When the nation found out that Minions director Kyle Balda was of Marsa descent, Malta went crazier than Stuart finding a banana. He’s been part of creative teams which gave us The Flinstones, The Mask, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc. and Toy Story 2. Eve.com.mt has had the privilege of asking the animation master a few questions about his extensive work.
How did all of this happen?
I have to say that luck had a lot to do with it. I was always a fan of animation movies when I was a kid. When I watched 101 Dalmatians at the cinema, I went home and drew as much of the movie as I could remember in comic book form. This was before you could just go out and rent the movie on DVD or Netflix. But even with this passion for drawing and animation films, I never thought this could be a possible career until I met Dan Jeup, a friend of the family and an animator for Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Dan was a great and generous mentor to me who set me on the path which got me to Calarts, where I studied character animation for two years. Then Jurassic Park came out and the 3D animation industry exploded. This propelled me into working at ILM and then Pixar.
In 2001, I decided to move to Europe to follow a long time curiosity. My mother was born in Malta and I was raised among my Maltese relatives in a fashion that felt more Mediterranean than American. So I’ve always wanted to explore this side of my upbringing. I ended up in France where I met Pierre Coffin, and we started working together on animated TV commercials and shorts. It was another serendipitous event that Chris Melendandri wanted to create his feature animation studio in Paris years later, and it’s really thanks to him that I got my chance to direct animation feature films.
Working for Pixar is deemed a milestone for many. How had you stumbled upon this post?
When I was living in Arizona, Luxo Jr. was a huge inspiration. I was amazed by how a desk lamp – an ordinary inanimate object – could have so much life! It was thinking and feeling right there in front of me. After my work at ILM on Mars Attacks, I heard that Pixar was making Toy Story 2 and I sent over my demo reel. I was very interested in working on a film where the characters I’d be animating are integral to the story telling. Visual effects/creature animation can be quite dynamic. For example, you may have elephants crushing cars, but the animal doesn’t have any emotional changes while it’s doing the crushing! It’s just a force of nature. Narrative character animation poses a much wider depth of challenges. Fortunately, I was hired.
What’s an animator’s typical day like?
An animator’s day is very different to that of a director’s. As an animator, you’re responsible for the performance of the character in your scene or shot. So to do that, you have to be intimate with him/her and what his/her arc is in the narrative of the story. You also have to help develop that character and find entertaining ideas for the audience to relate to. Ultimately, you must have empathy for that character so that we as an audience can believe in and care about him/her.
Research is a huge part of this. Studying live action scenes of the voice actor can be helpful, as well as getting inspired by other classical actors. I always look at Peter Sellers for ideas. They say that animators are shy actors, but even so, it’s a great idea to get in front of a camera and act out the scenes that need to be animated. If you’re comfortable with this process, a lot of interesting things can be discovered, such as unconscious little movements that you notice yourself making which you can put into the scene. Most of an animator’s day is spent sitting at their desk working out the movements and performances on the puppet that is inside the computer. Another important aspect is the relationship with the director that comes in the form of “dailies”. This is where the director reviews the animator’s work and gets notes. The animators focus on thin slices of the shots, while the director has to envision how these performances fit into the whole film.
What can your audiences learn from the stories and characters you’ve created so far?
I personally hope that audiences will have a good time. I hope that they’ll care about our characters and become invested in them during their time on the screen. We work to put the characters into relatable contexts, but then take things to the unexpected, trying to avoid anything that feels clichéd. This is one of the major challenges.
One of the things I love about working with the minions is that they almost tell you which way to go themselves. You can start to feel them as real characters and you just follow them.
Source: Getty Images
What was your inspiration behind the minions?
In Despicable Me, Gru had an army of minions that served him. Thanks to the design genius of Eric Guillon and Pierre Coffin’s unique vocal stylings, these characters became integral to the comedic aspects of the film and helped to soften Gru’s grumpy nature. I think it was Brian Lynch who first pitched the idea of the minions going to Villain Con to look for a boss, and this slowly evolved into a story of how the minions originated and came to meet Gru. In terms of performance, the minions have no discernible language. Pierre also writes the language that they speak before he voices the characters and tries to find a melody that is a combination of funny words and also a hotch potch of different languages. So in order to understand what the minions are saying and thinking, we rely on pantomime, and for this our primary sources are Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers.
If you had to include a cast of some of the characters you’ve worked on, which would you include in a spin-off project?
I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to already do this with Minions. They’re characters for which I have so much affection, and it was great to explore their own story. That was one of the most fulfilling parts of the experience, as up until now audiences have only known the minions to be a mass – many characters that sort of make one character all together. However, with Minions, we could go deeper and really get to know Kevin, Stuart and Bob.