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst at the ad firm Horizon Media in New York. “I think they’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s just give the kids what they want.’ ”

But what about all those other penguins swimming around the cultural soup in recent years? Remember “March of the Penguins,” “Surf’s Up” and “Happy Feet”? And don’t forget the trendy kids’ website Club Penguin.

“We had them first,” joked Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation. “These penguins are the ones that lead the pack.”

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon, expressed confidence too: “I know, at first blush, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, more penguins!’ But to quote Jeffrey, if everyone in the room thinks something is funny, you’re on to something.”

Though there will be minor adjustments here and there, the penguins will largely look, talk and act the same way they did in DreamWorks’ hit movie. The challenge, of course, will be converting side characters into compelling main ones. In the movie, the penguins, who fancy themselves as a CIA-style strike force, were simply trying to bust out of Central Park Zoo and return to Antarctica -- only to be sidetracked to Madagascar.

But in the TV show, the four will effectively rule the zoo -- Julien, King of the Lemurs, and his extensive entourage will be there to muss their feathers -- and mostly stay within New York City when embarking on their top-secret missions.

“They’re almost like four brothers; they’re like the Marx Brothers,” said Katzenberg. “They can take the littlest thing and blow it completely out of proportion, and it’s just hilarious.”

The seeds for the collaboration were sown in December 2005 when Viacom snatched up DreamWorks for $1.5 billion. Shortly thereafter, the two giants of children’s entertainment were searching for the appropriate project on which to collaborate, Katzenberg said.

After running through a number of creative options, the spunky penguins who managed to steal some of the limelight in the star-studded movie won out.

In fact, the penguins project is the first joint animation effort between the two companies, but more are coming. They are already at work on another television spinoff from DreamWorks’ upcoming “Kung Fu Panda,” which is scheduled for release in June 2008. The animated movie stars Jack Black as a chunky panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master.

Though the two companies are under the same corporate umbrella, that didn’t mean one wouldn’t be left out in the rain when it came to creative decisions. Initially, it seemed as if DreamWorks, which after all invented the characters, was going to call the shots, but the relationship hasn’t turned out as expected.

“It’s been a 180-degree reversal for us,” Katzenberg said. “We originally thought that we were going to take a very hands-on approach, but we were just blown away by their creative team. We’re really acting as advisors and consultants.”

Likewise, Nickelodeon executives had no less praise for DreamWorks.

“It’s almost a perfect marriage since we’ve led the surge on the TV side and they’ve led it on the feature-film side,” said Mark Taylor, Nickelodeon’s senior vice president. “I think they’ve been appreciative that we’ve taken what they’ve done and embraced it as opposed to trying to find a way to do it different, faster, cheaper or whatever.”

A good working relationship helps Nickelodeon sharpen another potentially formidable weapon in its seemingly eternal struggle against Disney. The company with mouse ears, which has its own block of highly successful kids’ animated programming, has been making particular gains against Nickelodeon in the so-called “tween” demographic (kids from the ages of 9 to 14).

In fact, until a recent NFL matchup, it was Disney’s smash “High School Musical 2" that held the record for most viewers for a single program on basic cable. In August, the Friday night premiere drew 17.2 million viewers but was eclipsed by last week’s New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game on ESPN -- also owned by Disney -- that logged 17.5 million viewers.

Nickelodeon executives believe the new penguin series will pack on competitive muscle for the network not only with its likable story lines, but also with its rich and vividly detailed CG (computer-generated) presentation.

The network plans to generate more CG content than ever next year, when the technique will account for about a quarter of its total animation production, including the shows “Tak and the Power of Juju” and “Back at the Barnyard.”

In all, the company expects to deliver 29 hours of CG shows -- a figure that is the equivalent of about 19 feature films.

Just because computers help deliver a visually stunning result doesn’t mean the process is easy.

“Computers don’t really animate anything,” said Josh Book, Nickelodeon’s creative director of CG animation. “The choices the computer makes are never the ones you’d want either artistically or creatively. It still comes down to going in frame by frame and putting things where you want them.

“At the end of the day, the computer is a tool,” Book added. “It’s just like a pencil, but it’s a very smart pencil.”

Although inheriting the DreamWorks characters eases the load for Nickelodeon’s CG animation team, it still takes a week to build a single character, and a single episode takes 44 weeks to complete.

“At any one time here, you can have 40 different episodes in production at varying stages,” Taylor said. “It’s a real logistical juggling act.”