WARNING: YOU CAN’T DISCUSS A FILM WITHOUT SPOILING IT FOR SOMEBODY
Could it be? Can it be happening? Is it possible that film directors who don’t hail from the Kowloon peninsula or the nearby isles finally are producing some kick-butt martial arts films?
The fact is the last two major martial arts films released in the U.S. were both directed by bah gwais. One, Forbidden Kingdom was a hit. According to the site Box Office Mojo it drew $51 million domestically last April, over $100 million worldwide. The buzz is, in part because of its now blockbuster season as well as the cast involved, Kung Fu Panda will be even bigger when it’s released this season.
What’s interesting though is the directors aren’t your usual action film types. There’s no Michael Bays or Richard Donners in the mix. The directors in question have their roots in animation, not live action. Throw in the likes of TV’s Genndy Tartakowsky (Samurai Jack), Sergio Delfino (Chop Socky Chooks) and the DiMartino/Konietzko team (Avatar: The Last Airbender), and this could be an interesting trend.
Yes, having international stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li team up for the first time ever doesn’t hurt, but kudos also had to be given to the film’s director, Rob Minkoff. Minkoff made a ton of money with Disney’s legendary film The Lion King and Sony’s Stuart Little. Now he got the spirit of the HK MA film as close as I’ve ever seen a director from this hemisphere, at least a non-Asian one.
Add Mark Osborne and John Stevenson to this very short list. Yes, it’s an animated family film. It was produced by Dreamworks after all. Still, within minutes you’ll see Stevenson and Osborne have the spirit of the HK spectacular just right. Part of the answer is their history, which isn’t typical by any standard.
Over the last three decades, the British-born Stevenson worked for the likes of Jim Henson, Cosgrove Hall, Film Roman, Henry Sellick, and Fox. About ten years ago, he settled with Dreamworks. There he worked on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, Shrek 2 and even the TV series Family Pride). It’s an incredibly diverse career, with him carrying an equal number of titles.
Osborne is the younger of the two, but not one to be ignored. His first short was a student project in 1994, Greener. His second short, More (1998), set his career in motion, earning him an Oscar nomination for its use of the IMAX process. He also did for Weird Al Yankovic and directed the live action sequences of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. For making David Hasselhoff entertaining alone, Osborne deserves our respect.
Put them together and what you wind up with is a truly complementary team made their different elements blend smoothly into one potent mix.
“There was a certain amount of division of labor just because making one of these things is huge enough for two directors, and near impossible for one,” said Stevenson. “Usually, what we would do is meet in the morning. We were both involved in the development of the characters, story and editing. Where we split is Mark took the lead, because of his experience with stop motion, with the animators and background. I took the lead with the art department, lighting and matte painting because of my experience in that area. Then we’d go our separate ways in the afternoon. From there we would meet again and make comments on what each of us did before.”
“And the producers made it their goal to try to make us fight as much as possible,” Osborne chimes in with a laugh.
Not that this was an easy project to begin with. Set in ancient China in an imaginary town called the Valley of Peace, the film’s titular character is a gigantic panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) in a town of ducks, pigs and sheep. His love of martial arts is constantly thwarted by his father (James Hong), oddly enough a duck, wanting him to take over the family’s noodle restaurant.
Osborne and Stevenson’s mastery of character animation is readily apparent from the introduction. The film actually opens with a traditional treatment highly reminiscent of Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack. From there, Po wakes up from his dream to an equally beautiful world rendered in three-dimensional CGI. There we follow the gigantic bear trying to maneuver in a world that is just way too small for his tremendous girth and dimensions. If that isn’t enough, Po is designed to be a massive body on stubby legs, virtually no neck and hardly any fingers. A seriously difficult character to animate, but Osborne and Stevenson do it.
“It’s all key frame animation,” says Osborne. “It’s all the animators working virtually. There is some 2-D drawing done to map out the action. But for most of it, it’s a lot of exploration within CG; just animators listening to Jack’s voice and being inspired by the texture of his voice and what they saw on the video of him. Further, they didn’t try to match him, they just used the video to inspire themselves. The animators literally invented Po. This way they could bring in as much subtlety as they could to the character.
“The reason for this is we tried to create a real and grounded film so the audience could be engaged in. We wanted the low action sequences to feel genuine. That took a lot of work from the animators. When you watch the dramatic sequences, they were constantly toning down and being as clear and as concise as possible.”
As the story continues, we learn the village is protected by an ancient turtle called Ooogway. Under Ooogway (Randall Duk Kim) is his main protégé, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and Shifu’s main students, the Furious Five; Mantis (David Cross), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). In the past, Oogway defeated another student of his temple, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a snow leopard with an important back history with Shifu.
