Unleashing Her Inner Warrior
Jennifer Yuh Nelson didn’t exactly kick her way into the director’s chair of Kung Fu Panda 2. But now that the sequel has achieved blockbuster status, she’ll likely return as master of the Panda universe.
story by Eugene Yi
photograph by Eric Sueyoshi
SHE’S A GIRL.
Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson said she got a lot of that when she’d show up for various press events to talk about the movie she’d just directed. “It was a big deal when I showed up at some of the press stuff wearing a dress,” she added, laughing.
Much of Nelson’s press has dwelled on how she, as the director of a big studio film, defies type. Not only is she a woman, not to mention an Asian American woman, but the bespectacled 39-year-old is also unfailingly polite and softspoken. Actress Angelina Jolie, who provides the voice of Tigress in both Kung Fu Panda films, described her as “the calmest person I’ve ever met.” But the notion of the commandeering, chair-throwing director stems from perhaps a very traditional (read: white male-centric) view of the job, and it begs the question: why the surprise that someone like Nelson would direct Panda 2? She is a revered storyboard artist, hailed as a brilliant and nurturing collaborator, and a giant martial arts and action geek to boot.
It’s worked out pretty well. Panda 2 has now grossed more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide, and it’s got a certified 82-percent fresh rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Panda 2 appears to be that relative rarity in Hollywood: the crowd-pleasing, critically acclaimed blockbuster sequel. By the time it’s out of the theaters, the movie could be the highest-grossing film directed by a woman in the world.
Nelson has already hit one milestone as the first woman to direct a major studio animated feature on her own—and yet, she was an initially reluctant director, handpicked by DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, among others. That’s almost unheard of in Hollywood, where ambition outstrips talent far too often. It’s perhaps anti-climactic for those hoping for a more classic underdog scenario where the heroine boasts a backstory of unbridled discrimination, slaying bigots left and right on her way to shattering the glass ceiling and emerging victorious with a record-breaking film.
But, fittingly, the Panda franchise is all about a kung fu nerd, Po the Panda (voiced by Jack Black), who reluctantly becomes the greatest warrior in the land. Once he learns that there is no secret to being the Dragon Warrior (this is all from Panda 1, for the uninitiated, so these aren’t spoilers per se), something clicks, and he unlocks his inner kung fu master. In a way, that’s Nelson’s story. It’s hard to imagine Po could’ve found a better director.
GLASS CEILINGS can be notoriously hard to break, and it’s gotten even harder to accurately detect them, given that modern American society’s biases tend to be more coded and unconscious. Still, Nelson said her experience in her industry and more specifically at DreamWorks, where a storyboard artist like herself can eventually become a director, has never been defined by her gender.
“The atmosphere is very gender-neutral,” she said from her office at DreamWorks’ campus in Glendale, California. “It’s not like anyone really cares.”
It was only once Panda 2 was completed that members of the media started to point out that she had very casually managed to shatter a glass ceiling.
“It’s peculiar because people ask me about that. But I really don’t have a reference point for being a man,” Nelson said, laughing. “So it’s hard for me to describe something that I just take for granted.”
Still, it’s hard to deny the entertainment world as a whole doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to gender equality. In 2010, only 7 percent of the top 250 domestic grossing films were directed by women, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. And it’s no better in animation. Despite the fact that about 60 percent of art majors in the U.S. are women, according to a 2011 Georgetown University study based on census data, the world of feature animation remains very male-centric.
Nelson saw few women taking the path she did.
“I think women don’t visualize themselves in it because there aren’t as many women doing it,” she said. “It was probably the same 50 years ago when a girl would think she couldn’t be a doctor. She could only be a nurse because all the images in all the children’s books are doctors that are men and nurses that are women.”
But Nelson sees that landscape changing and admits it’s been satisfying to have female art students thank her for “opening up to them the possibility that they could direct.”
