Despicable Me

Last week, I journeyed to Santa Monica to visit the offices of Illumination Entertainment. Started by Christopher Meledandri, the producer behind Opportunity Knocks and Cool Runnings, who helped acquire and oversee Blue Sky Studios, the computer animation studio which produced the Ice Age series and Robots. Meledandri produced Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, The Simpsons Movie and The Fantastic Mr. Fox before jumping ship to form a new company, Illumination Entertainment. You probably haven’t heard of them yet, as they have yet to release a film, but they are hard at work developing projects for computer animated, live-action and they even claim to have a stop-motion animated project that is on the verge of being announced. The plan is to do an average of two films a year for Universal, over the next five years. Their first film to hit the big screen will be Despicable Me, which is the reason for my visit.

A small group of press, including myself, were invited to Illumination Entertainment to talk to Meledandri about this new company, his upcoming projects (which include another Seuss adaptation The Lorax as well as the Russell Brand Easter-themed family comedy I Hop), and to visit the editing bay of Despicable Me to see some early footage from the film put together.

After the jump you can read my report, or watch the video blog which I recorded with Steve from Collider.com immediately following the visit. Most of which I’m going to say below is in the video blog, but I should also point out that I’ve included a transcript of our roundtable conversation with Meledandri below as well. Anyone interested in reading more about this emerging new animation company will want to check that out. I really do think that Illumination will be a company to watch in the coming years.

Despicable Me

The offices of Illumination Entertainment are small. I’ve been to Pixar in Emmeryville, and I’ve been to Dreamworks Animation in Glendale, and both Animation companies have huge buildings, with big foyers, and tons of employees. As we parked outside Illumination Entertainment, I half joked that we must have the wrong address. The small brick building in Santa Monica looked big enough to house a San Francisco tech start-up, but not much larger. The offices are about half the size of Pixar’s cafeteria.

But we were in the right location. Through a non descriptor door we found the lobby with a receptionist and a hall filled with posters from some of  Meledandri’s previous projects, including Titan AE (a sci-fi animated film I still think is under recognized). To the left and right of the hall way are two big sized rooms. But where are the animators? Surely they can’t all fit in here.

After meeting Meledandri we are led into his office, which has clear glass walls. Behind his desk hangs concept art from Despicable Me, some Dr. Seuss drawings, a metal robot sculpture from Robots, and a print from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away which he picked up when visiting Studio Ghibli. And yes, that last item instantly gives Meledandri 100 geek bonus points. I know Katzenberg doesn’t have a Miyazaki print hanging on his wall.

We learned that Illumination’s animators are set-up in France, and not Los Angeles. It is a very smart move on Meledandri’s part as most of the good animation talent in Southern California is already employed by Disney, Dreamworks or one of the smaller companies. Basically, the talent pool is much larger in France. While studios like Pixar have much of the same creative team on board for each and every film (or every other film) Meledandri has decided to take a much different approach and “cast” the creative talent for each feature depending on the needs of that story/movie. So if they are creating a fairy tale film, they can hire talent that has worked in that realm, or has past experience that might fit that picture. This way they don’t drag a character designer who is use to creating humans into a film set in a fantasy world filled with monsters. It seems, at least in theory, like a much smarter way of handling things.

Despicable Me features a story team featuring some writing talent from Family Guy.

Meledandri is building Illumination Entertainment around character.

“We Build Everything from the character up”

Even Despicable Me was born out of character – they came up with the evil villain Gru way before they had even begun to devise a story. Despicable Me is almost like the animated version of a Dr. Evil movie, if you can imagine that. The plot involves an older super villain who has been one-uped by younger blood, and decides to commit the biggest heist in the universe — steal the moon. Of course, Gru comes into the possession of three orphan girls, who “cause the normally deplorable Gru to rethink his plan.”

We were then brought into the editing room, a closed sound proof office in the other large room. It is here that we were shown five unfinished sequences from the film.

