Yin and Yang
Karen Moltenbrey
October 5, 2017

Yin and Yang

Gru is a conflicted character. A supervillain who once tried to steal the moon with assistance from his mischievous Minions, he lost his hard edge for a softer one when he fell hard for three bright-eyed orphans. But retaining his status of a bad guy gone good is not easy for Gru, especially when his long-lost twin steps into the picture.

In Despicable Me 3, Gru is fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to take down the latest bad guy: the former child TV star Balthazar Bratt, who lives and breathes all things ’80s and is bent on destroying Hollywood, which rejected him after he lost his “child appeal.” The Minions want their master to return to his old dastardly ways, but Gru is determined to continue his reformed ways. 

Then he meets his brother, Dru, in many ways a contrast to Gru. But is Dru the yang to Gru’s yin, or vice versa? Gru is short and squat; Dru is tall and lean. Gru wears black; Dru, white. Gru is introverted and contained; Dru is emotional and energetic. Gru is bald; Dru has long, luxurious locks. Gru is newly unemployed; Dru has inherited their father’s fortune. 

The boys were separated at birth, with each parent taking one of the boys – Gru’s mom insists she had last pick. Dru seems to have it all, with the exception of one thing: He wants to follow in their father’s footsteps and become a world-class villain, and looks to Gru to teach him to become despicable. 

Gru agrees: He can help his brother and use their dad’s sophisticated, villainous gadgets to finally take down Balthazar. It doesn’t take long before sibling rivalry surfaces.

“We thought it would be a great idea to give Gru another person to drive him nuts and make him wonder about his purpose,” says Co-writer Ken Daurio. “Dru gets Gru excited about the possibility of being in villainy again. It’s very, ‘Come on…just one more heist. It’s in our blood. We’re supposed to do this.’” 

The film is directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, and co-directed by Eric Guillion. It is produced by Illumination Mac Guff founder and CEO Chris Meledandri and his longtime fellow producer, Janet Healy, who have shepherded every Illumination film since the company’s inception a decade ago, including Minions and Despicable Me 2 – two of the top six animated films of all time. (As of this writing, Despicable Me 3 was sitting at number 9.)

All told, 570 people were involved in the production of this latest film. Writing, some artwork, and boarding were done in Santa Monica, California, while the majority of the work occurred in Paris.

Past Present

Audiences were first introduced to Gru and company in 2010, with Despicable Me, followed by Despicable Me 2 in 2013. The crew began building assets for Despicable Me 3 in mid-2015, with production starting in November of that year and wrapping in April 2017. After three successful sequels in the series and one prequel (2015’s Minions), it’s clear that the animators at Illumination know these characters well, inside and out.

The challenge, however, was to update the characters in order to streamline the animation and production processes, while retaining the look and feel that audiences have come to recognize and love. 

“With the time between the films, we have been able to advance the character models,” explains Coffin. “For his part, Gru has softened just a touch since he became a dad. He’s not the hardened supervillain we first met, but he still has that despicable edge to him. Lucy (his new wife and agent partner introduced in Despicable Me 2) is extremely stylish, and even though it makes her harder to animate, her ever-present scarf just defines her. [As for the children] Margo is even more expressive and relatable in this chapter; Edith’s mischievousness is even more subtle, and Agnes – if it is possible – is more adorable than we could imagine.”

This is where having three directing partners is particularly advantageous. “The acting is done at the same time as the cinematography and the story development. Multiple directors allow us to divide the tasks in the creative process,” explains Balda. Coffin is heavily involved in the animation process and story; Guillion more so in the visual concepts and character designs. And Balda focuses more on storyboarding and editing.

Each film has many recurring characters and introduces some new ones as well – all with their own challenges. There’s even some new Minions, including Mel, who heads a revolt that results in all but two Minions deserting Gru for his desire to stay on the straight and narrow. 

According to Bruno Chauffard, who was CG supervisor on the film along with Frank Baradat, the most challenging new character was Dru. “Technically, besides the hair, he wasn’t very difficult since he’s based on Gru,” he says. “But we had to define who he was as Gru’s twin brother. We did some animation exploration to make sure Dru was on the same level of Gru, who is such a great character. They had to be totally complementary and credible as twin brothers.

“Animating two main characters with nearly identical physical attributes was a real challenge,” Chauffard adds.

