While co-director Pierre Coffin gives voice to the minions—the gibberish-speaking, tic-tac shaped creatures of the Despicable Me franchise—the series itself given voice to Kyla Balda, with his first pair of directorial outings. Following the first Minions feature, Balda turned to Despicable Me 3, continuing to seek out a “colorful edge” to keep the franchise fresh.
Following domesticated supervillain Gru—who had become all too comfortable in the first two films—the third Despicable Me installment introduces Gru’s long-lost twin brother Dru, as well as ’80s kitsch-inspired antagonist Balthazar Bratt, who brings added visual flair to Gru’s world, while stymieing his pursuit of a conventional life.
Below, Balda discusses opera-singing minions and Steve Carell’s conscientiousness as a performer, even when it comes to heightened, animated characters.
How did you conceptualize your take on the third installment of Despicable Me?
The thread that we’re following is what’s happening to Gru. In the beginning, he wanted to be nothing less than the greatest supervillain in the world, but then he got charmed by these three girls who he adopts. So, that’s about him becoming a father. He falls in love with Lucy in the second one, and becomes a husband. He’s riding pretty high at the end of Despicable Me 2, and we wanted to see what would happen if we took that away from him. He loses his job, he’s humiliated among his peers by Balthazar Bratt, and the thing that redeems him is finding a long-lost brother. So, it was trying to put Gru through more emotional challenges in what he was dealing with in his professional life, and now that he’s in a marriage, and he’s a father. It’s a lot more pressure.
We’re always trying to find, in the Despicable Me universe, a combination between something that’s relatable in a familial way, but then taking it into this villain/anti-villain kind of ridiculous universe. The villain in this one is this failed child star. We’re always looking for: What’s the humorous twist that we can play with, with the villains, to give them a more colorful edge?
Can you discuss the designs you arrived at for Balthazar Bratt? It appears as though he’s stepped out of an ‘80s music video and into Gru’s world.
It all started with this drawing that Eric Guillon had done, showing him with his mullet haircut, his bald spot and his mustache, and this very kitsch kind of look. Out of that, we started to formulate this idea: Who is this guy? Maybe his show got canceled, he never got over it, and now, in a deranged way, he’s trying to relive his character’s show in reality.
We just did this deep dive into ‘80s pop culture. Fortunately for Eric and Pierre and I, we’re all children of the ‘80s ourselves, so this is something that we could have some fun with. Then, in terms of the production design, everything surrounding Bratt should have this ’80s feeling. Even in his lair, all of his computers look like old stand-up video game consoles from arcades.
We also played with the very low-tech sets they would have in the TV show, and everything that we could do, in terms of this VHS texture. Sometimes in 3D, it’s a little bit hard to differentiate between “This is a set,” and “This is real.” Since it’s not live-action, it’s not something that an audience can relate to directly, so that texture helps a little bit with saying, “This is an old TV show, and it’s meant to look cheesy, and a little bit cheap right here.” The tinny sound of the music and the EQ effects that we were using, all that kind of stuff blends into it.
This series is so imaginative in its visual ideas. What’s your process in developing sight gags?
We’re an extremely collaborative team, and the walls are very permeable between departments. A lot of music ideas come from our editor, Claire Dodgson, in terms of the tone, and the needle drops, and the way that we do rough cuts.
In terms of some of those specific gags, some of them come directly from the storyboard artists as they are developing the scenes and fleshing them out. We’re always trying to find some visual idea or gag that can ameliorate the entertainment overall.
How have you handled musical sequences—the minions singing opera, for instance?
A lot of these specific minion ideas come directly from Pierre Coffin, who does the voices for them. Pierre loves Broadway musicals and the skill of Gilbert and Sullivan-type themes. He’s often experimenting and playing with what the minions can be doing.
We were thinking about what happens to the minions after they quit and leave Gru and they think they’re going to be independent. Of course, they instantly get themselves in trouble, so we found a way to merge these two ideas. The way they get in trouble is by sneaking onto a Hollywood set and then finding themselves in front of a talent show, so part of it was built around the affection that we all had for this song that he just invented.
In your working process, is everything storyboarded or explored in animatics?
Anything performance-based has to be storyboarded because it’s the best way to get what the characters are thinking and feeling. There is a pre-vis option that we have sometimes, where we go directly into 3D. We did a lot of 3D pre-vis when the robot comes out of the water and he’s walking down the streets because it’s very action-based, rather than being driven out of emotion of character. When you’re dealing with staging and action, 3D can handle that much better than a storyboard artist could draw it. It’s a faster avenue to get there, just going directly in 3D. With storyboarding, it would just take a lot of time to choreograph all the dancing, and that kind of stuff.
There are a number of contemporary pop culture references in DM3—the shrieking goat, for instance. How of the moment do you want to be with these kinds of films?
The shrieking goat actually was something that came about really close to the end, when we were doing the sound design. Up until then, we had been working with what people think about in their heads as what sound a goat makes. We always try to dose those types of things in terms of: If this is something that is trending right now, by the time the movie comes out, will that trend be over?
We definitely try to keep things contemporary, but without going too deeply into referencing something that, five years from now, nobody might know what that is anymore. But it’s always kind of a gamble because you never know sticky things will be until time passes.
What has it been like, working with Steve Carell in developing Dru?
Steve was very instrumental in fleshing out Dru’s character. What we knew, going into the first recording sessions, was that we wanted to play something that had a lot of contrast to Gru. Where Gru is curmudgeonly and kind of gruff, Dru would be more sunshine-y and happy, and more bombastic in that way.
You could see that a lot in Eric Guillon’s early drawings. Then, we worked with Steve to try to sculpt that, but we kind of just let him riff on a lot of different voices until we landed on the one that we had. A couple of sessions into it, that’s when it started to really come together.
Then, we were constantly going back to editorial, where Claire would sculpt the audio performance that he did of Gru against Dru, and that had a lot to do with it, too, to make sure that that contrast was coming out and to be very careful that it didn’t sound like Gru—to go in the direction that gave you more polarization between the two characters.
The most interesting and challenging moment was then when he had to do the voices of the brothers imitating each other, because instead of two characters, it’s now kind of four. He ad-libbed a lot of that stuff. A lot of the jokes that they did, that’s just stuff that he was improvising in the moment.
One thing that I really appreciate, working with him, is how much of a custodian he is for the character. How much he is able to speak on the character’s behalf about a particular situation, which can actually evolve and change a little bit—the direction things go, in terms of story. How Gru would react to a certain situation, or how his brother would react to a certain situation….In the moment, small adjustments can be made to the dialogue to reflect those, and he brings a lot of ideas forward.
We looked for that kind of relationship with all the voice talent, in fact. I think that what you’re hoping for when you work with a voice actor is not that they are just reading the lines or giving you an idea that the director has in their mind about how that should sound, because if you are too specific, then you just lost five or six great options that the actor can bring forward, and that’s where their talent flies, in terms of imagining how many different ways this could be, and what deeper textures you can get for the animators if you give them more freedom.