Animation directors are the unsung stars of the movie Industry. You won't seem them on the pages of Heat magazine. You won't recognise them from the red carpet.
They move through Hollywood almost incognito, attracting none of the attention of their live-action colleagues, but also precious little of the acclaim. Despite the fact that in many cases, the films they steward into being are the biggest box-office hits of all.
One such unsung star is Kyle Balda. You'll know his work, because the films that he's directed, such as The Lorax, and Minions (the soon to be released follow-up to the Despicable Me movies) are box-office gold. The Lorax grossed a "record shattering" $70 million dollars on it's first weekend - numbers that Steven Spielberg would be proud of. Yet this neat, unassuming, quietly-spoken man has none of the swagger you might expect for someone with such a hit under his belt.
In part, the logical explanation for this is that animated films are so collaborative. So many people are involved in the process of making one. Indeed Balda is really a co-director - all his credits have been with another director also on board. An animation director is rarely an auteur. And animated movies, given that they are not usually populated by real people, don't tend to be vehicles for great fame.
Still, it's a dream job for a kid from Tucson, who grew up with a passion for drawing, but felt light-years away from the world of film. "There's no animation industry there at all," he says of Tucson, sitting in a super-chic reception room of a buzzing London hotel. "I grew up as a fan of animated films, and I used to love to draw, but I never really made the connection because animated films seemed like this really magical thing that just existed. So I thought I would become an illustrator or something like that." Fate, however, intervened thanks to a friend of his family, who had a job as a Disney animator - he had been responsible for creating Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid. "And he sort of set me on the track, saying 'well, you know, if you want to do animation, it's this kind of drawing, it's this kind of way of thinking.'" It was this friend too, who set young Kyle on the path to CalArts University - the Los Angeles higher-education institution was founded by Walt Disney himself to be a feeder school for the animation industry. "Cal Arts continued to mould that," Balda says. "I never really set out to be a director in the beginning. I was always just happy in the beginning to be able to be doing animation and being involved in movies that I was such a huge fan of."
Still, he was marked for big things from early on. Indeed, he dropped out of the programme at CalArts after two years because he'd been offered a proper industry job. In the late 1990s he was working as a summer intern at PDI, an animation company which later became part of Dreamworks. And then Jurassic Park came out, changing the industry forever. "Suddenly, there was Jumanji, The Mask, Mars Attacks. . ." he says. Indeed, Balda worked on all three of those movies. Having been offered a job at the visual effects company ILM, he quit his course and went to work. "I was so anxious to work on movies that I figured I could continue to learn," he says.
Some years later, he was head-hunted by Pixar to Work on A Bugs Life and then Toy Story 2.
Jurassic Park, he says, changed the landscape completely for people who work in his industry, but the simple principles of telling stories through animated images remains the same.
"I think the computers have opened up the kinds of stories that you can tell," he explains. "For example, the way Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings could only have been done with computers processing those crowds and making all of that possible. But the fundamentals of storytelling and principles of animation haven't changed for 70 or 80 years."
He was an obvious choice to take the helm of the Minions movie, given that he'd worked on both Despicable Me films, and that he'd had such a big success with The Lorax. But it was a surprise, even to him, that the Minions themselves, the small, amorphous, gobbledegook babbling evil-sidekicks of super-villian Gru in Despicable Me would grow and develop into a phenomenon, and eventually be the subject of a full movie all of their own. "It was unexpected," he explains. "In the early versions of the Despicable Me script they were big muscly guys," he says. But budget constraints brought about a happy accident. Looking for something simpler and with more humour, the shape and style of the Minions were redrawn into the strange, yellow creatures that we know today. "They evolved into the Minions as we know them now," he says. Early in the filming of Despicable Me, they began to emerge as the stars of the show. "They were so fun to work with and fun to play off of, as a group, that they became a little bit more prominent in the story," explains Kyle. "I think a big part of it is that they speak, but there's not a particular language that they are speaking. You can be an adult, you can be a little kid, you can be a kid who doesn't even speak yet and you can kind of understand if they're upset, if they're happy and what's going on. You can be Italian, Russian, Japanese, it really doesn't matter. At the base of it, what's really driving them is the body language and the tone of the voice. And so you can kind of follow them."
Both he and his co-director Pierre Coffin are, he says "big fans of Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers." And judging from the liberal and brilliant use of physcial comedy in Minions, the influence of both comic geniuses is clear. "If you watch a Peter Sellers movie, even though he's talking if you turn the sound down you can still follow what he's thinking and feeling throughout. So that means you can empathise with his character. And I think the appeal (of the Minions) has something to do with the fact that these are not human characters. But they have personification to them. They also have heart. There's a lot of contrast - they want to work for a bad guy but there's nothing really bad about a minion. They can be a little bit cruel to one another sometimes, they can play tricks on one another, but it's never really menacing or deep." Personally, I think it also has something to do with their name. Minions is just a fun word to say.
You might imagine that a director of movies for kids might be something of a Peter Pan himself, eternally submerged in the mindset and humour of an eight year old kid, but Kyle seems pretty grown up - reflective, articulate, even perhaps conventional. He's lived in Paris for the last 12 years because of the active animation industry there and now speaks fluent French. He doesn't seem like the kind of man who spends his downtime messing around on spacehoppers. "There's been a culture of animation in Paris with their own studios and also Disney was there for a while," he explains.
A Texan by birth, he's comfortable in Europe. His mother is from Malta "so I have a little bit of a European background," he says. "And I had visited Europe many many years ago and I completely fell in love, with Europe in general, not specifically any one place. I always knew I wanted to live in Europe. It was definitely challenging with the language. Now I speak French, but it took much longer than it should have."
The Minions, he admits, have more power over his life than he could ever have imagined. "They are, in a way, alive," he confides. "Because they sort of tell you where they want to go. So you're story-boarding things and your trying things and it's not working - and you can almost feel that the character is resisting you a little bit. But when you just let go and just drawing them and the progression of things that happen you can kind of follow it intuitively. The characters tell you where they want to go."
Minions the movie is in cinemas on the 26th of June.
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