Born to Be Bad

Inspired by Bond, Mr. Bean and the art of cartoonist Charles Addams, Chris Meledandri and this team at Illumination introduce the world to a colorful new villain in Despicable Me.

Lex Luther, The Joker and Dr. No will be getting some stiff competition this summer from a mysterious supervillain named Gru, the star of the brand new 3-D CG-animated feature Despicable Me. Perfectly voiced by Steve Carell, this weirdly accented fiend has plenty of nefarious tricks up his sleeve, but his main challenge is winning over a family audience that has already been wowed by DreamWorks’ Shrek Forever After and Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3.

The imaginative feature is a true labor of love for veteran producer Chris Meledandri and his team at Illumination, Universal Studio’s new family film unit that launched three years ago. Meledandri, who exec produced animated hits such as Ice Age, Robots and Horton Hears A Who! for Fox/Blue Sky before starting Illumination, says when animation veteran Sergio Pablos pitched his idea about a villainous character he was instantly sold. ‘There were two things in Sergio’s original idea that really appealed to me,’ he notes. ‘I think the premise of a main character who is villainous in an animated film is really wonderful, and I also liked the idea that our character can be transformed by the unexpected love of three orphan girls in a way that wasn’t overly sentimental.’

Meledandri then brought in screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who had worked with him on Horton Hears A Who! when he was at Fox, to flesh out the premise. ‘We started with this great idea from Sergio and then had to get to work,’ says Paul. ‘Who was Gru? Who were these three little girls and what made them special? Who would be the antagonist? Who does Gru work with? Answering all those questions turned a story that was a couple of pages into a 100-page screenplay.’

Paul and Daurio, who are writing and co-directing Illumination’s upcoming animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, point out that what sets this movie apart from other toons of the summer is that it’s a completely original story. ‘This is not a sequel, not something based on a well-known property, and we feel that’s its greatest strength,’ says Daurio.

One of the biggest challenges facing Meledandri was building a relationship with an animation studio and creating the pipeline that would help bring Illumination’s maiden voyage to animated life. ‘When I left Fox and decided to start this new venture, the one area I wasn’t clear on was how I was going to find 40 world-class animators to work on the project,’ recalls the talented producer. ‘I had really been spoiled by the incredible talent and caliber of the artists at Blue Sky.’

Before long, the studio tapped first-time feature directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin and producers Janet Healy and John Cohen and character designer Carter Goodrich to work on the movie. ‘Chris was somebody I had worked with for years at Blue Sky, and he was one of the true rising stars, so we had this built-in level of comfort,’ says Meledandri. ‘Janet visited every studio to put together our team of 250 animators. ‘

By casting its wide net overseas, the Illumination team was able to find a perfect partner in Paris-based Mac Guff Ligne, which has a long string of top studio credits, including animated features such as Azur and Asmar and Dragon Hunters and live-action titles such as Transporter 3 and A Prophet. ‘They showed me some of the work they had done, and what they offered was very similar to what had drawn me to Blue Sky. Then, I also took a look at the short work that director Pierre Coffin had done, and I had a great feeling about them. I knew that Pierre and Chris would make a great team.’

With 14 key positions working out of the Los Angeles studio, and about 40 at Mac Guff, the team needed to rely on a fluid pipeline. ‘We found that the traditional lines of geography began to evaporate,’ says Meledandri. ‘The original idea came from someone who was living in Spain and his team was boarding there. Then we had an editor who was working in Minneapolis. Chris was living in New Jersey in the beginning and he and his family had to move to Paris. The storyboard artist was based in Los Angeles. It was the single most focused project I’ve been involved with because everyone was rowing in the same direction.’

Chris Renaud, who worked as storyboard artist on the three Ice Age movies and Horton Hears A Who! and received an Oscar nomination for co-directing the 2008 Scrat short No Time for Nuts, remembers when he was working in the basement of his house in New Jersey, sitting right next to the water boiler. ‘Initially, it felt like pushing a boulder up a hill,’ he says. ‘But soon, the key elements of the project fell into place. When you want to bring in a project less expensively, you have to do it in less time. We knew that it had to be 3-D and that we had to compete with the best studios out there.’

