Illumination Entertainment seems to be doing really well. The release of Minions last year netted them over a billion dollars, and judging by the ubiquity of Minions branded products, I can only imagine what they make in derivatives. This year, for the first time ever, Illumination is releasing two movies in the same year, and both are original properties. The people behind Illumination are without a doubt hoping to start a new franchise or two. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the company’s history.
Illumination was founded by its current CEO Chris Meledandri in 2007. Meledandri had previously worked as an executive producer at Blue Sky Studios on the movies Ice Age, Robots, Ice Age 2 and Horton Hears a Who! In 2008, Illumination struck a deal with Universal in which Illumination retains creative control and Universal gets exclusive distribution rights. Their first feature film was Despicable Me, released in 2010. Despicable Me was animated at the French VFX studio Mac Guff. In 2011, Illumination acquired the animation department of Mac Guff to create Illumination Mac Guff. The studio has been responsible for producing Illumination films ever since.
Illumination produces films for half the cost of its competitors. Despicable Me had a budget of $69 million and all subsequent films had budgets below $80 million, including Minions. In comparison, the budgets of Disney movies hover around $150 million, while at Pixar, it’s about $200 million. When Illumation entered the playing field, the trend was for movie budgets to increase rather than decrease, so Meledandri’s strategy was a contrast. He aims for a streamlined production process and fewer management layers, but also spends less on costly animation techniques. He prefers to invest in characters and story rather than outdo the visuals of the big competitors.
Right from the beginning, Meledandri surrounded himself with a team of trusted filmmakers, including former Blue Sky Studios coworker Chris Renaud. Renaud was a story artist and storyboard artist on the movies Robots, Ice Age 2, Horton Hears a Who! and Ice Age 3. At Illumination, he was given the opportunity to direct Despicable Me in collaboration with Pierre Coffin, a Mac Guff employee. The story behind Despicable Me was penned by Sergio Pablo, a veteran Disney animator, with a script written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, another pair of former Blue Sky Studios coworkers. Paul and Dario indeed wrote the screenplay of Horton Hears a Who!
The second film released by Illumination was Hop in 2011. Hop is a bit of an odd one out in the company’s filmography because it is their sole live-action hybrid. It was directed by one-time collaborator Tim Hill and written by the same writing duo, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, aided by a new addition to the company, Puss in Boots writer Brian Lynch. These three writers have since become an integral part of Illumination. Paul and Daurio wrote the script for The Lorax (2012), Despicable Me 2 (2013) and The Secret Life of Pets (2016). The only feature they didn’t write so far is Minions (2015), which was written by Lynch. Lynch also provided the story for The Secret Life of Pets.
For the most part, Illumination kept the habit of having two people direct each movie. Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin teamed up a second time to direct Despicable Me 2. Also, Renaud directed The Lorax with Kyle Balda and The Secret Life of Pets with Yarrow Cheney. Balda and Cheney were both inside hires who had been at Illumination since its beginning. Balda, a former Pixar animator, had worked as a layout supervisor on Despicable Me. Cheney, who came from Universal, was a production designer on Despicable Me, The Lorax and Despicable Me 2. Minions was directed by the pairing of Coffin and Balda, with Renaud still involved as an executive producer.
The first outside hire to be trusted in the director’s chair was Garth Jenning (known for directing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), who was appointed to write and direct the upcoming Sing (2016). As for other future projects, Coffin and Balda will team up again to direct Despicable Me 3 (2017), with a screenplay by Paul and Daurio. Yarrow Cheney will work with newcomer Peter Candeland to direct How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2018), written by another newcomer, Michael LeSieur. Candeland worked as an animator on hand-drawn movies like Balto, The Return of Jafar, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas and All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.
Lastly, another pillar of Illumination is Janet Healey, a producer on all Illumination films. Healey started her career in live-action, working on the production of several CGI-heavy blockbusters. She then worked as head of digital production at Walt Disney Animation in the 1990s and as head of production at DreamWorks. She joined Illumination at its very beginning. The same goes for Dave Rosenbaum, who is credited as a production executive on most Illumination films. Rosenbaum had previously worked at DreamWorks on movies such as Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda. Other recurrent producers include John Cohen, Robert Taylor and Brett Hoffman.
This year also marks the first time Illumination released one of their shorts theatrically. A short film called Mower Minions was shown in front of The Secret Life of Pets. It was directed by Glenn McCoy, a storyboard artist and story artist on Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, and Bruno Chauffard, a CGI supervisor on Despicable Me, The Lorax and Despicable Me 2. A sequel to The Secret Life of Pets is already in the works with Chris Renaud and Brian Lynch returning as director and writer.