Left to right: Lucy Liu, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, James Hong, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and producer Melissa Cobb attend the May 22 L.A. premiere of Kung Fu Panda 2. Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages
Of course, Nelson didn’t set out in this industry to break into the boys’ club of film directing. Her odyssey began with a simple love of drawing for the movies—a topic she seems much more excited to address than any inadvertent glass shattering.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, the youngest of three daughters, she and her family immigrated to the U.S. when Nelson was 4, and settled in Lakewood, a 1950s-era planned community in Los Angeles. As a child, Nelson loved action movies, anything where the laws of physics were bent just a bit, ranging from Chinese wuxia films to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s oeuvre. It wasn’t long before she started dreaming up her own stories.
“I’ve always made movies in my head. Full on done. But you just can’t get it out of here,” she said, motioning to her head. “So you either learn how to use a camera, or you learn how to draw so you can sketch out the shots before it’s pffft,” she said, making a motion for steam escaping from her head. Though she seems reserved, Nelson has mastered the art of speaking quietly and moving very little while acting out exceedingly cartoonish ideas.
Nelson grew up surrounded by people who could draw, so it made sense for her to follow suit. It started with her mother.
“I just remember her sketching when she was on the phone, random pieces of paper, and she would always draw little faces, beautiful faces. And I would look at that and go, ‘How does she do that?’” Nelson said, whispering. “And if you’re about 6, and you see someone draw like that, it’s like magic.”
Both of her older sisters gravitated toward art as well, though Nelson said she didn’t have as much of a natural inclination to draw as they did.
“But because they were there, and because they were literally role models in their drawing, I just got into doing that naturally. Because they could draw circles around me, I’m like, ‘Well!’” she said, arms akimbo in the pose of a child who was determined to show her big sisters a thing or two.
Nelson went on to study illustration at California State University, Long Beach, and followed her sisters into the animation industry. Nelson quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional artist on high-profile projects including Spawn, HBO’s Emmy Award-winning animated series based on the respected comic book .
“Spawn was a big part of where she got her reputation because she happens to have a real gift when it comes to action,” said Melissa Cobb, a producer on both Panda films.
Nelson moved on to DreamWorks, where she worked on films, such as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) and Madagascar (2005), and got her big break when she landed the job of head of story for Panda 1.
Head of story is a position specific to animated films, a second-in-command who works closely with the director at every step in the process. Nelson served as a go-between and diplomat between the director and various departments, making sure that everyone was on the same page.
“It was clear she had the potential to be a great director,” said Cobb. “But she didn’t think of herself in that way.” So the studio had her direct the dream sequence that opens Panda 1.
The sequence, a hand-drawn fight in a restaurant that twitched and pulsed with life, exploded with references to anime, martial arts and action films. New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis considered it a visual highlight of Panda 1, calling it “an animated woodblock print with slashes of black and swaths of oxblood red … stunningly beautiful.”
So it wasn’t a surprise when Nelson—who incidentally earned an Annie Award, the animation industry’s Oscars, for storyboarding on Panda 1—started hearing murmurs when talk of a Panda 2 emerged. But Nelson blanched at the thought of directing.
“I enjoy my life,” Nelson joked, recalling her initial reluctance. “I didn’t necessarily pursue it, and then I got pushed.”
“She’s not the kind of person who pursues those roles, “ Cobb said. “She’s more the kind of person who digs in and does a great job.”
In hindsight, of course, it almost seemed predestined:
The girl from Los Angeles, weaned on films like Bloodsport, her head bursting with stories, grows up to be an animator and, finally, the director of a franchise that allows her to put her ideas onto the screen.
“The transition was from someone who’s a great listener, collaborator and consensus builder to someone who was a leader and had that strong voice,” described Cobb. “She found her own way of doing that. She’s a quiet and reserved person, so she wasn’t leading by force.”
Directors in animated features play much the same role they play in live-action films, supervising various teams as they digitally build the locations and design the characters. One key difference is that directors help develop the story in a way that rarely happens in the live-action world. It was another one of the reasons Nelson was chosen to direct, Cobb said.
“Jen was there from the beginning and was really instrumental in helping to shape the story. If there is anyone who knows this material, these characters and this world, it is Jen,” Cobb said.
So Nelson and the writers set about addressing the first of many questions: How do you make a sequel not suck?
“I think that the problem with a lot of sequels … is that they make the sequel because they want to make the sequel, not because a character asks for a sequel,” said Nelson.
