A young city girl helps a mysterious Yeti elude his captors as they travel 2,000 miles to reach his Himalayan home in the new DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio co-produced animated feature film.
One of the cool things about attending the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival was getting the chance to attend press screenings in the morning, and in the afternoon, getting to speak to the filmmakers. And that’s how I got to meet Jill Culton (Open Season) who was at the festival promoting the World Premiere of Abominable, the new animated feature film she wrote and directed for DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio. The film tells the story of a young girl, still grieving the loss of her father, who embarks on a journey to help a mysterious Yeti return to his Himalayan home while being pursued by his former captors.
Culton’s years at Pixar Animation Studios came in handy as she tackled Abominable’s development. “My experience at Pixar was so phenomenal because I learned the art of storytelling,” she shares. “The interesting thing in Monsters Inc. is that the little girl [who enters the world of the monsters] is the creature of the movie. The main character Sullivan speaks a normal language, works a job, is covered with fur and walks on two legs like a human. In this movie, our Yeti is the creature.”
For Abominable, Nico Marlet (How to Train Your Dragon) was responsible for conceptualizing Everest, the young, mysterious Yeti at the center of the story. “It was important not to have him be the stereotypical Yeti walking like a man in a suit on two legs,” Culton explains. “He can walk on all fours, roll into a big snowball, and only grunts and groans. We talked about our character having the ability to walk on all fours and be more animalistic, rather than walking around cracking jokes. We wanted to create a sense of mystery around him. Nico captured the iconic mass that the Yeti has and gives him such expression.”
Designing the young protagonist, Yi (Chloe Bennet) was a time-consuming process that involved many iterations. “In the beginning, she was younger, but that changed for various reasons,” Culton reveals. “I wanted her to be able to work and save money. We would also have more opportunity to play with her emotional depth if she was older. Yi started off around nine, but eventually migrated to 16 years old. She always had the same sweet face but got edgier. Yi used to have pigtails and a bob. I had a bunch of artists at Pearl Studio in Shanghai draw hairstyles that were hip in China. Yi wears a dingy T-shirt, beat-up shorts with tights underneath, socks on top of that, and some funky boots. You can tell that she’s her own person.”
Culton bought a giant map of China to figure out the film’s requisite world building. “I wanted to start in an artificial world that has glass, steel and neon, and take us on a journey to the Himalayas, which is organic and horizontal,” she explains. “It’s the opposite of the big city, which we based on Shanghai. I began mapping out a logical route to get 2,000 miles across the country. During my research I discovered things that I never knew about China, like the Leshan Giant Buddha, which is the tallest Buddha in the world, carved straight out of rock. It’s gorgeous. Then we found the canola fields, which are these giant sweeps of yellow flowers. The Yellow Mountains have thousands of stairways going for miles and miles. This was a perfect opportunity to showcase other sides of China that the world hasn’t seen before.”
In developing the story, one of Steven Spielberg’s cinematic classics proved a significant influence on the Abominable director. “In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, when you meet Elliott [Henry Thomas], it’s in a suburban neighborhood, he’s a kid that’s overlooked, and then an extraordinary thing happens to him… he finds an alien in the toolshed,” Culton describes. “When I watched that as kid, it was so much like my own neighborhood that it made me think, ‘Maybe I’ll find an alien in my toolshed!?’ It was letting kids live out their fantasy. With Abominable, I wanted to start in that real grounded place, feeling that the characters and their acting are real. Putting Yi in a humble apartment with a gritty rooftop where she builds her fort and finds this Yeti. Once we discover that the Yeti has powers, the world itself becomes more whimsical. I don’t think you can start with whimsical and go more whimsical. It loses its trajectory.”
51 animators from DreamWorks worked on the project with John Hill (Trolls) serving as the head of character animation. “We didn’t want to go photorealistic,” Culton states. “That’s the charm of animation; you create these characters so they have a strong design language to them. Burnish is very pushed like Eddie Izzard [who voices the wealthy collector]. When you stop thinking about them as not being real and let yourself get into the movie, that’s when you’ve done your job well.” 60,000 storyboard panels were produced over the course of the film’s production. “Abominable is cut like a live-action movie,” Culton adds. “The pacing was important to me. We have our kids separated at one point and I wanted to keep touching base with them. Most animated films have 26 to 30 sequences. This one has 42. I thought it would make more work for our lighting team down the pipeline but they said it was easier because shorter rather than longer sections needed to be rendered. But, it was hard in some ways to keep track of it all.”
Over the course of the film, Everest slowly begins to explore, and understand how to control, his magical abilities. “If your magic doesn’t have rules or limits. it takes away the threat to the movie,” Culton observes. “I wanted the audience to discover that Everest is just a kid. Yi uses her violin to draw that magic out of him. The rules are that its nature based. He has an ability to control nature, to put it on steroids. Everest can manipulate clouds, water and plants. At the beginning, he’s not very good at it. Everest makes blueberries grow but they keep growing and he can’t stop them. Yi says, ‘Do something!’ Everest just runs. It’s a source of humor. Everest’s powers grow stronger the closer he gets to his mountain home, so by the end of the movie, you can pull out all the bells and whistles, and have your most spectacular moments.”
