The co-director of Illumination Entertainment’s highly anticipated animated spin-off details the challenge of giving the loveable yellow sidekicks of ‘Despicable Me’ and ‘Despicable Me 2’ their own film.
Expectations are running quite high for Illumination’s newest animated feature film, Minions. Centered around the antics of the outrageous sidekicks spun off from the hugely successful Despicable Me franchise, the film faces a significant challenge thrusting comic relief characters into the spotlight of their own independent story. DreamWorks’ recent Penguins of Madagascar is ample evidence of just how easily that idea can run into problems.
Co-directing Minions, alongside French animation veteran Pierre Coffin, is Kyle Balda, a true American in Paris. After a career in animation at Pixar, he left the studio’s comfy Northern California confines for the wanderlust of European travel. After a number of teaching stints at several top schools, he eventually ended up working at Illumination, located in the famed French capital, moving from The Lorax to Despicable Me to Minions. AWN had an opportunity to talk with Balda at the FMX 2015 Conference in Stuttgart. He shared his insights on directing, managing creative talent and the challenge of finding a workable story for a group of mumbling, bumbling, bright yellow maniacs.
Dan Sarto: What brought you from Pixar in Northern California all the way to Illumination in Paris?
Kyle Balda: Mostly curiosity. My mother was born in Malta, so I have some European roots. In 2001, after having worked at Pixar for a number of years, I decided to take a little bit of time off and travel around Europe and do some teaching and some consulting. I did a lot of teaching at the Animation Workshop in Denmark, Les Gobelins and the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg. Then I landed in Paris because I was introduced to Pierre Coffin at Annecy in 2000. In getting to know him, he suggested I go and work with him on Pat and Stanley, which is a TV series he was directing for TF1 in France. I just started getting involved, working with him creatively, and we started directing commercials together. I started to really make a life there in Paris.
About six years ago, Chris Meledandri came over and set up Illumination in Paris with Mac Guff for doing Despicable Me. The work relationship I had with Pierre up until that point had led to my becoming the head of layout on Despicable Me, which was something different for me, because I had been doing animation supervising and animating back in California. I wanted to try something a little bit different to get into the visual storytelling, of staging, and camera work and that sort of thing. That gradually led into going back to California, Los Angeles this time, where I was working with Chris Meledandri on the marketing material for Despicable Me, so all of the tool kits and the short films, the three Minion short films that came out with the DVD, and various commercials and stuff like this. That was where I got a little more experience directing. That was a new thing for me there.
DS: How did you first get involved as co-director of Minions?
KB: First I went and co-directed with Chris Renaud on The Lorax that had already, when I jumped on the project, had already been pretty well into production, had just started animation. I was on that project for about 15 months. As that was coming to a close, Minions was starting up, so I just segued directly into that project.
DS: Describe the challenge crafting a story around the Minions, who previously had been used solely as comedic sidekicks.
KB: That was one of the biggest challenges, to figure out how we could put the narrative on the shoulders of these little guys who we've used before as comedic relief or cutting away to various points in the Despicable Me movies to watch a more miniature story about what was going on with them. The Minions up until now have been collectively one character all together. They're being very mischievous, or a little bit making fun of each other and having a laugh about it and just screwing up and failing up. To try to make them the main characters of a story, we needed first to pull out a couple of them that we could identify.
So there's three main characters in the Minion movie: Kevin, Stuart, and Bob. We wanted to identify them, give them their own signature, each of the three, but they still had to stay as Minions. They still had to have these global Minion qualities to them. What we tried to do is, Kevin, who is sort of the leader of the three, he's a little bit more kind of a parental role. He's taken responsibility for Stuart and Bob who he's taking along on this journey. Stuart is a little more of like the adolescent. He's kind of impertinent and he plays the ukulele. He's dreaming of playing guitar. He wants be a rock star. Bob is sort of a younger-spirited Minion who gets a bit easily distracted. He's quite innocent, but he sort of gets in trouble because he's too curious. So Kevin's constantly trying to rally these guys and keep them under control, but at the same time he's also a Minion, too, so he gets distracted as well. That was sort of the challenge in trying to differentiate these three different personalities, but still keep them as what we know Minions to be.
DS: What are your main responsibilities as a co-director? How do you share the workload with Pierre Coffin?
KB: Things worked pretty organically between Pierre and I. Basically, I would work with the storyboarders up front, taking the script pages and interpreting things with them. Then we would move the boards into editorial and start to do a rough cut of that. Pierre does all the voices for the Minions, and so he would come into editorial at that point and see the first cut that we would do. We'd start to get his input, his notes, and I would work with the boarders to implement some of the ideas and changes that he wanted to put in there.
Then we would always launch things together in the various departments as it moves from story into layout. I tended to follow layout more on a daily basis. But once it got to animation, then Pierre took it over and he oversaw animation more and that's when I would come around once a week or so and just have a global look and have the rare notes about something. Then we would both sit together in lighting and compositing and watch the final product come along.
Aside from that, we would have very regular check-ins with Chris Meledandri and we would collaborate with him and Brian Lynch, the writer, who was also in LA at the time, and just talk about the sequences as they were moving from the various stages from story to layout into animation. There aren't so many really defined walls between the different steps in production. So if we're working on something in story, we get to a point where we're feeling pretty good about it, we move it into layout, but we still continue to keep an eye on story ideas. If performance ideas come in, or something that might change the staging, even as it goes into animation, we might come back and change a camera and do something to re-stage a gag. An animator might propose a gag that's really good and we don't want to miss it, so we'll go back and reverse engineer to be able to accommodate that. It's quite soft in terms of at what point we can change something. We keep it pretty organic that way.
