Chris Renaud interview: Secret Life Of Pets, Despicable Me

Chris Renaud on animation, getting trailers right, Gru in Despicable Me and The Secret Life Of Pets...

Heading into cinemas later this year is the new film from Illumination Entertainment, The Secret Life Of Pets. Director Chris Renaud previously brough us Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 and The Lorax, and The Secret Life Of Pets lands on June 24th in the UK. Following the release of the new trailer for the film, Renaud spared us some time for a chat about the movie’s progress.

Here’s that new trailer first, to whet your appetite…

And here’s how the interview went…

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How far along are you with the production? Is it finished now?

We have a bit to go. We’ve probably got about another eight weeks of animation – roughly – so that’s kind of the most active part of production, obviously. And then we’ll be finishing lighting and rendering beyond that. But I’d say another two months, roughly.

It must be slightly weird doing a round of press talks this early on.

Yes and no. I mean, it’s always good to talk to people and hopefully drum up interest. At this point, we know what the movie is going to be, so it’s not as much of an unknown as maybe a year and a half ago.

Actually, that raises an interesting point. As an animation director, things aren’t quite as immediate as it would be in a live action film, are they? A decision you make today might only have an impact several weeks or months down the line.

I always use the analogy of, it’s a little bit like building an airplane as you’re flying it, which I do think is different than live action. It is similar in that you’re making quite a few decisions every day, but it’s more of a long term thing, and there’s a certain malleability to the process, because it’s all in the box, it’s all in the computer, so if you want to change something, you have a little bit more flexibility through the process of a couple of years.

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Whereas with live action, typically, if you’ve shot plates, you do that – depending on the type of shoot it is, over three months or so – then you’ve got to use that material in the editing room. So it’s definitely a different process than live action, and the creative can do some shifts over the course of the production.

So this close to the release of the film, how many decisions are there left to be made?

You’d be surprised actually. At this point it’s fine tuning versus major shifts, but some of that fine tuning can really yield some big results. Whether it’s something like trying to locate a better gag, or something bigger, like, ‘how do we generate a little bit more empathy for this character?’ ‘How do we get on this character’s side?’

It was something, certainly with Despicable Me, that we had to work on through the course of developing the movie. How bad was Gru? What was the right balance? And in the course of that film, we started him very bad, and kept pulling back and pulling back to try to get the right balance of him being a villain, and also being empathetic – being the type of character that an audience would want to follow throughout the movie. 

So it’s that kind of stuff that, as you get into the fine tuning. Obviously, you can’t reinvent the wheel at this point, but there are things you can do that can have a major impact.

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I presume that comes down to editing and trimming out things that are almost finished there as opposed to creating new content?

It can, but it can also be – ‘let’s go back to the actor and get a different take on this moment’. Instead of playing the character argumentative, let’s play him more sad or dejected. It can involve a few different things.

Once you’ve rerecorded the voice, do you then go back in and heavily reanimate that scene, or is it something more subtle than that?

It depends on the performance. If it’s a simple thing like, ‘we’re going to change the line and hopefully get a better joke’, then you’re just adjusting the lip synch, but if it’s a real performance choice – like, ‘this might play better if he’s a little sad or dejected in this moment versus combative, then obviously that’s a complete redo. Even to the point of maybe changing the camera angle, making the character feel more vulnerable versus dominant in the shot. It sort of depends on the scale of the change, I guess.

With the way these things are animated, presumably a lot of those options are available to you for a lot longer than they used to be?

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That’s absolutely true. What happens is, just as your iPhone is a lot better now than it was four years ago, obviously the same is true for computer animation. Even from the point of view of the availability of the tools, the cost of the tools.

