Suburban Gothic: Visual Style of the Animated Comedy
When the filmmakers were determining what the world they had imagined would look like on film, they instinctively knew that Gru should never plot his villainy in a boring, humdrum neighborhood. Explains Cohen: "The look of Despicable Me and the world of the movie is very much inspired by a Charles Addams and Edward Gorey sensibility. The art director of the movie, Eric Guillon, and the production designer, Yarrow Cheney, have come up with a bright and vibrant visual aesthetic that's unlike any other animated movie you've ever seen."
Meledandri elaborates on the film's distinctive design elements: "The characters are largely caricatures of human characters. They've been designed by one of the great CG character designers, CARTER GOODRICH, who among many other films designed the characters for Ratatouille. There is sophistication to the design language of this film that at first glance might skew a little bit older. The environments are designed by Eric Guillon, who is such a great talent."
Healy, who has worked with designer Goodrich before, admits: "I love how complex, humorous and interesting Carter's character designs are. He captures so much about humanity in each of his drawings; he is just prolific. What I love about the characters he designed is that there is a huge range of types, but the people all inhabit the same world. Carter's work demonstrates the diversity in our world, and he always gives us a unique twist of personality. His people have appeal, and I want to know more about them. That's always a good start for building a character performance."
Reflecting upon the art director, she adds: "Eric has a sense of fun and humor in all of his designs. His color palette is sophisticated and not overly flashy, allowing the shapes and whimsy to be at the forefront. He can draw in many styles, and all of them have a freshness and a unique appeal. Eric strongly contrasts shapes in his compositions, and the variety of the linework provides a dynamic movement and interest that is apparent at first glance. But it's his imaginative view of the world that sets him apart. He made a cohesive world for Despicable Me, and I never tire of exploring all the incredible pieces of imagery because they are fun, comedic, inventive and totally his own."
To find inspiration for the film, the team looked to one of its first drawings. Offers Renaud: "One of the first things Eric designed was Gru's car, which remains identical to the way he originally drew it. We looked at that car and said, 'Wow, I've never seen a car like that before!' The world grew out of that in a weird way. That was the image we first started referring to: 'This is our world. This is Gru's car.'"
When they imagined how Gru would move, directors Renaud and Coffin were inspired by physical comedians from Peter Sellers to Rowan Atkinson. The super-villain is a towering presence with hunched shoulders and a hooked nose. But when he needs to do so, Gru can move with the grace of a cat. Tonally, the filmmakers created a "Spy vs. Spy" world in which Gru would be subject to all sorts of explosions and attacks--from rocket launchers to domestic sharks--and live to fight again.
It was clear to all involved that they had no interest in creating a universe for Gru and his extended family and foes that had a photorealistic quality to it. They wanted the film to have a unique color palette and a distinct stylization. But the details within the world would need to be quite striking in their hyperrealism--an incredulous fantasyland for a super-villain that was populated with very true-to-life details.
Gru is deliciously wicked, and his surroundings reflect that. The keen observer of Despicable Me can find elements throughout the film that offer nods to the brooding humor. In a direct nod to the father of The Addams Family, there is a painting on the wall in Gru's lair in which a boulder is falling off a cliff and about to squash a hapless tour bus that is motoring by. Stuffed game mounted on the wall showcase--what else?-- predator swallowing prey that is swallowing weaker prey. As well, in the Bank of Evil, as Gru walks through the main corridor, the pillars progressively show hapless victims squished by the columns. These are simply some of the many tongue-in-cheek references inserted by the team.
For the environmental design, Coffin brought art director Guillon, an artist with whom he has worked for many years, onto the production. "Eric actually spoke maybe three or four words of English," Meledandri explains. "Pierre has tremendous confidence in Eric. From the very first images that Eric drew, the suggestion of both color and style of the world was absolutely present. His artwork is so extraordinary that when he creates a piece of what we call 'visual development' or 'visual design,' he does it in a way that when you look at it, you say, 'Oh my gosh!' The personality that he places in his design is extraordinary. There's a whimsy to it; there's warmth and a distinctive edge."
