GLENDALE, CA — On January 29th, Jack Black returns to voice Po in Kung Fu Panda 3, the newest animated feature from DreamWorks Animation, here. The film also features the voice talents of Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Dustin Hoffman (Shifu), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), and Lucy Liu (Viper), among others, and once again brings together Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, who co-directed the feature.
Having worked on all three films, the directing duo has been able to witness first-hand the story’s evolution, as well as that of the technology used to help tell it.
“One of the big ideas that we have for this franchise is ‘self betterment,’” says Jennifer Yuh Nelson. “How to believe in yourself and achieve things that you never thought you could ever achieve.”
“Working on a franchise, you don’t want to change your main character, while at the same time, in each movie, he has to take a step forward,” adds Alessandro Carloni. “In each movie, it always comes down to self improvement, empowerment and discovery — who you are and who you are really meant to be? And this is the movie where he really takes that final step into becoming the panda he is meant to be.”
Technology has evolved considerably since the first film, and this third release marks the first use of new software developed in-house at DreamWorks.
“In the first film, we had trouble even blowing up a single building,” recalls Yuh Nelson. “In this one, we get to build entire sets down to every practical detail so that we can interact with it and be completely free with our camera and storytelling. The scale of what we can do with the effects, with the set, with the character details really frees us.”
Here, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni provide further insight into making the franchise’s third release.
Post: What new elements did you bring to this third release?
Alessandro Carloni: “What really was new to me and involved storytelling was using atmosphere much more in this movie. We created the Panda village, and when all of our artists went to do research in China, in the mountains where the pandas live, they were mostly impressed with the atmosphere — the snow and the mist and all of the buildings seem to grow out of nature itself. All of that was a surprising and important technological task. There’s always snow and mist and elements in the air that enrich the Panda village and I was really moved by seeing it.”
Post: How has the technology evolved since the first release in 2008?
Alessandro Carloni: “This was our first Panda movie made with the new software that we created at DreamWorks. Of course, as a business, you say this is going to make things so much faster for animation, but then when artists are given a new tool and discover what a new tool can do, [they] end up layering the movie with much more richness and beauty. And they say this new software allows us to do something far more beautiful. This new technology that we created allows the artists to truly sculpt the characters. It used to be a lot of data and inputting in order to see how much smile, how much emotion, how much frowning, how much posture to the character. Now, the animators are truly touching the models and shaping them like a living sculpture, and controlling the time of their movement, and it’s really truly amazing for me to see what improvement there has been. It does make you work faster, but mostly it allows our artists to make something far richer and more intense.”
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “Not only do we have these gigantic sets, we can populate [them] with actual characters that have complete behaviors, and a bunch more hero characters with complex behaviors, and light it all, and somehow make it all within our schedule. The scale is well beyond anything we’ve done — the effects, the characters, the set size, everything. It’s just crazy!”
Alessandro Carloni: “I remember boarding a scene in [Kung Fu Panda] #1, and as we went through the different steps of production, one of the meetings was to discuss budgeting. I remember one the meetings was about, do they have to hug there? Because fur touching fur is always so complex. And now we have a character in the movie that all he does is hug pandas. The notion of two furs touching each other was so complex.”
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “Now we have entire villages of pandas all fighting and interacting and fighting another army. It’s nuts! We also have a new environment — the ‘Spirit Realm,’ which is where the bad guy is, and without giving away too many spoilers, it’s a whole new cool environment. It’s a crazy environment where all of the elements are moving constantly. Up and down and sideways don’t exist. So you have characters fighting with weapons and effects and destruction, and there’s no up and down or sideways, with zero gravity. It’s something we could have never even have thought of doing with the first one. Because all or us have been working on these movies for probably 10 years or more 12 years, we really tried to find what would make us excited in this film. Even if it was bloody impossible to do.”
Post: Is the voice talent involved at the very beginning?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “We record ourselves with our horrible non-acting ability just to see if we even want to approach the actors with it, but we have to record the real actors well before animation begins because the nuances and ad lib-ing and character comes from the actual sessions with the actors. It’s definitely early on that we get them in. We would storyboard things with just ourselves in front of an iPhone speaker or something to try to see if it works vaguely well in that horrible, hideous form. If it does, it usually stands up.”
Post: What is your timeline for producing a completely-CG feature?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “Usually, these movies take three-and-a-half years.”
Alessandro Carloni: “The first year, if not year and a half, is truly exploration. In animation, you can not go on-location and look for a scene or character, you have to visually plan it out, so the first year is storyboarding and working with the writers in script form, and then turning it into storyboarding. And like Jen said, recording ourselves to get a sense of timing. Then true production will take a year and a half to two years, which is the process of building the characters, animating them to allow the performance.”
Post: How big is the DreamWorks team working on this film?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Hundreds. Whatever movie is up usually gets the pick of whoever they want, and usually everybody touches every movie that comes through.”
Alessandro Carloni: “Me and Jen have always worked on Panda movies, but there is another core [team] working on the Shrek movies, and another core team working on Madagascar. Sometimes we have 60 to 70 animators and modelers. That’s talent that we have access to if we are on the movie that is up next. It’s fairly large, because this movie is huge and epic and truly a cinematic and grand experience, I am needing almost everybody.”
Post: This will see 2D and 3D Stereo release. How are you taking advantage of the Stereo 3D opportunities?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “The second movie, we did a lot of experimenting on how to get stereo to be immersive and fun, and really push what it can do. And this time, because everyone has done it plenty, we got to bake it in. It was a lot easier. Something like the Spirit Realm, which is a very volumetric environment, it allowed us to really push what stereo could do there.”
Post: Where are you at now in post?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “We’re essentially done. All they are doing is quality control checks for the umpteenth gazillionth versions of audio we are going to have. So that’s a bunch of people listening to see if we have pop here or a sound blip there. The movie is done and the sound is mixed. Everything is finished. We are basically going to print.”
Alessandro Carloni: “The movie was created both in English and in Mandarin, so the Mandarin version of the sound mixing, being the latest part. We are pretty much finished.”
Post: Where did you do the audio and what’s the release format?
Alessandro Carloni: “We did it at Fox Studios.”
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “I think it’s 5.1. There are different versions coming out depending on where we are going to be playing it, so that’s why there are so many versions that we have to quality check.”
Post: Hans Zimmer created the original soundtrack?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “Yes, Hans is back and he always gives us amazing music. He had to come up with new themes that went hand in hand with the old themes with Po that were familiar. But the new ones that are reflecting the Panda village, the new Panda, the Spirit Realm, the bad guy…all these wonderful new themes that weave together to make a really emotional and also fun soundtrack to the movie.”
Post: What do you have lined up next?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “This is called vacation.”
Alessandro Carloni: “There’s no talk of anything other than sleeping and showering.”
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “I think what he’s saying is leave us alone for a little bit. It’s so grueling. It’s wonderful but it’s grueling, and at some point you have to recharge and remember what it’s like to go grocery shopping.”
Alessandro Carloni: “I don’t think any director would make more than one animated movie if it wasn’t for that you take some time to forget about it all, and then look at the movie and say, ‘Wait. That was fun!’ Then you can start again. If anyone was offering a movie right now, everyone would say know because it’s quite a process.”