The Bad Guys – From Scholastic Book Series To Big Screen Action

Packed with high-octane energy and sharp cultural references, The Bad Guys represents a bold, stylish, new artistic direction for DreamWorks Animation.

The Bad Guys successfully tweaks the heist genre for families and commits to it with energy and cool embedded in everything,” says DreamWorks Animation’s new president, Margie Cohn. “The nonstop energetic pace; innovative, gorgeous production design; cartoony elements in pristine CG animation; lighting; score; our perfect cast—it adds up to an immersive experience with a tone, unlike any other animated movie.” 

The face on the $100 banknote in the film is of DreamWorks Animation president Margie Cohn.

Margie Cohn

The Bad Guys originated as a Scholastic book series from Australian author Aaron Blabey, which multiple studios were looking to option in 2017

Aaron Blabey is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author with around 30 million books in print. He is the creator of three globally popular book series—The Bad Guys, Pig the Pug and Thelma the Unicorn. His series The Bad Guys has spent well over 100 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list.

“I knew the book series was a big deal in Australia, but I had no idea if they would work here in the United States,” says producer Damon Ross, who, at the time, was a senior development executive for DreamWorks. “Aaron flew into town to meet with all the interested parties, and we did our song and dance about why DreamWorks was the right place for The Bad Guys. My commitment to him was, ‘We are going to make the movie a book-plus experience’—that is, capture the essence and the spirit of the book series, while at the same time elevating them so that the characters, story and world appeal beyond just kids.”

In the new action-comedy from DreamWorks Animation, based on The New York Times best-selling book series, a crackerjack criminal crew of animal outlaws are about to attempt their most challenging con yet—becoming model citizens. After years of countless heists and being the world’s most-wanted villains, the gang is finally caught, Mr. Wolf brokers a deal (that he has no intention of keeping) to save them all from prison: The Bad Guys will go good. Under the tutelage of their mentor Professor Marmalade an arrogant (but adorable!) guinea pig, The Bad Guys set out to fool the world that they’ve been transformed. Along the way, though, Mr. Wolf begins to suspect that doing good for real may give him what he’s always secretly longed for: acceptance. So, when a new villain threatens the city, can Mr. Wolf persuade the rest of the gang to become…The Good Guys?

About a year and a half into developing the material, DreamWorks brought on screenwriter Etan Cohen to adapt the books

“Aaron and I both had Etan in mind from the beginning,” Ross says. “He wrote Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy, as well as Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa for DWA, so he had experience in animation and working with us, plus he had written these big, iconic adult comedies. We had a strong instinct that he would respond to the silliness and character comedy of the books and have the mindset to elevate it all and bring it to a bigger platform.” Not a direct adaptation of the first book in the series, Cohen’s script incorporated elements from the first four Bad Guys books.

Damon Ross

During the development of The Bad Guys, Damon Ross had been working with filmmaker Pierre Perifel on another project, which was then on hiatus. Then, one day, Perifel came into Ross’ office and pulled out a sketch of the core gang of Bad Guys.

Rather than mimicking Blabey’s designs from the books, he had drawn his own interpretation. “It was fantastic!” Ross says. “Pierre truly captured the heart and soul of Aaron’s characters and designs. I gave Pierre the script and we talked about it a bit, and then he came back to me and said, ‘I want to do a trailer.’ I replied, ‘What? How are you going to do that?!’ He said, ‘I’ve been watching a lot of trailers for action-heist movies online. I’m just going to piece it together from the script.’”

After a few weeks, Perifel showed Ross a loose outline. “Then he started drawing and drawing, and it all started to come into focus,” Ross says. “Pierre was already a supremely talented and seasoned animator and was looking for his first solo-directing gig. He knew that to earn that role he’d have to prove himself and do the work. So he locked himself away for five or six weeks and storyboarded a professional-looking trailer. It had never been done before at the studio. He literally broke the mould.”

For the director, even the briefest moments in life can spark mountains of inspiration. “The day I laid eyes on the cover of ‘The Bad Guys’ is one of those,” Perifel says. “A Wolf, a Shark, a Snake and a Piranha in black suits, lining up against an orange backdrop. There was a clarity, a genius simplicity in how it encapsulated a big idea while making it incredibly appealing and wickedly fun, and Etan Cohen had managed to capture the characters and the tone of the books in such a delightful way that it became instantly obvious these bad guys had to become movie stars.”  

Perifel wanted to animate them in a way that defied expectation. “The world in which Mr. Wolf and the gang were evolving was crying for a twist on what classic CG animation films were usually delivering,” Perifel says. “In it, I saw the imagery of Steven Soderbergh, Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino; I saw the action maestri of Japanese anime and the graphic silliness of the French graphic novels I had grown up with—all the way to the heist soundtracks and the cool, jazzy swagger of British films. It was all there, and it was delightful.”