As they considered creating locations for Despicable Me, the directors and producers knew that there had to be a significant discrepancy between the Gothic lines of Gru's black house (first imagined by production designer Cheney) and the postmodern visuals of the spoiled-rotten Vector's fortress. Offers Meledandri: "The array of styles was designed by Pierre and Chris and Eric to reflect how the characters fit into this world. Gru lives in a black house in this picture-perfect suburban neighborhood where the only blight on the neighborhood is his home, with its hint of a Gothic style. His vehicle is probably the least environmentally conscious vehicle ever placed on Earth. It's all a bit ragged since he's a character who is no longer at his prime."
Conversely, Meledandri explains of Gru's rival's lair: "His nemesis, Vector, is a rich-kid brat who has been denied nothing in life. He lives in a very modern, state-of-the-art massive video game console, which has been paid for by his rich banker father. The dueling styles are reflective of the character conflict that's going on between these two guys."
Adorable Gibberish: Amassing a Minion Army
Born out of the animation process were the scene-stealers the production came to know as Gru's minions. Though not in the original pitch, the adorable (yet incredibly mischievous) minions quickly became favorites for the animators as they built Gru's world. Renaud laughs: "Minions tend to work best when there are at least 20 of them. So that's 20 more characters to animate. Almost every scene with them became a crowd scene, which was technically very challenging."
According to producer Healy, the minions represent "a melding of the wonderful talents of each director." She commends: "They are a result of the special collaboration of two of the nicest and most talented directors one can hope to work with. Chris conceived their initial design and their mission as Gru's underground mole people, and Pierre added the silly animation style and most of the voices. But the directors brought these characters to the screen together and had huge fun defining them. The result is wonderful comedic moments that add another layer of interest and humor, and it came from the deeply funny brains and imaginations of Chris and Pierre. Once they gave them names and special funny hairstyles--and decided who was a monoc or a binoc--the personalities of the minions started to emerge. I had trouble remembering who was Jerry or Dave or Tim, but the directors always knew. The scenes just kept getting more special, and the fact that all minions are similar is what makes them funny."
The voices of the workers were largely the creation of Coffin. While the team was pondering different vocals they could give the creatures, Coffin came to work one day with a voice test the entire crew loved. They compressed the sound, and the minions were born. The two men subsequently designed a language for Gru's army that is intended to be an indescribable vocal expression, and the directors and New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement split up the voice work.
Coffin worked with his fellow director to develop the complex language for the minions. To help us understand them, every once in a while a word of English sneaks out during a scene. Renaud and Coffin discovered how to compress the sound of their voices so that they were able to tweak slightly both their and Clement's voices for each little guy's vocals.
"The language is much more about sound than it is about any kind of meaning," says Meledandri. "Pierre works very quickly to present his ideas visually, and not just in a still form. He's much more comfortable communicating an idea by bringing it to life with some limited animation. From the very first time we were introduced to the idea of these characters, they were immediately appealing. We had a sense from day one that the minions were slowly going to try to take over the movie; they're irresistible in their combination of innocence and mischief."
Adds Cohen: "They've created this incredibly unique language for the minions, where a lot of times it sounds like it's gibberish. You hear all kinds of languages being incorporated into the way they speak. Then occasionally, you'd hear a word or two of English, and that gives you a sense of what the minions are actually saying."
While the comic actors improvised certain lines in the film, it was Steve Carell who actually helped to name the minions. During vocal sessions as Gru, he would throw out a name to the minions, such as Dave or Tim. Though there were tons of them, and many look the same, Carell knew that Gru would know each of his happy workers by name. Once the directors heard Carell calling them out by name, they thought it was a terrific idea to give several other of the minions names that would match their unique personalities.
Space for Comedy: Shooting in 3-D
Not only is Despicable Me Illumination's first film, it is also the first project that the Meledandri team has produced in 3-D. Before the layout began, the producers and directors knew that Gru's world would be further embraced by audiences if an extra dimension was added. They requested that Paul and Daurio look for opportunities to utilize 3-D as they crafted their script, but only when it made logical sense. The screenwriters were guided in their decision making to insert 3-D suggestions in such scenes as when Gru and Vector fire their array of missiles, when airships fly past or when smoke trails from a vehicle float out across the audience.
Whether it be during the death-defying shrink-ray heist, explosions in midair from errant missiles or on the rollercoaster ride on which Gru takes the three girls, the animators aimed to bring the audience into the journey with the characters of the movie. The filmmakers also discovered that they could use the space as an opportunity to create comedic effect. Since this was a relatively new domain for them, it gave them the chance to deliver laughs that come at very unexpected times.
