Animated Shorts - Kung Fu Writing w/ 'Panda' Screenwriters

A image from Dreamworks new animated feature, Kung Fu Panda

Before an animated film goes into production, there are usually a number of things that must be done before even one actor is recorded or character designed. One of them is some sort of script.

This is one of the areas where animation can deviate considerably from the normal cinematic process. It would be hard to think of someone like Chuck Jones or Hanna-Barbera working off a strictly written script when they worked on characters like The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote or Tom and Jerry. In fact, Jones’ scripts were famous for looking much like musical scores with pictures, timing the action to the beat. Other directors just work off of storyboards and/or animatics.

Still, probably another process is where the animators get to work first and then bring in the writers. It’s kind of the cartoon equivalent of the original Marvel Comics method. That’s pretty much the situation Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger walked into when they became the scriptwriters of Kung Fu Panda.

For those unfamiliar with Aibel and Berger, they’ve bee a team for nearly a decade. They really earned their true bones when they worked for Mike Judge and Greg Daniels on the series King of the Hill. There, as they quickly point out, the writing process is much more traditional. They would create much more traditional scripts and the animators would have to follow them word for word. This was not the case under the directorial rule of KFP’s John Stevenson and Mark Osborne.

Whatever you have to say, the process worked. The film easily surpassed the $100 million mark in its second week, and hasn’t really started international distribution yet. Many are calling it the best film Dreamworks has produced, ever and studio head honcho is already talking about sequels.

Here’s what they had to say:

Newsarama: How long did it take to get this project off the ground?

GLENN BERGER: We came on about 2 ½ years ago. Production had actually been going on for a few years before that.

NRAMA: So are you saying the story was already developed?

JONATHAN AIBELL: Sort of yes, sort of no. The world and the main characters already existed. The plot would be about a mystic journey Po would go on. It certainly wasn’t very specific. There were still questions about Po’s character, his home life but it was pretty much given that he was going to be chosen and was going to have to fight the bad guy.

GB: Those elements were firmly in placed. So were scenes like Tai Lung breaking out of prison and come for him

NRAMA: But characters like the Furious Five and Master Shifu were already in place.

GB: Yep. Sounds like we didn’t have that much to do for 2 ½ years.

NRAMA: No. Let’s not worry about such things as dialogue, setting up scenes…

JA: Actually, what happened is it takes so long just to create the look of these characters, not just physically but virtually. So to make a snake on the computer that Madame Viper could do took so long that the story, in some ways, could come about later. When we came out, it was already too late to change any of those elements.

GB: Our very first meeting with the producer and directors, they placed us in a conference room with all these artwork and then ran down the outline of the movie. They talked to us about what they were looking for with a final caveat of no new characters, no new settings. It wasn’t financial as much as production. They didn’t have time to create any new characters or sets.

NRAMA: Did this force you to change your writing process?

GB: We actually got to write from beginning to end. That was one of the first things we did. After that, we never got the chance to do that again. We almost always worked out of order because of some production requirement or another. For instance, a certain actor would be reporting one week, so we had to work on his scenes. Another were the fight scenes were extremely complex, and they needed constant rewriting. So we spent almost the entire 2 ½ years working in chunks and almost out of order.

JA: Also, there were times where a certain sequence would start as one of our ideas, then the board artists would come in and add their changes, then we would write the dialogue over them. From there it would just go back and forth.

A good example is we needed to set up a situation where Shifu trains Po. They had created a scene and once we looked at it, we said that would be great. From there, we asked “Well, what if we used food?” and it grew from there. It eventually became the chopstick fight. The process was all very fluid, very back and forth, unlike many other projects we ever worked on.

NRAMA: You worked on Shrek III, right?

GB: We only consulted. We never really worked on that. We actually did a lot of television. We worked on King of the Hill for six seasons. Kung Fu Panda was our first animated feature film. Right now we’re writing Monsters v. Aliens.

NRAMA: Would you say working for Mr. Judge helped you here or was it such a different experience they don’t apply?

JA: It certainly didn’t hurt. Working with Mike and, of course, Greg Daniels.

NRAMA: But King of the Hill is very dialogue-driven.

JA: So it’s a very different process. King of the Hill starts with the script. The role of animation is to illustrate what’s in the script. The role of the animators, as talented as they were, wasn’t to go off an imagine things that weren’t in the script. A lot of that is due to time constrictions. When you had to do 22 of those a year, you didn’t have time to explore. The process to the animators is literally: it’s written, it’s recorded, draw this!

Over here, when you have four years to make a movie, you have the time to do some experiments. You can ask what if we put this image here and that dialogue there? You can take apart the dialogue and ask the actor to try it one way and then another. There isn’t a single scene in the movie which we didn’t rewrite a dozen times, so we could explore from all different angles.

GB: But getting back to what did we learn from working on King of the Hill, the biggest thing we got from Mike Judge and Greg Daniels was to focus on the characters. While there may be a lot less dialogue in this movie, the discipline we brought in was saying something may be funny in the abstract, but if it isn’t telling then we’re not putting it in. That was a very useful thing.

Whether it was Po or Hank Hill, we were blessed with working with two characters were so distinct and loveable. Those are gifts for any writer. They both came with distinct voices.

