For DreamWorks director Tom McGrath (the “Madagascar” franchise), “The Boss Baby” not only provided a personal story about sibling rivalry and corporate displacement, with Alec Baldwin voicing a Trump-like corporate bully, but also the opportunity to create a separate 2D graphic design for several fantasy sequences.
“I think we’ve forgotten our roots a little bit [with CG],” McGrath told IndieWire. “But since we were doing a movie about a 7-year-old’s imagination, we could be very stylized, very abstract, and very colorful. And we had our heroes of animation from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s to drawn on: Maurice Noble, Mary Blair, Ward Kimball, and Chuck Jones.”
After dabbling in a 2D sequence for “Madagascar 3,” McGrath experimented further with 2D environments inside the mind of his protagonist, Tim Templeton (voiced by Tobey Maguire as an adult and Miles Christopher Bakshi as a child). As part of the setup, we view a series of imaginary adventures featuring the happy family triangle (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow voice his parents).
These fantasies were inspired by the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes shorts featuring goofy, daydreaming kid Ralph Phillips. “The hardest moments to pull off were the fantasies,” added producer Ramsey Naito, who worked at Cartoon Network prior to DreamWorks. “And we pushed alternate realities where he’s empowering himself or faced with a heroic moment. And they ended up going through the same pipeline as our character animation, but in terms of the designs and the backgrounds, they went through a different process.”
The hybrid look was overseen by Andy Schuler (“Kung Fu Panda”), the fantasy sequences supervisor, who came up with his own workflow. “I’d model my shots in modo and do quick projection paintings in Nuke and we would send that to our layout department and previs and they’d give me final camera,” he said.
The fantasies were strung together early on as mini-movie chain of events, commencing with a spinning globe in homage to the iconic Universal logo, which is now the parent company of DreamWorks. Then it segues into encounters in a jungle, in outer space, and inside a shark (similar to Monstro, the whale in “Pinocchio”), among others.
The jungle excursion was first designed in black-and-white to make it more like “King Kong,” but the rich suffusion of colors was too tempting.
The first sequence that Schuler tackled turned out to be the simplest: a hallway ninja fight in silhouette. A “Moby Dick” riff as Ahab on the ocean (done in Houdini to get simulated splashes to look graphic), however, became the most challenging.
“This is where the industry is headed in trying to figure out a way to empower artists to create the frame that the audience is seeing,” director McGrath suggested. “And it introduces auteurs into the system.”