DreamWorks Animation’s third installment of the Kung Fu Panda series is lead by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. The two directors sat down to talk about working on Kung Fu Panda 3, the pressures of a successful franchise, and telling Steven Spielberg “No”.
What’s the process like when you collaborate on a film of this scale?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: We’ve been working together since the first film. Alessandro worked as an animator on [Kung Fu Panda] and I was head of story. We’ve been collaborating since the birth of these characters. I can’t speak for collaborating in any field, but we’re familiar with the characters. We know what the characters will do at any point. On one scene one of us may take more of a lead than the other, but we check in with each other on everything.
Alessandro Carloni: There’s a hint of insurance when you make movies of this size. God forbid I get the flu for a month; you can’t just shut down [laughs]. Jennifer asked for me to join her because we both know who the characters are. If she got sick for a month, she wouldn’t want someone who was a great director but didn’t know who Po was.
I’d imagine there’s some pressure making a movie like this. Especially since the previous films have been so successful.
JYN: It’s huge pressure, but strangely not the kind of pressure you would think. For us, we’ve been working with the same people for 12 years and we want to make sure it’s exciting for us. The harshest judges are our own crew. We’re the ones losing weekends, nights, and family time working on this. We have to make sure we like it, that pressure is huge.
AC: We have intense fights about that stuff. There’s a sparring scene between Po and Tigress, and we had intense arguments about whether Po could get past Tigress with this move. [laughs]
JYN: There’s so much discussion about it. We have this intense need of wanting it to be good.
AC: Speaking of the intense need of wanting it to be good. A lot of the pressure we feel is from the fans. We’re not just introducing new characters; there are fans out there that love them. You have to do good by them. Of course the studio wants it to be successful, but we also don’t want to hurt those who are waiting to see their friends again. If we do something that’s wrong, they’ll know and we’ll fail. That’s a good pressure to have. We’ve said this before, Jennifer and I are the directors of this movie but we’re also the protectors. We are working in this wonderful studio where we can pick up the phone and call Steven Spielberg to ask, “What do you think about this scene?” He might have a fantastic idea but it’s up to us. He might have a great idea but would Po do that?
So you’re telling Steven Spielberg no? [laughs]
AC: “Nah, no”. [laughs]. We also have Guillermo del Toro who’s an executive producer. He gives amazing ideas but it’s our job to know if the ideas work for these characters or not.
JYN: Would Po do that? Would Tigress do that? Only people that have been with the characters would know.
Having to tell Del Toro and Spielberg “No” would be intimidating…
JYN: They’re aware of it as well. They know they’re there to help and they only want to do what’s right for the movie.
AC: That’s the wonderful thing about having filmmakers as partners. They give you notes on the movie you’re trying to make. A filmmaker understands the process.
I hear that a lot from filmmakers.
AC: I never once heard [del Toro] give a note or suggestion about how he would make the movie, just suggestions to help you finish your movie. That’s a gift. That’s a rare gift.
What’s the process of making a big animated feature from beginning to end?
JYN: About four years. That’s from the very beginning of concepts. The first two years is concept, writing, storyboarding, re-storyboarding, re-storyboarding, and re-storyboarding until we get an idea of what we want to make. The last two years is the production where you get into the animation and all that stuff. The actors come in very early during the storyboard phase because we want to have their input on the character development and also the animators have a performance to go off of. Many people don’t realize we animate after the recordings. We record the actors before animation so they can experiment.
AC: To the point where the performances change the personalities of the characters. Bryan Cranston helped sculpt who the character would be.
Was there anything that didn’t make the film that you wanted in?
JYN: There’s a lot, especially when you’re making and remaking a movie during the storyboard phase. There are a lot of concepts that are awesome. Honestly, the first film had that too and part of that went to the second film. The second film had it and that went into the third film. We always create a big world and this time we made a lot of things that couldn’t fit into the movie.
AC: If we finally crack the code to solve a story problem, sometimes that means having to adjust scenes and you may lose something you loved. It’s heartbreaking.
Even in films you’ve worked on like How to Train Your Dragons, the worlds seem really big.
JYN: I think that’s what makes it feel real. This is not all fake animals in some cartoon world; it feels like real characters with real problems living in a real place. We’ve sat and thought through a lot of stuff. We have an art department that thinks of every little detail.
Did you have a favorite cartoon growing up or a favorite animated movie?
AC: As a child I loved Alice in Wonderland. It was mostly because it felt like looking into my own brain. The idea of a world where the table and teapots are singing was so abstract yet tangible. That juxtaposition of absurdity turning into a believable and tangible reality was a kick for me. There’s a space out there where you can truly represent your imagination and that put a mark on my brain, in a good way.
JYN: I grew up on anime. My favorite things were Akira and Ghost in the Shell. It was a lot of cool action. That’s why I always gravitated towards things that have action.
Is that why you both got involved in animation?
JYN: I actually never planned to get into animation. It just happened to be where you could draw and make movies at the same time.
AC: I knew I wanted to be involved in storytelling, but I foolishly thought I wanted to become a novelist but I never had the discipline for it. I always doodled and at some point I realized I could merge the storytelling with the drawings and that became my passion.
Do you have a favorite scene in Kung Fu Panda 3?
AC: The scene where Po and his dad bond together for the first time. It was a scene where I was falling in love with this new character and they were bonding in a way that was so charming. What we love about Po is his playfulness and his childlike enthusiasm about everything. When he’s paired with his dad, for the first time he was able to let it out. It was always bubbling but we finally gave him a partner to be silly with.
JYN: The moment towards the end when everybody comes together to help Po. The reason why it’s special to be is because it’s this emotional beat where it all comes together and culminates with all the characters evolving. Emotional scenes are really hard to do and that particular scene I drew so many times.
Kung Fu Panda 3 opens 1/29/16