Chatting with the Directors of Dreamworks Kung Fu Panda, p.2

A image from Dreamworks new animated feature, Kung Fu Panda

As seen in the previous part of our interview, Kung Fu Panda’s directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne put a lot of time into pre-production, but that was only half the process in putting this movie together. Moving into animating, compositing and every other detail was a process in its own right.

A grand example of their mastery is early in the film, when the villainous Tai Lung escapes from his prison. It’s an incredible mixture of three-dimensional imagery fusing seamlessly with Hong Kong action.

“That was our first statement piece,” said Stevenson. “It was the first action scene we put into production. It was a long time in story. We knew that it would introduce the actual power of our villain. It had to be really impressive. People had to really remember it. So we wanted it to be something special.

“So there was a lot of work in the story department. When we moved that sequence into production, we brought on Dan Gregoire, who is a pre-visualization expert who worked with Steven Spielberg on War of the Worlds and George Lucas on Star Wars. He worked with our people in the layout department.

Now, originally that scene was twice as long. It was supposed to be a 6 ½ minute sequence. There was a bunch of scenes we cut out.”

“We knew early on we had to establish the action,” adds Osborne, who did much of the modeling in this sequence. “We knew it had to be on par with all the other big action movies that would come out this summer. The bar has been set pretty high these days. We knew we didn’t want to be just another summer animated movie. We wanted to be considered up there with the big boys. So we put a lot of work into makings sure our action was spectacular. At the same time we tried to make sure it wasn’t so terrifying you couldn’t take the entire family to it. We were trying to please everybody.”

What the two end up with is full utilization of the space around them. Fans of animation and Asian action films alike will be left breathless as the monstrous snow leopard leaps and scrambles up the miles of miles of cave walls while taking out a heard of weapon-toting rhinos.

“I definitely think a knowledge of the physical world, whether through live action or with stop motion, makes it easier when you move into CG,” says Osborne. “The transition is definitely easier than from 2-D. Yes, many of the principles are the same, especially an intrinsic knowledge of physical space. In working out our action, that was one thing our cinematographer, Yong Duk Jhun, was definitely an asset. He and Gregoire were definitely incredible at maximizing our space. They helped us use it as much as possible.

“I mean, you can plan it out with your drawings, but you never truly use it until you move into three dimensional space, even if it is virtual. That was when our kung fu expert, Rodolphe Guenoden, also came in handy. He was able to communicate that to the animators. He actually did the poses to make it more visceral and identifiable in three-dimensional space.”

“Yong Duk Jhun, a brilliant artist in his own right, made it his goal to try to shoot this as close to a live action film as he could,” says Stevenson. “Yes, our main characters were furry animals who wore clothes, but he used a lot of depth of field allowing things to go out of focus. In fact, we had to throw away a lot of film because computers like to hand you everything in focus and nice and sharp, whether you want it or not. I mean it’s a nice feature, but it wasn’t one we were going for.

“Yong Duk was also great at differentiating our action scenes, where we used deep space, from our drama scenes, where we used flat space. It’s something that you subconsciously feel and helps make the action scenes break out. The reason is you really see movement with deep space. You feel you’re moving with the actors.”

The action sequences can also equally hilarious as they are heart pounding. This is particularly driven home when Shifu discovers the one true way to train his gluttonous charge.

“That was all done by the animators,” says Osborne. “When it came down to all the visuals, it really came down to the animators. That stuff is truly constructed out of their imaginations. These guys are true actors. They treat their craft very seriously. Let’s be honest, animation is not really that much fun to do. It’s very rewarding and the results are a lot of fun, but it’s really, really hard to do. Then again, when one of the supervising animators once said to me he thought the process was maybe too hard, I asked him if he would have it any other way. He said he wouldn’t.”

Finishing off the entire production process are the backgrounds, which truly are stunning.

“[They were done by] Our production designer Raymond Zibach and our art director, Tang Heng,” says Stevenson. “That was actually a crucial part of the film. We decided right at the beginning that even though we were doing a comedy, we wanted it to be really classic and, frankly, beautiful. So we decided early on that the look of the movie was how would it be if Akira Kurosawa shot a Jerry Lewis film?”

