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May 30
2019

ISSUE

Summer 2019

Chris Meledandri: Innovative Animator

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

Chris Meledandri, Founder and CEO, Illumination Entertainment (Photo: Alex Berliner) (Images courtesy of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment)

Sparked at a young age by cinematic marvels on the big screen, Chris Meledandri has taken that sense of wonder and brought animation into the lives of audiences worldwide, creating unforgettable characters that have ingrained themselves in the pop culture zeitgeist.

Thanks to Meledandri’s dynamic leadership and creative approach to storytelling, the Oscar®-nominated producer, founder and CEO of Illumination has built one of the most pre-eminent brands in family entertainment by developing humor-based comedic films that strike the balance between subversive and emotionally engaging, and appeal to all ages and on a global scale.

Chris Meledandri receives the VES Lifetime Achievement Award from longtime collaborator Steve Carell, the voice of super-villain Gru in the Despicable Me franchise.

For his enormous contributions to the advancement and ever-increasing success of mainstream animated entertainment over the last 20 years, Meledandri was recently honored with the VES Lifetime Achievement Award at the 17th Annual VES Awards. Upon receiving the award from longtime collaborator Steve Carell – whom Melendandri first tapped 15 years ago for Horton Hears a Who – Meledandri mused on the sobering experience, “I want to thank the VES for waking me up from my blissful dream-world, where I am forever 25 and have a full head of hair!”

Since founding Illumination in 2008, Chris Meledandri has become one of the most successful creators of original film franchises. In just a decade, Illumination produced two of the five highest-grossing animated films of all time, as well as the highest-grossing animated franchise in history: Despicable Me. Collectively, the company’s nine films – which include last year’s seventh highest-grossing film Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, as well as Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets and Sing – have grossed over $6 billion globally, with 2016’s Minions and 2017’s Despicable Me 3 both crossing the $1 billion mark. In recognition of Meledandri’s ability to outperform titles such as Deadpool, Iron Man and Star Wars, Deadline wrote in 2017 that their “Most Valuable Blockbuster [rankings] might have to be coined the Meledandri Tournament.”

Today, Illumination’s characters can be found worldwide in theme parks, consumer goods, social-media memes and games. Illumination’s 2013 mobile game, “Minion Rush,” has since been downloaded more than 800 million times, making it the sixth most-installed mobile game in history.

ORIGIN STORY

Looking back at what sparked his initial interest in filmed entertainment, Meledandri fondly recalls growing up in New York City with parents who loved cinema and transfixing films that helped chart his future course. His parents, Roland Meledandri, a noted men’s clothing designer, and Risha Meledandri, an activist, gallerist and poet, cultivated a movie-going household that relished auteurs like Scorsese, Kubrick and Fellini. He notes that it was only later, through is own children, that he was exposed to the wide world of animation.

“My parents didn’t particularly believe in babysitters, and they took me to see Easy Rider when I was just nine years old! Then a few months later, I entered a cavernous dark space and joined with many others as we stared at a giant screen, watching flickering lights illuminate the imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey. We were no longer in the Ziegfeld Theatre. Kubrick had transported us into the realm of his imagination and enabled us to suspend disbelief in a manner not quite previously possible. That afternoon, while lying through the star gate, my sense of wonder was ignited, and I have been chasing that feeling ever since.”

Despicable Me (2010)

“The single most important moment in my career was asking the exceptional Janet Healy to come work with me. She has been my producing partner and invaluable to the evolution of Illumination. She is a pioneer in our business – a founding member of the VES – and the finest producer I have known.”

—Chris Meledandri

To this day, he marvels at the significance of what the team behind 2001 created and the impact it had on modern cinema.

In high school, Meledandri became interested in theater. “My mother told me that a producer provided the stage on which creative people come together to tell a story. I took her literally and immediately started constructing sets for plays, both at school and in off-Broadway theaters.

“Now, 40 years later, the nature of the stage has changed, but I am still providing the creative space, the stories, the opportunity and support for extremely gifted people to come together to create movies that bring wonder into the lives of our audiences.”

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Despicable Me 3 (2017)

“Here we are, 12 years, 1,000 people and nine films later, with a company where every film has been directed by somebody who started with us, never having previously directed an animated feature film.”

—Chris Meledandri

ROOTS AND WINGS

Meledandri points to some of the mentors who influenced him at critical junctures. At Dartmouth College, he studied with film historian David Thomson. “Movies had long been the window through which I learned about life, but David cemented my love of cinema and my desire to make it my life’s work.

“In the early ’80s, when movies were still being scheduled on stripboards and cut on flatbeds, I spent five years with Producer Daniel Melnick, who made films ranging from Altered States to Footloose. Soon after starting, I was dispatched to bring Dan a script for a lunch meeting at the famed Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles. As I approached my new boss, I spotted the larger-than-life figure of Orson Welles. In that moment, I realized that I was in the land where the line between real life and cinematic magic were often blurred.”

Meledandri describes the founding of Illumination as “a dream bouncing around my head,” and he gives tremendous recognition to the extended team of actors, musicians, writers, designers, artists and technical designers who have been integral to his journey.

“The single most important moment in my career was asking the exceptional Janet Healy to come work with me. She has been my producing partner and invaluable to the evolution of Illumination. She is a pioneer in our business – a founding member of the VES – and the finest producer I have known.”

RIDING THE ROLLERCOASTER

Meledandri went out on his own to produce movies when he was 25, and waxes, “Boy, did I make some stinkers!” In 1998, when he founded Fox’s animation division, he oversaw the costly film Titan A.E., which was deemed a massive failure, losing $100 million. But he cites the experience as one of the transformational learning experiences of his career and values every opportunity to integrate lessons learned into his overall creative and operational approach.

“A few years earlier, in 1993, after executive producing Cool Runnings at Dawn Steel Pictures at Disney, I was working at Fox when a young director showed me a few sequences in which cockroaches performed Busby Berkeley musical numbers, and I was spellbound.

“I learned that the sequences were animated at a studio called Blue Sky, where they had gifted animators and an extraordinary proprietary renderer. I funded the completion of the brilliant short Bunny and asked [Blue Sky co-founder] Chris Wedge to direct Ice Age. Making that first movie, I discovered that there is no greater experience for a producer than to be surrounded by brilliant artists and technical geniuses along with writers, musicians, production whizzes and visionary directors as we endeavor to tell stories.

“I left Fox [where he served as the founding president of 20th Century Fox Animation] with an idea for a company where people with creative aspirations would collaborate in telling stories using the universal language of visual storytelling. We would support people based on their talent and ideas, not based on their track records. So here we are, 12 years, 1,000 people and nine films later, with a company where every film has been directed by somebody who started with us, never having previously directed an animated feature film.”

The Secret Life of Pets films

Sing (2016)

ON PASSION AND INSPIRATION

“Every day we all join in a noble mission,” concludes Meledandri. “We contribute our creativity and craft to bring joy into the lives of audiences. That joy has the potential to unite people of all ages and cultures in a shared experience of a story that explores universal truths and has a visual expression that invites us to discover ideas, experiences, and emotions in ways never before imagined. That is wonder. That is what we all aspire to do together. And while it can be experienced on many different screens, none of them are as awesome as that majestic silver screen surrounded by darkness where we all began this journey.

“No matter how challenging making a movie can be, every time I see life breathed into a new character or enter a newly created environment, or I am thrust into the middle of what promises to be a dynamic action, I feel the chills I felt watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I am reminded of Orson Welles’ famous line when he first visited a studio and exclaimed: ‘This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!’”


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