Posted on 18 January 2016.
The “Kung Fu Panda” animated series is becoming a trilogy. The third installment of the movie opens nationwide Jan. 29. The story picks up where the sequel left off and refocuses on Po (Jack Black), the self-empowering panda warrior, and his adventures. He reunites with his estranged father (Bryan Cranston) and the panda community, learns to teach kung fu which up until now he has only learned and eventually faces the wrath of the evil warrior, Kai (J.K. Simmons). The Circuit’s staffer Rachel Schonberger was one of six people who got the chance to participate in a round table interview with the two directors of the film, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, at the Miami Beach Edition hotel on Jan. 13.
What are some of the technical advances to the production since the first “Kung Fu Panda”? I know that there was a lot more going on in this one.
Jennifer: Yes, there was a lot simply from computer server power, like crunching power, we’ve had the ability to make entire sets now instead of just a couple of buildings set to set. On the first film, when the Furious Five left the Valley of Peace to go fight Tai Lung and they’re running through a sequence, we actually had to reuse two rooftops because we simply couldn’t make that much at a time. You didn’t notice, but that’s what we had to do. This time, we made entire sets. The entire panda village was practical- the whole thing. You could wander inside and out of all the buildings and go from one side to the other, and it all existed, and it was a virtual set. That alone allowed us to be very free with the choreography and the fight sequences and also just to be more creative with the storytelling.
Alessandro: And that’s amazing how new software is for animation itself, the movie, the characters and the performance, and what that did was mostly from an interface point of view. We used to have a computer system where our character would be on one screen and we’d have to adjust by inputting this and that on the other screen, the smiles and expressions. With the new software, a lot of the interface has changed so that we can touch the virtual character almost like painting a shape in time, and it’s so much more intuitive.
Watching the film, there were so many great characters, but I was really drawn to the character of Kai not just storytelling-wise, but also visually. In creating that character, where did you draw inspiration?
Jennifer: Well, one of the first things we thought of was that because we had two villains already, we wanted to make sure that he was different and a step even more estranged. We had a cat in Tai Lung, we had a more cerebral bird that’s so frail but with the ability to have technology in the second one, and this third one goes bigger physically and also more supernatural. That’s why we went to a bull because it’s not a cat, it’s not a bird, it’s a totally different animal. Also, he just sort of has that chi-sucking ability which is something that Po would not be equipped to face. The personality is something we worked on over the course of making the movie.
Alessandro: The benefit of working with J.K. Simmons, the actor who gave us the voice for it, is that at first, you imagine J.K. Simmons as somewhat intimidating, and we needed that element for our villain to be truly scary. We also created the character to be a little bit insecure from people not knowing his name, and to our surprise, when J.K. Simmons ran with that element, it became hilarious. When he realizes that nobody knows his name, he becomes petty and bitter. In a way, it definitely made it more entertaining because people can laugh about it; to our surprise, we get a lot of laughs on that. But also, he allowed Kai to be an even better villain because he made him more relatable. He’s not just a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy. People can relate that he’s a broken character.
There are a bunch of different settings and locations within the movie. Did you use any real locations to base them off of, and what kind of research did you do?
Jennifer: One of the big new sets is the panda village, and that is based on a place in China, in the Sichuan province outside the Chengdu panda base, which is a huge breeding center for pandas, called Qīngchéng Shān, which is actually the birthplace of Taoism. This insanely beautiful mountain is so green and so saturated with color that we went on a fact-finding trip with a bunch of the artists from the movie. We hiked up this mountain; it’s very steep, it’s very muddy, and it’s beautiful but it’s a lot of effort. We went up there, and we’re going through all these layers of mists and greenery, and we see these shelters that look like they’re made out of organic wood, and there’s moss over everything. This mist wall we were going through cleared, and we saw the main buildings at the top of the mountain, and those are essentially the same shots we put in the movie. We wanted to make something different for the movie but also have it feel like somewhere that pandas would live.
Alessandro: Another big set piece from the movie is what we call the Spirit Realm which is this somewhat supernatural environment, and part of the inspiration for that actually came from the first part of [Kung Fu] Panda 1. If you remember, it starts with a dream of Po imagining himself as a dragon warrior, and a lot of that location became the inspiration for creating this world. When Po becomes a dragon warrior of his own dreams, he uses his dreams as a reference of how to create this world.
The graphics and the production value in the movie were so good, like it looked real. How many people and how long did it take to make the movie?
Alessandro: The entire crew is over 600 people, and just our department alone is led by just a few people. There’s Raymond Zibach who is our production designer and Max Boas who is our art director.