And then there was Balthazar. Animators wanted to give him an ’80s style of movement – to complement the era’s fashion and music he immerses himself in –  and does so through dance moves.

In terms of the environments, Freddonia village, Dru’s home, was far from easy to construct, mainly because there are no straight lines. “Nothing is straight or square,” says Chauffard. “Every single house is unique and must fit in perfectly with the house next door.”

Tools of the Trade

From a technical standpoint, this new film is much different from the others in the franchise. “Four years and three movies have been released since the first Despicable Me, and we have adjusted and vastly improved our pipeline and proprietary software,” says Chauffard.

So while on first look it may appear that the studio was able to reuse its recurring cast, that was not actually the case. The crew mostly reuses designs and redoes modeling and texturing to match the studio’s most recent pipeline developments.

“In a way, you could say we reuse our character designs, since the designs and proportions are the same. But we rebuilt them to improve their topologies to be the most efficient as possible, to achieve the best performance, with updated rigging tools, new deformer tools, and a facial animation system,” Chauffard adds. “Facial expressions and body language are the emotions for the character – you can’t underestimate the importance of that in animated movies.”

Illumination also improved the shading and texturing, as well as the cloth simulations, in the film – Despicable Me 3 contains far more simulations than the previous films in the series. “The more feature films we make, the more cloth and hair simulations we incorporate, as we streamline our dynamic simulation pipeline and improve some of our dynamic tools,” explains Chauffard. “And of course, as the computer power increases, we’re able to simulate more.”

Despite the new characters, environments, and actions, Despicable Me 3 didn’t require any specific new tools outside of the usual evolution of the studio’s software and plug-ins.

The studio uses a mixture of commercial and in-house software, the latter including Illumination’s own asset manager software used by the entire team and proprietary lighting software. “We feel that it’s extremely important to control the look of our movies, so right from the start we invested in R&D to develop our lighting software,” says Chauffard. “We experiment quite a bit, mixing technologies to achieve the best possible result with the fastest render time.”

On the commercial side, the artists use Autodesk’s Maya, Side Effects’ Houdini, Foundry’s Nuke, and Tweak’s RV, atop of which the studio often builds custom plug-ins. 

“As I assume everybody is, we’re always pushing technology and computers further,” says Chauffard. “The most complex issue is always the same – to have a streamlined pipeline able to maintain the pace required to deliver the best quality for the movie, while ensuring that each department can work properly and deliver in time to the next [department].” 

Ready, Set, Action!

Despicable Me 3 contains a range of effects, mostly done in Houdini. Nevertheless, there are two big-effects action sequences: the opening sequence in the ocean and the final battle in Los Angeles at the end of the film. For the water, Illumination began improving its effects pipeline using Houdini while working on The Secret Life of Pets, to handle the two sequences that take place on a river. On Sing, the theater destruction was a huge water moment. “Those two features really helped us get ready for the big opening sequence in this film,” notes Chauffard.

The final battle contains some classic destruction shots, albeit with chewing gum. “Unfortunately, those bubbles didn’t require anything technically new. We would have loved to talk about a new superpowerful bubble gum toolmaker!” Chauffard says with a laugh.

Making those two scenes even more difficult was the fact that the opener was the teaser, so it had to be delivered very early in the production – “and it’s a long sequence with lots of effects,” he adds. The other one is very long and filled with effects, too, and it was the last sequence the crew worked on – and during the time when they were pressed to deliver the movie.

For the crowds, the artists use various tools based on classic keyframe animation cycles, as opposed to a complete crowd system. “We think tertiary characters and crowds bring an extra level to the movie, and in telling background stories, we animated lots of tertiary characters via our keyframe crowd animation department,” Chauffard says.

In this way, the animators are able to keep complete control of the Minions joking around in the background of many shots. But, they do have the tools to duplicate, copy, and then modify an animation from one character to another. “The longest part is making the actual cycles,” Chauffard adds. For especially massive crowds, the cycles are used within a particle system.

Moving Forward

Does Gru return to a life of crime? You need to see the film to find out. But what’s not a secret is that the Minions find themselves in trouble (yet again) and need Gru’s help. And vice versa. 

And this leads us to the next adventure in the series, Minions 2, which is planned for July 2020. You can bet it will feature many recurring, recognizable characters that have again been restructured to take advantage of the latest tools and technologies, enabling Illumination to continue delivering animated features that audiences crave.