Arriving in UK cinemas today is Kung Fu Panda 2, the impressive sequel to the 2008 original. It’s a rare beast, improving as it does on the original. And director Jennifer Yuh spared us some time to chat about making the film…
Kung Fu Panda 2 is a funny film, and animation is doing comedy really well at the moment. I think there’s lots of stuff around at the moment about how comedy isn’t very strong in Hollywood right now, yet I’m seeing animated films stuffed with big laughs, Kung Fu Panda 2 included. Is that the tight scripting of animation? Because you can’t properly test it?
Well, we do have a script, and we do rough passes of the movie. We have a rough animatic, and we board everything. And because it’s such a labour intensive process, we have to plan everything ridiculously.
All those gags? They’re tested on us. Someone pitches it, and if everyone laughs in the room, it usually means it’s a good joke, so we don’t have to go all the way to the audience to see if something’s funny.
But sooner or later you do have to go near the audience, even before you’ve locked the final cut, which is tricky for animation.
Yeah, we do preview screenings. On this one we did one when it was 50% animated, 50% boards. We have those screenings, we put up those jokes, and sometimes we go “Oh, that joke did not work.” And sometimes we go, “I can’t believe they laughed at that,” because we’ve seen it thirty times, and we’ve stopped laughing at it!
Those screenings are a very, very big help for fine-tuning jokes. But to figure out whether to put them in at all, we have to do the work much, much earlier.
Presumably, you find that even a half second edit can make the world of difference?
Yeah. Definitely. Comedy is all about timing, and if you finesse the timing too far, you have a great joke that dies. And there have been many times when that happened. So, you go into editorial and say, “Snip that second off,” or “Do a little bit with the sound effects,” and all of a sudden, the joke sings.
What happened to the subtitle, The Kaboom of Doom? I thought that was a lovely title. It could have been the Electric Boogaloo for a new generation!
[Laughs] I loved that title! But it was one of those things where people responded to Kung Fu Panda 2, and they instantly knew what that was! They knew then that it was the movie, rather than a special, or TV show, or something like that.
Because there were some straight-to-DVD releases, I guess.
Yeah. And they didn’t want people asking if it was one of those.
I think they should ban the spin-off DVDs if it stops things being called The Kaboom Of Doom in the future. If you could feed that back for us.
Professionally, you’ve taken a very unusual route to get here. Because I’ve looked at some of the films you’ve worked on before, and you worked on some very heavy Disney derivatives, such as a version of Alice In Wonderland.
Yeah, that was very early!
I’d imagine that there’s a seat of your pants scholarship in working in such small, straight-to-video projects like that. I don’t think too many people shout terribly loudly about the end result in those cases, but process-wise, it must have been a real education.
It was a huge education, because those were my first jobs.
I went in, and my first job was to make photocopies, and trace drawings so that they were clean, and occasionally do a character design. I was a clean-up assistant. But what was really good was that it was such a small studio, you get to see every step.
It’s not like you get cubby holed into some department, and that’s all you ever do. You get to see exactly what it takes to make a production. That was such a great education, that I could carry that into other things that I did.
I’m very grateful that I started in the studios, where I could see every step like that. The first jobs I had were all like that.
And then you moved on to work on Dark City, an astonishing film, and very different from pretty much every other film on your CV. The principles, though, are, presumably, not far removed?
There aren’t massively removed. It went right into my personal taste, because I love those pushed visual fantastical movies. I find them an escape.
To be able to be on a movie like that, which is so constructed, everything has to be imagined. To be an illustrator on that was really fun. I could come up with sets that were just really bizarre. And all these crazy ideas for blocks that were twisting all over the place. It was really fun.
In terms of how your career progressed, you’ve seen DreamWorks go through a lot.
Yes, I’ve been there for fourteen years.
And it’s fourteen years of a very young studio. You’ve seen its key transitional period. You were on Spirit, that was your first film there, and one I’ve got a lot of time for.
It was a lovely film. It was a great education to work on that, too, because so many great people were on it.
Because of the nature of DreamWorks at the time, that must have been a fascinating time to land there, simply because it was so new.
It was new. They were still trying to figure out who they were. And what was really exciting about it was that it was all new. Nobody knew what the rules were. All these movies were coming out, and they were all disparate with each other.
Spirit followed The Road To El Dorado, didn’t it?
Yeah! There were Spirit, The Prince Of Egypt, El Dorado, Sinbad. They couldn’t be more different from each other.
And that was really cool was you get to see the process. You get to see what it takes to make all these different movies. I got to see the company go through Shrek, and get into that tone. And that really broke ground on what a broken fairy tale is. Then trying to reinvent itself after that.
As a company, you look at the pivotal turning point films, and for very obvious business reasons, you’d have to pinpoint Sinbad at DreamWorks. And that was when you were at your then most senior position on a movie.
And then it came out against Legally Blonde and Terminator sequels.
It got destroyed.
Was that the low point?
I think it was a lot of soul searching at that point, because it was a 2D animated film. And I felt sad that a 2D animated film couldn’t make it any more, and that was quite tragic, as there are so many great animators out there.
But one thing that was great about that company is that it reinvents itself. If something doesn’t work, it tries something else. They keep going, and it shows in the movies that they make. Every single one is different, even now. Even after all these movies, they don’t stick to the same thing. They are able to make Panda, and Dragon, and Shrek. They’re very different from each other, and there isn’t a house style. As a filmmaker, you are allowed to do whatever you want to do.
Is that really still the case?
