Approached by DreamWorks Animation about the prospect of helming a “Yeti movie,” writer/director Jill Culton seized what she saw as both an opportunity and a challenge, “to reinvent and define a mythical creature in a new way for audiences,” she says.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Culton’s second feature centers on Yi (Chloe Bennet), a rebellious and highly intelligent young woman whose life is forever changed, after encountering a young Yeti on the roof of her Shanghai apartment building. After dragging two of her friends on a journey to the Himalayas to reunite the creature with his family, Yi contends with a zoologist and an ultra-wealthy man who have their own designs on the yeti.
Casting Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Sarah Paulson and Eddie Izzard in the awards-contending animated pic, Culton approached the role of Yi with great care.
“It was important to me that my heroine be a strong-willed, independent thinker who was determined, not afraid to get dirty and not afraid to face the impossible journey ahead of her. As a kid, I grew up watching princess movies; however, I could never relate to them,” the director explains. “I grew up in the little beachside town of Ventura, where I surfed and skateboarded, and loved to camp and go on adventures. So, with this film, I wanted to create the role model I never had, but always wanted.”
A sumptuous visual experience, Abominable filled Culton with pride because it was “the first CG film from a big studio that stars an all-Chinese main cast and is set in modern-day China,” she explains. “As the film industry expands, I think it is important to explore and represent a diversity of people and cultures, and I’m happy we were able to represent China in an authentic way.”
DEADLINE: What themes or ideas were you looking to explore with Abominable?
JILL CULTON: I wanted to explore the idea of, “What makes up a family?” And what prevents us from being deeply connected with them? In Yi’s case, at the beginning of the movie, she is disconnected from her mom and Nai Nai, and from her friends Jin and Peng. Throughout the journey, Everest helps lead Yi to a place of healing so that she is able to have those deep connections once again. In the end, Yi reinvents her family to include Mom, Nai Nai, Jin and Peng. Going through your teenage years can be tough. When I was about Yi’s age my parents went through a divorce and my father no longer lived at home with us. He was a very influential figure in my life and it hit me pretty hard. The last thing I wanted to do was talk about it, so I pulled away. Not everyone can relate to divorce or a death in the family, but almost everyone can relate to a time where they felt disconnected from their family and loved ones. We all long for family connection. It is innate. But whom you include as part of your family is up to each individual.
DEADLINE: What were your first thoughts, in terms of the way in which you would tell Yi’s story, visually?
CULTON: I wanted this movie to start in a grounded place, in a normal neighborhood with a normal teenager. Our heroine, Yi, is someone that everyone can relate to. But once Yi finds Everest on the rooftop of her apartment building, things start to change, even visually. As Everest’s power to control nature is revealed, the world begins to change, and throughout the movie those powers become visually more grand and more whimsical as they get closer to the Himalayas. This allows for visual growth throughout the movie. If the magical set pieces were big at the beginning of the film, we would have nowhere to go and the visual world would feel like a fantasy world, instead of a grounded world where fantasy can happen.
It was also very important to myself and to my production designer, Max Boas, that the journey was a visual feast with a color palette that boldly changed from scene to scene. One thing I’ve learned by working on multiple journey films is that if you stay in the same color palette, even though you’re changing location, your brain perceives it as if you’re staying in the same location. You have to lean into your color choices in order to really feel like you’re moving, traveling and going through multiple stages along the journey.
DEADLINE: Was Abominable’s visual style informed or inspired by the work of any particular artists?
CULTON: Hayao Miyazaki is the master of fantastical and whimsical worlds. His films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away have always catapulted my imagination to amazing places. I am also a big fan of Steven Spielberg and the way he always grounds his movies before they become fantastical. Whether it’s E.T. or Poltergeist or Jaws, his characters are so real and vivid that when something out of the ordinary happens to them, it’s happening to us as the audience. He pulls us in.
DEADLINE: How did you arrive at the looks for your key environments and central characters?
CULTON: This film was a co-production between DreamWorks Animation Studio in Glendale and Pearl Studio based in Shanghai. We were so appreciative of the artists at Pearl who worked in tandem with us everyday. They helped us to design our metropolis (based on Shanghai), and because of the details they were able to provide, we were able to create a very authentic representation of modern China. They helped with everything from billboards and signage to food carts, scooters, Yi’s apartment and the rooftop.
But the real look of the film came from the artistic minds of our production designer, Max Boas, and our art director, Paul Duncan. These two amazing artists really set the look of this film. They worked along side my VFX Supervisor, Mark Edwards, whose great eye for detail helped to digitally realize it.
Nicolas Marlet designed our memorable characters and helped to make Everest a refreshing version of a yeti, one that is quite unique to our film. Nico and I share a love for dogs, and we talked about them often. He has three mini white ones he calls his ‘little yetis’ and I have two bloodhounds that weigh 100 lbs. each. You can definitely see the influence of both in the look and attitude of Everest!
DEADLINE: Could you describe your approach to the film’s magical set pieces?
CULTON: The magical set pieces in the film were by far the most difficult to realize. They were both visually and technically challenging. Most of the time when I was launching one of these sequences, like the waves of canola flowers, we would sit with both the art department and the FX team and just ask questions. How could this simulate water? How big should the waves get? Could the flower petals act like water spray? How do we create wake? There have been wave simulations in CG before, but there is no ‘out of the box’ recipe for how to make waves of flowers.
Then, the tests would begin—test after test until we got it right. The cloud koi fish sequence was another big challenge. That sequence needed to feel ethereal, impressionistic and if it went wrong those fish could’ve been laughable. But we had an amazing team of technical and artistic pros. Luckily we were able to start these challenging sequences a year out.
DEADLINE: What other major challenges did you face in bringing Abominable to life?
CULTON: We had an 18-month production schedule for this film, and anyone who knows animation know that is fast. With 41 sequences in production, I had to make decisions in story that were solid enough to move forward with very little change. In animation, we work out of order. The more technically difficult sequences go into the pipeline sooner so you have more time to finish. The sequences where you are honing the character arcs are usually refined many times and take longer to get right. This is a puzzle that is very challenging to navigate. Every decision you make has to be solid enough to keep a team of over 300 people moving towards the finish line.
An unexpectedly difficult scene was the sequence in the bamboo forest where Yi opens up about her father. We recorded this sequence many times. There is a lot of dialogue, and something about it was coming off as exposition, and not a natural outpouring of Yi’s emotion. Both Chloe and Tenzing came to the studio so we could record them together and workshop the scene. This means working with the script live in the room in order to refine it. This worked like a miracle. We literally recorded the sequence 20 times, refining as we went, until it sounded natural. Finally, I took the script away from Chole and said, “You know this story… just tell it from the heart.” And man, did she ever! Chloe had tears in her eyes, I had tears in my eyes and everyone in the recording booth had tears in their eyes. We knew we finally had it. Both Chloe and Tenzing allowed themselves to be so vulnerable and in the moment; that is what it takes to be a great actor.
DEADLINE: You mentioned the pride you take in Abominable‘s inclusiveness, and its portrait of modern-day China. Which other aspects of the final film make you the most proud?
CULTON: I’m proud of the purity and the emotion in the film. It deals with tough subject matter yet ends with hope. I loved using music as a key element in the story. The fantastic collaboration I had with my composer, Rupert Gregson-Williams, allowed music to become a powerful source of emotion in the film. And I’m proud we could give the audience beautiful visuals that hopefully stirred their imagination.