The Women of “Kung Fu Panda 3”: Girlpower in the World of Animation

The Women of “Kung Fu Panda 3”: Girlpower in the World of Animation

Originally posted and featured on Indiewire and Cinema Siren.


The announcement of a new president of Oriental DreamWorks came just as the release of  Kung Fu Panda 3 is happening simultaneously in China and the US. Their choice is a woman, Melissa Cobb, the producer of all three films in the wildly successful franchise.  She joins co-presidents Bonnie Arnold and Mireille Soria of DreamWorks Animation, reaffirming that the studio is in the forefront of supporting and celebrating women in all aspects of animation.  Or, perhaps, they are simply gender blind.  In a world where Jennifer Lawrence, one of the top actresses in the world, has to fight for equal pay, DreamWorks has some of the most powerful women influencing the world of animation today. In that way, much like the Po and his Kung Fu cohorts aspire to do, the studio seems to be flowing some serious ‘chi’.

In addition to Kung Fu Panda 3 producer Melissa Cobb, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and editor and member of A.C.E. (American Cinema Editors) Clare Knight discuss with Animation Scoop’s Leslie Combemale their experiences in the industry and why they are so proud of their new movie.  Yuh Nelson is not only the co-director of Kung Fu Panda 3, but with Kung Fu Panda 2, was the first woman to singlehandedly helm an animated feature.  Representing a cinematic craft most embracing of women, editor Knight has also been part of the Kung Fu Pandafranchise from the beginning.

It’s a gutsy move for DreamWorks to step into co-production with their new studio in China, and much rides on how Kung Fu Panda 3 is received there.  Two different versions of this film were created, one for China, and one for the rest of the world.  China is poised to be take over as the top movie market in the world, and DreamWorks is leading the charge to be ready for that change. How the Chinese version of this movie does will decide much of how they and other studios worldwide move forward.

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Melissa Cobb describes how the co-production has been received so far, and her experience with this new way of creating and releasing film:

Melissa Cobb: We went way out on a limb with this and we’ve never tried it before and honestly it was a lot of work, it’s a lot harder to make two movies than one, and we just really hope it makes a difference for the Chinese audience, that they really feel that the movie is more organic and authentic for them.  It’s been interesting because we were just over there and just started sharing the movie with audiences over there and it’s been really beautiful in a way. They feel so connected with Po as a panda, and they feel so much ownership over the character, that seeing that character speak in Mandarin is incredibly moving for them. It’s really wonderful to see.

LC: How has the Chinese audience reacted and what are the differences in the Mandarin actors of KFP3?

MC: every audience is a little different no matter where you are.  Overall the reaction has been similar and i’m happy to say there’s lots of laughter. Jackie Chan plays Po’s dad (he plays Monkey in the US release) in the Mandarin version, and in the very emotional scenes around the middle of the movie—it’s just beautiful to see the extraordinary performance by Bryan Cranston of the character and then see another very different version of that same moment done in an equally emotional way by a very different actor.

LC: What can you tell us about the global expansion of DreamWorks, and what we can expect for its future?

MC: I think this co-production is going to be a interesting test case.  It’s the first time anybody’s ever really done it and I think we’re all excited to see how it turns out, and that’s something we’ll have to consider very seriously moving forward. We are figuring out the new slate and the production plan right now, and hopefully in the next few months we’ll be able to give more insight into that, but we’re looking into all the possibilities.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson and I talked about her working on Kung Fu Panda, and how it helped the film by being a co-production with Chinese artists, but first she started out talking about the influences for the movie, and where the inspiration came from for the panda Shangri-La, which was NOT 1937’s Lost Horizon: 

Jennifer Yuh Nelson: I think the one thing specifically that is most consistent, is that we want to harken back to martial arts movies because that’s kind of the genre we’re paying tribute to, so there are some similarities to a lot of films, because they all feed off each other! (she laughs) But specifically the reveal of the panda village was something that we experienced firsthand and reference we put in.  The hidden village was something we found when we went to research in China we climbed a mountain in the Sichuan province where the panda sanctuary is based, and we climbed to this beautiful, mist-covered, almost primordial place and when we turned these corners these moss covered old buildings would come into view, revealing themselves and it was so beautiful and so unlike anything we’d seen that we literally took those moments and put them into the film.

LC: what a beautiful experience!

