Our lineup of Sensei for THU Japan keeps growing, and we couldn't be happier about the incredible storytellers joining us in Kaga City. One of those Sensei is Kyle Balda, a Bafta nominated feature animation director working in the animation industry for 30 years, most notably with Illumination Entertainment and Pixar Animation Studios.

We talked to Kyle about his career, approach to stories, balancing humor and heart, and his plans for THU Japan this September! Read the interview. 

You once said that the thing you love most about any kind of filmmaking is the puzzle of the film and the story and the challenge of interpreting the script. How do you deconstruct it in your head? What do you prioritize? Do you look at small characters' quirks, or focus on how the film is supposed to make the audience feel? Where do you start?

I think the most important thing to identify are the core themes, what is the north star guiding the story? In the case of Minions: Rise of Gru, it’s about wanting to belong to something larger than yourself and that even though the journey doesn’t always give you what you want, it might give you what you need. This is how Gru finds his improvised family in the Minions. The characters are the priority because their wants and needs are what drive the story. But finally you are right, it all comes down to how the audience feels. They need to care about what the characters want and have a sense of rooting interest for them. If you haven’t earned that, then none of it works.

Can you share a bit of your approach when designing compelling antagonists and how they contribute to the overall story?

I think you have to love the villains of your stories just as much as you love the heroes. It’s important to try to understand WHY they want the things they do, the things that motivate them through the story, so they are not just twisting their mustache and being a baddy. Sometimes in animated stories the antagonists can tend to be overly simplified, so even approaching them with some humor and giving them humanizing flaws can make them more relatable.

Can you share any specific challenges you faced in balancing humor and heart in your films? How do you ensure that emotional moments feel genuine within the comedic context?

The funeral scene of Rise of Gru was such a particular challenge, trying to find the right dose of tragedy and comedy. But any emotional moment has to be earned, whether you are going for a laugh or leaning into what the heart or theme of the story is. This is why the cultivation of empathy for the characters is so important. Without it, those emotional moments can feel contrived and inauthentic. Then the audience is groaning their way through the film, or worse, doesn’t care at all.

The entertainment industry is evolving rapidly, with new technologies and platforms emerging. How do you see the future of animated storytelling, and what excites you about its possibilities?

We are suddenly in an age where technology can reproduce a facsimile of all that has come before, and this can feel intimidating. However, even though these replications can be very impressive, they are still derivative of past works and absent of true creation. The stakes are higher than ever to pioneer new stories because it’s so easy to synthesize what’s already been done. I believe technology can be an amazing assistant in the hands of a human creator with a strong and unique point of view and I’m excited about the potential this new disruption has to hold our feet to the fire as creators to continue to innovate new perspectives.

Can you let us in on what you’re planning for THU JAPAN?

In the TALK, I plan to share how my personal relationship to storytelling formed over the years as I evolved from my roots in performance as an animator, to a visual storyteller in cinematography, to the custodian of the broader story and characters as a director. There is a parallel I want to explore between how we find the stories we tell and how we live the stories that become our journey. In the WORKSHOP, I want to share some of the more practical principles that have guided me as a storyteller through the intricacies of STORY and cultivation of CHARACTER to invoke EMOTION in the audience. We will be looking at some of the stories that have inspired me over the years and explore what makes them work. I can’t wait to share this with the participants of THU JAPAN!