Meet the Despicable Me Directors
Although Coffin and Renaud had never met each other prior to co-directing their first feature, they certainly complemented each other, with Renaud handling story and Coffin overseeing animation.
In fact, the animation vets were brought together by producer Chris Meledandri, who left Fox to form Illumination Ent. with Despicable Me as his first feature at Universal. Renaud (No Time for Nuts) made perfect sense as a result of the Blue Sky connection, and Coffin was a natural when it was decided to do the animation in Paris, thanks to TRIP (Tax Rebate for International Production). Indeed, Mac Guff was chosen primarily because of Coffin's fine work with the studio in commercials and TV. Yet it was Coffin's shorts (Flying Fish Tobby Who Aimed for the Stars and Pings) that originally caught the producer's attention.
"It was a big challenge to come to France and figure out everything and to start from the ground up," admits Renaud. "The studio had done a couple of films previously [Dragon Hunters, Azur and Asmar], but we had to assemble a story team and had to add quite a few animators from Paris, Spain and London. Yet working with Chris again was a huge motivation for me to come to Illumination. You don't get the monstrous overhead of the large studios, so you can be a little more fleet footed.
"The first eight months of the production I was literally working in my basement next to a hot water heater. Having come from Blue Sky, I was working with story artists. I moved to Paris in 2008. Because I tended to record the actors and also work with the music team (Pharrell Williams and Heitor Pereira and Hans Zimmer), I was probably in LA a month-and-a-half. And then post was done at Skywalker."
"At our first session we discussed several things and landed on this cross between Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lagosi, in his own words," recalls Renaud. "It instantly was something really different and was this accent from nowhere and everywhere in Europe. And as we went to cast the other actors and talked to them about the characters, we tried to take a similar approach and got some interesting things. Julie Andrews plays a mean mom with a Germanic accent and a kindly Southern lilt. Will Arnett as Larry Flynt in this huge banker he plays. Russell Brand, who does an aging British general. Jason tried a couple of things and we landed with this enthusiastic uber nerd."
But it was Renaud's "grass roots" experience in TV with Bear in the Big Blue House and The Book of Pooh that was just as influential. "We made a decision and -- boom-- moved forward. It was kind of exhilarating because we didn't have the time or the budget for a lot of exploratory work. It was somewhere in between Blue Sky and my TV experience where we tried to put our investment where it matters most. And for us that was character animation.
"I think the biggest challenge was making Gru a villain but also having him maintain appeal. It was a very tricky balance. We fine tuned it as we went along. Early on, we had a bit where his dog Kyle eats kittens for breakfast. You laugh and it's funny, but because we were trying to hit a broad audience, it's something you have to think about and I think we landed in a very good spot for us and for our story. He's a character that has to become a loving dad for three little girls, so we had to jettison that because how do you pull a guy back from that?"
Certainly the film's unique look was a plus, between the gothic Gru and nerdy Vector (courtesy of Carter Goodrich, who previously worked on Ratatouille), along with the production's European/American hybrid approach. "The distinction is relatively simple," Renaud suggests. "Vector's place is all white plastic and looks like an iPod. Gru's house is all black and looks like something out of the Addams Family. Charles Addams himself had suits of armor and taxidermy. When we started, we had a lot of clutter in Gru's house and pulled it all out. As we went along, we slowly added it back and ended up with the right balance. And the paintings on the walls have the Titanic sinking and rocks are about to fall on a bus. We didn't go for heavily detailed environments: we went for simple, striking and graphic for the design as well as for the camera layout."