JYN: It was insane.  It was so amazing and there’s nowhere else in the world like that, and we had to go there in person to experience that because no pictures or films would have been the same. To smell the moss in the air and feel the moisture on our skin, such bright vibrant greens that you can’t pick up on film.  we had to really try to capture that in the movie because we took so much video and none of it captured exactly how it felt to be there. It was so atmospheric and we had to have that in the movie. You really can’t compare the reality of it as someone working on a production to just seeing pictures.  Being there was essential.

LC: You did two versions of the film, one specifically for China and another for the audiences in the rest of the world.

JYN: We did two films, because the first two films were so embraced by the Chinese audiences we wanted to make something we could push further and since this is a co-production, it seemed like the perfect time to create something that felt native to Chinese audiences.  Usually they have to deal with a dubbing situation or subtitles, and it takes you out of the experience.  That’s why we wanted to make something that felt really immersive for them, but it takes a lot of work to make 2 versions of a movie! You have hundreds of artists you’re dealing with across the world and the scale of this movie was insane—we had a parallel pipeline going on where you had two versions recording Mandarin voice actors, getting it to be funny for Mandarin audiences going beyond a straight translation, and then animating it and lighting it, it’s a lot of work.

LC: What kinds of differences are there in the two stories?

JYN: The visual differences for example included of course adjusting the facial acting, if they ad-libbed something we’d have to account for that.

LC: Did different departments work together or were there specific artists create aspects and you seamed it all together?

JYN: It’s definitely both, because all the artists do amazing things. For instance, Raymond Zibach, the production designer for all three of them, in the first movie, he designed that beautiful vision of Po— what his dream was at the beginning— that graphic, pushed quality.  This time the fact that we could make that into 3D instead of 2D hand animation, and make that environment as graphic as if it was a 2D designed shot, that’s actually a lot harder than it sounds, to make something not realistic, something graphic.  And he could push to achieve something like that. Also a lot of the calligraphy and the Chinese elements we had Chinese artists that would put in elements for the Chinese audience like the calligraphy actually means something so the audience when they read it they’ll understand. So there were definitely little things we were able to do that specifically leveraged the artists’ talents.

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LC: So you have artists in both China and here, it is an interplay of the two groups?

JYN: It actually is an interplay because even though there are two groups in different countries, they are the counterparts of the artists here. We have one surfacing department, just split between two continents. They are given a job but they just choose who does what.  For example Oriental DreamWorks did a lot of the surfacing of the village and you know all the little paintings on all the gables and everything? They have meaning, and they could do that because they know what that means, we don’t necessarily know about that over here.

LC:  So the rest of the world also gets to experience elements that are accurate and unique to China in the story they wouldn’t otherwise see.

JYN: It gives such a richness to the look of the movie, and even if you don’t catch every detail at once, it’s so overpacked with it, you’ll notice some of it. I think it’s really nice to have such an authenticity, it’s a huge source for us to be able to lean on people who have that knowledge.

LC: The 3D in this film and in the whole franchise has such a unique and believable quality but it’s very otherworldly.  Both the computer animation and the 3D stereoscopic vision.

JYN: One of my favorite things about the film is the look of it. We never go for realism.  I think a lot of time when people go for 3D that’s the mistake.  Because we’re never going for full realism—for computer generated live action films like Avatar the goal is realism, to make the audience feel like they are seeing something that is real.  Lord of the Rings had character design and environments to make it look real, whereas we aren’t going for that, we are going for something that is theatrically, viscerally, and emotionally real. That’s why the colors pop, you have hard edges, you have graphic shapes, even the explosions and bits of dust that are kicked up have an art directed shape to them that fit the look of the film.  That’s actually really hard to do, but it creates a cohesive and very real world of its own. It all follow certain rules. When you look at the 3D version of the movie we follow that as well.  We use the 3D to reinforce what you’re supposed to be paying attention to, and reinforce on a gut-level what you’re supposed to be feeling. We go for our own reality. I remember some of our guys saying it is way harder to make stylized art directed explosions of jade rather than a regular explosion of shrapnel. It all has to follow the rules of the KFP world, rather than the kind that we’d expect to see in our own.

