Illumination Entertainment’s founder and CEO admits he has no idea what’s in store for the future of animation, but he knows it will probably arrive online in short-form.
Chris Meledandri’s keynote speech at the 2015 Annecy International Animated Film Festival also delivered more takeaways for animation artists and executives looking to understand how the studio that created the Despicable Me franchise, whose spinoff Minions started its international rollout last week, has managed to succeed in a world of $150 million dollar movies from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks.
“I’m here to tell you I have no idea what the future will bring,” Meledandri said at the outset of his June 17 keynote at Annecy. “We’re in a period when distribution, technology and marketplace trends are changing at lightspeed. Consequently, our prognostication abilities are flawed at best.”
Even so, we made a list below of takeaways from Meledandri’s talk.
For those who wish to watch the whole keynote:
1. Miyazaki is a good place to start your animation education.
Meledandri admitted up front that he didn’t come near animation until his 30s, forbidden as he was from watching cartoons. “My mother loathed Disney,” he said, despite the fact that he grew up in a family that consumed films by Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, François Truffaut, and other auteurs. But a steady diet of Studio Ghibli schooled him quickly once he had his own children, who would watch the famed Japanese studios films until the tape was spooling out of the player, Meledandri said.
2. Failure makes you stronger.
Speaking of inexperience and flops, after helping bring live-action films like Opportunity Knocks and Cool Runnings into being, Meledandri suddenly found himself as the founding president of 20th Century Fox’s animation division. Shortly after the release of (perhaps unfairly) floppy Titan A.E., “I lost $100 million dollars of Rupert Murdoch’s money,” Meledandri said. But during a follow-up discussion with Variety’s Peter DeBruge, Meledandri said that massive failure gave him “an inner confidence to go on and do everything that followed.”
3. Never follow someone else’s playbook.
Titan A.E.’s failure, and the Ice Age franchise’s subsequent success, taught Meledandri that trying to clone Disney is a bad plan. “Our entire animation business at Fox had been built on the foundation of trying to replicate Disney’s success,” he said. Once he abandoned that plan, his movie machine started working properly, especially with the international success of Ice Age. After that, Meledandri pushed himself even further out of his comfort zone, quitting Fox in order to use everything he learned to build a new company.
4. Short-form is the spark.
Meledandri attributes the success of the Ice Age franchise, as well as his subsequent projects, with his exposure to shorter formats. Chris Wedge’s CGI sequences for Joe’s Apartment, and Chris Renaud’s short No Time For Nuts, both of which he showed during the Annecy keynote, “gave me confidence in choosing directors for our future films based on their short-form work,” Meledandri explained. Additionally, using short-form animation to ignite audience and investor interest also proved fruitful, Meledandri explained during the follow-up Q&A. Ice Age’s memorable teaser trailer, a chopped version of the film’s opening, dramatically set it apart from other homogenous marketing simply synopsizing plot. “It ran in the theaters [amongst] seven or eight trailers that were all rhythmically the same, that were all messaging the same, that all had similar narration, then all of a sudden this little short film came up,” Meledandri said. “The audience just couldn’t get enough of it. Theater owners wouldn’t take it down; it ran for months … The idea that we would launch a film on the back of that, at the time, was innovative,” he said.
5. Short-form is the fire.
Since then, the immediate distribution and interactivity of the internet has created a world where short-form animation can help animators and marketers alike find work like never before. “When you’re making all this short-form content,” Meledandri said during the Q&A, “there’s a lot of opportunity for artists to move up. Most people who have crossed over into direction aren’t four years out of animation or art school.” Indeed, if today’s animators want to work, they need to make shorts, put them online, and help them go viral. One reason he showed Wedge and Renaud’s short-form work during his Annecy keynote, Meledandri said, “was primarily to demonstrate that making shorts is a fantastic bridge to making longer-form work, especially for us.”
6. You’re only as good as your team.
“Animation is the most collaborative medium,” said Meledandri, who realized the critical importance of having good collaborators before he left Fox to start his own studio. In particular, he named Illumination head of production Janet Healey — who he would “clone” if he ever decided to leave Illumination and start all over again — as a crucial partner. “I wouldn’t be standing here today without Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud,” he added. When DeBruge introduced Meledandri as the creator of the “adorable yellow race of munchkins” screening in Minions, Illumination’s founder was quick to remind the audience that they were not his invention alone, and would have never come about without collaboration from Coffin and Renaud.
7. Clutter bad, subversion good
Original and distinctive animators have never had it so good — but also so hard. “A confluence of events — including the proliferation of CG animation software, universal access to digital distribution, and the first generation raised on digital imagery becoming adults, has brought us to this time where we are seeing a virtual eruption of creative talent in our medium all over the world,” Meledandri explained. That means the field is dynamic and crowded, producing an “infinite amount of content” fighting for attention, but that only serves to help authenticity and originality to “cut through the clutter.” Added Meledandri, “Resist the seductive illusion that creating work that is similar to what is already successful raises the chance that you too will have success. Subvert the expectation of the audience. Surprise them with unexpected choices.”
8. Art + Market = Smart
The line between marketing and production, especially at Illumination, is a blurred one. Today’s success in animation means that artists and marketers must find balance between expression and the marketplace. Identify the “marketable concept within the idea,” Meledandri advised, explaining later during the Q&A that Illumination is a comparatively low-budget enterprise uninterested in making $200 million dollar movies like Disney. “We have to make successful movies in order for our partners to give us money to make more movies, he said, explaining that Illumination’s economic model “comes down to two primary components” — A talented team interested in creating stories and characters with “accessibility,” and an idea trending towards the universal. “The Secret Life of Pets is probably the most commercially clear concept for a movie that I have ever done,” he said, noting that, at its height, Illumination’s marketing department, which isn’t separate from its production department on purpose, numbered around 100 people. Further, the feature film directors often help out on the conception and creation of original marketing content that is designed to ignite an audience’s interest in a movie and its characters, not to explain the movie.
9. Go international, or go home.
Meledandri started Illumination during “a period of time when the competition for digital artists in the U.S. was at a high point,” he said. The notion that he could attract 250 world-class artists and production personnel was a fantasy; plus, the astounding commercial success of the Ice Age franchise taught him that the homeland isn’t the entire planet. One of the tenets of Illumination Entertainment is that it has more of an international orientation, Meledandri said, where the dominant language is not verbal but visual. “Diversity of cultures in your creative leadership should be broader than the United States,” Meledandri said.