Pierre Perifel
Screenwriter Etan Cohen is known for penning such films as Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Men in Black 3.

As the project gained momentum, Ross met with producer Rebecca Huntley, who was then an associate producer on DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby and a co-producer on Abominable. “I had known Rebecca for years,” Ross says, “but we’d never worked directly together. Rebecca had an interest in being more involved creatively, and I was looking to better understand the nuts and bolts of physical production. We agreed that ‘I’m going to learn from you, and you’re going to learn from me.’ It was the perfect dynamic/partnership—I would bring one set of skills and experiences to the table, and she would bring another, and together we would fill out the full picture of a producer team.”

The project was exhilarating for both of them, but not without its challenges. “There was a lot that was new and different on the film that we needed to figure out artistically,” Huntley says. Perifel’s vision was to create a look for this film that was quite different from other DreamWorks movies and other animated movies in the marketplace. “He wanted it to have more of an illustrative quality—stylized, pushed, a unique mixture of 2D and 3D elements inspired by anime and European animation,” Ross says. These included the work of Akira Toriyama, Hayao Miyazaki, Laurent & David Nicolas, Pozla, Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner.

“One of the draws of DreamWorks is that you get to push your artistic boundaries,” producer Huntley says. “You get to stretch as an artist because you’re not doing the same thing show to show. We all want to be able to grow. Being able to do that on each film gives us the opportunity to do work that looks and feels different. It broadens our artists and gives them a greater repertoire of artistic knowledge.”

The Bad Guys would broaden them in a multitude of ways. “One of the first big tasks was to pull together a brief ‘look test’ that would illustrate—or at least approximate—the design style we were going for. That was a six- or eight-week process, and it yielded about a 90-second test. We ended up playing it in front of our first full screening in the DreamWorks campus theater, and it played like gangbusters.”

The Bad Guys took a total of six years to make (two-three years of development / and three years of production), requiring 268,987 individual storyboard panels and a crew of 423 people. The film’s artists collaborated across four countries: United States, United Kingdom, France and Canada.

The film’s opening diner scene, inspired by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, is the longest one-shot in DreamWorks Animation history, at 2 minutes, 25 seconds and 7 frames.

© Dreamworks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Bringing The Characters To Life

Unlike with most animated films, the stars of The Bad Guys often recorded their voice work together. “That is unusual for animation,” producer Rebecca Huntley says. “Typically, it’s an isolating process where actors come in, they perform their lines, and they don’t interact with other performers. Live-action actors are used to playing off another actor, so actually giving them that opportunity in animation is refreshingly different. It’s allowed them to give more natural delivery. The exchange between the characters feels a little more honest, genuine and playful.”

Sam Rockwell (Mr. Wolf) and Marc Maron (Mr. Snake) recorded together at least five or six times, as did Rockwell with Zazie Beetz (Diane Foxington). “Recording actors together in the same booth can be tricky from a technical standpoint,” producer Damon Ross says.

“They tend to overlap their lines, making it nearly impossible to get a clean read—but once we pivoted to virtual records, our actors recorded from different locations (often their homes or apartments), which meant their audio feeds were being recorded on separate tracks. There was no way for them to overlap their lines, which meant we could encourage them to play off each other and riff whenever they felt inspired. We got some truly great and memorable unscripted lines from this process.”

The actors recorded their voice work over 80 sessions, 69 of which took place remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

© Dreamworks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Writer and Director

Director and screenwriter ETAN COHEN (Executive Producer/Screenplay by) is known for penning such films as Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Men in Black 3. His television credits include Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, for which he won the Annie Award for Best Writing in Animated Television. His directorial debut, Get Hard, which he wrote with Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, starred Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart. Cohen received the Comedy Writer of the Year Award at the 2009 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. In addition to The Bad Guys, Cohen has upcoming projects with Legendary Entertainment and Paramount Animation.

PIERRE PERIFEL (Directed by) makes his feature director debut with the release of The Bad Guys. He most recently served as head of character animation on the short film To: Gerard and as a director of the short film Bilby, both of which received numerous awards and industry accolades. He joined DreamWorks in 2007 and worked as an animator on Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens, Shrek Forever After, Kung Fu Panda and then stepped into the role of lead character animation and supervising animator on the film Rise of the Guardians. In addition, he directed the short film Le building. In 2008, Perifel received an Annie Award for Best Character Animation in a Television Production/Short Form Content for his work on Kung Fu Panada: Secrets of the Furious Five. His work is heavily influenced by the iconography of French graphic novels and European films, blending the simplification of illustrative animation with the sophistication of live action staging.   A native of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of Lyon, France, Perifel is a graduate of the prestigious Gobelins, L’Ecole de L’Image in Paris and is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences (AMPAS).