DS: When do you know when a scene is finally done? How is that decided?
KB: It happens a couple of different times, because you can think something is done, you can get a sequence all put together, you watch it, you watch it in the room, editorial, we'll show it to Chris Meledandri and get his input on it and we'll all agree on which way to go on something. It feels like it's working and then we move it down the pipeline into the next department.
Then, as other segments start to come together, we put them... We get the whole first act put together, for example, then we'll all gather around again -- the writer, Chris, Pierre, and I -- and watch the movie. Then something that felt like it was really working at one point now contextually, something feels off about it and needs to be changed, needs to be tweaked.
It's constantly being worked and reworked and refined and developed in a sense. It's just part of the process. It's definitely not where the scripts get written and it's completely finished and then we go and make than script. We're constantly going back and forth with the writer and it eventually like bubbles up to the surface. As we're getting into the last weeks of production you're still refining little things, or changing little nuances of what the character do that can make a huge impact on how you relate to those characters.
There never feels like there's a definitive moment of that's finished. It's more like you feel like, "Okay, that feels like it's working. We can keep on moving onto this." Then the whole thing comes into focus.
DS: What are some of the strategies you use to manage a large team of creative people?
KB: It's definitely one of the challenging aspects of directing, trying to accommodate all, because everyone has so many ideas that they want to propose and things that could work for the film and a lot of them make it on to the screen.
I think one of the things as a director is just being able to step back and trying to see the big picture to sort of filter if a particular idea someone is proposing is going to be right for the story or right for that moment in the story. Sometimes the storyboard artist can come up with a series of really funny gags in the sequence and they're very focused on that sequence and it works. But when you get into editorial and put it together and watch it in that act or in that first half of the movie it might rhythmically not work from what you've seen coming before and what follows afterwards.
We try to accommodate things but sometimes you have to push back a little bit and say, "Okay, at this point in the film that character can't be doing that" or "We need to have a slower pace here” or "We need to have a faster pace here for the storytelling." Animators often can come up with a lot of ideas that would want to make their shot longer and longer and longer, and there could be some really funny stuff in there.
Then it comes to editorial and the editor wants to cut things down and try to make things tighter and tighter so that the storytelling has a nicer flow to it. We're always putting things into the editorial, watching it, taking it back to animation and to story and layout. It's always going back and forth. This way we can work out how some of those things are working.
I don't think you can step back as a director and know everything that needs to happen in the film. You're trusting an animator to be the actor for that character, so they are like the custodian for the character in that way. Because they are so focused with the character they might actually know something about the performance that the director can't know. You have to be open to that.
The voice actor, the talent doing the voices, is the same thing; they're speaking for their character. The director, I think, is representing more of the story and trying to figure out how the storytelling goes. It's where those two things meet that things sort of, the chemistry sort of works. At the end of the day you have to be able to make choices about what's going to work for the movie.
DS: What is the toughest part of managing a group of animators and other artists on a feature film production?
KB: Artists can be very sensitive people. It's the nature of their work. You're in touch with something really intuitive. I think just by the nature of that, you get very attached to what you're doing.
You can have a lot of opinions about it and you have a lot of opinions about which way you think things should go or what the character should do or which way the story should go. I think the worst thing that can happen is that you feel like you're just a cog in the wheel like trying to just get the shot done and get it moved down the pipeline. I think if you work that way then you're actually doing a disservice to the film because the reason why we hire these talented people is so that they can bring something to augment the film to make it a better project.
I think the important thing is to just listen, is to just take the time to hear what people think about the movie, about where it's going. Then, again, after you get all their feedback, take that step back and ask yourself what works for the movie from the global view of things. I think it's really important to take time and listen to what people say about it. We show the movie to all the artists, all the different departments at various stages and open the doors to get feedback on how they think things are going.
It's helpful in one way because then they can see the film in its entirety and they probably haven't seen it for the last six weeks. They've been focused on a smaller slice of the movie. Then, I think it solves a lot of concerns or issues that they might have had about what's happening with the characters or where the story's going. Then, for things that we're still working out, you can get quite a lot of feedback. They can be quite overwhelming about, "Well, I think the character should go this way. I think the story should go this way." All these different ideas. Then, just sorting through that feedback and all those opinions and trying to figure what's going to serve the movie the best.
DS: How does the culture at Illumination compare to Pixar?
KB: It feels like there are some similarities. The one disadvantage that I have is that when I was at Pixar I was working only in the animation department. I didn't have the full umbrella view of how decisions were being made at a director level. Normally by the time a lot of story stuff had been worked out, in animation they're ready to move forward with those ideas. One thing I have noticed is that there's a lot more time in a Pixar model taken to develop the story and layouts and there are a lot more people.
I remember watching the credits for Despicable Me. We were like six or seven people in the layout department. On a Pixar film there's like 20 people or something. That's one of the main differences I think that I felt. The interesting thing is that the whole movie in layout passed through the hands of only six or seven people. You can really have a big influence on the film in this way. I don't know so much about how the culture at Pixar is these days.
One thing that's happening a lot at Illumination is people moving across departments. Layout people having the opportunity to direct short films, storyboarders directing films, that sort of thing. So that people can have an experience in developing other aspects of their talents. I guess the main thing that I would say is that the style that we have at Illumination is that the project gets momentum pretty early. We get some script pages even just for the first act of the film and we start. We start boarding it. We start to feel it out visually and we work quite collaboratively. Things get in motion and then as it's moving we can we continue to construct the film. It can have a quite a bit of pace to it.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.