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Despicable Me, which opens Friday, is the first film for the Universal affiliated Illumination. After thirteen years as President of Fox Animation, producer Chris Meledandri formed the new company. In his previous position, he oversaw such animated films as Ice Age, its sequel and Horton Hears a Who. Meledandri spoke with SpinOff Online about the film’s origins, development, and the involvement of actor Steve Carell in the formation of the main character.
Shortly after the new company formed, Meledandri began looking for a story for a feature. “About three or four weeks after I started Illumination, I met with Sergio Pablos, who had been at Disney as an animator and then had decided to move back to Spain, where he opened a small studio. He had come to see me with about fifteen images that laid out the story,” he recalled. “In those images, he had really captured a personality for Gru and a comedic tone. It was the core story of the movie.” The presentation caused an immediate reaction. “It triggered a response in me that was probably a faster response than I can ever remember having. I think he was about five or ten minutes into sharing the imagery with me when I just knew that I wanted to pursue this,” the producer continued.
While the broadstrokes of the story was contained in Pablos’s presentation, the final look of the film was not. “The look of the film and the [initial] imagery was distinctly different,” Meledandri explained. “The designs that he had done were really successful in flat drawings. It was a much more graphic/2D look. He was just trying to lay out a story, not trying to define a visual look for a film.” In animation, the story and overall design sense for the film can happen at different stages as key personnel come into the production. “I brought on screenwriters –Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio — but very quickly thereafter, I started thinking about who would be a great character designer for it,” the producer remembered. With the character designers on his previous films, Peter DeSève and Bill Joyce, attached to other projects, Meledandri looked for a new talent to work with. “I settled on Carter Goodrich’s work and then brought Carter on to start designing characters. At roughly the same time, I brought on the directors [Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud] as well so he could work with them.” Goodrich served as character designer on such films as The Prince of Egypt, Open Season, and Ratatouille.
Actor Steve Carell, who also lent his voice to The Mayor of Whoville in Meledandri’s Horton Hears a Who, was the first actor cast in the film. He takes on the main character of Gru. “Having worked with him on Horton, he immediately came to mind as somebody who could create a voice for this character,” the producer recalled. “Carter had done design work, so when I went to see [Steve], I went with imagery from the film. I think we were still working deep into the scripting, but we had already completed at least one draft of the screenplay at the time.”
“One of the reasons why I was so drawn to working with him after Horton is the experience of inviting him to improvise dialogue,” he explained. “Like most actors that we’ve worked with, they want to start with what the screenwriters have given them and someone like Steve, because he’s a writer, a director, an actor — he’s so multifaceted — what comes with that is great respect for the words that have been written by the screenwriters,” Meledandri said. “So, he starts from that perspective, but when the directors encourage him to make things his own, especially given that he was instrumental in defining such a large part of his character and to make the words belong to the character, he brings a lot and he does it on the fly. He gets into the headspace of the character and it flows. ”
Carell quickly had a lock on Gru’s voice within the first session. “I believe we had talked about the possibility of the creation of a voice prior to that session, so he may have been [working on it],” the producer remembered. “One of the observations that he made in early conversation that I had with him was that the impressions he had from villains that he can remember from movies is [their] vocals. So he wanted to do something very distinctive vocally.” Gru’s voice recalls the Hungarian warble of Bela Lugosi and the Blofeld heard in the early James Bond film. “In the very first session, which is a session that we generally don’t expect anything other than experimentation to come out of, he shared this voice and it stuck.”
While Gru’s voice did not alter the character’s look, it did have an effect on the personality of the character an animated figure. “The more distinctive and the more of a character [the voice] is, the more it’s going to impact that. We were doing some experimental animation and then when [Steve] defined [the voice], it definitely had an immediate and dramatic impact on the animators,” Meledandri explained. “When the voice falls into the character, it is going to bring with it a whole set of influences for the animators as it did with Jim Carrey in defining the voice of Horton and going all the way back to John Leguizamo defining the voice of Sid in Ice Age.”
With a team of animators assembled, they were able to use Carell’s voice track as a guide to characters sense of movement and weight. The producer prefers getting a team together quickly. “I’m just a big believer in getting animators involved as early as you possibly can because frequently, when quota hits — when they’re having to produce a certain amount of work per week — it puts an immediate limitation on how much experimentation they can do,” he explained. “They have to get the work out, so I pushed to get a core team working as early as possible.” That extra time to try different approaches in rough animation led to the creation of one of the film most interesting aspects: the Minions. “It’s very reminiscent of the creation of Scrat in Ice Age which, by complete coincidence, Scrat was a character that was never in our scripts and Chris Wedge, the director of Ice Age and Peter DeSève, the character designer, one day showed up with a new character that was a complete visual creation out of their joint collaboration,” he said of the similarities in the Minions creation.
“With Despicable, there was clearly the need for a team of helpers that Gru had in trying to do things like steal the moon,” he continued. “Very similarly, the directors working with Eric Gullion, who was the art director and responsible for designing the environments, actually, came up with these little guys and Pierre Coffin did the vocalizations for the Minions as Chris Wedge had done the vocalizations for Scrat. So they’re both characters that emerged completely from the visual process.” Meledandri called these sorts of surprises, “one of the most exciting parts of the creative process for me.”
While Despicable Me is a computer animated 3D film, the producer thinks there is still a space for traditional hand-drawn animation. “If there’s room, which we now know there is, for stop-motion animation and there are filmmakers who are pursuing stop-motion as a medium, there is room for hand-drawn animation,” he reasoned. “But I think it will be very specifically filmmaker and project driven as opposed to the audience crying out for it.”