Forming Illumination Entertainment in 2007, Chris Meledandri is now at the heart of one of the most exciting new animation companies in the world. Illumination’s first film, the delightful Despicable Me, which tells the tale of a super-villain named Gru and his relationship to three orphan girls, proved to be one of the hits of 2010, grossing a remarkable $541.89 million around the globe. Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Meledandri already possessed a considerable background in animation.
During his tenure at Twentieth Century Fox Animation, he led the company to acquire visual effects house Blue Sky Studios, which he turned into a successful producer of animated features. Movies that he supervised or executive produced include Ice Age, Robots, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who and the long-awaited The Simpsons Movie. Now heading up Illumination Entertainment, which has taken a brand new approach to producing animated features, Meledandri is overseeing a mouth-watering slate of upcoming projects to follow Despicable Me. Those in development include everything from Hop (with Russell Brand voicing the son of the Easter Bunny) to Ricky Gervais’ Flanimals and Tim Burton’s planned 3-D stop-motion version of popular TV show The Addams Family. Below, Chris speaks about these projects, how he feels about the success of Despicable Me and his hopes for his company going into the future.
Q: Despicable Me was one of the biggest animation hits of 2010. As the inaugural film made by Illumination Entertainment, you must’ve been delighted…
A: Yes, we’re extremely, extremely fortunate. You can’t hope for a result like that, because you just set yourself up for disappointment. When it happens, it’s a wonderful surprise.
Q: Were you surprised, though, when you saw the numbers?
A: Well, it’s the way I’ve approached all the movies that I’ve worked on, which is that I just had to have very conservative expectations. You put so much of your life into this and you’re asking hundreds of people to put their lives into it, over many years…so I’m happy if people like the film and it has a strong but modest performance. So when it has this stellar performance, it’s a wonderful surprise to me.
Q: Can you pinpoint why it was so successful?
A: I think the film is very distinctive. I believe that audiences love movies that feel fresh and original and offer them the opportunity for discovery in the cinema. Those are the films that create the most excitement, as opposed to films that feel familiar. I also think that at the heart of the film are its characters. And the characters were compelling and appealing and that there was complexity to them. If you look at a character like Gru, he’s a guy who’s wicked but ultimately happens to be someone who has never known what it’s like to feel loved. Having that range of character dimension makes it very interesting. On the other hand you have the characters of these minions who are just purely loveable and appealing and funny, for audiences of all ages, and the sweetness of the little girls. So when you look at the collection of personalities and characters, I think that ultimately that’s where the audience’s bond with the film is formed. And I’d say finally that the team that we assembled, led by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, our directors,
executed at a tremendous level.
Q: You worked with Chris at Fox. So how did this collaboration come about?
A: He was one of roughly 250-300 people, depending on the period we were in, working at Blue Sky Studios, which was the animation studio that I oversaw for Fox. He was somebody who I always felt had the potential to become a director. He was a storyboard artist. So after I formed the company, he came to me and said that he was trying to figure out what he was going to do next. And my feeling was that it was time for him to make the leap from storyboard artist to director, which is a very exciting part of this process. While Pierre Coffin had directed many shorts, he had never directed a feature film either. So both guys are stretching and becoming film directors for the first time – which is something that’s worked for me in the past, with the films that I made at Fox, many of which were made with ‘talent’ in a similar stage of their careers. People who were enormously gifted, and learning and honing their craft, but were taking the directorial reins of the film for the first time.
Q: And Pierre – had you worked with him before?
A: No, I had never worked with Pierre before. I actually was on a trip to London and Paris to visit small animation companies and probably on that trip visited about seven or eight different studios. I walked into a small company and they started showing me work that had been made there, which was all short-form work. Within about ten minutes of watching work that Pierre had directed, I knew that the person that had directed that material was somebody I wanted to work with.
Q: Can you talk about the philosophy behind Illumination?
