Q&A: DreamWorks Animators

Film producer Ramsey Ann Naito (left) and director Tom McGrath speak to students about developing “The Boss Baby,” an animated comedy about a briefcase-toting baby on a mission to stop an evil CEO. The film is scheduled to be released on March 31. Photo by Robert Johnson | Mercury Staff.

On March 2, director Tom McGrath and producer Ramsey Ann Naito came to UTD for a presentation about the creation of the movie “The Boss Baby,” coming to theaters soon. McGrath and Naito have worked on a variety of films for DreamWorks including “Penguins of Madagascar,” “Shrek 3” and “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.” The Mercury had a chance to sit down with McGrath and Naito to talk about their inspiration for “The Boss Baby” and the creation process.

Q: Where did the idea for “The Boss Baby” come from?

McGrath: It came from a book by Marla Frazee, which is a very popular, award-winning kid’s book. It’s a metaphor about how when a baby comes into your life, as parents, it rules the house. It conducts meetings and it was a great example of babies being a boss. And we just thought it was such a cute idea, seeing a baby in a suit, that we got together early on and thought, “This would be a perfect story for an animation. It would be really original and really unique.”

Q: What was the hardest part about working on the movie?

Naito: Thats such an interesting question because over the course of three years, there is just a long list of challenges that we overcame, and I think we ultimately had a great experience making the film. I think a wonderful thing about making the film was that no matter what we went through, the entire crew was just so committed to the film, and their love and identification with the film and the relatable themes. We got through everything. We overcame every challenge.

McGrath: Theres always a challenge, I think. The hardest part on any film is to try and make a new film, and not use the same tools over and over and over. Even technology is at a place where we could do really funny expressions and they have better tools to do that. Better clothing, with wrinkles and baby fat. What makes DreamWorks such a great place is we are always trying to push the medium farther, and it is never easy because it is easier to just use the same models and rigs that previous movies had. You are always starting from scratch.

Naito: Also, it did occur to me that in our film, we have two looks. We have a fantasy look, and it’s very different than the rest of the film. There were definitely some challenges in terms of what kind of pipeline we were going to use and how we were going to produce this to look exactly how we wanted it to look, which was not this typical CGI realistic look.

Q: If you could attribute your success to one thing, what would it be?

Naito: I would say for me, it’s probably a personal trait of just throwing myself in there, and not being afraid of new experiences, which has attributed to great success, but also some failures, and I think the failures are when I learn the most. I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and the great thing is that I keep throwing myself into these experiences and I keep learning.

McGrath: For me, I would have to say my brother. The film is about my brother and our relationship, really. I was age 10 and my brother was 12 when we got our first Super 8 camera, and we did a business of mowing lawns and washing cars to buy film for this camera. We started watching movies together, and my brother kind of pushed me in that direction and taught me how to use a camera. Once I got to college, I didn’t know how to get into filmmaking. I finally heard of Cal Arts, but at the time I was thinking, “How do you even get into this business?” But I think as a kid, there are certain aspects, whether it be dance or music or theater, that you embrace and it kind of sticks with you. And I think that to pursue that young passion that you had as a kid is a very valuable thing to do because there are a lot of naysayers along the way that say, “That’s too hard to get into.” But persistence is key. When you’re a kid, those early things you’re passionate about can work throughout your whole life if you embrace them.

Q: I noticed that you went with the look of the classic all-American nuclear family. Is there a reason that you went in that direction?

McGrath: Probably just because it came out of the book, and it’s a classic nuclear family, like you said. We wanted “Boss Baby” to look kind of more like an alien. Even the skin color and hair color is quite different. He was supposed to look like an anomaly in this family. We embraced that. Partly because of the book, and you know you could pick any race or nationality or anything like that, but probably because it started in the book so we went with that. But we were very conscious of diversity, especially for telling this story about Baby Corp. where babies are made, and all babies are created equal. We were quite aware of how we wanted to have a broad spectrum of babies from around the world. Whether it’s Asian, African American, Latino, we tried to make Baby Corp. a multinational company.

Naito: I feel like also the ordinary-ness of Tims family kind of helped to contrast how extraordinary his fantasy point of view was. Which is the whole point of view of the film, the authentic lens to the film.

Q: Over the course of the 11 screenings that you guys had, what was the most drastic change that was made?

McGrath: There was so much material that was great. Our first internal screening that we had, when we put the assembly together, was two hours long. We couldn’t possibly make a movie that long. You have to find ways to shrink it. Because we had worked the script so much and found the voices of the characters early and the whole story, we actually started with the end of the movie and worked from there. The story never really changed on a large scale, but scenes changed or scenes were deleted. As you develop the movie, the movie starts to speak to you and tell you what it needs, and also tell you what it doesn’t need. You start to shape things, and you have to lose things that you actually love for the betterment of the movie, but on the whole, what’s great about putting up the movie in front of people — whether its people at work or whatever — is that you can feel it in the room. How people are reacting, and as a director or filmmaker, you can kind of tell where maybe it’s a little too long or things are happening too quick, and you can just make adjustments.

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