Depicting Everest’s magical powers was the most technically challenging aspect of the production. “You have these moments, like the canola fields that turn into giant tidal waves, and even though people have done water simulations, they’ve never done anything like this!” Culton chuckles. “You can’t just plop a water simulation on a field of flowers and make it work. What do you do with the flowers? When the boat went through the field, I wanted to carve out a path and see the stems of the flowers. Max Boas, our talented production designer, wanted the petals to feel like ocean spray. So, that all had to be developed”
It took a year to develop the scene where clouds take the shape of Koi fish. “People have done clouds before but never made fish out of them,” Culton continues. “It could have gone horribly awry! We had a conversation with about 60 people in the room where I showed them the storyboards and said, ‘This is a scene that when all the action is done, you should have this overwhelming feeling of relief and be in awe of this ethereal journey around the clouds. People will end up laughing if we don’t do this well.’ That was a challenging effort but also fun for the team. We couldn’t fail with these moments or else we would have had the audience pulling out.”
Music plays an integral part in the storytelling, from Yi’s violin playing to the film’s score and signature musical number. “I was an animator and development artist for years, so I usually sketch when I’m thinking of ideas,” Culton notes. “I kept drawing Yi with a violin up on a rooftop with the city lights in front of her. It was a romantic image. The violin, in particular, sounds like a voice to me. I’ve always loved classical music. I write to scores. It helps me get the right pacing. For this little girl, who is going through so much internally, when she plays, it’s like she’s letting all of this out of her. If you write that then the audience is locked specifically into what she is saying and feeling. I thought it would be more powerful to allow the audience to put their own interpretation into what she’s saying. For example, Yi is playing the violin when she’s saying goodbye to her father. How can you possibly write that verbally? I tried to write it once and said, ‘This is terrible!’ Everyone cries during that sequence.”
Rupert Gregson-Williams (The Alienist) composed the film’s score. “Rupert was willing to come onto the film way earlier than a composer normally would,” Culton states. “The first thing we did was work on Yi’s violin theme, because we not only needed the theme to work, but we had to get a professional to play it and get that music transposed. We took Rupert’s music, went down to the DreamWorks soundstage, hired a professional violinist, and had all of the animators watch and film her playing. Every bit of the fingering. She gave them lessons on how to hold violin, drop the bow at the end, and put it into the case. Next, we worked on Everest’s theme and how that would sound in harmony with Yi’s playing. Then we worked on how to weave the themes throughout the story. Music is a character in this movie.”
Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl from E2 looked after the sound design. “They have done a lot of creature films like Godzilla and The Lord of the Rings,” Culton says. “We needed a voice for Everest. That character had to be an actor, able to emote and have us believe it. For scratch, we were using Joseph Izzo, who works at DreamWorks as a production coordinator. He would use this vase and do this ‘errr’ into it. Ethan and Erik asked, ‘Can we hear that?’ I showed them. They said, ‘We need to use Joe.’ Ethan and Erik would take their equipment, deepen his voice and sometimes add a bear or lion roar to enhance it.”
One of the film’s signature scenes, the dramatic moment at the Leshan Giant Buddha, is a proud accomplishment for Culton. “It could have gone either way,” Culton says. “The Coldplay song ‘Fix You’ is in there. I wrote that sequence to their music. The lyrics are, ‘When the tears come streaming down your face/ ‘Cause you lose something you can't replace.’ It was so beautiful. Then the lyric, ‘And I will try to fix you.’ I kept imagining as I was writing that if Chris Martin could speak for Everest, he’d be saying, ‘I will try to fix you.’ It’s almost the only time we hear Everest speak. Yi looks so small and humble standing on the Buddha’s hand. Sometimes when you walk into a beautiful church you feel like you’re suppose to whisper. You feel like you’re on hallowed ground. When I say that Buddha, I had that same feeling. When that scene begins, Coldplay’s organ starts up and it’s like church music as she’s walking towards the Buddha. This was a specifically carved out set piece from the sound, to the music, to the look and to Yi realizing that she too has the power that Everest has. It’s a fantastic moment.”
“A lot of times I get asked, ‘How hard was it to do a Chinese film being a Western director?’” Culton reflects. “Of course, our partners at Pearl Studio have helped us so much in making it incredibly authentic down to every detail. But what I’m most proud of is that this is a universal story about a girl discovering her way and reconnecting again with her family. Yin, the tomboy; Jin [Tenzing Norgay Trainor], the popular socialite; and Peng [Albert Tsai], the loveable kid looking for a friend, exist in every culture. Though Abominable is set in China, three minutes into the film you put yourself into these roles and the differences between cultures melt away. Story can be that thing that, instead of dividing cultures, brings them together. In a time where we need to be brought closer together, I think this film does that. I would hope that’s a takeaway.”