Penguins | Carlos Felipe Leon

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Penguins of Madagascar

I had a great time working on this film for a little under a year. Everyone on the team was incredible to work with, so I thank them for it and congratulate them for their great work!

I worked mostly doing a lot of color keys which you will find here, working closely with the layout department and set designers. I had to be a lot more specific about my lighting ideas than I usually am, so you will see my illustrations are pushed a lot further than usual. That in itself was a challenge, not loosing the energy or feeling of a looser sketch.

I also felt like the lighting style of this movie was a lot more complex than on other shows (which is neither good or bad, just different). I found myself thinking about lighting in a more cinematographic way, closer to live action, while staying within a cartoony style set by the previous Madagascar films.

I hope you enjoy looking at my work on it. A word of caution though, there may be some spoilers below, although nothing that won´t let you fully enjoy the movie. Go check it out!

All images below are  © DreamWorks animation.

The freaking frozen tundra


The beginning of the movie is supposed to feel like a documentary film of an uninviting snowscape, so I started there (without going overly dramatic), then progressively added more warmth as we meet our main characters. It´s tough painting white with white on white. Good thing they have a black half!

The old ship


In this sequence, I wanted to push the drama by adding a lot of contrast and a very warm light hitting everything sideways. The directors wanted to make sure we ended up with the penguins leaving their home at sunset in the end, so this was also a transition sequence linking up from the previous one. I also wanted to push the contrast by having bright snow next to very dark water.

Leaving the circus


These are some rougher color keys. We are revisiting the set from the beautiful looking Madagascar 3, so I just had to follow all the stuff they had already figured out. Just smile and wave!

Fort Knox heist


The villain´s lair


These were some concept keys for lighting the villain´s introduction. I went for a sombre “Nosferatu” look, which was a little too dark for the directors´taste.

Below is a revised version, a little more colourful and light (just a little):


The flashback


We wanted to find a special image treatment for Dave´s flashback sequence. I did these paintings but my friend and colleague Avner Geller came up with the concept, a sort of technicolor look with exaggerated colors. By the way, check out all the great work he did on this film and on other projects on his blog HERE.

Inside the sub


Dave´s lab and the submarine bridge.

Shanghai market


Before starting my work on Penguins, I saw in the reels there was a sequence in a market in Shanghai. I really really REALLY wanted to work on it. I was so happy I got this as my first assignment! My friend Jean Julien Pous has done some incredible photography of Hong Kong markets, and I thought about his beautiful short film “Seeking you”. I know he is also a big Wong Kar Wai fan, so stuff like “Chungking express” was also a big influence for this sequence. This one was SO. MUCH. FUN. Check out Jean Julien´s work HERE.



One day I found out there was going to be a “Mermaid penguins” show in the Shanghai aquarium. ooo…kkk? So I thought, if we´re doing this, we have to go all in. I had always looked at the world of j-pop, k-pop from a distance, but to me it seemed perfect for this. This is as over the top as I managed to go.

Let me introduce you to Kyary pamyu pamyu, damn song is now engraved in my reptilian brain forever: click HERE

In the end the sequence was cut short so we weren´t able to develop all this nonesense any further.

The plan to capture Dave


In designing the lighting for this sequence, I had to be very mindful of the architectural layout of the scene. There were different rooms and hallways with different lighting conditions, and even dynamic lighting from the show going on in the penguin tank. Continuity is important so the audience doesn´t get lost, especially in a dynamic sequence with quick cuts like this one.

Shanghai harbor

Seq_1150_VTOL Hijack Keys_CL



We didn´t want the jungle to feel dark and creepy, so the whole trick of these was to find the right balance between the light from the fire and the moonlight. The transition from one to the other on the layers of foliage was fun to paint.

Tactical espionage action


Had so much fun painting this one. Really soft transitions from one color to another and from light to shadow. Also, the oldest trick in the staging book: the spotlight.

The green room


Green is such a tricky color. I guess there being a lot of green in nature (depending on where you live), we are really sensitive to it. When using oil paint I prefer mixing green out of different blues and yellows rather than using one from the tube, I can control its variations more accurately. So here we were going for a very intensely saturated, artificial green light, which is even trickier than the local color of the natural landscape. I felt way out of my comfort zone, as these aren´t colors that I would normally choose. In the end I was happy it did end up looking like a decent green lighting scenario.

So now that I´ve eased you into this, do you guys want MORE green? Ok here you go:


Wow that is green. Isn´t green the color you get rid of in visual effects? I rest my case. OK I´ll stop now.

Reversing the ray


Food market


In this sequence, mutant Rico has to quickly pick up some stuff from a food market. To me, the banality of the action is what makes this funny. I therefore went for the most straightforward lighting of the shop interior. I also wanted to play with exposure and temperature from the light outdoors, so we don´t forget there is still exciting action taking place outside.



Sky, sea and snow

Here are some paintings I made mainly for matte painting reference. A lot of fun studying water, clouds, snow etc.

I seem to have the same problem at the beginning of each production: The first images of glaciers, seas and skies that I was painting were a little too realistic and didn´t fit the cartoony style of the Madagascar series. This one for instance felt a little too real:


In the end we tweaked it like this, a little more simple, stylized and saturated:


A couple more panoramas:





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