Burb's Eye View: A meeting with a mega mind Tom McGrath

How do you know when you’ve made it? For Burbank’s Tom McGrath, it may have been when Angelina Jolie became starstruck by him.

I met McGrath recently in the Starbucks located on the DreamWorks campus — they don’t like to call it a studio or workplace — on the far end of Flower Street, just inside Glendale’s border with Burbank. For the casual observer, it may have been a competition in who could sit comfiest — two lanky guys in jeans sitting deep in plush coffeehouse chairs, the kind that could put you to sleep faster than the Wizard of Oz’s poppy field if not for the plastic-cupped caffeine bombs amply supplied by the campus barista.

It was the end of a short (too short) tour of the back offices, koi ponds and pool tables that comprise DreamWorks’ 12-acre spread. Seventeen years ago, the property was dirt. Now, 1,675 employees call this home. Seriously — with an on-site medical clinic, free meals, and yoga and martial arts classes, there’s plenty of incentive to “work late.”

As an animator and now director of DreamWorks hits “Megamind” and the “Madagascar” franchise, McGrath enjoys an obscure kind of celebrity status. Only rarely would a person at the grocery store associate his voice with that of Skipper, the leader of Madagascar’s penguin team that launched a TV franchise on Nickelodeon.

Maybe that’s why sitting with him over some Starbucks feels more like chatting with a next-door neighbor whose professional interest in Tex Avery and Bob Clampett art mirrors your personal ones.

It was with similar aplomb that he was first introduced to Angelina Jolie.

The way Tom tells it, they were at the France premiere. She was there with Brad Pitt, who voiced the film’s anti-hero, Metro Man. McGrath was introduced as “Megamind’s” director, and the director of “Madagascar.” But when she heard about Skipper …

“She just stops and looks at me and goes, ‘You didn’t see anything!’” he says in his character’s trademark spyspeak.

He still gets a little starstruck, even in his own neighborhood near Burroughs High School, where he’s lived for the last several years. A friend once showed him a copy of an old “Hardy Boys” episode from the 1950s. There’s the street, complete with houses that look relatively unchanged today. It’s a stark reminder of old-school Hollywood and its influence throughout Burbank’s 100-year history.

In recent years, the neighborhood received another dose of fame. While McGrath and composer Hans Zimmer were working on the score to “Megamind,” they needed a marching band for Metro Man’s grand entrance. The Burroughs band practiced right down the street — and now they’re on the soundtrack.

For an animator whose style follows the expressive and broad comedy of early cartoons, McGrath works in a fast-changing business where the software evolves as fast as animators’ imaginations can dream. The language for 2-D and 3-D animation is the same, he says, but “there’s something enchanted and magical about ink and paint.”

And no matter how real 3-D animation gets, McGrath’s true art is in capturing real life with his own personal spin.

“I think there will always be caricature,” he said. “Life is caricature.”

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not contemplating the DreamWorks koi pond, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.

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