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Cinematic Simians on a Space Safari

USC College alum Kirk DeMicco’s upcoming animated feature “Space Chimps” is his first foray into directing — and certainly not his last.

When Kirk DeMicco, a former Thematic Option student who majored in economics and political science, read the book The Right Stuff, a comment by test pilot Chuck Yeager stuck in his mind.

Yeager, talking about the simians used in early space flights, said the monkeys don’t know they are sitting on top of a rocket.

That comment got the 1991 USC College alum thinking.

In 2001 he began writing an animated feature film about the fictional descendant of Ham the Chimp, the first hominid launched into outer space, on a 1961 flight. DeMicco’s musings turned into the film “Space Chimps,” opening July 18, which he co-wrote and directed.

The Vanguard Animation and 20th Century Fox project featuring the voices of Andy Samberg, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Daniels, Patrick Warburton and Stanley Tucci is being launched with appropriate international hoopla, including advertising on 100 million Dole bananas.

DeMicco recently was back on campus for the first time since graduation, where he talked about his circuitous route to creating animated features. He had spent his junior year in Kent, England, and after graduation moved to Rome for three years, where he interviewed producers, distributors and Italian filmmakers for an Italian film publication.

Then it was on to New York, where he won a hard-fought position in the legendary William Morris mailroom. He worked his way up to an agent’s assistant, only to end up back in the mailroom when his boss was fired.

After he was transferred to the Los Angeles William Morris mailroom, things started happening. He sold a spec script for a thriller. Director Barry Sonnenfeld became a mentor. DeMicco began writing and producing various films and videos for the youth market, such as “Quest for Camelot” and “Underdog.”

“Writing for animation is very much beat by beat,” he said, “and you are always a bit of a producer, editor and director as you work.”

A current project is co-writing a film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits with Monty Python founder John Cleese. This is the second script he has written with Cleese. They work with DeMicco typing on a laptop, keeping track of scenes and characters with note cards, and Cleese making notes on a large posterboard. While throwing out ideas, “it’s always good to hear him laugh,” DeMicco said.

For “Space Chimps” DeMicco spent 16 months in Vancouver, overseeing a crew of 300. “There are a million decisions a day,” he said. “All 300 people were artists, each with a special skill set. It was all in one big building, so you can literally see the movie taking shape along a pipeline.”

Directing, he said, “took all of my diplomacy skills.”