The trend for diversifying storytelling at DreamWorks Animation began with Kung Fu Panda , and so everything has been escalated for the sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2 (opening today from Paramount/DreamWorks). Po (Jack Black) is now part of The Furious Five and the future of China and kung fu are at stake because of the rise of the ruthless peacock, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman).
"It's more epic, it's more emotional and, graphically, it goes beyond the original in so many ways," asserts Rodolphe Guenoden, supervising animator and fight choreographer. "And the original had a pedigree that was not such an easy task."
Guenoden, who's also a storyboard artist, says it's all due to first-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the first female helming solo ever at a major studio) and production designer Raymond Zibach. Yuh Nelson was head of story and directed the opening 2D dream sequence of Kung Fu Panda. For the sequel, the dramatic stakes are also raised with Po discovering his origin and how it relates to the conflict with Lord Shen.
"It was great seeing her be a part of the entire animation process because before she was part of the upstream departments with storyboards and visual development. But to actually have that collaboration in animation was [valuable]. She never lost track of the story she wanted to tell."
"Po is somewhat academically trained but we need to see, first of all, that he really enjoys it, and that he's improvising most of the time. I wanted to make sure that it was more fun for him. He doesn't look as cool or as confident as Tigress (Angelina Jolie). We still needed to find the original Po, where there are a lot of happy accidents. He's making it up as he goes along. Every character has their own thing, and it was fun to be given those sequences and try to find the tone."
Guenoden also storyboarded the first battle as well and wanted the fusion between music and the battle. "We get a little bit of that where the moves or the instruments or the rhythm of the hits would actually create some sort of music," he continues.
Guenoden also enjoyed finding a different way for the Lord Shen to fight, and was assisted by new R&D for feathers from the technical department. "I took a lot of inspiration from rhythmic gymnastics as well as traditional assault forms," he explains. "I wanted him to be very graceful, and I wanted him to be original and super flexible and unpredictable. I looked at a lot of videos of girls jumping around and doing incredible flips."
But it's the pathos that most affected the animation supervisor. Guenoden was also in charge of the 2D sequences, which are more plentiful in Kung Fu Panda 2. "Jen wanted the dreams and flashbacks that Po has to be translated from a different visual standpoint," he says. "She wanted us to explore that a bit more. And compared to the original, which was more fantasy, this one has more of his actual memories, which is very dramatic."
Although the shadow puppet cut-out look was done in After Effects, "we actually had to enhance the movement of the animation to simulate the effect of somebody holding it and the hand gestures. It was pretty neat to add mistakes to some perfect curves."
Speaking of pathos, that is what attracted Guillermo del Toro  to DreamWorks Animation, where he has been consulting and nurturing his own projects. On Kung Fu Panda 2, he even serves as exec producer.
"He was there for every screening as it evolved and was another person to keep us focused on the story," Guenoden adds. "If there was something we were trying to explore in the story or with the characters, he would always be there to check that we were on the same track and on the same goals. He's so frank and so straightforward. There's no mask. If he doesn't like something, he'll tell you. And it's very valuable because it makes the process so much quicker. He would also go on and an on about the things that he loves. He's brilliant. I hope I get to work with him on one of his shows."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.