Don't be fooled by the soft-spoken Jennifer Yuh Nelson. DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg says she's a powerful and persuasive presence. She knows how to tell a story emotionally and visually. No wonder the former head of story is now the first female to helm an animated feature solo at a major studio. Yuh Nelson told us what it was like bringing Kung Fu Panda 2  (now playing) to life.;
Bill Desowitz: What was the experience like for you going solo for the first time in continuing Po's story?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: It put a great sense of responsibility for all of us to provide something that would be worthy of the first movie, and also to make a sequel that had a reason for being there instead of being a sequel for sequel's sake. That was the challenge and we worked very hard for a deeper understanding of the characters in the sequel. And you have to raise the stakes and the understanding more to have an impact on the audience.
BD: How were you able to achieve more, particularly a greater glimpse of China?
JYN: Well, certainly one of the things that helped was we went to China and wandered around and got a feel for the actual source of the material. And that really gave us a first person experience of what these places looked like and felt like and what the colors looked like. You can't replicate that on the internet. And the same production designer and art director, Raymond Zibach and Tang Heng, came back and they carried through the look of the first film, and were freed by the advancements in technology to increase the scale of a lot of the sets that we had. On the first film we could only go so far before technologically hitting a wall, and on this one we could build a whole city and it was all completely practical and have the characters punching everything, which was lovely.
BD: You mean the lighting and rendering advancements?
JYN: Definitely. Now there is far more complexity in every shot. You can see a lot of fabric and fur and detail in the cloth and backgrounds. Three years, technologically, is an eternity, the way things move. And we're benefitting a lot of R&D that came off the first film, and a lot of the R&D that happened during the second film that made things like Lord Shen [the villainous peacock] even possible.
JYN: R&D with feathers, with cloth, with complexity of the rig. Shen can move his tail, he fights, he's got flowing robes. Having him walk across a room would've been difficult and we have him doing crazed acrobatics. That would've been incredibly memory intensive for the computers.
BD: And the rigs have been improved for all the other characters, too?
JYN: They had to be rebuilt from the ground up, which is shocking, because they look the same and we worked very hard to make them look the same. The double edged sword with the technology is that the old programs wouldn't talk to the new programs, so we had to rebuild all these returning characters to be the same.
BD: You've also expanded the traditional sequences that you oversaw in the original. What was that like?
JYN: It's such a joy to see traditional animation again and to tell a deeper story, because those have always been in Po's mind. What better way of showing his own experiences with his past than to show it in Povision?
BD: What was the biggest learning curve for you as a director?
JYN: I think it's about how to protect the film because a lot of people over the course of the [production] have a lot of great ideas, but you have to hold on to the original story you intended to tell. Which is demanding and hard over three years. That level of stamina involved is a big thing.
JYN: Yeah, I don't know exactly why there are multiple directors on a film. It could just be a tradition. But it didn't seem to be a problem with one director. In fact, it was more streamlined because you only have one person to answer yes or no to any given question. I had a great deal of support from the excellent heads of department and so it wasn't necessary to have more than one director.
BD: And it helps being mentored along the way. Talk about the influence of Brenda Chapman .
JYN: Oh, she was wonderful. I think it showed me that there were enough women directors at DreamWorks that it became really invisible -- it became a non-issue. And because of that gender has never been a factor at DreamWorks -- it's neutral.
And in Brenda's case, she came on when I was contemplating becoming head of story on Sinbad , and she's the one that encouraged me to take that job. I wasn't sure if I was ready or wanted to and she told me that I should do it. I respected her word and I'm glad that she told me to do that.
JYN: Absolutely. I'm not a naturally aggressive person as far as trying to get promoted or anything like that. I'm pretty much happiest if I'm sitting and drawing. So, when the directing thing came up, Melissa Cobb, the producer, and Jeffrey Katzenberg took me aside and said I should really do this. But it was wonderful that they did.
BD: What was it like directing the voice talent?
JYN: They were fabulous -- they are some of the best actors to work with. So how could I possibly go wrong? They were so easy to work with and knew the characters so well, and in Gary [Oldman's] case [as Lord Shen], finding the character was fun. It was a joy.
BD: And it must've been a joy collaborating for the first time with other departments.
JYN: Absolutely. As head of story, I don't get involved with the last half of the movie. And now as a director I get to be with every department and see how they work, and all the things that they contribute. For example, the character effects department: to see all the things they do to make the cloth work and the characters look the way they do is really cool.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.