Despicable Me

1. The opening of the film which is essentially the first teaser trailer, where the son of an American family runs into a do not enter contraction area, and crash lands into the great pyramids, which turn out to be inflated. They were stolen and replaced with a balloon. The original teaser would have you believe that Gru was behind this heist, but he was not.  Cut to Gru who uses a freeze ray gun to “eliminate the line at Starbucks, and gives a little kid on the street an animal balloon, only to pop it seconds later.

Despicable Me

2. Gru arrives back home, which is an Adams Family-style home in an otherwise clean suburban neighborhood, and half jokingly threatens to kill his neighbor’s dog. After learning that another villain named Vector has replaced the giant pyramids with a giant balloon, Gru calls his minions to his secret lair, which he arrives at in Get Smart-like fashion. This is where we meet those weird yellow creatures featured in the last teaser trailer. They are Gru’s minions, and they all gather in a mini arena for Gru to give a Steve Jobs-like keynote speech where he announces that he’s going to steal the moon and become the greatest villain of all time.

Despicable Me

2. The second sequence we viewed was essentially a longer version of the second teaser trailer, with Gru trying to penetrate Vector’s lair to steal a device he needs for his evil plan. The Spy vs. Spy-style weapons and kills hark back to an earlier looney toons-era.

Despicable Me

3. Gru has just been given three orphan girls, which of course, he doesn’t want. He decides to drop them off at a seaside amusement park, where he plans to put them in a roller coaster and ditch. Of course, he ends up getting stuck with them, and ends up sticking up for the girls when a carnival game scam rips them off.

4. The fourth scene is from later in the film, and involves Gru being sucked into reading the girls a bedtime story.

Here are my thoughts:

Despicable Me

The character and production design on this film is top notch. This looks way better than anything Dreamworks has ever produced. The production designer Yarror Cheney worked on the popular computer animated short film The Chubbchubbs!, and you can certainly tell from some of the furry creatures in this film. The little minions are cute, and I’m sure the kids will want to buy their dolls or action figures. I remember when the first teaser trailer for Despicable Me hit, commenting on how much I loved the design of the human characters. Meledandri was quick to brag that Carter Goodrich did the character design on this film, he is the guy who designed the human characters in Ratatouille. In fact, it was the film that got him this job. That’s an example of how Meledandri “casts” the creative talent for each individual project.

Despicable Me

When Meledandri said that they were building everything from the character up, he wasn’t kidding. When I first saw the enormous cast listing on the first teaser trailer, I assumed that Illumination had hired the star power so that they didn’t have to spend time creating three dimensional characters (cough Dreamworks cough). Not so. In fact, Steve Carell’s voice is almost unrecognizable, complete with a foreign super villain accent. And from what I can tell Illumination is encouraging the rest of the voice cast to create characters, rather then become the character (which might be easier to sell in a commercial but results in a much less interesting film).

Despicable Me

While the film was in the rough stages, we were unable to see the footage in 3D, but I’m betting that the roller coaster sequence will be worth the price of a 3D ticket alone. Meledandri later told us (you can read in the interview below) that he thinks “that it’s important for a film that’s in 3-D that the filmmakers create the movie from a staging and scene planning standpoint with the dimensional space as one of their storytelling components.” Here is another snippet from the interview: “Where I think that 3-D will fall apart is going to be as audiences now get treated to incredibly artistic utilizations of space. I think the films that are just sort of done as 3-D transfer type films, the audience will perceive the difference in that. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have very subtle use of 3-D like Henry [Selick] did in ‘Coraline’ where the dimensional space is very present but it’s not like the film is rushing at you. But that was clearly a part of Henry’s vision. I think for us given a film where we’ve got certain battles, ships battling in the sky; we’ve got action sequences so the action is exploiting that space. I think that you’ve got to demonstrate in the film that it’s conscious utilization of space as opposed to just a simple transfer.”

Despicable Me

And the humor in the sequences we screened had us laughing throughout. I especially loved the more over the top looney tons style fanatical situations, and the really subversive morbid bits that push the barrier of a family film (think Lemony Snicket).

