Illumination Runs Wild
TThe studio mixes stylization and animal reality in its comedic exploration of By Tom McLean.
he Secret Life of Pets is as high-concept a movie as they come, pitched by Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri to director Chris Renaud over breakfast as a simple: What do pets do all day while people are at work?
Echoes of Toy Story aside, the idea is a simple one that could have gone in a thousand different directions, says Renaud, an Illumination veteran who previously directed with Pierre Coffin both Despicable Me films as well as the Dr. Seuss adaptation The Lorax.
“It was an exciting opportunity to really play with animals as they are versus an idealized version of them,” says Renaud of the movie, which hits theaters July 8 courtesy of Universal Pictures. “Eventually, we came to an idea that we felt was very relatable to anyone who has had a pet and then they bring another animal into the home, which can be a very traumatic event, not just for the animals, but for the owners.”
So it is that New York dweller Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home a big hairy mutt named Duke, much to the surprise of her devoted Jack Russell terrier Max. Their conflict gets out of hand when they’re captured by animal control and then liberated by a group of lost pets who live in the sewers under the leadership of the anti-owner bunny Snowball, kicking off a search for the meaning of home.
Renaud says the story offered a chance to evoke his own love for and memories of pets, from dogs and cats to more unusual choices.
“We wanted guinea pigs, lizards, bunnies, birds — everything,” he says. “And so as a result it was, OK, how can we use all those different pets, those different animals in our story. The idea of Snowball leading a gang of lost pets gave us an opportunity to play with other types of animals.”
For the animation, the key question was how
much to bend reality — should the pets move like real animals or should they be anthropomorphized to walk upright or use paws as hands?
Renaud says they decided against anthropomorphism — with a few exceptions. “If a dog is going to get a set of keys off a table top, he’s not going to do it with his paw,” he says. “He’ll try to get his mouth up there and grab it with his teeth.”
Animation directors Julien Soret and Jonathan del Val say they filmed a lot of reference of real pets to study during animation. “It was really about starting with the animal’s point of view,” says Soret. “A cat had to move like a cat.”