NRAMA: How did you write for Jackie Chan? I mean, I love the man, but he does have a heavy accent that doesn’t work well on an animated film.

GB: You mean how many times we had his character do a thumbs up? The answer was simple, we did it through gesture. I mean with him there were many scenes where after we did the recording sessions we would go back up and rewrite because there were some words that were easy for him, and some that weren’t. But look at films he’s done, like Shanghai Noon or Shanghai Knights. He says an incredible lot through gesture. I remember going to those movies and there was nothing he said that I didn’t understand. So it was a matter of just working with him.

JA: So Jackie doesn’t have many words, but it’s a thrill to say that we were the people that put them in his mouth. As fans of martial arts, it’s not often you get to work with Jackie Chan.

NRAMA: Now what was it like to write Tai Lung’s escape?

GB: That already existed when we got here. We take zero credit for it.

JA: That was a good example of one of the things that was in progress before we got here. It was so work intensive. The only thing that we worked on was the dialogue between the rhino commander and the goose, and we had to back in to work on that.

In fact, the way we worked the whole situation was to first create a reason why Shifu would send the goose over to the prison. Then we send him and he has his first conversation with the commander. The final scenes, where the guards were fighting Tai Lung, those were actually done later.

NRAMA: So it sounds like all you had to do was put in the details.

GB: And make sure that it fit with what happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future. You might say that when we came on, there were a couple of big scenes already set, and it was up to us to add our own pieces to the puzzle.

NRAMA: One thing I picked up from interviewing Osborne and Stevenson, when Jack Black first came on to the project, he was doing a much more cartoon-y voice. As the film progressed, he moved more towards his natural voice. Did that change happen after you were involved?

JA: I think what you have to realize is there are two basic types of characters Jack Black plays. There’s the one snotty, arrogant character you see in School of Rock and High Fidelity. Now in the beginning of Kung Fu Panda, Po was a little bit more of a schemer. When we came on, he was already making the transition to the more humble character we finally saw. He ended up being more vulnerable, which is actually more what Jack is. Once that happened, the voice ended up being just him. I also think that after Nacho Libre he especially wanted to do something more like this.

GB: I think what really got it going is there was an interview Jack did for GQ where he said if not for some breaks, he could have been, as Po described himself, as a big fat loser. When we read that, we knew that Jack was Po. As Jeffrey Katzenberg recently said at Cannes, there’s never been a better intersection between character and actor at Dreamworks. That made it extremely easy to write this character.

NRAMA: I always liked that in the town Po lived in, everyone there was a duck, rabbit or pig, and then Po. Po was the only panda there.

GB: Well, a good question is just how did he end up in this town?

NRAMA: True. But still, Po stood out in the town whether he wanted to or not.

GB: That was actually one of the first things we changed when we got here. We really wanted to dramatize ways that Po didn’t fit into that that world. It helped state why his dreams of kung fu were so preposterous, especially for one of his size.

JA: Also, we wanted to ask why did this guy have this dream? What did he want to get away from? There are still a lot of questions left unanswered, such as what was his past? Who were his parents? How did he get there? Those are things he never discusses.

GB: At the same time, it helps show that he’s a guy who can barely fit into his own pants. He’s the classic guy who never fits in.

One person who came in with a great idea was Jed Nelson, the head of story. One day we were sitting around and he asked ‘I wonder if we should redesign the town so that his head is constantly hitting the ceiling. He has to stoop to go through a door.’

NRAMA: Did you guys do any research into the old martial arts movies? Were their any that particularly influenced you?

GB: We’ve always loved those movies. I also practice martial arts. Besides Jackie Chan, we also love the films of Stephen Chow, like Shaolin Soccer.

JA: You can also say we loved film like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

GB: What was really pleasant was when we came onto the project, John (Stevenson) and Mark (Osborne) also admitted they wanted to come up with something as beautiful as Crouching Tiger yet also a top notch kung fu parody. I have to tell you, working with people whose goals were so much higher, so much more epic, was a true joy.

NRAMA: One of the things I discussed with John and Steven was two of the best TV shows this last decade are Samurai Jack and Avatar. Both rely heavily on Asian mythology.

GB: There’s something Jeffrey Katzenberg said. Asian drama is related to the American Western.

NRAMA: Well, yeah. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai easily converted to The Magnificent Seven.

GB: Or Kurosawa’s Yojimbo becoming A Fistful of Dollars. There are so many overlaps in both those genres. Usually you got a solitary hero up against incredible odds and overcoming them in a very human way. Most important, they’re not superheroes. They are usually very vulnerable heroes who succeed in a relate-able way.

NRAMA: So how’s things going with Monsters v. Aliens?

JA: We’re very excited.

GB: If we say any more, the phones would probably cut out.

JA: It’s in 3-D, which is a whole other kettle of fish. For us, that’s even more exciting. I mean, here’s another way to try to figure out, another tool, to tell a story in an extra dimension. 3-D does effect your writing knowing there are even more things you can tell visually without words. I know that’s weird for a writer to say, but the epic-ness and beauty of the images has forced us to be a little sparser.

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