Kung Fu Panda 2 – Jennifer Yuh Nelson interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JENNIFER Yuh Nelson talks about the making of animated sequel Kung Fu Panda 2 and stepping into the director’s chair having been head of story on the first film.
She also talks about the various forms of animation employed in the film, her passion for traditional hand-drawn art, and how advances in technology continue to amaze.
Q. I’d imagine this was a no brainer for you when you were asked to direct it?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Oh yes, the first one was such a passion project for us, it was just such an opportunity to keep going. Everybody on the crew signed on for that same reason.
Q. So, what was the biggest challenge of making the sequel?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Making it as good as the first one. As I said, it was a passion project for us so we had this great protectiveness of the characters and the world and wanted to make sure that it was something that people would enjoy just as much as the first film, but also get an enhanced experience even from the first film. And the story was always going to be centred around the question of why Po’s father is a goose. It was the thing that everyone was asking us after the first film. Even children were asking us this question and so that was what guided us as we began the scenario for the second film.
Q. I’d imagine another of the challenges was balancing the need for more action sequences with a strong emotional undertow and never losing sight of the characters?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Absolutely, there’s basically a triangle that we’re trying to balance at all times: there’s the humour, there’s the emotion and then there’s the action. If you have all of just one of those things, you just don’t have as much of a full experience. It also keeps things from being too scary or inconsequential or too melodramatic. So, we just had to make sure that all of those things were in balance.
Q. In your opinion, what makes Po so awesome?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: I think because he’s so sweet. He’s very vulnerable. He’s not an arrogant hero. He’s very humble. And because of that we can see ourselves in him and ourselves in our awkward stages. We don’t have all the answers or all of the skills and yet he keeps going and I think that enthusiasm is something we all love about him.
Q. You mentioned the sweetness, so how hard did you work to ensure that baby Po was so adorable?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: [Smiles] Not too hard. That sort of comes with the territory and the character design was just so cute! If you look at a real panda – and we did look at real panda bears – they’re as cute as little babies in fuzzy suits. They’re just so cute, they’re naturally cute.
Q. Jack Black seems very dedicated to this role. Is that a fair description?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Definitely, Jack is so committed to the character. He comes in and during those recording sessions he really goes for it. It is a huge workout for him and he finds levels of emotion in Po that are really wonderful. There were performances that he did in the booth that made us all cry.
Q. When it came to directing – as this is your first feature – how was including the 3D element?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: It was very, very intrinsic into the process. It layered in. It wasn’t a post process. It was every single step of the way. We were looking at animation dailies with the glasses on, checking to make sure that everything worked in the 3D world. And as it was included in that way it’s just another filmmaking tool. It is a great way of making it immersive into the world, so you feel it when they’re doing all these big moves, and you’re there when they’re doing these crazy things. It’s not a gimmick.
Q. Did you feel any pressure directing your first feature film?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Oh absolutely because, again, all my friends are working on this movie and I wanted to make sure that we all had a great time and that we made something that we’re proud of. That pressure is something that I think helps keep us sharp.
Q. Is it at all daunting to be telling Angelina Jolie what to do?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Oh no, it’s fun. We have a great deal of fun during these recording sessions and we just work through the scenarios, what the character is trying to do, and to see her perform was a real honour.
Q. You seem to be picking some great British actors for your villains – Ian McShane in the original and now Gary Oldman for the sequel…
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: He’s an amazing actor. He’s so amazing. When he comes in and he’s doing Shen right there in front of you, it just sends chills down your spine because he’s so threatening!
Q. Will there be a third film?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Well, it really is up to the audience because there’s so much left to tell. I mean, Po is such a great character, the world is so amazing and there’s so much left of it to explore. But it really is up to the audience to see if they want more.
Q. I gather when it came to animation you were initially drawn to it by watching your mother as a child?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Yes absolutely. My mum is an amazing artist. She didn’t do it professionally because there wasn’t the opportunity but she is so good at it. Watching her draw has been a great inspiration for me for my entire life.
Q. What kind of animated films also inspired you?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Well, I kind of like a lot of anime. I love [Hayao] Miyazaki. It’s just the level of ability that he shows in his films, the level of heart – it’s beautiful.
Q. You’re also a long-term fan of martial arts movies? Why?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Yes I am. I grew up watching them and they’re just so fun. They’re completely over the top and yet they’re very epic and very noble. And that’s why I really enjoyed them.
Q. How easy was it to get to where you are now – I mean, you made history by becoming the first woman solo director of an animated feature. Has it felt like a long journey to get to this point?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: I kind of stumbled into it, honestly, because I was having fun the entire time and the next thing I know we’re doing something like this! [Laughs] I don’t plan. I’m not a planner. It all just turned out this way!
Q. So, what’s the biggest lesson you think you’ve taken away from this experience?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Probably trying to balance my off time [laughs]! It’s been so good. I’ve had such a great time working on this.
Q. How important is it to you as an artist to mix the different styles of animation we see in the film, from hand-drawn to cutting edge?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: I think it is part of the style of the world that whenever you go into Po’s head it becomes that anime, sort of 2D hand-drawn style. That’s something that we really wanted to keep going in the second film. It is the language of Po’s brain. So, that’s what we used. But we also have in the opening prologue traditional hand puppets, and that is a historical lesson and that’s why we wanted to have something different from what’s in Po’s head. But it is a historical lesson, so we went with something that was traditional, such as Chinese shadow puppets.
Q. How important is it that you keep the hand-drawn element in films, especially given your background in drawing? Is there a danger of that art form being forgotten?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Definitely. It is definitely not as used as it has been and that’s such a pity because it’s just such a beautiful art form. When you watch the animators on the crew get the chance to draw again, instead of working on the computer, but actually hand draw these moments, they’re faces light up and the ability that comes across is just shocking. You should see these stacks of paper! They’re beautiful!
Q. How often do you continue to be amazed in the advances in animation?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Every day because it changes month to month and it changes so fast that there are things we can do now that we couldn’t do at the beginning of this movie. There are certainly things we can do now that we couldn’t do on the first movie. So, every day it becomes much more of a free medium as in we don’t have to think about how to do it, we just do whatever that is required for the story and the characters and somehow the technology makes it possible.
Q. So, what’s the shot that you’re most proud of in this? Is it the droplet of water sequence perhaps?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Yes, when he’s doing the balancing of the water and he ultimately finds what he’s looking for… that moment makes me cry every time.
Q. What’s your favourite memory of the whole experience of making this film?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: I’ve got to say going to China. That was quite an experience, going to some of the sets that we made for this film and walk around them. I mean, it’s all virtual [on film] so to actually be there in the real place was pretty cool.
- Read our review
- Jennifer Yuh Nelson interview
- Kung Fu Panda 2 UK Premiere Photos
- Kung Fu Panda coverage