No, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud are nothing like Gru and Vector -- the rival villains from Despicable Me, opening Friday from Universal Pictures and the first American animated feature made in France at Mac Guff.
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."
Speaking of acting, Renaud's very first session with Steve Carell set the tone. Carell voices Gru, the super villain who plots to steal the moon but gets more than he bargained for when he adopts three sisters to help outwit rival Vector (Jason Segel).
"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."
Meanwhile, even though Coffin was comfortable at Mac Guff in Paris, he had the greatest learning curve because this was his first experience with an animated feature.
"The biggest surprise to me was layout," Coffin admits. "I'm so used to having quite precise storyboards and layout would know exactly what to do; and the same thing for animation: they would always refer to the storyboards to know what the scene is about. I was kind of surprised on this project -- and apparently it's quite common -- that storyboards can be imprecise about acting: it's mostly about the idea and the characters. But layout kicks in and they set up everything so the animation can start to work. But I usually let the animators take care of their own layout. That was handed out to specialists, which disturbed me at the beginning. It's just that the movie gets handed down to so many people that I had a hard time running after things and keeping them on track so animation would work within a storyboard and the layout that was set up. It was kind of confusing. But I suppose that's the only way we can do things, especially in the way that we started off with three sequences and a script that needed a little bit more than finessing. But they made the script work as we went along. Truth is, when I see the result, it does actually work, but it's kind of stressful."
But Coffin had nothing to lose in stressing the humor that he prefers, which is mainly British. He would argue whenever possible for a more subtle performance. "I hate movies where you can read the characters so easily. I didn't have control of the story, but I certainly had control of the acting. Every time I saw a cliché like a double-take, I would ask for other tricks to not make this like a regular human reaction. He recalls an old theater exercise about miming someone who has been waiting for two hours. Don't look at your watch -- go for the unexpected."
In fact, he found the contrast between Gru and Vector pretty simple. The hardest scene was the one in which Gru reads the bedtime story, Sleepy Kittens, to the three girls. "You know the story is crap and you want to tell them, but they like it, so you refrain yourself from doing so. And the fact that this guy doesn't refrain from saying so is super fun. But it does get emotional at the end, and so that whole sequence took more time than expected because we didn't want to go over the top. That little sequence is unpredictable because you don't know how it ends."
The experience with Despicable Me has worked out so well that Renaud and Coffins are working on separate features for Illumination: Renaud is co-directing The Lorax at Mac Guff with Despicable Me screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio; and Coffin has hopes of directing a pet project, Bones, but not before helming Flanimals, an adaptation of the Ricky Gervais series of novels.
"Lorax very serious subject matter [a fable about protecting the environment], obviously, but I think we found a way to make it entertaining, fun and still carry its powerful message," Renaud says. "We're in pre-production and figuring out fun things like fur shading and what a Truffula tree looks like in 3D. You know, taking those Seuss drawings and trying to make them dimensional, much like some of the challenges in Horton Hears a Who! That experience helped a lot because there are consistent design elements. I was just a story artist, but was witness to how things were done. We are trying to find a way to preserve the Seuss aesthetic but have our own spin on it."
Flanimals, not surprisingly, is completely different. "It's a world with some super weird creatures but very funny," Coffin suggests. "Basically all these creatures are kind of useless. Matt Selman from The Simpsons wrote a draft that's super funny and, hopefully, it will be launched into production in two years."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.