Despicable Me

Again, I’ve only seen four select sequences, but I’m definitely a lot more pumped about this film, and I’m very interested to see what Illumination Entertainment produces in the future. The trailers and marketing thus far has been a little confusing. I actually learned that the last teaser spot and poster with the minions was actually supposed to be the initial teaser trailer, which may have made a lot more sense. But from what I can tell, it all seems to come together.

Video Blog:

Christopher Meledandri

Interview:

Question: How many active projects do you have right now?

Meledandri: Well, we have three in production and probably I’d say fifteen in development but we develop a very low ratio. Our average from development to production, we develop three projects for every one that we make. The studio average is anywhere from fifteen to twenty five but we tend to be very focused on films that we really believe we’re going to make as opposed to exploring and a lot of development.

Question: Is this your first 3-D animated film that you’ve done?

Meledandri: This is the first 3-D film that I’ve done, yes.

Question: Is the plan now for all of your animated films to be in 3-D?

Meledandri: At the current moment everything that we’re doing is planned for 3-D.

Question: Do you feel like it’s necessary to have a set piece like the roller coaster scene as the big 3-D scene or is that organically a part of it?

Meledandri: I think that there are a lot of, or well there are a lot of sequences in the movie that take advantage of the dimensional space in a dynamic way. That’s one of probably…we use the three 3-D space differently depending on the nature of a sequence. I think that it’s important for a film that’s in 3-D that the filmmakers create the movie from a staging and scene planning standpoint with the dimensional space as one of their storytelling components. Where I think that 3-D will fall apart is going to be as audiences now get treated to incredibly artistic utilizations of space. I think the films that are just sort of done as 3-D transfer type films, the audience will perceive the difference in that. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have very subtle use of 3-D like Henry [Selick] did in ‘Coraline’ where the dimensional space is very present but it’s not like the film is rushing at you. But that was clearly a part of Henry’s vision. I think for us given a film where we’ve got certain battles, ships battling in the sky; we’ve got action sequences so the action is exploiting that space. I think that you’ve got to demonstrate in the film that it’s conscious utilization of space as opposed to just a simple transfer.

Despicable Me

Question: In the assault on Vector’s lair, there seems to be a strong ‘Bond’ and ‘Spy vs. Spy’ influence. What kind of cultural stuff are you hoping to pay tribute to and maybe reference in a little bit?

Meledandri: Well, there is without question an element of kind of a ‘Bond’ like foundation from which it springs. Gru is probably closer, and not in a literal way, but to an old Bond style villain than any other sort of cinematic villain. So that was definitely part of sort of the creative early conversations about where this will emerge from. The other conversation was as it relates to Gru was about his physicality and that an influence in Chris [Renaud] and Pierre’s depiction of how he moved and how physical he was as a character came from some Peter Sellers reference. They watched a lot of Peter Sellers and a lot of Rowan Atkinson in terms of saying, ‘Okay, there’s a physical expression of this character that goes beyond what, without Rowan Atkinson or Peter Sellers goes beyond what a live action depiction of this character would be.’ I mean you’re kind of nailing it because we definitely did refer to that dynamic between Vector and Gru as the fun of the ‘Spy vs. Spy’ dynamic. It’s a tonal dynamic to that action as well as a kind of physical reference in that they’re battling back and forth which are battles that can result in a character being in the middle of an explosion and still crawling out of the ground to fight another day. So those references were definitely very much a part of the original conversation about that dynamic.

Question: There’s one drawing over there that looks like a Charles Adams representation.

Meledandri: We are big, big Charles Adams fans. We talked about Charles Adams. There’s an image that probably no one will see of a painting on Gru’s wall that is a big boulder rolling off of a cliff and the images freezes with that boulder coming down off of the cliff. There’s a mountain road and there’s a bus rolling around the corner. Not that that’s front and center in the movie in any way but the Charles Adams influence in terms of humor, that kind of thing where you can have humor that has edge and charm simultaneously. We certain aspired to it.

Question: That kind of good humored morbidity?