Jennifer: And Raymond’s been on this movie since the very beginning. He was like the second person on the very first movie.
Alessandro: And basically, it all starts from paintings much like the good old days. It’s just getting inspiration from China references and just painting. [Raymond and Max] lead a department of about twenty people in artistic design. That process happens, but then there are countless people after that. You know, we make a sketch of a beautiful landscape with trees in the background and sunsets and rocks, but someone has to build each animal. There has to be someone who designed each leaf of a tree, and someone who builds it virtually, and someone who puts the surface and the lighting on that. It’s very labor intensive because everything you see on screen has to be created by someone. So it takes a lot of people to run all the different departments.
Jennifer: It’s also not meant to be realistic. If you notice, it’s not realistic. It feels real, but it’s not realistic. It’s sort of like this theatrical, emotional hyperrealism. That’s something that they went for as a graphic reality. That is actually a lot harder than doing a realistic-looking film.
I read that this is now one of the most successful animated series. When you were first making the series, I know you’ve been involved in it for a long time, did you anticipate that success?
Jennifer: No. I don’t think as artists we ever know if something’s gonna hit. We just have to believe it in ourselves, and if it’s exciting to us, if we can feel this rush when we’re working on it, that’s helpful. It’s very hard to know how audiences will respond. You can just hope that people like the characters as much as we do.
Alessandro: That’s the thing. I think we knew we had something special with Po. This franchise comes down to just that character; everything revolves around him. We did feel that we had something special in his charm and how he is uniquely naive in a way, childlike, enthusiastic. That defined him. We knew we had something special when we were starting to build that, but we didn’t expect the success.
Soon after your second film, when did you find the inspiration of “being the best you” to come out with the third?
Jennifer: We took a little bit of a break after the second one.
Alessandro: Yeah, we started working on some other projects just to take a mental break from the franchise. If you think about it though, the concept of “being the best you can be” is somewhat of an underlying thread throughout the entire franchise because Po does not change in the first movie. He doesn’t become a skinny, fit warrior. He is himself, but just a better version of himself. In a way, we tried to mirror life with this issue of just constantly growing and bettering yourself, trying to hold onto who you really are is the thread that kind of sews together the three movies.
Jennifer: But once we got the idea of what the movie was supposed to be about, that was about four years ago, so that was when we started on just the basic outline.
Alessandro: Surprisingly, the plot element of Po, him being a student who becomes a teacher, came a little later because thematically we knew we wanted a story of self-empowerment and of Po accepting who he is to discover who he is meant to be. The other element of him having to become the role of the next teacher and sending him back to what defines him came a little later as we were looking for the best hook to sell the story.
Some of your biggest fans are adults. What role does that play in the storylines you create and what percentage is written for the adult fans and the children who are watching the movie?
Jennifer: I think it’s evenly split for us. There are jokes that work for five year olds, and there are jokes that work only for 40 year olds. They’re sprinkled equally; they’re just different spices we have sprinkled throughout the movie. The reason why I think that’s important is because we’re not making an overly simplistic little movie that only five year olds would like. We have to entertain everyone. We have to entertain ourselves because most of the people working on the movie are not five, although they may have the mental age of five.
Alessandro: I do think it comes down to that, though, as Jen was saying, we want to please ourselves, but to be in this business, some of us are not too mentally mature, like myself. I have the confidence to say that I still have the mind of a twelve year old, and I do get geeky and excited. Hopefully, the adults who like this franchise are okay with accepting that deep down they’re just big kids. Those who are not are probably just denying that they are. I do feel that Po himself as a character truly embodies the sense of wanting to grow up and never wanting to let go of this adorable childhood love for things and enthusiasm, positivity, and optimism. In a way, hopefully Po is a representative of the type of audience we are going after, which is an actual child or a grown up person who didn’t let go of the child inside of him.
You both spent a lot of time with all of these characters. Is there one that calls out specifically to you?
Jennifer: I think, for me, a huge inspiration has been Tigress since the very beginning simply because she’s so cool. I want to be Tigress. I like that she’s strong. I like that she’s very self-possessed. I like that she’s just very aspirational, and I just want to be like her.