Editor Clare Knight will tell you an editor is very different when working on animation.  Clare explains why she prefers to work in animation and what creating with the DreamWorks team is like:

Clare Knight: There’s a great book by called “When the Shooting Stops” by Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen and that’s generally what it’s all about when working in live action. The director shoots, then stops, and you edit.  With animation you’re there from pre-production, building the whole story from the beginning using storyboards and dialogue and music and you kind of have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of it all.  You’re there before anyone else, in the before, during, and after in the production process.  It’s a much more collaborative process vs. live action.  I find I’m much more comfortable. You spend 4 years together on production and that’s not usually the case in live action.  It’s a few months and then you’re done and you move on. In animation it always becomes a familial feeling.  And having worked on all the Kung Fu Panda movies, at this point it’s like we all have a shorthand. With Kung Fu Panda 3, what was great is I was right there when Jen was drawing the storyboard, or Alessandro was working on it, or doing a pitch, so they’d come to me and tell me what they were planning and i’d have things that I felt might not work editorially.  With all the movies, from the very beginning, I’m very much a part of it. It becomes quite a personal journey, and with this movie, I’ve worked from the first and second movie into the third with Jen and Melissa. I think we’ve gotten to a place where I know which way they are heading, so it’s become a much easier process.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 is by far the most visually diverse, with scenes and sequences incorporating everything from bold graphics to soft, painterly watercolors.  In this, having two units with teams experienced in different artistic aesthetics helped build towards their very complicated vision.  So too did the advancements made in computer technology in the past few years.  I discussed that with all three members of the production:

LC: The visual aspects of the film with the watercolors, the ink and paint, and the graphic elements, I noticed the editing, because it really had to flow into the rest of the film…

CK: A lot of the time we work in various scenes, and what I found exciting in this movie is we moved things around quite a bit changing things within structures.  One of the big ones we did was the introduction of Kai.  It was in the first act, and we moved the first part of it into the beginning of the movie.  The rules of the spirit realm were quite challenging, as we went along in the process would the audience understand our take on it?  Would they know what chi is?  As we became more comfortable in our storytelling, we moved things about quite a bit.  The art direction, and all the production in the film was very collaborative. For the spirit realm to make sure it made sense, we brought in audiences, and asked if they understood what we were doing…we had help also with crew from other movies who came, and watched it, and told us if we were on the right track.

LC: As an editor what was the biggest challenge?

CK: I’d have to say the spirit realm, just trying to get a world that was clear and accepted by the audience. I also felt that the panda village, and designing and defining the characters of each of them was a challenge. We did a lot of versions until we felt comfortable with what we had.  The very end of the movie was also difficult, because this movie is all about the spirit, and to get Po to that place had to make sense.

LC: What inspired the diversity of artistic styles inside Kung Fu Panda 3?  Visually, you all took it to the next level.

JYN: We actually tried to put in all the things we wanted to put into the first two films.  We’re all the same people who’ve been working on the other films and we all had things we couldn’t do, and had to leave on the table.  We just couldn’t achieve them before.  This time we have multiple new environments and different styles of animation.  For instance, that living watercolor technique you’re talking about—it’s always my goal to put 2D elements into a movie.  The story in that particular spot was an ancient history story, and we wanted to give it a historical feeling, which was why we used a historical calligraphy scroll come to life. It’s based on a famous Chinese scroll that we saw in a Chinese museum, a huge long beautiful scroll, and we all said “if we could make that come to life that would be so great”.  We said every job, traditional, after-effects, everything all together it’s technologically amazing to be achieved. Also we have those new environments that give a scale to the movie, that are the spirit realm and the panda village.  The spirit realm, having no gravity, having this massive space, allowed us to do huge action shots. All that we just couldn’t do before.  We just couldn’t get the scale, we’d have to cheat them.  This time we found ourselves more free.

LC: Melissa, can you talk about how the artistry of the film is informed in a significant way by animators working on it in China?

MC: I think the scroll scene where we are recreating the back story of the village was a great example of that. There are Chinese scroll characters in it and you might say “that’s beautiful Chinese decorative writing on the scroll”..well it’s actually a famous poet in China interpreting the scene— he wrote about the scene, and so if you slow it down and actually read what he wrote, it’s very poetic, beautiful and meaningful to a Chinese audience and might be invisible to the rest of the world. We gave the poet scripts and some images and said this is what’s happening and he interpreted it in his style.  Of course the Chinese audiences will appreciate it, but it really makes the film much denser and richer for all audiences.

CalArts and UCLA recently offered that their new female students of animation make up 70% and 68% respectively.  Melissa Cobb attributed that in part to Jennifer breaking barriers as the first women to direct an animated film:

MC: Those numbers make me really happy, and i’d give Jen all the credit for that.

LC: So many young women choosing to go into this field now.

