Veteran Illumination Entertainment director shares his insights on their brand-new animated feature hitting theatres internationally today.
If success teaches us anything, then it’s probably safe to say Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s newest animated feature, The Secret Life of Pets, is headed towards beaucoup box office gold. The studio’s fifth fully animated film hits theatres today, sure to capture audiences who showed little love for last week’s new releases, BFG and Tarzan, as well as cruise past current box office champ Finding Dory, which has been minting serious money for Pixar the last few weeks.
Directed by Illumination veteran Chris Renaud, who previously helmed the hugely successful Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 films alongside Pierre Coffin, The Lorax alongside Kyle Balda and is currently at work on Despicable Me 3, The Secret Life of Pets is a cute, often hilarious tale that pits a group of household pets against the dangers of New York City and a militant bunny rabbit out for vengeance in their quest to find their lost friend, in a story that begs the question, “What do pets do all day when their owners go off to work?”
I was lucky to attend the film’s premiere a few weeks ago at the Annecy Animation Festival, a raucous screening celebrated with endless squadrons of paper airplanes and a huge standing ovation for Renaud and members of his production team. In a later conversation, the director shared his thoughts on the film’s production, how the story came together and how he met the challenge of bringing a gang of silly house pets and their daily foibles to the big screen.
Dan Sarto: Watching the film’s premiere in Annecy a couple weeks ago was a real treat. You probably couldn’t have picked a better place or hoped for a better crowed.
Chris Renaud: Yeah, that's our hometown team. It was fun. I've been fortunate to show every one of my films in Annecy at some point. Screening the first Despicable Me is another memory that really stands out. Yeah. It's a great, appreciative crowd. It's really a lot of fun.
DS: So take me back to the beginning -- how this film got started. What’s the genesis of the story?
CR: Well, the idea...we were talking about what to do next. All kinds of things were being considered. Chris Meledandri, the producer, said, "You know, what about a film about what your pets do when you're not home?" That's literally how it started, with that sentence. It's interesting because that’s very different than the first Despicable Me, which started from a very strong pitch by Sergio Pablos. Then, The Lorax obviously was based on a Dr. Seuss book.
In this case, we had nothing, no characters, no story, just sort of this high concept. We were all over the place, initially, like, "What if they were solving a murder mystery?" [laughs] We really considered everything under the sun. We finally started to come closer to a story that was a bit more relatable. If you've ever had a pet and you bring another animal into the house, it can be a very traumatic event, not just for the animals, but for the owner as well. That's when we started sort of landing on the story.
Then, for the characters, we really wanted a movie that featured all kinds of pets. Obviously dogs are our main characters, but we wanted to feature the whole spectrum of animals that people have in their lives. Through these kind of basic thoughts, we started to create the characters in the story.
The hard part was coming up with those elements, and then, figuring out, "Okay, how do we develop it, and where do we go?" The beginning was tough on this movie. It was a hard thing to crack. Of course, as we started landing some of the comedic actors, that helped a lot in sort of defining the characters and their personalities. That’s kind of the process that we went through.
DS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but on this film, your two original writers, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, left to work on the next Despicable Me film, and Pets was handed over to Brian Lynch. That normally doesn't happen on your films, does it?
CR: No, it doesn't. We had sort of the basic story with Cinco and Ken. Then Brian came on board. There were a couple of characters that hadn't landed yet. One, in particular, was the hawk character, played by Albert Brooks. I'm not even sure if he was in the draft at the point when Cinco and Ken left. Certainly, there were other things we developed with him, like Buddy and Mel.
You know, making an animated film is a very iterative process. Where it is, in the middle of the process, to where it ends up, can be quite different. What Brian really did, in addition to bringing the movie home, was write the characters as they had evolved. Snowball, the bunny, was one thing in the beginning, and then became something very different, particularly when Kevin Hart began doing the voice. Brian was really able to land the voice of the individual characters, which is a huge thing in getting the film to completion.
DS: As the film starts coming together, you're working iteratively with all sorts of different elements. You've got your own ideas. You've got writers. You've got the storyboarding people. Then, you've got the visual development, character designs, concept art…maybe you're doing some animation tests. What do you try to anchor down first? At that point in the development, are you just focusing on whatever is getting the most traction, whether it's gags, characters, or story beats? Is there a defined process you try to adhere to, or is it more, “Let’s keep pushing ahead and see what develops?”
