Though he may not be as instantly recognizable as some of the voice talent of Despicable Me, Chris Meledandri is a major player in the world of animation. Having produced a wide range of animated fare for Fox, Meledandri’s credits include Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who! and Alvin and the Chipmunks, among many others. In 2007, Meledandri launched his own company, Illumination Entertainment which, partnered with Universal, has a brand new slate of animated films lined up, beginning with this week’s Despicable Me.
Meledandri sat down to talk with ComingSoon.net about the film, its cast and a number of projects that he’ll be producing in the near future.
ComingSoon.net: When did the pitch for “Despicable Me” first come your way?
Chris Meledandri: Well, I had been the President of 20th Century Fox animation and I had been at Fox for about 13 years, having built a business there that was a CG animation business starting with “Ice Age.” I acquired a group called Blue Sky Studios and built them up into a full-fledged movie company. I developed a bunch of movies for them to make. After 13 years I got this desire to build something again and this opportunity from Universal arrived to do just that. The idea was to build that company from things I had learned at Fox. We do some thing very similarly and other things very different. I was just about a month into the new company when a Spanish animator named Sergio Pablos came in to see me. He had worked for Disney for many years and he had moved back to Spain. He had a set of about 15 drawings and he pitched me this story about Gru, this supervillain whose life was transformed when he ended up crossing paths with three little girls. While the world saw him as a villain, they saw him as a father. That was a little over three years ago. From there I had a very, very quick reaction. A very positive reaction. I loved the idea of a supervillain as ultimately the protagonist of a movie. I brought aboard directors and writers who I had worked with on earlier films like “Horton.” It was a very, very fast process given the normal timeframes for animation.
CS: There’s certainly the comic book element but I was wondering if maybe there was also an Edward Gorey influence.
Meledandri: There are a lot of influences that I think breath through this film. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about Gorey and, to be honest with you, I don’t know how many other core members of the team are fans. But I’m sure that Carter Goodrich, who designed all the characters, is a Gorey fan. Carter, having designed for “Ratatouille” and other Pixar films, is one of the world’s best character designers. There’s the influence of sort of the classic Bondian villain which one of our directors, Christopher Renaud, had grown up sort of steeped in that culture. There’s a little Charles Addams at work. There’s a melding of influences that range from sort of the delightfully wicked to the fun supervillain. So heritage can be found in a lot of different pockets.
CS: The cast for this is filled with recognizable names, but nearly all of them are doing very specific voices. Can you talk about the decision to go that route?
Meledandri: Well, I was working with Steve when I started the new company because he was doing a principal voice in “Horton Hears a Who!” When we made the decision to start the new company, one of the first things I did was agree to complete “Horton,” which I had been overseeing, as part of my division. I agreed to complete it in a producerial role. So I was working with Steve. I had gone from being a fan of his work to really understanding his creative abilities, which are immense. When the idea solidified about really seriously pursuing the development of Sergio’s story, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio were writing the story and Steve emerged as, really, the choice to do the role. Clearly because of his creative abilities. Because of his ability to express character through his voice with humor. And yet there’s also something in his voice that really engenders empathy. If you’re going to make a movie about a character who is a supervillain, it’s fantastic to have a core sense of empathy for that character. His voice sets the tone. Now he immediately came up with the idea of inventing a voice. This was the very first voice that he shared with us that we landed on. That set the tone for Julie Andrews to invent a voice. I think because of the style of the movie, other actors who weren’t aware of Steve’s creative choices also got drawn in. Jason Segel, where it’s clearly Jason at the core, really launches from that. Russell Brand. There are a lot of characters who are having a lot of fun with these voices.
CS: Russell Brand was the biggest surprise for me. I was surprised to hear he was in it and had to look up what voice he did after the fact. I couldn’t believe that was him.
Meledandri: (Laughs) Yeah, he’s the real unexpected surprise.
CS: You’re working with him again very soon.
Meledandri: Yes. He’s voicing the role of the son of the Easter Bunny in a live action movie called “Hop” which, his character, being the son of the Easter Bunny, is a CG character in a live action world.
CS: Is that cartoony or do you go for photo-real?
Meledandri: You go for photo-real details on fur, quality of eyes, cloth. Because the bunny does wear a shirt. But the design itself is a caricature. Bunny-like, but it’s a Peter de Sève design. So the personality of the character is so much defined by the stylistic choices of the designer. But we give the audience the details so that they can suspend disbelief and watch the movie thinking, “There’s a rabbit. He happens to talk.”
CS: There’s also an inside joke for “The Lorax” in “Despicable Me,” with the character featured on one of the little girls’ shirts.
Meledandri: Yeah. It’s our next animated movie. “Hop” comes out in Spring 2011 and “The Lorax” comes out in 2012. It’ll be my second foray into translating the world of Ted Geisel.
CS: It’s funny you mentioned Charles Addams because there was rumor that you’re going to be doing “The Addams Family.” Is that a project you’re involved with?
Meledandri: Yes. Yes, we are.
CS: Is that as a CGI film or is that stop-motion?
Meledandri: Stop-motion animation, yeah.
CS: And that’s going back past the show to the original cartoons?
Meledandri: That’s correct. Past the show. Past the TV series. Really sort of starting with his original illustrations.
CS: Is that something that Tim Burton is involved in?
CS: Is he going to direct?
Meledandri: Yes. I mean, that’s all very very early. But we’re developing it with that in mind.
CS: Would you shoot that in black and white?
Meledandri: No. All of that is just – We’re just now at the story phase. Yeah. But stuff has been written as if we are doing it in black and white, but that’s not correct. It’s not incorrect, but we just haven’t gotten to that point.
Despicable Me hits theaters this Friday, July 9th.