Meledandri: Yes, yes. It’s a high bar to aspire to but you might as well start with strong ambitions. But comedically Adams is something that’s very near and dear to us.

Question: Are there any other Easter Eggs in the movie that people should be looking for?

Meledandri: Well, if I tell you one does that ruin in it?

Question: Well, maybe you don’t exactly say what it is but some hint to look for?

Meledandri: There’s definitely, or well one that I’d say is that there’s a reference that’s visual that is connected to one of the little girls. There’s a very specific reference to be discovered there that if somebody looks for they’ll find.

Question: Are there any heroes in this world or is run completely by villains?

Meledandri: The world, this is a subculture of the world, the villain subculture of the world. But the character that ends up being heroic is Gru himself because to change and embrace that change and to go from a guy who’s joking with his neighbor about his dog to a guy who is kind redefining what family means, the least likely guy that’s somewhat heroic. That’s a heroic transformation and ultimately he rights the wrongs that he’s perpetrated.

Question: And in the last scene we see that he regrets he killed the dog?

Meledandri: He doesn’t kill the dog [laughs]. We just felt that for once it was more interesting to deal with comedically flawed characters. We’ve got a lot movies with heroes in them and a movie where you just delve into characters who have more flaws, that was just more interesting.

Despicable Me

Question: Do the other villains get wind of his plan to steal the moon and it becomes a race to see who can get it done first?

Meledandri: Yes.

Question: Would you ever think of taking another run at something other than family friendly animation or will you let someone else give that a shot before you try it again?

Meledandri: Well, the way that you phrased the question sounds like bosses I’ve had in response to suggestions. I feel like ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was a baby step in that direction. We’d had a tremendous amount, or the success that we had fortunately through the grace of something way, way outweighed the massive loss we had by tenfold or twenty-fold. We’ve had this good fortune of success and so how do you use that to go off on a path when you can really afford to do something that is not a part of a formula. The challenge now is that we’re a new company and we’re in a much more challenged time economically and so we have to lay the foundation initially with films that play to a broader audience. We are working on projects, one of which we’ll announce shortly, that begins to go and push off again. We have some idea for the future that push even further. My own pace at which we would realize those films that depart from just the traditional model is somewhat slowed based on the environment that we’re in now, where the industry as a whole is facing tougher economic challenges. So with that it becomes more difficult to stray toward or into uncharted terrain. The one thing that I will say is that for many years the reasons, ‘Titan AE’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ were used as the most frequently cited examples of why you can’t make movies for a non-family audience. The truth of the matter is that ‘Titan AE’ was made for a family audience. Just because at the time it was perceived as off strategy for a family movie. It was marketed probably older than it really was as a film. It’s a pretty soft film.

Question: It’s a science fiction film.

Meledandri: Yes, exactly, the science fiction branded it. The science fiction thing, yes, that was it. But you can’t use, or I don’t think either ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Titan AE’ were particularly successful movies. Not financially successful but successful creatively. So it’s not fair to use movies that weren’t creatively successful as a reason why something won’t work. If you did that with live action we wouldn’t make any movies because there are examples of everything not working. You wouldn’t make anymore superhero movies after the movie that Fox made with Ben Affleck in the leather. ‘Daredevil’. You’d say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work so lets stop making them.’ So the answer is yes we do have a commitment to push the boundaries that currently exist as a component of what we’re doing.

Question: Is this your office?

Meledandri: Yes.

Question: I’m just admiring the Spirited Away print on your wall, just throwing that out there.