JYN: That does makes me feel good.  Just the other week an 8 year old young girl came up to me when I went to speak at an elementary school, and she gave me a drawing. It was great and she said “I want to be just like you when I grow up and direct movies”.  And that just made me choke up. It was so cute, and the reason why she’s looking at me is I look like her.  It’s easier to visualize herself in the job.  That sort of thing encourages me.  I’ve been really fortunate.  Lots of people support me and I forget.  But sometimes things like that happen and I remember, and they say I encourage them, it makes me feel very happy.

LC: As to creating these films, and being a director or co-director, do you think that being a women helps you in any way for this particular franchise, when you have to think in a very non-linear inventive way?

JYC: I think more than being a woman is the fact that i’m an introvert. In the environment I work in people forget that i’m a woman which is wonderful it just shows what a wonderful environment i work in, no one treats me differently.  They don’t think that because i’m a woman i’ll make decisions differently.  Aside from that i’m an introvert and i’m a quiet person.  The benefit of that is I listen. It’s not like my mouth is open and I broadcast everything and i’m drowning everyone out. When I’m listening to the incredible artists I work with and i’m hearing their specialized advice on what they would do with something then we can, all together, as a big collaborative group, all work together to achieve something together.  So I think the best thing I have is the introvert’s ability to listen when you’re working on something as complicated as this and you have to really be aware of everyone’s specialized skills.

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These consummate professionals are aware they are examples to aspiring female filmmakers of all stripe, but also all young girls that want to dream big. I asked them about that, and what, if anything, about being a woman has helped them in their respective careers:

LC: Given all in the news about how women are feeling underutilized in the industry, it sounds like your experience has been very positive.

JYN: Never once in my 18 years here has anyone said “you can do this because you’re a woman” or “you can’t do this because you are a woman”.  It’s never even come up.

LC: So far, I’m hearing DreamWorks has been really good to you in terms of being a woman in the film business.

CK: What I find at DreamWorks is it’s always about strengths and what people are good at.  But with Jenn and Melissa and I, three women working on one film, I’ve really enjoyed it because we’ve worked enough together that we’ve developed out own language and I know what they’re expecting and what they want and I have great admiration for them both.  At this studio I’ve certainly been very lucky and been accepted.

LC: Melissa, for those who want to be inspired, what part of being a woman has made a difference to getting you to the top of the industry?

MC: It’s hard to know which part of being a woman has helped.  I think animation is one of the most collaborative art forms that exist.  That could be a quality that could be considered feminine, being collaborative, the ability to create consensus and pull people together and move forward without so much reliance on ego and problem solve in a group—it’s interesting…my daughter goes to an all girl school.  They do so much more of their learning through  group collaboration.  It’s interesting to watch when it’s an all female environment.  They all do their papers together and they all do their reports together and it’s a natural way for women to work. It’s a community and animation is really a community that way.   DreamWorks has always been a community of collaboration.  It’s about goals.  It isn’t about politics or in-fighting or backstabbing. There isn’t any of that here. It’s very pure in that way.

LC: Where does that come from do you think?

MC: I think it’s Jeffrey (Katzenberg). He just cares about the idea at the end of the day, he really does.  I just think he’s driven to excellence, but he doesn’t care where it comes from, he just wants it to happen.  You come into a meeting here and it’s amazing.  If you look at the senior leadership at the studio it’s almost all women.  It’s very unusual but it’s a great environment for sure.

LC: Jennifer, what advice would you give women, or anyone who want to pursue animation as a career?

JYN: I think it’s very much skill based. I mean, to be honest, it’s hard getting any kind of job.  It’s great when people don’t consider gender in any decisions about hiring, because it really comes down to being really good.  If you have a portfolio that just kicks butt, people will just look at that, I can use that person, it doesn’t matter if they’re a man or woman.

LC: A good portfolio is everything!

JYN: That’s what happened with me. As I said, i’m very quiet, i don’t go around saying “I’m awesome!” but when I brought in my portfolio into DreamWorks and showed them what I could do, my art style is a lot wilder than I am.

LC: Artists are almost always louder on paper. What about where you are now in your career surprises you most?

JYC: As quiet as I am I find it amazing I can stand in front of hundreds of people now and make a speech because i’ve had to do it so much.  I’ve so much support from the people around me that I can achieve something like that, crazy introvert that I am, I never would have thought that would happen. It’s like what Po goes through when he hears “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are now”.  I never thought i’d be where I am now, but the fact that I am is pretty cool.

Kung Fu Panda 3 playing now in theaters nationwide.