CR: [laughs] It’s funny to have it put that way. I think that in some ways, it's a combination. In the case of this film, we sort of knew what the elements were we wanted to hit upon. One of them certainly was really trying to capture animals as they are, versus an idealized version. From the way they're designed, with some anatomical correctness, to some of the maybe less pleasant parts of having a pet in your life. Anyone that has a pet knows what I'm referring to.
DS: I have six cats and two dogs, so I know.
CR: So you know. In some ways, you have to discover your movie, I think. Certainly that was the case with this film. Listen, if something's working, we try to incorporate it. A good example is the dachshund having his belly rubbed by the mixer at the beginning of the film. That was an animation test. Literally, I talked to the animators and said, "Let's come up with ideas of what your pets do when you're not at home." That was one of the ideas that came out of that exercise. Also, the poodle, playing System of a Down, the rock music. That's wasn’t written. So, we knew we had this moment where owners leave, which we sort of bookended at the end of the film with owners returning home.
You make discoveries. In our case, you want to leave room for those discoveries, whether it's a little bit of a longer animation testing process, or if there's a great idea, trying to figure out how we can incorporate it into the film? It's kind of, at least the way we do it, it’s a little bit...I don't want to make it sound haphazard, like, "We don't know what we're doing, but we’ll figure it out," but you do want to leave room for discoveries. With the storyboarding process, in addition to the animation process, these films, at the end of the day, are a visual medium. There are things you're going to discover there that the script won't necessarily be able to fully deliver. It's a combination of elements that make up the final film.
DS: The gag with the poodle was laugh-out-loud funny. You guys must have absolutely died laughing when you first saw that animated.
CR: Yeah. It's one of those things where the contrast is so much fun. I'll be honest with you. It’s a little bit like the Minions. We like them, but I have been surprised at how much people have really grabbed onto them. That [the poodle gag] became obvious for the trailer. We used it as the button. That's become this kind of signature moment that people love. I'd be lying if I said, "Oh, yeah, I knew that was going to happen." We liked it, and it felt like a great way to end that montage, a very strong way to end it, but the way it's been embraced has been very gratifying and also, a little surprising. You just can't anticipate that kind of thing.
You never know. You know what I mean? You can suspect and you can hope. It's like Agnes with the unicorn saying, "It's so fluffy," in Despicable Me. Who knew? That became the saying that people really embraced in a big way. Those things are hard to predict.
DS: There's a bit of alchemy in all of it, and you just never know.
CR: Yeah. Absolutely. A little bit of catching lightning in a bottle.
DS: What is the dynamic between you and Yarrow Cheney, the co-director? How do you divide responsibilities?
CR: Well, Yarrow is the co-director working under me. It’s slightly different than Pierre [Coffin, who directed the Despicable Me movies with Chris] and I, when we are both directors. Yarrow definitely took the lead on the visuals, the look of the picture. He comes from a production design background, and worked with Colin [Stimpson, the film’s art director] in really shaping the look of the film. I record the actors, work with the storyboard artists, the editor and the music composer.
Yarrow came on the animation rounds with me. He came into editorial with me. He was a great collaborator. He also storyboarded that beautiful scene at the beginning, going past the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, all that New York stuff. I also did some storyboarding on the film, but he did an amazing job on that opening scene.
Again, it's a slightly different relationship, but he was a great collaborator. And not just Yarrow. You have the animation directors that worked with us, they were also great. I personally believe that these films are always better with strong collaboration rather than relying just on solo performances. I like to think that as a director, hopefully you can recognize an idea better than your own. You almost want people to give you something better than you imagined.
During the animation rounds, or sitting with the editor, Yarrow would come in and give his thoughts. But he took the lead, certainly, on the look of the picture and art direction.
DS: Looking back at this film, what were the main challenges you faced as director?
CR: Initially, it was just figuring out what the movie was going to be. [laughs] It's great to have a high concept idea, but what do you do with that? One of the story challenges, which was similar to what we faced with Gru in Despicable Me, was Duke. He's kind of an aggressive character. He comes into Max's house and pushes Max out a little bit, or at least that's the perception. How do you balance that aggressiveness with appeal in a character? Even if he's aggressive, you still want the audience to empathize with him and grab onto him.
