'Minions': How the 'Despicable' Prequel Was Created

Illumination Entertainment puts its animated leads in 1960s New York and London.
Universal Pictures
Minions was directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda.

In Minions, Illumination Entertainment and Universal are taking their popular pill-shaped henchmen from the Despicable Me franchise and putting them front and center.

The franchise has a strong track record. The two Despicable Me films were made for under $78 million each, and were both box office successes. Despicable Me 2 made $970 million worldwide and earned two Oscar nominations, including best animated feature.

As Minions (made for $74 million) bows in North America, it made $6.2 million Thursday night and is expected earn in the $100 million-$110 million range this weekend, for one of the biggest three-day debuts of all time for an animated film. Here’s five things to know about the latest production.

The returning team includes director Pierre Coffin.

The directors are Pierre Coffin, who also co-directed the two Despicable Me movies, this time sharing helming duties with Kyle Balda. Balda previously co-directed Illumination’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax with the Despicable Me movies' co-director and Minions exec producer Chris Renaud. Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri with Janet Healy are back as producers.

Coffin is also the voice the Minions. This time he’s joined by a voice cast that includes Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm as the baddies. Geoffrey Rush narrates.

Minion Mayhem’s Brian Lynch wrote the screenplay.

Lynch worked with Meledandri at Fox’s Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age) before Meledandri opened his production company. He was then brought on board to work on Illumination’s second film, Hop.

After this project, Lynch wrote Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, the ride at both Universal Studios Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood. With the ride’s popularity, he was next asked to write a stand-alone film about the Minions. This story is a sort of prequel to the Despicable Me stories, providing the background on where the Minions came from.

The filmmakers liken the Minions to silent film characters.

“You don’t understand their words, you don’t understand their grammar, but you do understand when they’re in a position of conflict, if they’re sad or if they’re happy,” said Coffin. “When you look at the history of films, they start out as being totally mute with actors like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Those guys were the best storytellers ever, and it goes across generations. I showed my kids The Gold Rush, and they loved it. There are no words in it, obviously, but they were just hooked on the visuals. Everything was so timed and well-executed without any language. The Minions are all about that. They’re this legacy of silent films, except that we stuck ridiculous words on them.”

The film focuses on the Minions in 1960s New York and London.

“What we loved about setting the film in the ’60s was that it allowed us to play with the music, the era and the color schemes in our production design,” said Balda. “The Minions have been living alone in an ice cave for decades and decades. So New York City for them is this amazing metropolis. They’ve never seen skyscrapers or this kind of hustle and bustle before. And as we created London in the ’60s, from the designs of the cars to the double-decker buses, we wanted to make the environment more and more fantastic. That gives you even more suspension of disbelief from what you’d see in contemporary day.”

The film also incorporates classics songs including The Beatles’ Got to Get You Into My Life, The Turtles’ Happy Together and Donovan’s Mellow Yellow.

Production involved Illumination facilities in Santa Monica and Paris.

Illumination Entertainment is headquartered in Santa Monica, and Illumination Mac Guff is housed in Paris. A shared animation production pipeline was created between the companies, and the teams  including visual development artists and story artists  stayed in touch using iChat and Skype.

Upcoming Illumination productions include The Secret Life of Pets (2016), Despicable Me 3 (2017) and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2017).

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