A: What we’d done is create a new model of a production pipeline. Upon leaving Fox, my initial decision was to not build a studio that would be staffed with an entire crew for a movie. And I went that way to remain fluid so that I could determine for each project what the best production path would be. As opposed to building a studio where you actually have to find your projects and fit them to your studio, because your studio is a constant. You own it and you need to keep it operating fifty-two weeks of the year. I had come off of almost twelve years of being responsible for one studio or another – the last eight of which had been the studio I acquired for Fox, Blue Sky, that I built up. So it was a unique period in time in the maturation of the CG animation business. There’d been a gradual proliferation of talent. And I felt for the very first time, there was enough talent globally that would allow me to pursue this path. If I had tried five or ten years earlier, it would’ve been impossible. There just weren’t enough people who were working in the medium. And all of those people were tied up in one of the major studios. So the plan was really to start piecing together a creative team, individual by individual, who I felt would be best suited for the story we would be telling. So when it came to animation, that was the trickiest part. And to be honest, I hadn’t fully thought it through. But what I found was the challenge to get 40-50 first-class animators was going to be tough for a start-up company. And it was imperative that the animation group – which is the core aspect of your crew, the ones who are imbuing the characters with their performance – were of the highest level. I had come from being the beneficiary of that level of talent, at Blue Sky and Fox. So that’s when I decided to start looking outside the United States, given all of the competition inside California – which is where most of the animation talent resides in the States.
Q: So what happened then?
A: So my focus became London and Paris. When we made the decision to go with this small company in Paris, the decision wasn’t to sub-contract the work to them. We really made them an extension of our company, and our company and extension of them – which meant moving roughly fifteen people to Paris, staffing that team up, linking our Santa Monica offices with the Paris studio so that our editing rooms were fully linked. And my producing partner Janet Healy took the full day-to-day, hour-to-hour reins over the team in order to produce the film. So it became a very, very similar process result as what I had had prior. But we happened to be scattered.
Q: How much did your experience at Fox help you here?
A: I couldn’t have even conceived of this without having had the experience at Fox. And one of the really amazing aspects of working in this medium for me is that I am on a constant learning curve. When I started in animation, coming out of live action, I started with virtually no knowledge of the medium. That was fifteen years ago. And today, I continue to learn at the same rate that I was learning at twelve years ago, and I find that to be just a very stimulating aspect of working in this medium.
Q: With each film you make, will there be a recognisable signature style?
A: Our focus is to really look at each project and then work to best serve the needs of that project and the filmmakers directing those projects – as opposed to having a visual or narrative continuity across all projects. There are certain elements of continuity that the audience won’t see as a stylistic consistency. All of the movies that we’re doing really start with character first – dimensional characters. And they also have an expression of character through comedy and
there is great care taken towards the visual realisation of the film. And they all aspire to have an emotional resonance as well.
Q: What can you tell me about your upcoming projects?
A: Well, Hop is quite far along. It’s the story about the son of the Easter Bunny who – on the eve of being given the responsibility to take over his father’s business – runs away because he really wants to pursue his own dream of becoming a drummer. So he slips away and heads to Los Angeles. And that character is voiced by Russell Brand and his father is voiced by Hugh Laurie. And he ends up crossing paths with a live-action character played by James Marsden, who is in a very similar point in his life, which is trying to figure out how to put his adult life together. He’s somewhat stuck in adolescence and doesn’t want to grow up. And these two characters ironically become the catalyst for each other’s maturation, in a very, very funny and charming set of circumstances. We’re doing the animation here in Los Angeles with a company called Rhythm & Hues and that is more akin to a traditional visual effects model, given that it’s a live-action – a hybrid film. And that comes out in April.
Q: And how far is Flanimals down the line?
A: That is in the scripting and visual development phase. We’re working with Ricky, who is producing it with us. And Matt Selman has written the script. He’s really one of the great writers on The Simpsons today. And we are working also under the guidance of Pierre Coffin. It’s in a visual and scripting stage, but Matt has written a really wonderful script that captures Ricky’s voice.
Q: Will it look similar to the drawings?
A: It will all come from that set of characters. It will all evolve from those characters.
Q: You’re also doing The Addams Family with Tim Burton. Will he leave the direction to someone else, as on Nightmare Before Christmas?
A: Well, he has evolved that process where he actually now prefers to direct those films, like Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, which is being produced now. However, we’re still in the scripting phase. The idea is for Tim to direct it, but he’s probably more in demand than any person I know in the industry. It’s being written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who did Ed Wood.
Q: Will it be in 3-D?
A: Because we’re still in development, Tim still hasn’t made a decision. Part of it will come from his experience of making Frankenweenie and obviously he had an experience of working in 3-D on Alice.
Q: Will there be a sequel for Despicable Me?
A: Yes, we’re working on that right now. Then the other we didn’t mention is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, which we’re working on for 2012. We’ve got Danny DeVito voicing the title role, which is fantastic. And a very strong cast – Ed Helms, Zac Efron, Betty White, Taylor Swift. So we’re well under way on that.
Despicable Me is released on Blu-ray & DVD 21st February, 2011