Alessandro: I feel like there’s a piece of myself in Bryan Cranston’s character, Li. Probably not as much myself as just the relationship that I had with my father based on just being a silly goofball like the scene where they just keep hitting each other with armor. The two of them kind of have to figure out which one is the older one and which one is the younger one. That silly dynamic of two people being equal and using playfulness as a way to bond is something I grew up with and something that just warms my heart when I see it happening. That took a while also because our first narrative instinct was to give conflict to Po to give him a perfect storyline where they have to work on their differences, and blah, blah, blah, but it often gives you an unlikeable character. With the help of Bryan Cranston, he gave him much more charisma and comedic talent. We decided we should make them more alliant than different, creating that character and that scene of the two of them being silly and playing together. I love that.
The beginning of the movie has a much more 2D animation look and shifts into the 3D. What inspired you to make it look like that, and what do you think that added to the overall film?
Jennifer: I think that all of us have been big fans of 2D animation, and it’s a lost art. It’s becoming very rare to see anything done in 2D animation, especially in a feature animated film. Since so many of the animators started off in 2D animation, it makes a beautifully stylized way of creating a visual image. In each of the [Kung Fu] Panda movies, we try to have a 2D section. We try to experiment with how we’ll fit it into the movie. In the first one, it was this anime, sort of edgy thing. In the second one, we did traditional Chinese shadow puppets. This one we have a couple of 2D sections. There’s one that feels like 2D of Po just having a great day. We also have the traditional scroll come to life which looks like watercolor come to life. That’s based on Chinese watercolor scroll art. Each time, it’s a tribute to the different ways you can do 2D animation because we’re all a bunch of geeks, and we just love the art of it.
Alessandro: Also, what’s amazing to me is that we went through a period around the ‘90s where every studio was in this arms race of who could reproduce life the best. The technology wasn’t made yet, so whoever could get there fastest. It was like the race to the moon in the ‘60s. Now we’re there. We saw Avatar, we saw the Lord of the Rings. Everyone can do photorealistic, producing reality, so now we can go back to just focus on what’s beautiful. Our cartoon designers and our directors are able to just forget about reproducing life, what can we do to make this beautiful and unique? That’s how we end up with those scenes. There’s a scene where Po trains the pandas where you have absurd shadows and absurd lighting. We were like, “let’s just try to make a cover poster from the ‘80s. Let’s try to go for what’s cool instead of what’s realistic.
How is directing an animated film different from one with live acting?
Jennifer: It’s actually very similar with working with the actors because you still have to work with the actors and get them into that emotional brain space in order to be in that moment. The main difference is you don’t have a set with makeup people. They can show up in their pajamas. I think the main difference is you don’t get coverage. In live action, you get a bunch of coverage and then work it out in the editorial room. In animation, that coverage is insanely expensive. You have to know beforehand what you’re gonna shoot. You have to pre-cut everything. That’s why in animation, we have a massively much more involved storyboarding process than in a live action movie. In live action, you may go straight to previews. You may go to set and experiment and get some coverage and figure it out. In animation, you have to have a rough cut of the entire film before ever bringing animators on or else you’re wasting a lot of money. For that, we have to know exactly what we want.
Alessandro: Then, of course, the great thing is that with the character actors we have, they improvise a lot. That’s why they come in very early in the movie if they have an idea that could take the scene elsewhere. That way we go back to our rough drawings, to our storyboards, and adjust it at that phase instead of having to change it after animating and lighting, and having to be like, “Oh my gosh, that line’s going to cost us 2 million dollars.”
Jennifer, do you consider yourself a role model for young girls?
Jennifer: It’s weird because I didn’t think so when I was first doing the job because for me, doing the job is just the joy of doing the job. It really hit me when I started visiting schools. Just recently, I went to a grade school and seeing how much it affects girls because they don’t see anybody who looks like them doing this job. There’s just nobody doing it. I read the statistic that there’s like 1% of directors are females. It’s insanely small. These girls can’t look at the job and visualize themselves doing it easily because I don’t necessarily do the job like a man would. I just don’t. My personal style is much quieter. [Alessandro] is much louder than I am. I just do it my own way. When I go to schools, girls come up to me regularly and they say, “I’m so glad that I can see someone who looks like me doing that job.” I tell them, “You just do it the way you want to do it. Don’t do it the way you see or visualize someone else doing the job. You do what you do, do it well, and you can do it.” Just at the beginning of our tour, we were at a grade school and an eight year old came up to me because she drew this elaborate drawing of a girl mechanic. She said, “I want to be like you and direct movies when I grow up.” I was just like “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.” That’s what’s great because it encourages them and it encourages me.
How different was working with Hans Zimmer [the composer] in an animated film than in a regular film?
