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New kid Illumination lights up

29 September 2010 by Tim Evans

IlluminationIllumination...new kid on the blockWe take a look at the fledgling animation studio Illumination, who plan to take on the might of DreamWorks, Pixar and Blue Sky.

They've already had a hit with Despicable Me and are lining up Ricky Gervais's Flanimals as well as Dr Seuss's The Lorax...


You're going to have to punch above your weight if you're going to succeed in a market dominated by Pixar (Toy Story, Up, The Incredibles), DreamWorks (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs Aliens and Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who).

Yet in just over three years Illumination have scored a massive hit with Despicable Me...and put Universal back on track after a raft of adult dramas failed to cover their budgets.

Illumination-logoIt's all down to former Fox Animation president Chris Meledandri, an old industry hand who can't draw but worked on Anastasia and Titan A.E, and oversaw the launch of Fox's blockbuster Ice Age franchise and integrated Blue Sky Studios into the business. Then Universal came calling...

"I found that I could not turn away from the extraordinary opportunity that they offered me: the entrepreneurial aspect, the excitement about a new company, the breadth of the production mandate to include all forms of animation as well as live action," he said.

Meledandri - once installed as the overseer of Universal's fledgling animation business - was in the enviable position of being able to who call on a talented team of film-makers who managed to put Despicable Me together in record time.

They do not have an in-house animation studio and instead subscribe to a philosophy of global film making and contract independent studios all over the world on a film-by-film basis.

Chris-MeledandriChris Meledandri"What’s particularly nice is that the making of Despicable Me was probably more fluid than any film I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “There was a clarity and a unified vision behind this film and I am confident that this was the fastest transition of any major studio CG movie from idea to release that has ever been done.”

The orginal concept for the movie was pitched by Sergio Pablos, an animator with a small studio in Spain. Meledendri immediately pencilled in writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, who had given life to Dr Seuss's elephant in Horton Hears a Who!

It helped that Meledandri added some of the available top talent he worked with during his eight years at Fox when his division was involved in churning out hits like Ice Age, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Simpsons Movie and Robots.

FlanimalsFlanimals in the pipeline...After tempting them to Illumination's Santa Monica HQ, he put them under exclusive contract and turned them into a versatile team of artists, writers and directors  who move from one family-friendly outing to the next.

From the beginning. Illumination were keen to put a trademark stamp on their films - a total avoidance of two-dimensional heroes or antagonists.

"The idea of making an animated film in which the villain is your protagonist is unusual and very challenging," Meledandri reflected. "By the end of the film Gru [Steve Carell's paternally minded super-villain] has undergone a transformation that's made possibly by starting him in a place where aspects of him are downright unlikeable."

Despicable-Me-19Gru...movie spin-offIllumination is also making two short films featuring The Minions, the  thumb-shaped henchmen of paternal super-villain Gru, Hop, a live-action CG toon with Russell Brand voicing the Easter Bunny and an animated film of Ricky Gervais' children's book Flanimals.

Co-director Chris Renaud, who began working with Meledandri as a storyboard artist at Ice Age producer Blue Sky, is directing The Lorax while Pierre Coffin, another Despicable Me director, is working on two Illumination projects.

Also in the pipeline is a stop motion 3D animated film based on The Addams Family cartoons which Tim Burton Will direct.