It’s surprisingly common to hear animation directors speak of a deep affinity for their characters, much as a parent would have for their child, but The Secret Life of Pets helmer Chris Renaud is no exception in that regard. The record-breaking Illumination film from Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, one of the highest-grossing original animated films of all time, stemmed from a simple, though commonplace question: What exactly do our pets do when we’re not around to watch them? Currently in Paris working on a Pets sequel, Renaud spoke with Deadline about the challenges of breaking the story, cheeky corporate synergy and his process in working with the team at Illumination.

How did you come to this project?

Well, honestly we were talking about what to do next at Illumination—I was actually still working on Despicable Me 2. We had to talk about what other things to get going. And [Illumination Entertainment CEO] Chris Meledandri said, “I’d always thought about, what do your pets do when you’re not home?” We were having breakfast, and all we had was that concept. We had to come up with, okay, what’s the story? What are the characters? And for me, it was instantly extremely interesting because I’ve had a pet pretty much my entire life, except maybe a couple of years when I was first out of college. So that was kind of it—we just started at that point. This was the spring of 2012. We just started talking about it and spitballing ideas, and developing what this world would be.

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From the beginning, Renaud felt that “putting [Louis C.K.] in an animated movie would be really an interesting choice.”
Universal/Illumination Entertainment
What was the process of getting A-list comedic talent on board? It’s an interesting feeling, hearing a talking dog voiced by Louis C.K.

We were certainly talking about him from the very beginning, and I think we felt exactly what you just said, that putting him in an animated movie would be really an interesting choice. Louis does some material in his own act about his experiences with his pets, particularly dogs, and his comedy really comes from a place of this kind of skewed take on the world. And I think, even in Louis’ mind, when we pitched him the idea, I think he thought of it as really pushing the animal’s perspective, almost like a Woody Allen-esque film, except from the perspective of a dog. I think those ideas really interested him, so it was the kind of thing that he came on board after we talked to him about what we were thinking of doing. I just think that it was something he found related to his work, but also his way of thinking.

What were the challenges or opportunities you found in working on a project emerging outside of existing IP?

It was very difficult at the beginning, to be honest with you—we had this concept, which we knew was compelling and fun, and we felt people would be interested in, but we didn’t know what to do with it. It’s the kind of thing that’s, in some ways, almost too open-ended. We were talking about everything from pets solving a murder mystery, to, would there be sci-fi elements? You can go anywhere with something that broad.

Where we ended up coming back to, for the first film, was the relatability of pets, coming up with this idea of, if you had an animal, and you introduced a new animal to your house, whether you got a cat and you bring a dog in; or a second cat, whatever. It can be a pretty traumatic experience. So that seemed like a concrete, relatable thing to work into our first film, and the introduction of these characters in the world.

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“It was very difficult at the beginning, to be honest with you,” he says of cracking the story.
Universal/Illumination Entertainment

The process was really interesting because at a certain point, we also started infusing the movie with our own personal experiences, our own personal memories of the pets we’d had, or have, and trying to identify the things that we felt not just the audience would respond to, but things that we loved about the animals that have been in our lives. I think that opening scene, when the owners first leave, really clearly has that idea in it, where we use obviously very relatable pet behavior that pushed it a little further. Like, everybody’s got a dog who loves his belly rubbed, but in the case of our dog, he gets his belly rubbed by an egg-beater, or a cake mixer.

Do you see ramifications for the industry at large in the explosive box office success of the film?

I think what it means for the industry at large is that there is always, always value in finding something new and original, and trying to create something that has an idea that captures an audience’s attention. Right now, there are a lot of sequels, a lot of things on existing IP, but there’s always room for that strong idea that’s not based on anything. I think what it really speaks to is a couple of things—one is, people love their pets. [laughs] We made the film as a celebration of that, and a celebration of the unconditional love that we perceive, anyway, that our animals have for us.

From my perspective, when we started, one of my concerns was, “Oh, gosh! There’s been so many great dog movies, particularly the early Disney films like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, and what can we do? What we really tried to do was capture animals as they are, warts and all, from anatomical accuracies to behavioral grossness. But really, creating characters that we really recognize and celebrate. I think, as a result, it’s more of a contemporary view of pet ownership, certainly as we see it through social media.

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Inspired by Disney classics, Renaud and Cheney worked to find a fresh perspective on the animal-driven animated film.
Universal/Illumination Entertainment

What does the collaborative process with the team at Illumination look like?