During the early planning stages of Panda 2, the writers tossed around the idea of exploring the relationship between firearms and kung fu.
“They were coming up with this idea of this bad guy with a cannon because it seemed like a natural way to trump the kung fu skills Po had gained in the first movie,” said Nelson. “I thought that was a really cool idea, but I couldn’t figure out what would make me want to do that until we were talking about what [audiences] came out of the first movie asking. And that question was, ‘Why is Po’s dad a goose?’ And that seemed like a very good question.
“The thing that was really good about that is that’s a character question. It’s an emotional character question. It’s not a plot question. It’s something that gives a character a point. And that’s what I need in order to understand how to build a story,” Nelson said.
As the strands of the story started coming together, Nelson, her team and the writers developed a pitch to present to others who would be working on the film. The first step in the process is to storyboard a scene, meaning that every change of pose is drawn by hand into a very detailed digital flipbook. One of the first scenes they fleshed out was a sequence that Nelson knew would be in the final film: the flashback when Po remembers seeing his parents for the last time.
“Everybody who came onto the movie would choke up in that part, even on the pitch,” the director recalled. “Not even the movie! It was a pitch.”
As any moviegoer can attest, a good movie needs a good villain. Lord Shen the Peacock had been a character originally developed for the first film. The creative team liked the contrast between the brute physical strength of Tai Lung the Snow Leopard, the villain in Panda 1, and the craftiness of Lord Shen in Panda 2. The team decided to make the peacock white, the color traditionally associated with death in East Asian culture. And once they got Gary Oldman to voice Lord Shen (“He can read a grocery list, and it’ll sound dangerous,” Nelson has said of the British actor), the character started to take shape.
To help inform the Panda 2 world, the crew visited Chengdu province and gleaned visual inspiration from the area’s mountain temples and panda reserve. Virtual cities were built for the characters to punch and kick their way through. Storyboards were assembled. Through it all, Nelson said her job, ultimately, was to remind her artists of “the point.” Sets, lighting and action should be character-based, she stressed. So Po’s erratic and informal nature should be reflected in his environments, which tended to be more natural and asymmetric. Meanwhile, Lord Shen is a much more rigid and formal character, so his environments were harsher, more metallic and more symmetric.
“I gave them a lot of freedom on how to do it,” Nelson added. “Because I truly believe that if you give people the freedom and clarity, they’re going to come up with their best work.”
A person’s directing style boils down to the question of control. This is especially true in animation, where a camera’s move can be altered by the millimeter. In such an environment, and for someone who has to spend her entire day making choices, is it any wonder that directors seem to love talking about the surprises that ended up staying in the film? Live-action directors often depend on actors to provide the unexpected moments that can elevate a scene. For an animated film, where every last frame is planned out, those surprises come from the artists.
“There was stuff that is like, ‘That’s a really surprising expression that was drawn in by somebody,’” described Nelson, “because [that artist] felt like he or she had the freedom to do that. And that sort of thing makes me feel really good.”
With the film, and the publicity work for it, now complete, Nelson, who worked on Panda 2 for three years, said she’s been content to do nothing but catch up on sleep. She’s staying mum on any future plans, and though no one would confirm or deny a third installment in the Panda series, with the success of Panda 2, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be another. Co-writer Glenn Berger has even said that studio honcho Katzenberg told him to dream up an arc for Po that could last for at least four more films. DreamWorks is a studio that has been known to milk its cash cows. It did, after all, give us four Shrek films, with a spinoff on the way.
Whatever happens, one imagines there will be more time in the Panda world for Nelson. She and the crew from the films are very tight-knit, and Nelson has even stated publicly she’d jump at the chance to direct another one. Now that she’s been in the director’s chair, there’s really no better way she can replicate that satisfaction she got by taking an image from her head, developing it with her collaborators, and projecting it onto the big screen.
“On the mix stage, when you’re doing the final tweaks on sound, and you go, ‘Oh my gosh! There it is,’” gushed Nelson, her eyes widening, as if watching her mother’s pen create faces out of nothing. “You don’t get that chance doing anything else.”
This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe here!