Creating ‘Simple’ ‘Boss Baby’ Was Harder Than It Looks

Tom McGrath and Ramsey Naito

For those who lament that Hollywood doesn’t have any original ideas anymore, you really should see DreamWorks’ The Boss Baby as it is not a sequel and is not based on a franchise. However, the story was inspired by the Marla Frazee’s picture book of the same name and despite what you have seen in the TV commercials, the end product is a lot more clever.

The Boss Baby is about Tim, a seven (and a half) year-old whose life is tossed upside down by his over-active imagination when his new baby brother arrives and begins to take over in his home. The movie goes back and forth on what is really happening and what Tim imagines is happening.

If you are of a certain age, you’ll notice that the animation style of The Boss Baby has a familiar, yet “old school” type of look to it. To me, it has the look of a Warner Bros. animated short made from the 1960’s and as I found out in my interview with Director Tom McGrath and Producer Ramsey Naito, this was on purpose.

“There is a lot of old school [in this picture] by design,” Tom tells me. “This film seemed like it needed to have a lot of charm and we thought this this was the perfect opportunity to do what animation does best – making it more artistically driven instead of striving for realism.”

McGrath, whose animation credits include DreamWorks’ the Madagascar films and Megamind, tells me that just because The Boss Baby has a simpler look to it, doesn’t mean that it was simpler to pull off.

“If you study art, [you know that] there is a realist movement and the impressionist movement. With the realist movement, you don’t know where to look on the screen or on a painting because everything is so highly detailed. Impressionists lead your eye to where it should look. It’s simple because it’s really about strong design and shape language because you can’t pepper it with a bunch of details to hide a … I don’t want to say a poor design, but it’s more forgiving that way.”

The Boss Baby has what McGrath calls a very Maurice Noble-ist look to it, especially during the fantasy sequences. Noble was an animator with his own style that was used frequently in many of the Chuck Jones’ directed Warner Bros. cartoons including the Road Runner and Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, a look that is not used much in today’s animated world.

“The challenge of that is that most people are not used to being so simple, so we had to really study that design principle from the 50’s and 60’s with graphic design and we also had to do it in stereo because it is not just a flat image, which was kind of a technical challenge to make it look right,” says Tom. “We did a little on Madagascar, but we didn’t have the tools to do a really good squash and stretch. We actually developed a lot of tools for a baby to have his cheek jiggle and the animators [we have] now are really savy. We are all fans of old school animation and we all put in what we loved about animation into this movie.”

Despite what you’ve heard, today’s animators still do a lot of the work by hand, at least in the beginning.

“When we start the movie, we are drawing the whole movie by hand with storyboards,” says Tom. “And that the secret of animation is making the movie before you actually make it to make sure that it’s working. Out of all of the drawings that you make, you end up only using the best twenty percent out of everything that is created. And for just good design, it’s good to be graphic and design the character and sets on paper and then take them to the computer to model them. So, we still go old school with it.”

And today’s animation process isn’t really any faster.

“I think that there are some innovations that make certain steps a little faster…but this movie took between three and six years to make depending on how you break it down starting from development through delivery of picture,” says Naito.

“And Ramsey’s right,” says Tom. “There are great tools that allow the animators to actually see what they are doing quicker with render times, but the artistic process of people putting the art into it is always going to be the time to what humans can do. Computers are a tool. They are just a pen or pencil. It’s always the people behind that tool that needs the time to make it great.”

“Absolutely,” Ann agrees. “The right person behind the tool really mattered on this film because there is a misconception that because this film was so designed that perhaps it was easier to make because it wasn’t realistic and it some ways it was much harder because of the design language and teaching people this design language it was point of focus for Tom throughout the whole process.”

Cartoons and animation has certainly changed over the years and while some great advances have been done, some the charm of animation has worn off at times. We talked a little bit about how Pixar’s Toy Story changed the industry. He explained how “sexy’ CGI was when it began and how all animators begin to emulate and wanted to rotoscope real life. In his opinion, a few lost their way.

“The thing about Toy Story is that the toys looked realistic, but the movement was cartoony. That’s the secret ingredient to all fun animation is to caricature real life. It has its own set of timing and its own set of rules and an exaggeration process which is kind of a lost art.”

Tom started toying with the idea of The Boss Baby right after Megamind was released in 2010. The plan at that time was to get started working on Madagascar 3, but since the studio was still in the story-building stage, his thoughts went elsewhere – to Marla Frazee’s book.

“It was a great idea – it’s a perfect metaphor for a baby,” says Tom. “Any parent knows that a baby takes over and it is the boss and that just seemed like a great idea to launch a world in an animated film from an original story that you can only tell in animation.” It was an original idea because at the time, nobody else was making movies about babies or the struggle children go through when a new sibling comes into the family. But that was just the start for this picture. He began to think what if there was a “war” between babies and puppies? Who would win? He and his group worked on real world conceits. “We did look up that there are 1.2 million puppies born in the world each day while there are only 360,000 babies born each day, so if you do the math, people are screwed. In a way, [this story] is like a war between Apple and Microsoft…”

“Or Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi,” adds Ramsey.

“So this subplot was this sort of espionage was sort of fun and gave this baby a mission.”

Finally, the three of us got around to talk about the actor’s voicing the characters in The Boss Baby. Since we were talking about “old school” animation, I asked if they thought that there was a difference between today’s well-known actors voicing roles compared to what I thought were more lessor known actors used in older movies.

“No, because I think just because we didn’t know them didn’t mean that they weren’t very well known,” says Tom. “I’m a fan of old radio. Hans Conried (who voiced Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan) was a famous radio actor. Mel Blanc (who voiced Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and others) was a famous radio actor. They were celebrities [chosen] because their voices were very unique.”

And while some studios have been known for “stunt-casting” famous actors to voice roles in hopes that the name alone will be enough to draw in movie-goers, DreamWorks and other studios still strive to find the right actors with the right voices to fill the roles.

“When we cast our movies, we have to really listen to the voice qualities,” says Tom. “Jimmy Kimmel isn’t an actor, but he has a great voice. He was like, ‘But I’m not an actor.’ But you are a father. You know how to be a father and how to play a father. And Lisa Kudrow is a really unique voice and is a great actor and Steve Buscemi and Alec [Baldwin] is like a 300 year old cello that has such a bandwidth that was just fantastic…”

“Who was very influenced by Mel Blanc by the way,” add Ramsey.

“And having worked with him on Madagascar 2, he played this smaller part that was just so funny and great that it was like, he’s got to be the star of something and this just became the perfect piece for him,” says Tom.

“And what I think is very interesting is he voice quality. It’s like Miles Bakshi, who plays [seven-year-old] Tim Templeton. He was someone who came in to audition for us and had very little training, but the authenticity of his voice and the slushiness of his voice…

“He didn’t sound like an actor,” interjects Tom.

Incidentally, Miles is the grandson of Ralph Bakshi of Terrytoons fame who once created Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle cartoons for CBS. “Ralph gave me my first job in the business, so it was great to return the favor and give Miles, his grandson, his first job,” says McGrath. But there is more to the story.

“What makes the world even smaller is that Jean Bakshi is my best friend and she is Mile’s mother and miles is my son’s best friend,” adds Ramsey.

“But it was really the quality of his voice and the authenticity of it that really sold it,” says Tom.

The Boss Baby opens in theaters on Friday, March 31, 2017.

(Main Images: IMDB and DreamWorks)

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