As potentially mind-numbing a concept that might sound like, Stevenson, Osborne and company took it to its logical extreme.

“There’s a certain look to a comedy movie that’s over the top,” says Stevenson. “Then there’s a look to the great martial arts movies, especially from their classic period. They’re different looks. So what would happen if you took the look from one and applied it to the other? In other words, you keep the chaotic elements of the main characters, but you preserve the grandness of the cinematography.

“There’s a lot of matte painting in our film. We wouldn’t have half our world if there wasn’t any matte painting. They really allowed us to give us the scope we wanted. We couldn’t afford to build those gigantic scenes and sets otherwise. It was also a way for us to keep the look of Asian art in the film. We really wanted to have the feel of Chinese painting in there.”

“Even when the modeling was 3-D, the surfaces were still hand painted,” adds Osborne, “even if it was done with the aid of a computer. One thing that really sets apart the look of the movie was the level of detail and the organic quality you get from all the surfacing you get. The only way we could do it was to paint all that.”

“Once we had actually done that, the work was exquisite,” continues Stevenson. “To finish, what Raymond, Yong Duk and we would then do is throw all of it a little bit out of focus so it ended up feeling more natural. We would diffuse it a little bit just so it wouldn’t throw attention to itself and away from the main characters.”

When you add all these various components together, what you end up with is a superlative animated as well as Asian action film. Which brings us all back to the original point, while American directors have attempted to mix martial arts into their action films, they end up with a completely different product. Kung Fu Panda, along with Forbidden Kingdom, feel like they could have come out of Hong Kong. Stevenson and Osborne feel this is due to the way animators actually work, where they literally break every shot down to a single frame at a time, comes into play.

“One of the things that separate Hong Kong action movies from most of their American counterparts are how the action sequence is put together,” says Stevenson. “In the Hong Kong movie, you can always see a clear silhouette. By that I mean in American movies they rely heavily on editing while in Hong Kong they do it all in the camera. The Asian film has a much more defined sense of kinetics. They’re not hard to see what’s going on. You rarely get lost in a Hong Kong action sequence. Americans will shoot and then clean it up in the editing room.”

Then again, one would think the animation process would be anti-intuitive to the Hong Kong method. Many of the best action sequences coming out of that island are often improvised on the set, creating their sense of spontaneity “in the camera” as opposed to it being done in the editing room.

“Which is something we tried to do with this movie,” says Osborne. “We were trying to be as spontaneous as we possibly could considering we were doing animation. We did this by whatever step we were in, whether it was recording, animating or in the cinematography, we tried to come up with the best solution right there on the spot. If that meant changing the camera we were open to that. A lot of our best ideas would happen in editing, where we would see something that would make us go back and reshoot because an angle we hadn’t thought of before would work better. Part of the problem with animation is, because it takes such a long time, if you aren’t careful what you end up with can feel kind of stale. To keep everyone enthusiastic and fresh for three-plus years is a challenge. When you do it right, there’s a vitality on the screen that people can feel.”

“I think there has always been a fairly devoted, I guess for lack of a better word, cult,” says Stevenson. “There had always been a segment of the American audience who was into it, whether it was David Carradine and his Kung Fu show or Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers. Over the years, it’s just gotten bigger and bigger. I think in relation to the interest in kung fu films, kids have also found manga and anime.”

“I think what’s really starting to happen is the lines have been blurred,” says Osborne. “There’s been so much cross-pollination. Look at Matrix or Spider-Man, which also have a lot of Hong Kong influence. Kids may not even know it, but they are getting steeped in it. So, when they see something that’s more traditional kung fu, they aren’t as estranged or alienated by it as their parents were in the past. When something like Naruto’s on because the kids see it as something cool and they like it. It’s become a bigger part of our culture these days. I also think there’s room for it to get bigger. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

One gets the feeling it most certainly will. Kung Fu Panda will be the proof of it.

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