Alessandro: That is actually almost no difference at all because when the composers come in, they come in early on to get a tone and a feel for the movie. The actual scoring happens when a movie’s already starting to be on screen, so whether it’s live action or animation, there’s not that much difference. Their job is mostly to truly nail the emotional feel of a scene and bring it to the surface through the subtle effects of music. The amazing thing about working with Hans Zimmer is that he has so much fun just bringing friends and partners along the way. For example, we had the idea of using piano, and he just calls Lang Lang. Then Lang Lang goes into his office playing piano. It’s kind of bizarre how much this man is kind of now at a point in his career where if you get to work with him, you also get to work with all of his friends because that’s who he loves. He has an army of talent around him and it’s fantastic.
How long does the score usually take?
Jennifer: It takes several months.
Alessandro: Three months or so.
Jennifer: We involve them early, so he understands the movie. I think I sent Hans a little flash drive early on when we were just starting to think of the villain. All I did was show him a little effects test of all this debris destroying itself and said this villain’s been trapped here for 500 years. I wrapped it in a little envelope and sent it over just to play with his brain a little bit so he could think about it. That was just play, just fun, and that was very early. He didn’t come on til probably the last six months of making the movie.
Alessandro: A big element of music is rhythm as well, how to pace the emotion of the scene. Unless you have something concrete with a sense of timing, it’s hard for him to come up with the tonal shifts of emotion.
You already have a strong, self-empowering female character in Tigress, and you brought in another one, Mae Mae. What made you bring on a second strong female character?
Jennifer: I’m so glad you like Mae Mae because Tigress is a strong female character but we wanted more and to see what would happen. This was the first time Po got to meet a girl panda. One thing we really wanted to do was have a character who girls would want to be like. She’s fun, confident, she doesn’t need Po to like her. She isn’t pining after anything like that. In fact, it’s the other way around. He doesn’t know what to do with her. We just wanted somebody fun and a female panda is a big, confident, happy girl.
Alessandro: It’s funny to me how she’s a dangerous character. If you just describe someone as a character who is extremely confident and sure of herself, they could come off as obnoxious and annoying, and we had someone like Kate Hudson come in. She could just sprinkle charm all over it, and then you have someone who’s truly likeable even though she’s supposed to be obnoxious. It’s a very delicate dance, and it was wonderful how she delivered on that.
The whole film was beautiful, from the animation to the story, everything, and watching it, a lot of young students are going to get inspired to become a part of that field. What would you say to students who are looking to become animators or directors?
Jennifer: I think the most important thing is that no one’s going to tell them that they have to do this. They have to be driven by their own insatiable need to do something passionately. It’s hard. It’s not like gravy and happiness every day. They have to persevere in their craft through a lot of heavy obstacles. My advice is that if this is something you want to do, then you’ll do great because you’re probably doing it all the time when nobody’s telling you to do it. You’re gaining experience anyway. Just do it if it’s something you’re passionate about.
Alessandro: I think the thing is that there’s no way of making these movies on your own. They’re such a team effort because it takes so many different skills. As directors, we would never make animation as well as our animators or never compose our music as well as our composers. We would never create colors and light as well as our art directors. You have to rely on a team, so being able to be part of a team is also a key talent. I meet a lot of students who send me portfolios, and they’re amazingly talented, but then when I look at what they do, they just sit and their rooms, study, draw, paint, and research animation. For people like us, it’s kind of scary for us to invite people like that. Sometimes they don’t function in a team. Develop your talent because that’s key and also work on your cooperative skills.
Jennifer: Clarification, that doesn’t mean that we don’t like introverts. I am a hardcore introvert. It’s about whether you play nicely with others.
Alessandro: Yeah, I think there’s a huge difference between being an introvert and being able to collaborate.
With all of the artifacts and the watercolor scrolls, how did you research and choose what cultural things you wanted to put into the film?
Jennifer: That was a whole lot of Internet for the first one. The second one, it was a fact-finding trip where we just went all over China and did massive amounts of photography and video. In the third, we had a lot of specialists from Oriental Dreamworks. For example, Mae Mae’s costume, we originally did a design and the Chinese artist said, “You’re mixing dynasties, and everyone knows it.” So they took out this really famous costume historian and they brought in every dynasty of outfit. All the artists were dressed up, and that’s how we first chose the hair, makeup, costume, everything. That’s the kind of access that we got.
Alessandro: That’s the difference of just doing research and having partners from there. That was truly, truly much more helpful because when you think of animation, you don’t just create a suit. You have to come up with the patterns, come up with the fabric, and make it all virtual. It’s a whole process of each little element. When you do one wrong thing in a pattern, it’s the wrong dynasty and you wake up the wrath of China.
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