Interview with KUNG FU PANDA 2 Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson

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How did you make the transition from story board artist on Kung Fu Panda to director of the sequel?
I was approached by the producer Melissa [Cobb] and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] once the first movie was out.  When the idea of a sequel was bandied about, they came up to me and asked if I wanted to do it. I had to think about it a little bit but then I thought why not because I love the world. I love the characters.

Did you ever express interest in directing?
Not really. I was so deeply involved in the first film that they probably looked at me as someone who knew the story, knew the characters very well. And so for the sake of continiuty, they wanted somebody who was intimately aware of all the different nuances of the film.  So that's probably why they asked me.

You conceived the story for the sequel?
Yes. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger were working on some ideas but the thing the people were responding to in the first film was the question of why Po's dad was a goose. There were already thoughts of what the sequel would be but I felt like that was the question that I was interested in telling -- finding out more about Po. So we started some discussions with the writers, producer Melissa and the head of story.  I brought in some images that I drew to sell the idea to Jeffrey.  That had to be the moment of this film - the emotional core.
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What does the head of story do?
Head of story doesn't really have an equivalent in live action. What they do is they run a story team and the story team creates a visual script. It can be made off a script or an outline. You make an entire rough cut of the movie.  And that's the versions we do illiterations on.  We try to fine tune things over and over until its strong enough to give it to the other departments to use as a footprint. There's a lot of writing involved. There's a lot of drawing. There's a lot gag making, character development and story structure.  

You directed a TV episode of Spawn a few years back?
I was a tv director but that's a different animal. Directing tv is a longer term. But it certainly helped.

KUNG FU PANDA was three years in the making?
Three years went by quick. It's very labor intensive.

Gullermo del Toro was brought in as a consultant. In what areas was the Hellboy director helpful in?
He's such a visually in-tune person that he provided some really good editing ideas.  He gave us some good character ideas for Shen. How to make him more interesting.  He gave us some good structure.  After working on the film for a couple of years, his fresh eyes really refined things.  It was really helpful.

I read you were worried about not coming off tyrannical as the director?
It's kind of a stereotype I guess. It's not a tantruum driven thing.  A director is sort of perceived to be...certainly a large presence in the room. I don't tend to do things like that.  I tend to let my drawings speak for me or have discussions with my crew members. I do a lot of colloboration. It seemed to really help the creative process. People feel safe to give their opinions and work together.

When the producers first came to you, was there any discussion about directing alone or with a co-director?
When I was first approached about it, they said 'you are the one director' and there was never any talk about adding another one.

Why are co-directors in animation so common?
I think tradition. I've noticed on the films I've worked on, there's been multiple directors. I actually think it runs smoother with one because then you know who to ask the questions.

Too many chefs in the Kitchen?
Yeah! It's good to be open to everyone's opinions. So they feel free to say their thoughts. It is nice that the buck stops with somebody.

How was your experience directing your first animated film?
I really enjoyed it. I had a great time and it was beautiful finally seeing something that starts off as an idea that you hope is going to be something like it was in your head.  When you have 300 to 400 people pulling like crazy for three years to make that happen, it's a very humbling experience.  It's wonderful hearing people say they had a great time.

Jack Black with Po at KUNG FU PANDA 2 movie premiereHow much improvising did Jack Black do?
There was a lot of good script that we went off of but he does naturally improvise and I encouraged it a greal deal.  When an actor feels comfortable and understands the role, and knows what the character is trying to do, it's easy to improvise. His improvisations are always so fresh and so interesting. He's really into the character of Po. Whenever he came up with something good, we were very happy.  It's usually quite gold.

How was the experience of directing the actors and being away from your computer?
It was quite fun. It was surprisingly similar to talking to another artist. The creative process is the creative process and everybody has to be in a certain mind-set to perform. And the actors just do it without trying -- with their bodies and their voices. But the same process goes through it all.

You can't pick favorites but who was the most fun during the recording sessions?
I gotta say, I enjoyed playing with Mr. Hong [voice of Po's dad]. He's one of the characters I love a lot. He's just an amazing actor and very sweet. It's hard to pick because Jack was amazing.  He's always got so many sweet things that he does when he shows up. Such a hard worker as well. It's very hard to choose favorites.

How about Gary Oldman?
Gary Oldman was great. It's funny because he such a nice, sort of laid back guy and then he gets into the role and loses himself in the character. He can break glass with his eyes. He's so intense when he's in it. He's so wonderful.

Gary Oldman's voice of Lord Shen is barely recognizable, did he come up with that voice?
He finds a perspective on every character that he portrays and in the case of Shen, he worked to get an original way to portray this guy. I think it was really cool though because it had layers of vulnerability to that evil which makes him an interesting villain.

What was the most difficult part during the making of KUNG FU PANDA 2?
I think it's just making sure that the movie holds its core for three long years. It's a long process but in the end it's certainly worth it because you have to hold on to that core idea the whole time.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 finale left it open to another sequel.  Would you be open to returning to direct?
I certainly would be open to it. I so love the characters and I love the world. But it really depends on what the audiences want.  As far as Po, we have overbuilt his world and his backstory.  There's plenty of more story to tell.

How was it working with the 3D element in the film?  You probably have some experience with that already?
No, I've never worked on 3D before this film. It was probably a good thing because it allowed us to develop our own ways of doing it. In this particular film, we wanted to make sure we could have all the freedom to cut fast and do all the phonetic action of a kung fu movie without worrying about straining the eyes. So we tried to develop our own method of doing it that replicated more closely how the human eye sees. You feel it more than you notice things jabbing out at you. It's more of a visceral feeling. It's a filmmaking tool and it was really fun getting that in there.  I think it really enhances the movie.

The flashback scenes were different to the present day animation. What was the difference?
The flashbacks are in Po's head so we used that 2D hand-drawn animation which is reminscent to the opening sequence in the first film. It's sort of the anime-based Po vision. In this particular case of this movie, because there's a lot more story to be gleamed from those flashbacks, we had to do a lot more careful hand-drawn animation in there.

How much longer did that take?
It's very similar.  It's quite equal. Whether it's done on the computer or done by hand, you still need an animator to work things out. It may take slightly longer but not by much.

Do you have a preference or are you old-school?
I love both because they both provide their own thing.  I love the hand-drawn because of the artistry. The exaggeration you can get from that.  But I love the CG because you have complete freedom of camera. You can't do elaborate camera on 2D unless you spend years and years doing it.
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How many story board artists were used during the film?
Depending on any give point in the movie, we may have as many as 15 but the core group of story artists on this film was usually around six people.
What is the total number of crew you worked with?
Three hundred to four hundred people but not all at the same time. It certainly tapers from a fewer people, to a whole lot, to a few at the end.

Are there a lot of women behind the scenes in animation?
There are a quite a few.  There's more all the time. There are quite a few more story artists then when I started out. It would be nice if it becomes a complete principal thing where people don't notice if you're a man or a woman - it's just the job.

How do you navigate in a male-dominated industry?
It's hard for me to know because I just went about my thing.  And my thing is I don't...I think I forget about it and people around me forget about it. Just work hard and provide a great service and then its something that makes sense for them to entrust you if you do really good work.

Do you feel like you have to be one of the boys to succeed in Hollywood?
I don't have to play along because I'm a geek. And I have a lot of interest that crosses the gambit so I don't think I have to be particulary masculine. If you look at me, I wouldn't be mistaken for a guy.  

What is your next project?
I'm on vacation.  I will be on vacation for a little while and I'll see what happens.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson's three years of hard work on KUNG FU PANDA 2 is now playing in movie theaters.


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