From a technical point of view, a couple of things. Getting the look of the furs, the different kinds of fur, and having them feel appealing, like you almost want to reach out and touch them…the feel of the city, which had a lot of scope and scale compared to almost anything we'd done to date…the animation challenge of going from mostly human characters like the characters from Despicable Me and even Minions, to quadrupeds, four-legged creatures. Not just that, but snakes and tarantulas. Fitting in crowd animation, where we'll have a lot of characters. It was a lot to get our heads around. There was a point where we were getting behind in our deadlines, just because there was so much effort needed to figure out how to convincingly animate all these different kinds of animals. Those were some of the main challenges we faced.
DS: Along those lines, with regards to all these different animals, I’m not sure if there’s a certain design sensibility within the studio, but across your films, there has been a uniqueness to the designs, often quite subtle, that separates you from the other big animation studios. Not only the visuals, but the way your stories unfold. There's some whimsy. There's some goofiness to the proceedings that kind of harkens back to comedic cartoons. Do you consider that the studio has a particular film-making style, a visual style or narrative style that you try to follow?
CR: It's interesting. I hesitate to call it a studio-wide style, because we have a film coming out this winter called Sing, that's directed and written by Garth Jennings, and he's got a different sensibility. It's great, but it's different. What I would say is that certainly Pierre and I come from a place of real love and embrace of cartoons. We love the Warner Bros. cartoons. We love, though they aren’t cartoons, Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films. We love that kind of silliness, that fun sensibility.
I think “cartoon,” weirdly, has become kind of a bad word. I just don't see it that way. I don't see it that way at all. There's something that's untapped, and we...to be frank, I think it's why people have embraced the Despicable Me world so much. Certainly, you know, everything from a shark coming out of the sewer to the Minions themselves, and really, a “shrinking the moon,” that had no effect on the earth, they’re cartoons. It doesn't mean you can't have heart, but it's definitely silly.
And even in this movie, certainly with some of things we do, like with Gidget on the bridge, fighting all the animals, it's got that kind of over-the-top silliness that I try to embrace. Chuck Jones, to this day, is an artistic hero of mine. I think about his work every time I make a movie. Yeah, I think our style is distinct. It's something I know certainly Pierre and I really try to embrace.
As far as the designs go, I have to credit a lot of that to Eric Guillon, our French character designer and production designer, who from Despicable Me through Minions through this film, brings a very cartoony kind of sort of feel to his work, very much like a New Yorker cartoon, which funny enough, was one of our original sources of inspiration -- New Yorker cartoons about cats and dogs, compiled into books which I have on my shelf. That great New Yorker cartoon of the dog saying to another dog, “On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog" is one of my favorites. Again, it's a cartoon sensibility that's reinforced by our designers as well as our animators. At least in the case of the Despicable Me world up through Pets.
DS: Last thing. As the director, all eyes turn to you. You are the voice of reason. You are the voice of calm. You are the one that everyone looks to when they're having a bad day, a bad week, or a bad year. What are some of the skills that you bring to the job that allow you to stand at the helm of a creative process that takes years to complete, involves hundreds of artists, where day in and day out, you need to make sure you get their best and they want to give you their best?
CR: Well, I think it's a few things. I mean, you do have to be a good manager. I like to think that when I speak to people on the team, I do it with a mixture of honesty and humor. By that, I mean, it's hard sometimes, [delivering bad news to] somebody who works hard animating a shot and it's taken weeks, and then it gets cut from the film because at the end of the day, it ultimately just didn't land. I try to be honest about that, mixing it with humor so it doesn't seem so dire -- "Here's the reason we're changing it" – and just being straightforward about it. Hopefully, you can make the artist feel good about it, or as good as you can, anyway. It's always disappointing to see your work cut out. I think that's one of the hardest things to work through when things change.
There again, it's a very iterative process. When everyone, including myself, is invested in an idea, you do your best. Then when we remove it because it's for the good of the film, it's tough. You sort of have to work through it, like, "Here's why I removed it. This is why we're changing it. Here's why I think it's a good idea." Hopefully, you can end with a smile.
Also, with an idea, if you can provide some inspiration and motivation, even if it's not the final idea, but provide some thoughts that lead to an idea, it can be…sometimes, of course, you throw up your hands and say, "I don't know what to do here." But usually, it's best if you at least offer, "I don't know exactly if this will work, but what if we try something like this?" I think the hardest thing for a team is if they don't know, if they have no clue what you're looking for. Trying to provide some clear idea a big part of why I like to think I can do the job.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.