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Toonzone Interviews Chris Meledandri on "Despicable Me"

The only movie studio that seriously challenged the box office dominance of Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks in the animated feature film sector was Fox, which achieved a breakout hit with the Ice Age franchise of movies. Overseeing that success was then-president of Twentieth Century Fox Animation Chris Meledandri, who was lured away from that position in 2007 by Universal to start up Illumination Entertainment. The studio’s first feature film, Despicable Me racked up another success for Meledandri, who also produced the movie along with Janet Healy and John Cohen.

We were able to chat with Meledandri by phone on the release day for Despicable Me on DVD and Blu-ray:

TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve produced a bunch of movies by now. What would you say was different about producing Despicable Me?

CHRIS MELEDANDRI: Well, on just a structural, production level, we were pursuing a new model, so it was very different from any of the animated films that I’ve made before. We were creating a networked approach to building the film as opposed to starting from the outset with a complete studio. The initial part of the process was really casting each individual who we felt would be right for the film, starting obviously with writers and directors, but also designers — like character designer Carter Goodrich — and enviroment designers and storyboard artists. All of the previous films had been made with a studio first with virtually all the artistic talent drawn from that studio.

The other difference I’d say is that every time you set out to make an animated film, the greatest process of discovery is the story process. It is such a wonderful collaboration between writers — in this case, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio — and artists, whether they be character designers or set designers or storyboard artists. Each movie takes its own path as the ideas bounce back and forth between the words and the visuals. In this case, the very first thing we started with were about 20 images drawn by Sergio Pablos and his team in Spain. Sergio had created the idea for the movie, and we’d never started a movie that was solely based on a set of images, but those images became a wonderful guide through the entire process of the movie and many of those original 20 images ended up in the film.

TZN: Was the whole plot in those pitch drawings?

CHRIS MELEDANDRI: No, the whole plot wasn’t, but the core relationship between Gru and these three girls, and Gru as a villain who ends up inadvertently stuck with three girls who see him unlike anybody has ever seen him before, as a potential father. That dynamic and a certain kind of comedic subversiveness was built into those drawings. Then there was a lot of plot development that Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and my team of producers and directors, especially Chris Renault and Pierre Coffin, began to all collaboratively work to build more plot around that core story.

TZN: One thing you touched on was the very networked production staff. On the DVD special features, they showed about 7 or 8 different locations that had people working on the film. Was that part of your initial plan to structure things that way?

CHRIS MELEDANDRI: My belief was that initially, in order to secure the strongest talent we could possibly find, we had to be willing to go to where that talent was. We were a new company, and in the competitive environment of California, we were not going to become enough of a magnet for talent that we’d be able to collect the caliber of artists that I felt we needed to make the film. So, we started with the premise of, “OK, we’ll go to the talent. We’ll allow the talent to work where we find them,” and that opened up the pool of available and interested artists for us. That was the case with character designers, the environmental designer, and directors and storyboard artists. All of a sudden, we were giving them an opportunity to work from home and we set up a core production hub in Los Angeles.

My belief was always from the outset that there are parts of the process that you can do in a decentralized manner — all of the parts that I just mentioned. It was always my intent that when the movie was starting to approach animation, the team needed to find a centralized approach. While I believe storyboarding in a de-centralized manner works great for us, I would never suggest that animation be done that way. I think it’s very important to have the collection of artists in one physical location. So we geared up in a de-centralized manner, and then as we moved towards animation, I had to find a way to create or supplement or find a studio where we could collect the artists in one physical place. Janet Healy, one of my producing partners, set out to vet a number of different suggestions I had made about possible places just to do that, one of which was in France at Mac Guff Studios. Ultimately was the one that worked out.

TZN: Knowing what you know now, how would you approach this differently? Are you going to do this differently for some of the other films in production at Illumination right now?

CHRIS MELEDANDRI: Well, you know, I’d like to take each film and look at its particular needs and look at each filmmaker’s particular needs, and then design a process that I think would best suit that production, specifically for that filmmaker. If we’re developing a stop-motion animated version of The Addams Family with Tim Burton, we would obviously construct a pipeline around the methodology that Tim’s used to produce stop-motion. There are films that we might do that might have a simpler artistic approach that we could forge another pipeline to accomplish.

We’re doing the next film very similarly to Despicable Me as it relates to the production process, and we’re using many of the same people. I ended up moving a lot of people to France. Some of the people who had initially been working from L.A. are now in France, and now they don’t want to come home. We are replicating this same structure on the very next animated film, which is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Before that film, we’re making Hop here in Los Angeles, which is a combination of live-action and CG, and the CG is being done locally at Rhythm and Hues. So I think one of the distinguishing features of what we’re trying to build here is flexibility.

TZN: Can you share anything about the status of the upcoming movies? You just mentioned Hop and The Lorax, but is there anything else you can share about your other films, like Where’s Waldo? or Pluto or Despicable Me 2?

CHRIS MELEDANDRI: Well, they’re all in active development. I was recently in Tokyo when the Pluto announcement was made. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the response there to our decision to develop the property. We’re devleoping it as a live-action movie, and I was struck with not only the degree and depth of the enthusiasm, but also struck with the responsibility because the property is so important to its Japanese audience. It was sobering and I’m glad I was there to experience it, because if somebody had just tried to communciate it to me, I would not have really understood the depth of responsibility that we’re taking on by working with a property that is so beloved and has such a strong following. The source material represents a collaboration between one of Japan’s absolutely most cherished creators from the past, and one of the most followed and respected contemporary creators today, so it’s a very powerful undertaking and we have a lot to live up to.

Toonzone News would like to thank Chris Meledandri for taking the time to chat with us, and the team members at Illumination Entertainment and Click Communications for setting it up. Despicable Me is available now on DVD, Blu-ray disc, and digital download.

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