Meledandri was adamant that the team consciously used the space appropriately, as opposed to a simple 3-D transfer of a 2-D look. He reflects: "The utilization of the dimensional space helps to define the visual look of the film. There are many sequences in the film where we simply take advantage of the dimensional space in subtle ways. Our goal is always to immerse the audience in the film and to make them feel like the film's environment is expanding around them. We also use the action to put the audience right smack in the middle of it. Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin had tremendous fun in staging and boarding these sequences."
"From the beginning, we envisioned this as a 3-D movie," adds Cohen. "We needed to find someone who understood how to make a 3-D movie and how to tell a story from shot to shot and scene to scene. We found a fantastic stereographer in JOHN BENSON, who was 3-D specialist on Coraline. He moved to Paris and worked on this movie from the very beginning."
From the start, the filmmakers knew that they wanted Despicable Me to be in 3-D. They explored different scenarios in which to utilize the extra space, and then began to layer the story with more and more 3D-friendly sequences. The filmmakers even built a model of the entire rollercoaster at Super Silly Fun Land to enhance the way it appears on screen in 3-D. Renaud offers: "We layered 3-D in more and more as the movie went along. We were all seeing the importance of 3-D and how the audiences embraced it. Having an element that is completely built creates a cool experience. The thing with designing in this media is that you can't trick the camera, so everything has got to be there for it to feel like a true experience."
A Global Production: From France to the U.S.
As the team began preproduction for Despicable Me, Meledandri searched across the world to find production houses that would be ideal partners in animating the film. As they built Illumination, they felt it was important to choose the shops that were the best fit for each production in the pipeline. After visiting a number of studios, the producer traveled to France to investigate shops from that country's tremendous traditions in animation.
The filmmaker would find the perfect fit at the Paris-based digital visual effects studio Mac Guff. Meledandri explains: "France has one of the greatest animation schools in the world called Gobelins. They have a sense of comedy in France that has a great connection to our sense of comedy here. I visited a number of studios, and within an hour after arriving at Mac Guff, I knew that these were right partners. I had a tremendous amount of confidence in the people that I met and in the work that I saw."
As Illumination was building its production process, it set out to create a very efficient, streamlined approach to make the first of its films. Considering the technology and artistry that was available, the crew began preproduction in Los Angeles. There, they conducted a good deal of the storyboarding and engaged in the initial editing and designs. As Illumination built up its team in France, it began to transition character animation and computer graphic work to Mac Guff.
Illumination moved about 15 people to France to live full-time. There, they would work on the production under producer Janet Healy's leadership; together, they became a very tight group. Offers Meledandri of the process: "The technology that we use to work collaboratively is relatively simple. We used Skype and iChat because there's such an ease of use that we preferred. These are both very low-key and casual, everyday forms of communication…rather than fancy state-of-the-art teleconferencing. We had linked editing rooms and due to the time difference, we had a production working 24 hours. It was a tremendously cohesive process."
The producer explains the process of bringing this international crew together: "Seven Americans came to France as the key leadership. The group included one of the directors, me as producer, the associate producer, the editor and the assistant editor, the stereographer and the production designer. Everyone else we needed was available within the Mac Guff team. We brought decades of feature animation experience from the leading American animation studios, and that experience helped the Mac Guff team undertake more complexity in their images. We understood the paradigm of driving a production with constant story improvements, always rewriting, reboarding, trying versions and making changes--no matter how far into the process we were. This dynamic ability to strive to improve the work at every stage was the key difference between how we were used to working and how European studios have usually worked in the past."
When it came to the process discussions--such as translating artwork to modeling in CG, how rough layouts would get in stereo, or how animation would be approved--the team had similar expectations and a mutual understanding of the workflow. There were about 14 departments that worked in CG, and the artists had unique specialties. As well, the many dependencies between departments made management of the duties complex. Initially, workflow conversations took some time, but the crew members approached the CG manufacturing work similarly and found that their ways of problem solving and past experiences shared much in common.
With the American team taking French lessons and French crew members taking English lessons, it was an education for crew on both sides of the Atlantic. Whenever Meledandri addressed the team as a whole, an interpreter was used. Of the global company, the producer adds: "We've got an American director and a French director. We've had crew working in Canada, New Jersey, Los Angeles and the Midwest. We had numerous nationalities represented on our crew, and in Paris we have people from the U.K. Our philosophy was based on the notion that if you're going to make a movie for a global audience, the complexion of your crew should be a global one."
