<I>Penglai</I>: Writer/director Momo Wang on creating Illumination's animated short
Marc Loftus
December 16, 2022

Penglai: Writer/director Momo Wang on creating Illumination's animated short

Animator/creative director Momo Wang, at Illumination Entertainment, wrote and directed the animated short film Penglai. Narrated by Scarlett Johansson and produced by Illumination/Universal Pictures, Penglai has qualified for the Oscars and is hoping to reach the shortlist on December 21st.
Wang has served as a director and animator on content that includes Illumination’s Minions, Despicable Me, Sing and The Grinch. She was also recently inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame for her trailblazing art and creative work.
Penglai mixes animation and puppetry, weaving past, present and future into an original myth. The short celebrates the human spirit and the belief that there is hope for a future beyond what we see in our everyday lives.

Wang (www.momowang.co/) recently took time out to speak with Post and share details on the short’s production.

What was the production timeline for creating this project?

“I started thinking about Penglai when I was earning my MFA at CalArts. For my graduate project, I created a short version of the film. After graduation, I was introduced to Chris Melandandri, the CEO of Illumination Entertainment. I showed him my short, and he liked it. A few days later he messaged me and said Illumination was interested in producing Penglai. Illumination also offered me a job. I was honored and knew I would learn a lot working on their big films.
“As an animation and creative director at Illumination, I was busy working on creating original animations and content for the company’s film franchises. At the same time, I worked relentlessly for about six months on developing Penglai. I modeled characters in wire and clay, hand-painted hundreds of layouts and storyboards, and worked with a Chinese master to make traditional shadow puppets. I work in a very organic and visceral way. Employing different media types helped me envision the film and block out the scenes before we started on the 2D animation.
“Actual production took about two years because of COVID. We originally scheduled about eight months due to the highly complex, frame-by-frame animation we were doing. But the pandemic created havoc and multiple delays. On top of this, I was working at all hours because my teams were based in the US and China.”

Can you talk a bit about the animation process and the tools that were used?

“We used Adobe Photoshop, Animate and After Effects, as well as Moho and Avid. Most of the shots were drawn frame-by-frame in Photoshop. I also used Animate for a few shots because I had been already using the software for many years. My animation team used Moho for shots requiring textile details and smoother motion. We then assembled all the shots in After Effects and edited the film in Avid.
“I employed several practical elements, like brush and ink paintings, shadow puppets, and models to develop ideas and scenes. We photographed the paintings and scanned the shadow puppets into the computer as key frames and templates for the animation work that followed.”

Is there a scene that was particularly challenging to create?

“Great question — it really strikes a nerve. To my horror in post production, we discovered that we were missing two animation files. By this point, it had been nearly a year since animation production was complete and the team was disbanded. We had to track down the original animation artists and have them re-export the missing files. Thankfully, it all worked out.”

In hindsight, what did you learn from the production and post process that you can carry on to your next project?

“Directing is all-encompassing learning process. You are a creator and a leader that’s involved in every step of the process, from concept through promotion. You bear a lot of responsibility. I was very fortunate to work with talent who are masters in their respective fields. Through the pandemic, I had to learn how to manage the complexities and persevere through the challenges while staying true to my vision. Ultimately you must prepare, do the hard work, and believe in your team.”