Going back to Despicable Me, at the time we were limited in what we could do. We were really making decisions like, ‘let’s avoid water as much as we can’, ‘let’s avoid hair’, and a lot of our meetings were about policing for mistakes, ‘oh gosh, look, Gru’s elbow popped outside of his jacket’, or whatever it is. Now what’s great is that with the improvements in the technology, the pipeline, our team, most of our meetings are about creative decisions like, ‘hey maybe the fur should flow a little bit more’, or ‘maybe because it’s wet, it should clump like this’. Versus ‘oh my God, that looks terrible’, the kind of thing we had to do in the beginning, the toolset has definitely improved, not just in general, but it helps the malleability of the process.

You’re talking from a very technical point of view, but from a storytelling point of view, specifically, how do you think the technology has changed the way you work?

I think what it does is, it does keep in the back of your mind the willingness to try something, know that it might fail, and then try something else. Very specifically, I would say comedy in some ways, because comedy is one of those things where, anybody who says, ‘I know exactly what joke is gonna land’ is kind of lying. You might have a suspicion, but I’m always surprised by what moments make you go, ‘y’know, that worked a lot better than I thought it would’. And so when you’ve got this flexibility in storytelling, you can be like, ‘let’s try this idea’, knowing you reserve the right to change it if it didn’t work as well as we thought.

I think with narrative stuff, it’s a little bit trickier, because it’s so intertwined; so you’re trying to construct the idea, even in storyboards, and then the script that is going to work well. But that said, of course again, depending on where you are in the process, you can change things there too by shifting scenes or editing things down or whatever. So I think those are the ways that the technical aspects have affected the storytelling process.

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And on The Secret Life Of Pets, you have a co-director. Can you explain how that works, as I imagine it changes things a little.

Well I think, certainly, you could imagine things being difficult if people didn’t get along, I suppose, or didn’t have the same view of the movie, but Yarrow Cheney, who is the co-director comes from art direction and production design, and he’s certainly taken a lead in that aspect of the film, working with Colin Stimpson, who is the art director. But in addition, he also works with me looking at storyboards. He and I both storyboarded some of the movie, working in animation with me. I record the actors – in the English speaking territories – in addition to leading the animation and the storyboarding¸

But the good thing about having a co-director is, these movies take so long, that it’s nice to have a collaborator who you can bounce ideas off of, and he can have ideas that help moments, and have someone to have a conversation with and develop the film with. In addition to the very simple thing of when I’m here in LA recording an actor, or at a preview screening or whatever, he’s there running things in Paris, making sure everything in running well, and that everyone has somebody to go to get the answers. Think that for me is the big thing about having a co-director. The duration of these things, it’s really great to have someone you can rely on and trust and to help you get through it, basically.

One thing I am curious about – as we’ve discussed, this is still not a finished product. At the moment this film is being sold around the world, based on a trailer that is essentially single scene. Was that something that the marketing team requested, or was it something you told them was almost ready to go?

It’s a couple of things.

One, and it’s certainly something that Chris Melandri, the head of Illumination [Entertainment] has a very clear perspective on is, ‘how do you market a film so that it stands out and feels unique. I don’t know if you remember the Scratch short that preceded the first Ice Age, but that was something that was created, and created a bit of a sensation, because no one had ever really done a trailer that way. And then that element was, of course, incorporated into the beginning of the movie. With this, it’s a little bit similar. We were talking about what to do as the first piece that was presented, and what you see in the trailer is sort of an introduction to the characters in the film. It very clearly shows the concept: doors closing, and then what do these animals do.

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I think it was completed, it was one of our first scenes as we were moving into production, so of course that always impacts, if footage needs to be ready. And I think we’d shown it somewhere, at a marketing thing, or shown it to some Universal people. And it got a very, very strong reaction right off the bat – I don’t even think the footage was completed yet. And so, from that, it was a good indication of like, ’well, if it’s working here, why don’t we try it as our first foot forward to market this film, and show what the film’s about. And that’s what we did. So basically from the favourable reaction we received when people saw it as a small group, that became the idea of like, ‘OK, let’s use this as something from within the movie, and that feels very distinct to the concept. That’s how it came about, was basically people seeing the scene in the movie, and liking it, and the idea coming to market the film that way.

Chris Renaud, thank you very much!