Meledandri: I’ve been to the Studio Ghibli museum and to the studio twice. My favorite shot in the movie is actually the exterior of that shot, the train moving on the water in the wide shot and when I went to the museum they only had two equivalent of cells, or whatever they’re called now, and this was one of them. It was the second best thing to getting my favorite shot because it’s the flipside of the interior of the exterior shot. I love that movie. We tried very hard when I got to Universal with [Hayao] Miyazaki many times to become the distributor of ‘Ponyo’ here and had a conversation with them that went on for about fourteen months. I thought we were going to end up doing it, making it happen and then at the last minute it fell apart. So I was very disappointed but the museum that he’s built there is unbelievable space. It’s just incredible. It is the closest thing to stepping into his imagination, stepping into one of his movies. It’s fantastic. Then visiting the studio, he wasn’t there and I’ve never met him but I figured if I was going to try vie for distribution I’d go through the producing side because it’s like John Lasseter and Miyazaki have this relationship and so who am I? What language am I going to speak? I’ll speak the language of the producer but you go and see his desk that he works on. It’s incredible. There are these slippers by his desk and he’d left and gone home. The last bit is that he has built, like in ‘Ponyo’; he believes very much in this idea of the juxtaposition of like pre-schools and grade school that he’s doing and homes for the elderly. He believes that if you put those two things together at the intersection between the young and the old is a great idea. Right near his studio he’s done that. There’s that thing in ‘Ponyo’, that setting is juxtaposed like that and it’s incredible.

Question: If you were a super villain like Gru what would you steal? Did you guys have discussions like that?

Meledandri: We had tons of discussions about because we wanted to land on what would be that consummate thing that could transcend anything that’s ever been a part of a heist before. It was actually something that our director added to Sergio’s [Pablos] story and he worked with some of the artists to come up with that image which – I don’t have a great answer to the question because we talked about it so much that when we landed on the moon we loved it. It’s like that was it. It doesn’t really make sense and yet it’s such an important part of children’s literature and illustrations and what all the things that you associate with the moon being taken away. So that’s my favorite idea.

Question: How did you approach casting the voice talent?

Meledandri: Well, you have to start with the notion that you pick the actor who’s going to embody the role, the best person that you can find. If you don’t start with that then it sort of defies the whole purpose of trying to make the best film that you can make. But we tend to look towards, even though our stories have dramatic components in them we tend to look at actors who are comedic and certainly look and listen for actors who can use their vocal tools to create that comedy, obviously, as opposed to the physicality. It is important to us that our actors are able to help us communicate about the film because we’re not branded. We’re not Pixar. We don’t have any brand and we need to excite and audience about our movie and one of the ways that we can reach an audience is by our actors helping to do that. It’s not so much that the actors themselves have to be enormous stars. John Leguizamon ‘Ice Age’, the first one, was enormously helpful in conveying enthusiasm and excitement about the movie and he was someone who the press liked. The audience though didn’t necessarily know who he was. They knew him more because of the film. So that component of it especially when you’re telling a story that’s an original story and not based on something else, we have a responsibility to do that and our actors share that with us. We don’t believe that just a name of an actor is going to motivate an audience to go see an animated film. It’s the enthusiastic support of an actor when they hear it and when they about the movie that will do it.

Despicable Me logo

Official One Pager:

DESPICABLE ME                  July 9, 2010
Genre:   3-D CGI Feature
Cast:  Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Danny McBride, Miranda Cosgrove, Jack McBrayer, Mindy Kaling, Jemaine Clement and Julie Andrews
Directed by    Chris Renaud & Pierre Coffin
Written by:    Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio
Produced by:   Chris Meledandri, John Cohen, Janet Healy

Executive Producer: Nina Rappaport-Rowan
In a happy suburban neighborhood surrounded by white picket fences with flowering rose bushes, sits a black house with a dead lawn.  Unbeknownst to the neighbors, hidden deep beneath this home is a vast secret hideout.  Surrounded by an army of tireless, little yellow minions, we discover Gru (Steve Carell), planning the biggest heist in the history of the world.  He is going to steal the moon (Yes, the moon!) in Universal’s new 3-D CGI feature, Despicable Me.

Gru delights in all things wicked.  Armed with his arsenal of shrink rays, freeze rays and battle-ready vehicles for land and air, he vanquishes all who stand in his way.  Until the day he encounters the immense will of three little orphaned girls who look at him and see something that no one else has ever seen: a potential Dad.

One of the world’s greatest super-villains has just met his greatest challenge: three little girls named Margo, Edith and Agnes. www.despicable.me

Despicable Me Poster

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