Yes. Totally. Panda 2 is extremely divergent of stylistic choice than Dragon or Shrek. You couldn’t design more different looking movies, and we were completely allowed to do that.
The thing with Panda is that it’s an ambitious sequel, I’d say. I think DreamWorks has been guilty of taking the lazy way out with sequels in the past, but here, you took an odd choice. There were far more obvious avenues to go down. The one you went down actually could have been something the first film was about. Yet, it worked. It really worked. You storyboarded this one pretty soon after the first.
Yep, we just picked right up.
So, was there only one way, in your mind, that this film could go?
Yes. There was only one way.
When I got onto this movie, there were several ideas being banded about. Jon and Glenn [the writers] had already been thinking about it, and had been thinking about the cannon idea, and using the peacock. And they had this great idea for technology coming.
But the big question everyone had was why is Po’s dad a goose. And for me, I can only understand the film if I can understand what a character needs or wants. And the one thing that Po needed was to find out who it is. It’s teased at in the first film.
When I first heard what Panda 2 was to be about, my heart sank a little. Because I loved the fact that the goose was never explained.
I totally agree.
That was the risk?
But that’s one of the things where you talk about harsh critics, but the harsh critics are the crew, because we’re all so protective. We don’t want to screw up the world, because it’s such a beloved world amongst us.
But that was what the character needed. And if you’re going to do it, you better do it right. You can’t just do it in an obvious way. It’s got to be worth it. Because it’s a very sweet thing in the first movie that it’s left unsaid, and if you go there, it has to be worth it.
This is a film, probably more than any other, that’s at the two extremes of animation trends. Because you’ve got the hand-drawn material, which I loved. And the 3D, at the other end. The traditionalist in me loves the 2D far more than the 3D, but maybe that’s being old and miserable. But how do you balance them all? It must be even more delicate than usual.
It’s very delicate a process. As we were working on the movie, it’s always been inherent in the world that Po’s brain images are in that style. That’s the language of his brain, so we had to carry that through. It had to happen, and we love the 2D look of it. But the balance of how much to put in was something we were playing with while making it.
That rough story reel I was telling you about, we would put many different flashbacks in there. There were originally more, but we cut back on it, because you have to give just enough information that you need to know what happened, but not give enough information that you’re tired of it.
Everybody who has directed an animated film that I’ve spoken to, they all share war stories of the dark part of the production, the middle.
The miserable middle! [laughs]
It’s almost as if, because the process is so prolonged, you’ve lost your film. That’s how it’s perceived.
It always happens.
How do you win it back?
Many different ways. Some films never get it back. But it is tough, because at the beginning you have the energy and the euphoria and everybody’s fresh. Then at the end you’re seeing results of the hard work. But in the middle, you don’t get results. None of the footage is in yet, everyone is complaining and tired, their weekends have been shot. And that’s when you really start to second guess what was good in the first place.
The thing with this one was it was such a simple idea. When everyone was pitched the idea, there was a visceral reaction. Every head of department came in, we pitched the idea, and there was always a moment where everyone went, “That’s something I want to work on.” We tried very hard to hold on to that feeling.
At one point, everybody got to a point where they were tired. But in our particular case, we had Guillermo del Toro come in. He came in right in the middle of the miserable middle, when we were very tired, and second guessing stuff. And he came in and said, “You’re second guessing yourself!” He gave us that boost of confidence to stop doubting the vision of the movie.
All those Band Aids we may have put in for the sake of overthinking something, he said you don’t need the Band Aid. Trust the idea, trust the movie you’re making. His enthusiasm, energy and geek joy made everybody go, “Okay, we’re making a good movie. Let’s do it.” He gave that big boost of confidence.
This is the first time, of course, that you’ve been through the ‘miserable middle’ with you as a solo director, with everyone looking to you.
It’s your job to turn three hundred people’s heads round.
Exactly, and that’s a great deal of trust. Because these people are all my friends. I’ve worked with all these people for seven and a half years by the end of this process, so I have this great sense of responsibility that I don’t waste their time.
But then Guillermo del Toro bolstered me and my mind. And told me to trust I had a good movie, and fight for it. That boost of confidence was what helped me go into these departments and say, “You’re going to be okay. Everything will be fine.
When did you actually start animating the film?
We started about a year after the first film. That’s about the time you need to put together a story reel, and the animation usually starts there. It depends on the schedule, because usually the animation starts slow.
You have a small group, and they will do a couple of key scenes, and the main bulk of the crew come in later, maybe two years into the production. A huge amount happens in the last year.
I’ve got to ask you a question that my 7-year-old was curious about. And it’s this. How do you get the movements of the characters right, because you’re getting across an animal feel to them, but displaying human emotions, too?
It really comes down to the animators. We have fabulous animators, and this was the difference between animating a film, and mo-capping a film. Because with mo-cap, you have a human being. In this film, we have animals. And the animals can do things no human being could ever do with their bodies. It takes imagination to figure that out.
They look at real animals, they already have the knowledge of how human beings move, and they find little details in how an animal will go through something as simple as walking across the room, and carry that over.
Finally, you got Jean-Claude Van Damme into the movie. Was that down to you?
Yeah [laughs]. Jean-Claude Van Damme, I was like, “I’ve got to have him in the movie somehow!” I got to meet him and take my photograph with him! [laughs]
Do you have a wish list of action stars?
Yeah, it’s my bucket list! He’s an amazing guy. It was great to meet him after going to his movies since I was a kid!
What’s the best Van Damme movie?
That was easy.
But I like Cyborg, too!
Jennifer Yuh, thank you very much!
Kung Fu Panda 2 is out in UK cinemas today.