I work and live in Paris. Certainly, I come to the United States when we’re recording the vocal talent that lives in the United States, like Louis and Kevin Hart. Working with Chris, we had our writers, Cinco [Paul] and Ken [Daurio], and also Brian Lynch, we touch base three times a week. We have standing meetings; I’ll review what we’re doing on our end here: the storyboards, the layout, which is the camera phase, the animation. Then we have script meetings. We tend to watch the movie as story reel, I think once every eight to ten weeks. And then in the course of that, we sit down and talk about the script and share ideas. It’s very collaborative and it’s very iterative.

There’s a lot of very detailed word building that went into this film—the “home of the flushed pets” stands out as an interesting example.

The flushed pets felt like an opportunity for a couple of things. One was a way to create real scale in the movie, because again, one of the challenges could be, if you have pets, and they’re in an apartment building, how do you make the film feel like it’s worthy of being a film? Screen epic. The flushed pets gave us the opportunity of creating this cavernous, sewer-like lair. I lived in New York for many years, and there were all these books about people living in the old, abandoned train tunnels. There’s this whole mythology in New York of the world that’s unseen, like alligators down there [in the sewers], which we used. But all kinds of stories—this whole sub-culture that lives under the city. Kind of a mysterious world.

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“We tend to watch the movie as story reel, I think once every eight to ten weeks,” the director says, describing the animated workflow.
Universal/Illumination Entertainment

In some ways, we wanted to get into all aspects of pet ownership, and I think the flushed pets hint at the darker side, without, hopefully, getting too heavy. It just felt like a way to create a little bit of a contrast with our main characters, who love humans and share that unconditional love; and maybe some characters that have had not such a good experience, a little bit abandoned or left behind. I think there is tremendous compassion for Snowball and those characters, and that’s why at the end of the film, we kind of wanted him to find love, and find a place that he belonged.

And for the city itself, we were very influenced by the illustrator, [Jean-Jacques] Sempé. He used to do a lot of New Yorker covers. He would have these big vertical walls of windows, then you would see two characters, tiny, down in the corner. Eric Guillon, who was the Production Designer, is also French. Sempé’s work was something he referenced many times, as he developed the look of New York. We really wanted to be very vertically oriented—very tall and stretched—to heighten the perspective of the small pets in this huge metropolis.

In the film, the faces of the pets’ owners are often kept off-screen. Were the Peanuts comics an inspiration?

Absolutely. Warner Brothers also did a few cartoons where you’d just see the legs of the owner walking. If you notice, even the moment at the end of the film, where Snowball’s being hugged by the little girl, you don’t see her eyes. That was a very conscious effort, to feel like you’re more in the animal’s perspective. Much like in Peanuts, you’re in the kids’ perspective, and the adults are kind of aliens [laughs]

There’s some interesting corporate synergy throughout the film—for example, you see a poster for Illumination’s upcoming Sing on the back of a bus. Is that a tongue in cheek kind of device?

It really is. In the background of a couple scenes, we’ve got [Despicable Me’s] Gru in there, and there’s a little kid holding a Minion doll. To be honest with you, I do that kind of for fun. [laughs] I know the director of Sing very well, I worked on Despicable Me. And you know, I’ve been working with Chris Meledandri and Illumination almost since the beginning.

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Of the Pets sequel, currently in production, Renaud says, “I think that we found a good way to extend the story of our characters, and find another phase of life for them.”
Universal/Illumination Entertainment

What were the biggest challenges with this project?

Really, it was cracking the story, and figuring out what story we wanted to tell. I also think that the character of Duke was a challenge because we had to figure out how aggressive to make him, because it’s a very fine line between making a character drive conflict, and then also making him unappealing. That was definitely something I learned on Gru, from Despicable Me. I think in our first screening, we made him way too mean. So we had to find the perfect balance, and Duke had a bit of that challenge. I would say that, on a technical level, the hardest thing was crowd animation; certainly, some animation gets repeated, but we don’t really do MASSIVE, or any of that kind of software that’s pre-programmed. You’re animating a crowd of creatures that are all different, so it’s not even like animating minions who have the same body type. So that was a big challenge.

What made you want to stay on with this world and these characters, going into a sequel for the film?

Look, the audience’s reaction to the first film has been so gratifying. When you helped create these characters, and you see people respond to them the way they do…In fact, a friend of mine here in France just sent me a photograph of her little girl’s birthday party and the cake made with all the Pets characters on it. As an artist working in the world today, creating characters that resonate with people is one of the greatest things, I think, you can achieve. So when that happens, and people really latch onto something, you feel a responsibility to continue to work with these characters, to see where you can take them next.  There is this parental aspect, I suppose.

As far as the story goes, I can’t really talk about it too much right now. I think that we found a good way to extend the story of our characters, and find another phase of life for them.