If the personality animation is impressive, the film goes into overdrive when it gets down to the numerous fight scenes.
“We had a man named Rodolphe Guenoden. He was our fight choreographer,” says Osborne. “He was also one of our supervising animators and story artists. He studied the martial arts, many different forms of them, and he was instrumental in instructing the other animators on how to do kung fu, but had classes and did a lot of 2D poses to map out what the fighting would look like.”
“He actually came up with a unique system for doing the martial arts in our film,” adds Stevenson. “Originally, when the film was starting to be conceived, we didn’t think should was ask someone like Jackie Chan to be our fight choreographer. We figured out that in doing an animated movie that it wasn’t going to work. We needed to come up with our own system. All of our characters were animals and some don’t even have legs. One was a snake. Another was an insect. We had to come up with something unique. That’s where we came up with our own system internally. I know when we showed Jackie Chan some of the sequences, he was thrilled personally. He was very complementary.”
“That’s what was exciting,” says Osborne. “Nobody has really seen these animals do this kind of fighting, or never in an animated feature. In the past, we had seen human beings imitating animals when they do this style. What was exciting was seeing what the real animals would do when they did that style.
“What we actually did isn’t exactly true monkey or crane style. We had to come up with our own version so we could maximize on each character’s physique. For instance, a crane actually uses his beak to jab with. Humans use a pointed hand to imitate this. But our crane doesn’t have hands for fingers, so we went had to come up with our own solution to it.”
Those weren’t the only considerations the directors faced in pre-production. There were also considerations with the cast. For instance, Chan is a marvelous physical actor who communicates as much through his body motion as his voice. What many didn’t know is in his own animated series, Jackie Chan Adventures, he had another man, James Sie, voice his character because his Southern Chinese accent is quite thick and oft-times doesn’t come across well without his physical presence.
“We definitely found it was amazing to work with Jackie,” says Osborne. “We’re both huge fans of his work. Basically, after he signed on we just wanted to be near him. But we also made it a point when he signed to how best use his talents in the film. So we gave him a roll that we think worked best. We didn’t give him lots of long monologues. Still, we tried to capture his essence in the movie.”
“Also, the animators really tried to make Monkey move in many of the same ways Jackie would have moved,” adds Stevenson. “They made him very limber and agile.”
Then there was Black. When he started he apparently worked with one of his more cartoony, School of Rock-type, voice. Yet as production progressed, Black and the directors started toning the vocal performance down, greatly enhancing the vulnerability and natural humility of Po in the process.
“I mean I think there’s always this glimpse of that kind of character inside Jack, but most of his characters like being abrasive,” says Stevenson. “Now that really changed what Po was. He ended up being this very lovable and relate-able character, heavily laded, if you well, with insecurities.”
“It also brought out and heightened the comedy,” Osborne added. “We had a little lipstick cam on him while we recorded. We would use that tape at times for inspiration.”
Still, if you ask Stevenson and Osborne just who delivered the most inspiring vocal performance, don’t be surprised if they say Hoffman.
“[Shifu] is a Chinese red panda,” says Stevenson. “Most people think he’s a squirrel or raccoon, but he’s not.”
“Little known fact: The Chinese red and black-and-white pandas are only called what they are because ‘panda’ is Nepalese for ‘bamboo eater,’” says Osborne. “That’s the only way they are actually related. They are not genetically related.”
“Shifu is definitely the most emotionally complex role,” says Stevenson. “We knew that going in. He’s not particularly pleasant when we first meet him. He’s very brutal and cold teacher. As he goes on, we learn there are reasons why he is that way. We also had to set up the reasons where he starts off basically brutalizing Po to becoming willing to sacrifice his life for him. He’s tormented by a lot of demons from his own past. So we knew we needed a really fine actor to pull this off, someone who had a sort of innate respect for the character.
“Now we wondered if Dustin would even consider it. We worried if he thought it would be enough of an acting challenge, but we were thrilled and blown away when he said yes. He really took it incredibly seriously. He really dug in with every recording session and was as honest and truthful as possible in our emotional sequences. I have to say, and I know it sounds like a terrible piece of puff, he was the nicest guy in the world to work with. He’s so naturally charming and funny.
“He definitely came in and nailed the role,” continued Osborne. “As it turned out, he’s also quite the storyteller. He treated us to many, many stories about his life.”
What’s truly impressive about Hoffman’s performance is how he turns the little red panda into a very unique character in its own right. One will have difficulty recognizing it as him unless it’s pointed out.
“That’s what we wanted,” says Osborne. “We wanted the voice to be appropriate to the role. Sometimes a celebrity’s voice can pull you out of the movie. If what he did to you was true, then Dustin did a doubly good job."