Starting her DreamWorks tenure as head of story, Kung Fu Panda 3 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson has had a varied career that is intimately tied to that particular franchise. Working on all three Kung Fu Panda Films, Nelson directed a dream sequence in the original, before assuming directing responsibilities for the next two features. Working on KFP3 alongside Alessandro Carloni, Nelson continued to believe in untapped story and world building potential within panda Po’s elaborate universe. Below, Nelson discusses her career evolution and the Chinese audience’s response to the franchise.
What was it that compelled you to return for a third Panda installment?
I’ve always loved the Kung Fu Panda idea. When I first heard about it, I was head of story at DreamWorks and I had heard the title of it—that title, alone, made me so excited. I actually said, “I don’t care what I’m doing on this. I just want to work on this movie, because I want to see it live.” It’s been a labor of love for all of us for 12 years; it’s been very much the same core crew of people that have made all three movies. We keep coming back to it because it’s something that we love. We love the characters, we love the world, and we just wanted to tell more about them.
You had segued into directing after directing a dream sequence in the original?
Yeah. The opening dream sequence, which was 2D animation. It was fun and stylized, and based on Manga and video games. We just wanted to do some sort of fan-crazy vision of what everybody wished they could do.
What was the thought process in finding new visual ideas and surprises for the third film?
The world has always been huge, much bigger than we could ever fit into each film. The idea on the third one was, Po has always been the one lone panda in the Valley of Peace. We put in that little teaser at the end of the second film, not to set up the third film, but when we went to visit the panda reserve in China, in Chengdu, we just saw how cute they were. Everybody loved them so much, and we couldn’t imagine leaving people at the end of the second film, that all of the pandas were gone because of the storyline. It was just a reassurance. We can’t leave people thinking that all of the pandas are gone. People were asking, “Ooh, is he going to meet his panda father?” That big homecoming and identity search seemed like a great fruition to Po’s journey.
You went through a thorough research process with this film, then?
Definitely. We always wanted to try to make something authentic. We don’t want to make something that seemed like, “These people are vaguely interested.” No, we’re hardcore fans. The first time, we had to research it from afar, through internet searches, book searches. The crew was amazing at how close they got it to the point that we had a very surprising response from the Chinese audience. They embraced it so much. That’s why in the second one, we went to China—to actually hold real pandas, which was quite an honor. We wandered all over China. The third one, because it’s a co-production, we were able to use a lot of the artists at Oriental DreamWorks and the expertise of people in Shanghai to give it an even bigger push.
What kind of world building was involved, going into the third film?
It’s funny because Kai, the bad guy in the third film, was actually designed during the first film. The original dream sequence that Po had, he was battling a four-armed yak. So we always had the idea of this supernatural villain that was really crazy, somebody that Po could be able to fight against. It’s always been important to put the hero on the back foot so that he has to push further in order to grow into an even greater level.
What goes into designing the film’s running action sequences?
It always starts with, “What is the emotional pivot of these action scenes?” Then, “What is the coolest set piece we could come up with?” We have a crazy bunch of folks working on it, to make it feel like a choreographed dance. Even though it’s extreme action, it’s always got something that will keep it from being super scary. It’s got grit and stakes, but isn’t super scary for the little kids.
Has the idea of integrating certain 2D sequences always been part of the fabric of this franchise?
When we first started, the idea of a 2D sequence was something that one of the directors came up with, because nobody was doing 2D animation anymore in the big studios. It’s a gorgeous art form. You can do things in it that you just can’t do in CGI, or it’s certainly harder to do in CGI. We wanted to do it as a tribute for “This is what’s cool.” And we showed it that way. In the second film, we went for traditional Chinese shadow puppets. That gives a very different look. It was like 3D, but not. Also, we have the traditional 2D of Po’s memories of his mom. That was, again, something else, which is an emotional, graphic look.
The third film, it was, ” How do we make something look super ancient and historical, but super cool?” Originally, Tai Lung’s backstory was done as a living scroll. We tried to do this whole idea of living watercolor, and how do we make this calligraphy come to life? We went to China, actually, and saw this gigantic scroll. I believe it’s called, “The River Walk.” It was gorgeous. We thought, “We need to do that and make it live.” Technology has moved on and the artistry, people are able to push things even more. We managed to pull it off this time.
In your opinion, what is the reasoning behind the lack of 2D animation coming from the studios these days?
I think mainly it’s audience taste. It’s a big pendulum where people are always excited about the new things. At the time of the first movie, when everything was transforming over to CGI, everyone was all excited about CGI and they became used to seeing it. 2D is such an amazing art form, and it can’t be lost. It got to the point where a big, big studio production wouldn’t do the 2D format. Strangely, if you don’t do it, you don’t have the pipeline to do it. It becomes actually harder to do.
The editing in the film is very striking—the ways in which you use split-screen techniques, for example.
Clare [De Chenu] has been the editor on all three movies, and she is amazing. She has an incredible sense of rhythm and musical cutting style to her work. She’s also very calm and very smart, and a relaxed person. A lot of the idea of making it feel sort of percussive and set to the music is through what she brings to it.
What was your most challenging scene, this go-round?
I think one of the biggest challenges was trying to get the dragon right. This is a little bit of a spoiler but the final image of the dragon warrior was very difficult because you have to make it clear enough that you could tell it’s a dragon, but also make it look like it’s made out of moving fire, and make it act. It would be much simpler if we just did an effect and then, you know, it’s a cool effect. Because it’s Po, it’s a reflection of his personality, it had to be pushed, in order for it to be squashed and stretched, and do all of this stuff, in addition to being super cool. That took a lot.