The trans-Atlantic process also extended to the vocal talent, as some sessions were recorded in Paris while actors were in Los Angeles. Explains director Renaud: "We did our first few sessions with each actor in person, so that we could work out who the character is." Once Renaud and Coffin were in Paris, the filmmakers and actors iChatted or Skyped so they could see one another and try different takes of the dialogue reads. "It was very important to us to read the actors' body language," Renaud notes.
The production crew connected Renaud and Coffin to a high-quality ISDN audio line so that they could hear each of the actor's performances. The actors recorded the audio in Los Angeles, which was then delivered to the studio in Paris. With the nine-hour time difference, production ran on a 24-hour cycle, as teams worked constantly on two sides of the ocean.
Working with a director via Skype was a new experience for some of the talent. "It was pretty crazy having the director all the way in Paris…strange to work with somebody but not be in the same room with them physically," recalls McBrayer. He laughs: "I think they were nine hours ahead, so they could tell the future."
Having a Bad, Bad Day:Music of Despicable Me
In the past several years, Grammy Award-winning artist Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. has written and produced for such blockbuster global musicians as Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Madonna, Kanye West and Shakira. In 2009, Billboard magazine named The Neptunes producers of the decade, and Williams and his collaborators have played an enormous role in shaping the culture of the music landscape. Naturally, the next step for the artist was to explore the interplay between music and movies.
Williams has been interested in scoring music for feature films for some time, and he became more eager to work in this realm after observing Jack Johnson's musical involvement in creating the best-selling soundtrack to Universal's animated Curious George. Williams expressed his interest to friend and music supervisor KATHY NELSON. He remembers: "I told Kathy that the very next time something comes your way, you call me and let me know what it is. She said, 'Pharrell, I really like you, but I'm not going to just give you anything. I'm going call you when it's the right thing.' And I got the call for Despicable Me."
A longtime animation fan, Williams was eager to take on the challenge of crafting original songs and themes for his first film. "What I like about the philosophy on Despicable Me is that the filmmakers don't make children's films. They make films for humans that use some of the tricks and treats of youthful entertainment, but at the same time, there's an amazing storyline."
Though the task of scoring his first feature seemed daunting, Williams was grateful that he was surrounded by Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer as the film's music producer and skilled guitarist Heitor Pereira as fellow composer. Says producer Meledandri: "The moment that we showed Pharrell the imagery, it took him about 30 minutes to say, 'I'll work on this film in any way possible.' He was immediately struck by the character designs, the notion of the story and his enthusiasm never waned.
"Pharrell, like our directors, took on the challenge of doing something that he had never done before; this is the first time he's scored a feature film," Meledandri continues. "We knew that there was going to be an opportunity in the film for a number of songs that would be used as song score. What's resulted from his songs is a group of musical themes that he's worked on with the talented Heitor Pereira and legendary Hans Zimmer."
Williams' collaboration with Pereira began as Williams watched preliminary footage of the film and then created musical ideas he thought would fit into each sequence. Pereira would then expand upon some of Williams' ideas and come up with additional creative works. On working with Pereira, Williams says: "Heitor took those pieces and songs, and he connected the dots. He is the glue in this house of cards. He scored some incredible scenes and embellished some of the scenes that I scored and took those to the next level."
Williams composed several original songs for the film, including the title track, "Despicable Me." The artist was inspired by the whimsical narrative of the lyrics from Annie, and he wanted to write lyrics that were as kid-friendly as that musical, but also as moody as Gru's character. He elaborates: "I've never made a song about having a bad day and being in a super bad mood. So I thought I would make it really fun but, at the same time, if you were to hear it without the lyrics, it would sound like this track that you'd want to hear coming out of someone's truck."
Music producer Hans Zimmer's storied career in film has resulted in his composing unforgettable scores for live-action blockbusters such as Rain Man, Twister and Thelma & Louise, as well as the worldwide hits Sherlock Holmes and films from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. But it was his instantly classic composition for 1994's The Lion King that brought Zimmer an Oscar® for Best Original Score and ignited his passion to craft the music behind such modern animated classics as Shark Tale, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda. His frequent music partner and world famous guitarist, Heitor Pereira, has collaborated with him on many a project. Despicable Me is their latest effort. BACK HOME