Summer's surprise hit didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but it was the first animated feature from a new studio, Illumination Entertainment. The film, Despicable Me, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and produced by Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, has an unlikely hero, a villain determined to steal the moon. Why? He wants to be famous. Even though his Minions, which are yellow thumb-shaped tubes of cuteness, give him a kind of Greek chorus support, Gru (Steve Carell) wants to aim higher. To do that, he enlists the help of three orphans, and the charming little girls perform a different kind of theft: They steal his heart. The film, which had an estimated budget of $69 million, has grossed $300 million at the box office.
"I think we pushed the state of the art in animation performance," says producer Janet Healy. "I love the voices and how they inspired the animation. But, the animators are great artists, and Pierre and Chris did a fantastic job with them. There is a lot of nuance, humor, and comic timing in the performances, and the performances are what people have responded to."
Healy, who was a producer for DreamWorks' Shark Tale, executive producer for Fox's
Everyone's Hero, and before that, digital effects products at Industrial Light & Magic for
Casper, was one of the first people that CEO Christopher Meledandri hired at Illumination. Meledandri, who was the founding president of 20
th Century Fox animation, where he was executive producer for
Ice Age, Robots, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Horton Hears a Who!, and several short films created at Blue Sky Studios, moved to NBC Universal and founded Illumination in 2007.
"When we decided that Despicable Me would be the first picture for Illumination, Chris, John Cohen, and I became the three producers," Healy says. The next step was deciding where in the world they would make the movie. Their search for a production company eventually led them to France and to Mac Guff Ligne, an effects facility that had recently finished work on an animated film titled
Dragon Hunters, the studio's second animated feature
. Futurikon Films'
Dragon Hunters had an estimated budget of $14 million (US).
"The film had such great production value," Healy says. "The animation is terrific, the surfacing, the effects. [Mac Guff] had gotten so much onto the screen with such constraints that we knew they could scale up."
And, indeed, the staff of artists more than doubled-from 100 on the last feature film to 285 for Despicable Me, including the freelancers. "We ended up keeping most of them," says Bruno Mahe, head of technology at Mac Guff. "That's the thing. In France, when it comes to animators, we have such good schools-Les Goblins, Supinfocom-so many artists come from those schools, and it's something we're eager to do, to have a continuity for them, whether in R&D, technical production, or animation."
And if high production values in an established studio and a large talent pool to draw from weren't enough, the French government provided tax incentives that Illumination welcomed, and which have helped keep French artists working in France. Of course, having an office five blocks from the Eiffel Tower helped, too.
"I moved to Paris and produced the film here," Healy says.
Carter Goodrich, who had designed the characters for Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille and
Open Season, among other films, moved onto the project early. "He found a visual style with the characters that was humorous," Healy says. "They are all different, but they still live in the same world."
Goodrich delivered original drawings, pencil on paper, to Illumination's Santa Monica, California, office. "It was like Christmas every time he delivered a packet," Healy says. Separately, the writers and storyboard artists began refining the story. Storyboarding happened in various places, but the writers always worked with Meledandri and Cohen in Santa Monica.
"The way we make these films-we board, write, punch it up before recording the actors, and then change it all the time until the week before the cold finish," Healy says. "We're always striving to make it as good as it can be. Sometimes that's just adding a line or changing the timing."
Once they began cutting the story together, though, the cutting room moved to France, where all Mac Guff would build all the assets. "All the CG happened in Paris," Healy says. "This was the first film I worked on since 1995 where I did not have to build a pipeline. For every other movie, I spent so much energy on how the whole thing would work. What Mac Guff was able to do was improve the tools and concentrate on the functionality. We built on top of the pipeline, but they had a pipeline in place."
That pipeline consists of Autodesk's Maya, the Foundry's Nuke, Tweak's RV, and many proprietary tools, including a raytraced rendering engine called MGLR (Mac Guff Ligne Render), an asset manager (InK), custom rigging and animation tools, and numerous Maya plug-ins, including tools based on caches for crowd animation.
"We've had our own rendering engine under development for 15 years now," Mahe says, "and a whole rigging team, some of whom have been here for 10 years now. And, the base layer of an asset management system and pipeline already existed in-house. The foundation was already there; we had built it for Dragon Hunters."
With much of the technology in place, needing only refinement, not development, the production challenges for Mahe and the crew were twofold: stereo and an American method of working.
"This film is an American movie made in France," Mahe says. "So, we had to adapt. We had to discover a new culture, a French way to do things within an American production method."
To help design the stereo version of the film, the producers brought John R.A. Benson onboard as stereoscopic supervisor. "John had worked on Coraline," Mahe says. "He made lots of adaptations and add-ons. We developed stereo tools for Nuke, and we developed plug-ins and scripts around Tweak's RV."
Because they couldn't find stereo displays in Europe, the studio personnel imported 60-inch Mitsubishi DLP screens from the US. "We needed those in addition to the anaglyph and dual projectors we had in-house to be sure we had the safest images and no glitches," Mahe says.
In addition to setting up the tools and equipment for a stereo 3D production, the team needed to predict the rendering challenge. "We didn't know what the extra payload would be for stereo compared to flat CG," Mahe says. "We render the left eye and then the right eye, and then, if we had glitches or artifacts, we had to re-render the left one again to fix things. So, it's a back-and-forth process."
Mahe estimates that at the peak of production because of the iterations needed for perfect stereo, the crew rendered approximately 500,000 layers a week on 6000 rendering cores running MGLR. "We had a rough number for the average layers per shot, but when you want a perfect shot, you need to adapt," he says. "So the average per shot could be 16 or 60. Also, we had to re-render a third eye, the mono version for the flat release."
For some shots, the stereo and mono versions differed a bit. "We we added some special effects on the mono version that could not be done in stereo," Mahe says. "For example, some flares cannot work in stereo. And the concept of the floating window can't be the same in both versions or the stereo won't work right. So, sometimes, we had a very specific floating window for the mono version."
The other rendering challenge centered on the number of characters. The film has 10 primary characters, 15 secondary characters, and close to 130 tertiary characters, including the Minions. "We spent time improving and rewriting the 3D rendering to get the speed we needed to render so many characters in the time we had," Mahe says. "Fortunately, we have a core R&D team in-house, so we could react to the increasing needs of production internally in a short time."
The crew at Mac Guff worked on the production for two and a half years, and their work for Illumination is continuing: Work has already begun on The Lorax, based on one of Dr. Seuss's books.
"We had so much fun making [Despicable Me], we're going to do this again," Healy laughs. That's something the film's blockbuster box-office success, arguably the first for an animated film created in France, has made possible. For years, we've seen short CG films by animators from such French schools as Les Goblins and Supinfocom win awards at SIGGRAPH and in other competitions. It's good to welcome Mac Guff, which has provided a home for many of these students, and Illumination to the short list of studios that produce blockbuster CG features.
Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World
. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.
To read about Mac Guff's earlier feature, Dragon Hunters, click here.