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Director Draws on His Love for Old School Animation in 'The Boss Baby'

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(L–R) Elham Sepehrjou, Allison Freeman, Ramsey Ann Naito (producer of The Boss Baby), Gaby Rojo, Fernando Penafiel, Leo Quert, and (in front) Tom McGrath (director of The Boss Baby). Photo courtesy of Fernando Penafiel.

Director Tom McGrath and producer Ramsey Naito won’t be offended if you think their latest animated comedy, The Boss Baby, looks like a throwback to an old Disney movie. They’ll take it as a compliment. McGrath and Naito were recently at 620 Sutter Street to show a large group of animation students clips from The Boss Baby and talk about making the DreamWorks Animation film. They also shared information about their backgrounds and offered advice for students hoping to launch a career in animation.

“I got into animation 30 years ago, before computer animation,” said McGrath, whose hits for DreamWorks include the Madagascar series and Megamind. “Growing up, movies like Lady and the Tramp really inspired me. I loved how artistic they were, how enchanted and magical they were. When Boss Baby came around, I wanted to do something that was more of a throwback to the animation I grew up with instead of something that’s very realistic. I wanted it to feel like you were stepping into a painting, and for the shape language to be very graphic.”

Loosely based on a children’s book with the same name, The Boss Baby is a hilarious story told from the perspective of Tim, a little boy with an overactive imagination, who is less than thrilled by the arrival of his new baby brother. From the moment the baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) rolls up to Tim’s home in a cab—dressed in a suit and wielding a briefcase—it’s clear that he’s in charge. Like many first-borns, Tim resents his sibling for stealing the attention his formerly doting parents once lavished on him. 

“Shortly after Megamind, I was looking around for a new project,” McGrath said. “I’d never seen a baby in a suit and thought it would be a great story for animation. For me, it was also very personal because I was the ‘boss baby’ of my family. I tortured my brother who was two years older than me. We were hard-wired to be competitive—siblings are your best friend and your worst nemesis. As adults, we confide in each other and love each other. This movie is my apology letter to my brother 50 years later.”

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Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

According to McGrath, Baldwin was his only choice to play the baby. Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow voice Tim’s parents; Miles Bakshi, grandson of animated filmmaker Ralph Bakshi—who gave McGrath his first job working on the animated movie Cool World—plays Tim.

“Ralph was the only one besides Disney making animated films at that time, and he was a great mentor to me,” remarked McGrath. “He let me work in every process of the movie. I was able to return the favor and give his grandson his first job.”

Naito was introduced to the world of animation in the mid-nineties while earning an M.F.A. in fine arts at CalArts. “I made a lot of friends who were animators and when we graduated, they all got jobs,” she said. 

Naito wasn’t as lucky with her fine arts degree. So she heeded her animator friends’ advice and got a production assistant position on the animated TV show Duckman. From there, she moved up the ladder, eventually becoming a producer. 

“I didn’t realize at the time how much of an impact the people I went to college [with] would have on me,” she stated. “If I hadn’t gone to CalArts and met those animators, I probably wouldn’t have fallen into animation and met Tom or worked on this film.”

McGrath also stressed the value of college friendships. “A lot of the friends you have now, you’ll probably have through your entire careers,” he said. “The best thing you guys can do is help each other with your projects. You’ll meet more friends, but here in school is where it’s exciting and what will help launch your careers.”

He added that strong collaboration between different departments was vital to making The Boss Baby. To illustrate this point, McGrath showed a series of clips depicting the evolution of a scene from the movie. He compared the process to the old fable about making soup with a stone. The soup starts out as a bland broth but becomes rich and flavorful as different people contribute ingredients.

“The director is the guy with the stone, and you invite people to add to the mix,” McGrath explained. “If you’re close-minded and don’t ask for help, you’ll lose out. The best ideas can come from an editorial assistant or someone emptying wastebaskets.”

Both McGrath and Naito emphasized the need for students to develop their own animation style. They also talked about the challenges and opportunities awaiting them in today’s animation industry.

“When I started out, animation was dead until [Who Framed Roger Rabbit] came along and reinvigorated it,” said McGrath. “But I think we’re at a place again where all of these movies are starting to feel the same and people are losing interest. It’s up to you guys to push things to the next generation, whether in games, virtual reality, films or effects in movies.”