Ask Renaud why the movie appeals to audiences and he quickly responds, ‘It’s a metaphor for bad parenting! When I was a kid, I loved Darth Vader and the Joker. I always playing with the Storm Troopers: I didn’t have time for Luke! As a parent, you always wish that you could be a better parent. Gru starts off as a very bad parent and he gradually improves!’

The director says although the prospect of moving his family from New Jersey to Paris without speaking French was a tough one, the experience has been truly rewarding. ‘Working overseas was tough, but my family came with me, and I was able to work with a very experienced team at Mac Guff. It’s been an amazing couple of years.’

Styles and Substance

The French studio uses Maya for animation as well as some proprietary software. ‘We did a lot of compositing, lots of rendering and layers of compositing’using Nuke,’ explains Renaud. He also tells us that the look of the film was influenced by the works of the late American cartoonist Charles Addams and prominent British artist Ronald Searle. ‘Our art director Eric Guillon certainly went for a clearly unique and graphic style,’ he adds. ‘It’s also interesting to look at the general backgrounds of the movie. It has a hint of American suburbs with its brownstones and neighborhoods, but you can definitely find European flavors in the design of the cars and the doorknobs and even in the way a character counts to three [he does it the European way!]. I would say that we try to infuse each project with its own aesthetic, just like they do at Blue Sky.’

Renaud’s French co-director Pierre Coffin, who is perhaps best known for his popular TV series Pat and Stanley, says he really likes the project’s artistic choices and the overall feel of the animation. ‘I hope people will find it refreshing compared to all the other CG movies that are coming out,’ he notes. ‘The toughest part of our job was to make everyone forget that what’s on screen are pixels, polygons, textures’if they start caring about the characters, then we have achieved what we set out to do.’

Interestingly enough, Coffin cites The Simpsons, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, the first 20 minutes of WALL’E and the first 10 minutes of Up as some of his favorite works of animation. When asked about his personal favorite scenes in Despicable Me, he responds, ‘I like the scene where Gru reads a book to the girls the first time. I love the way the scene is written and performed. It’s funny and emotional without being corny. The other one is when Gru sends the girls out to deliver cookies to Vector while he steals the shrink ray. I love that sequence just because Gru manages the theft, but in a very Blake Edwards kind of way!’

Renaud also shares his colleague’s admiration for Blake Edwards and the Pink Panther movies. ‘My dad raised my brother and me on Pink Panther movies,’ he says. ‘Any animator can look at Peter Sellers for inspiration. Of course, I am also a huge fan of Warner Bros’ cartoons like Hillbilly Hare. I really enjoyed working with that kind of humor with the Scrat character. I also love all the classic Ray Harryhausen movies.’

Bright Outlook

While the artists and execs at Illumination are busy developing 2012′s The Lorax and next year’s I Hop (a live-action/CG hybrid tale featuring Russell Brand as the voice of the Easter Bunny), Meledandri is looking forward to seeing how audiences will react to the third big CG-animated pic of the summer. ‘The early reviews have been great, so it’s exciting to finally bring Illumination’s first movie to the screens. Our goal is to deliver two movies a year for Universal (live-action or animated).’

When it comes to his views on the overall feature animation scene, Meledandri couldn’t be more bullish. ‘The future looks very bright because year after year, I see the medium of animation producing an unbelievably high percentage of really good films. These movies are all highly satisfying and artistically distinctive. This audience that has been raised on animation continues to come back because they’ve had year after year of fulfilling movie experiences. At the same time, you have an eruption of animation talent coming to us from all over the world because the tools have become more available and distribution barriers have been lowered. There’s a continued interest in funding films because of the qualitative results that keep audiences satisfied.’

After all is said and done, there may be one big mystery surrounding the movie. What kind of a strange accent has Steve Carell concocted for Gru? ‘He loved the idea of inventing this voice for the lead character,’ says Meledandri. ‘The best I can tell you is that when his manager heard it, he told us that it was a cross between Bela Lugosi and Ricardo Montalban!’

Universal/Illumination’s Despicable Me begins its U.S. theatrical run on July 9.