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Director Chris Renaud on ‘The Secret Life of Pets’

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Following the release of new trailer footage and images from Illumination Entertainment’s upcoming feature The Secret Life of Pets, director Chris Renaud (whose industry credentials include co-directing the first two installments of the Despicable Me franchise and co-creating the indefatigable Minions) was recently on hand to offer some perspectives on the film as it reaches the final stretch of production.

In the past week we’ve been given a wider look at the world of The Secret Life of Pets, although we won’t be seeing a full release until the summer. At what stage is the film at presently?

We’re sort of in the home stretch as far as how much work we have left to do. We’ve got a little bit more animation for another month and a half, and then of course we finish lighting and creating the final images – we’re also now just starting to get into the scoring. So we’re getting close to being done!

Having co-directed (with Pierre Coffin) the Despicable Me films, two of Illuminations biggest hits, what determined your taking the reins of The Secret Life of Pets as opposed to last year’s Despicable Me spinoff Minions (Dir. Pierre Coffin/Kyle Balda)?

I was an executive producer on Minions, so I did work on it – though not at the same level as being director obviously. A little bit of it had to do with timing and wanting to do some different projects, so in conversation with Chris Meledandri we started talking about what was going to be next after Despicable Me 2. Pierre Coffin – who I co-created the Minions with along with Eric Guillon – was going to direct Minions and had it in good hands with Kyle Balda and writer Brian Lynch. What very often happens is that when you want to get different things moving forward, you have to split up the team, I guess! As the studio was growing we had to strategise where to put different people to try to create new films. So with Minions on its way we started talking about Chris Meledandri’s concept of what our pets do when we leave. Literally that’s all we had, so right towards the end of Despicable Me 2 we started building what the story and the characters were going to be, to figure out what that concept would mean in the course of a film’s story. So that’s kind of it, the studio was growing so it was a matter of how to expand beyond Despicable Me and those characters that we all loved, and hopefully try to create something else that connects with the audience.

Certainly the animal lovers out there are sure to be a big part of that audience.

Yes, which we’re hoping are numerous!

Did your ultimately taking on the project have any ties to a personal fondness for animals?

It did – it’s funny, I hadn’t really thought of it before making this movie but I’ve had a pet of some kind or another pretty much my entire life; I had a dog as a kid, I had a cat with my wife, we just got a new dog, we have guinea pigs with our kids, so there was a definite appeal to the project for me. It was fun to be able to think back on all those animals that I had, and everybody on the team did that, citing their own memories and things that their pets did. That was something we wanted to do with the film, by the way – the dogs are the main characters but we really wanted to shine a light on all types of pets; we’ve got lizards and guinea pigs and pretty much everything under the sun in this movie and that was something we thought would hopefully be a fresh take on it.

From looking at the trailers there seems to be a pretty even balance of anthropomorphism and true-to-life animal behaviour in the performances. Did the team draw upon much by way of reference footage to capture the believability?

We did, and we had the perfect research tool – the internet! In addition to doing a story about a whole variety of different pets, the other thing that we really wanted to hit was that we’d hopefully make a film that was a contemporary view of pet ownership and a lot of that really has to do with social media and how people share images and video clips of their pets. So whenever we’d talk about certain things we would just go and type in ‘cat pushing something off a table’ (laughs. Even in some of the background animation in the film, because there are quite a few characters, if you take a look you’ll see dogs chasing their tails, cats pushing stuff off tables, we really tried to make sure that we populate this film with those very relatable pet behaviours. So it was kind of fun and, as I say, there was a wealth of information out there to dive into and research with.

The voice cast features some absolute comic royalty. Did their own performances have any impact on the animation?

It certainly did, I mean one of the things that we tried to do as we were looking to cast people was that, for all the roles, we really tried to get really top comedic talent as the driving force. Certainly in the case of our lead, Louis CK as Max or Eric Stonestreet as Duke and Kevin Hart as Snowball, certainly the ‘character’ of those actors really comes through in the animated performance of the characters themselves. So what’s nice is that the three personalities, as personified by those actors and within the character designs, really contrast with each other in a great way. You have the high energy of Kevin Hart next to the drier personality of a Louis CK, we think it creates a nice chemistry. Their personalities definitely shine through these animated characters.

The Secret Life of Pets is your fourth film with Illumination, is your plan to continue working with them on future projects?

I am, I’ve been very fortunate working with Chris Meledandri and the team at Illumination. We operate out of Paris, France, and my family and I really love to live there. It’s really been a great ride and I’m looking forward to continuing!

The Secret Life of Pets is scheduled to be released in UK cinemas June 24th. Visit the film’s official site at thesecretlifeofpets.co.uk

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