Kyle Balda has had a hand in some aspect of animation most of his life. What started as an internship at LucasArt morphed into a graphics animator job on The Mask and the head animator on Jumanji. He quickly made his way to Weta Digital in New Zealand and Pixar, notably as the head animator on Toy Story 2. He eventually would make his way to Illumination Entertainment and worked on the head of layout for Despicable Me. While this was occurring he spent his spare time directing several short forms and lecturing at animation colleges. It’s almost as if Balda was checking items off a list but one still remained unchecked and that changed in 2012 when he directed The Lorax.
The Lorax had a budget of $70M and made $348M worldwide. Not bad for his first directing gig of an animated feature. He followed that up with Minions, which he co-directed with Pierre Coffin. That film grossed $1.1B. His next, Despicable Me 3, also grossed another billion dollars for Illumination. So when it came to begin developing the Minions: The Rise of Gru, which is set to open this 4th of July weekend with a massive $129M, was it any shock that Balda was tapped to direct this one as well? His professional and box-office success made him the only logical choice. If you ask him, he says Minions is a labor of love. In our interview, he refers to Carrell as the custodian for the character of Gru and if that’s the case, an argument could be made the Balda himself is the custodian for the entire Minions franchise.
We had a chance to speak with Kyle Balda about Minions: The Rise of Gru and gain some insight into bringing this universe to life and the pandemic impacted the film’s process.
Dewey Singleton: In terms of making the movie, how long was it from the initial idea to where we are today?
Kyle Balda: This one was a bit special because we were finishing up during the pandemic, which slowed us down. But I would say the bulk of the work was done within three years from idea to completion. And then we’ve been waiting for a couple of years, as you know, for today’s release date. So yeah, it was. It was roughly three years, and we were very close to finishing just before the pandemic started. We only had about four or five weeks left of production, but that got stretched out a couple of months just for the logistics of people getting to work from home and all that stuff. And then we’ve been waiting for about two years for the film’s release because we always had intended it to be a theatrical release. So just waiting for the right time for people to get safely back in the movie theaters.
DS: How did you come up with this particular story?
KB: Well, we saw very briefly just like basically Kevin and Gru making eye contact at the end of the first Minions film where we see Gru as a young boy. So it always felt like the logical progression would be to see how that relationship formed and how they came to be the team we know them as. I believe Brian Lynch had the idea early on to think about Kung Fu minions, learning Kung Fu just as a concept. Instantly everybody involved in the project really fell in love with this idea because of how ridiculous it would be to think about, Minions being able to do Kung Fu. But the core story is really about the relationship between Gru and the minions and sort of like thinking almost like a rom-com about how they come together and meet. It’s a love story. They break up, get back together, sort of the trials and tribulations they go through, and form their relationship.
DS: When in the storyboarding process did you realize that these villains had to be voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Danny Trejo?
KB: Well, a lot of it as far as who the vicious six are in terms of who their characters are. Some of it came about through the concept art done by Eric [Guillon]. Thinking of a character like Jean Clawed, he just came about because of this drawing of a guy with this ridiculous kind of lobster claw for an arm and the name came just as a sort of play on words with that. So each one of them kind of formed from a different perspective. But all the villains in the Despicable Me universe, they always have this kind of ridiculous side to them. I mean, that’s the core of it, just that it’s funny. But at the same time, these villains, we had to have stakes in the story, something to make them feel like they could be a threat and a menace to grow. So that’s when you think about Danny Trejo or Jean-Claude Van Damme; the kind of gravity that their voice has lent to the character to make them feel menacing and that Taraji [P. Henson], she’s Belle Bottom, she is the leader and there’s such confidence in her voice that comes forward as she’s the only competent villain in the group. Everyone else is sort of their kind of just bumbling about, and they need her leadership. As for Alan Arkin, I’ve been just a massive fan of him since I was a kid, and it was self-evident just thinking about his voice, where he can, he can get like into the menacing villain side of things, but also that mentoring relationship and the sensitivity that he brings to his relationship with the group. It’s something he delivered well.
DS: Do you have a connection to the setting of this latest Minions adventure?
KB: Oh, well, I grew up in Arizona out in the desert, and the first time I’d ever been to a big city was when I was 16. I was in San Francisco and lived in the Bay Area for about eight years. And I just. I fell in love with it immediately. So it’s always been a city very close to my heart, and I think that seeing the opportunity of, the fact that we have Chinatown where they meet with the minions of Master Chow. And then, not to mention just the fact that San Francisco by itself is a very cinematic city with the hills and the Golden Gate Bridge and the coast and everything. So it was something that I was thrilled that we could make the home for the film. But you’re right. It was a very personal thing for me as well.
DS: Would you equate being an animated feature director as the controller of chaos?
KB: I mean, you certainly are spinning a lot of plates at the same time with an animated film because it’s like you said, unlike a live-action movie where things are there are a little bit more Clear thresholds between pre-production, production, filming it and then editing it in post-production in an animated film. All those things are sort of happening all at once. Still, it also has a kind of forgiving nature to it as well because you’re working everything all together; you can constantly be tweaking and pulling levers to ease the film in the process and changing things. So you can go back and do reshoots, which don’t exist in the same way they do but it’s much more open that way, so a lot is happening at once, but a lot more flexibility.
DS: I imagine some of the outtakes from recording sessions with Steve Carell have to be excellent.
KB: No, you’re spot on. A huge part of Steve Carell’s performance is coming up through ad-lib and improvisation and I think a big part of that is because he grew so intimately, he’s the custodian for this character. But we invite all the actors to go off the page, so to speak, because you never know what sort of gems you’re going to find in terms of something that could happen spontaneously in the moment?
DS: If the film does well .. how soon before your bosses approach you about the next one?
KB: That’s a good question. I think only time will tell.
DS: I feel they’ve already approached, but you cannot tell me, can you?
KB: Well, I think, first of all, fingers crossed that we have a great reception this weekend and then see what happens there.
Minions: The Rise of Gru is only in theaters from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment.