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Writer and Director Jill Culton Talks ‘Abominable’

DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s just released US-China co-production shows animation’s true power to cross cultural boundaries with an entertaining, relatable and emotional story.

In just over two weeks at the box office, DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s co-produced animated feature film, Abominable, has earned praise from both critics and audiences; what started as an unnamed “Yeti” project seven years ago blossomed into a successful US-Chinese production that is both emotionally satisfying and culturally sensitive to the tastes and sensibilities of audiences across Eastern and Western markets.

For writer and director Jill Culton, who also directed Open Season (2006), taking on Abominable meant an opportunity to develop an animated film with a strong, female lead more representative of the type character she would have related more to as a kid than the fairy tale princesses she routinely saw in films and on TV. When DreamWorks invited her to take the helm of that unnamed “Yeti” project, she found the perfect vehicle to bring us her unique tale of a teenage girl, Yi, struggling with the recent death of her father, who stumbles upon a young Yeti named Everest and soon finds herself on an epic, 2,000 mile journey to reunite the magical creature with his family. It’s a big story, and a big film, which she helmed quite admirably.

The film managed to find, and keep its footing, in the midst of and despite significant corporate upheaval at both studios. In February 2012, Oriental DreamWorks, also known as ODW, opened up shop in Shanghai, China as a joint venture between DreamWorks Animation and a group of Chinese companies that included China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment. Originally, in addition to animated feature film production, their plan involved a number of regional family entertainment projects that included theme park, live entertainment and consumer product licensing. Fortunes, and strategic plans change: In April 2016, it was announced CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was exiting DreamWorks Animation with the studio’s $3.8 billion sale to NBCUniversal / Comcast; and in February of last year, CMC took full ownership in ODW, which was renamed Pearl Studio. Abominable is their first collaboration to hit theatres; Pearl’s Glen Keane-helmed Over the Moon is planned for release next year.

AWN recently spoke to Culton about the evolution of her Yeti adventure, the challenges of delivering a China-US co-production and her efforts to bring a strong, vulnerable but determined young female character to audiences around the world

Dan Sarto: Everyone's searching for the blueprint on successful US/Chinese feature film co-productions. It’s proven quite elusive.

Jill Culton: There have definitely been some failed attempts in the past at different studios. What made this partnership is we truly did rely on each other to ensure - we keep using this word – “authenticity” in this movie. It was so important. Abominable is a Pearl production; it's going to play wide in China and it was important for us to do this the right way.

DS: Did this project start at DreamWorks or at ODW/Pearl. How and where did you get involved?

JC: I was being courted by DreamWorks to come onto something; they were showing me different projects. Pearl [ODW, which later became Pearl], came along very quickly. We shepherded the film together, pretty much from the beginning. All the iterations. We all came to the project at roughly the same time.

DS: As far as the co-production, how was it broken down as to who did what?

JC: Of course, we had our team at DreamWorks. We had a pretty big team of artists over at Pearl as well. The most significant thing that Pearl really added was the whole first act, which takes place in the big Chinese city. They designed most of the city themselves. It's not Shanghai, but it was based on Shanghai; it was a really, really important part of this movie that every little detail of that city, of Yi's apartment building, of the roof top, felt completely authentic to China. Even down to the etiquette. At the film’s end, when they’re sitting around the dinner table… it was important who sat down first and how much food there should be on that table. It's amazing how much time and effort we spent making sure that if an audience in China watched this film, there wouldn’t be a single thing that would pull them out of the movie; everything, including the environments, the settings and the characters had to be completely authentic.

Our partnership with Pearl was invaluable. They did tons of the color keys as well. We went back and forth talking to them every single day. Whenever we had an executive touch base - which we did at least once, sometimes twice a week - it would always be Margie [Cohn, DreamWorks Animation president] and Peilin [Chou, Pearl chief creative officer] together. We really operated like one giant studio, which was pretty fascinating and really empowering for all of us.

DS: How challenging was it to for you, as an American, to straddle the two cultures? I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in China, particularly Shanghai. As much as certain things seem the same as in many big Western cities, obviously, so many things are quite different. From a narrative standpoint, how did you navigate the cultural differences and sensibilities needed to make the story resonate both in China and the rest of the world?

JC: Great question. Strangely enough, from a story standpoint, there aren’t many things - and I can point out a few - I would've done much differently it the film was set in a different country. As storytellers, we really strive to share universal stories. That's Pearl's goal as well. We want a story that global audiences can relate to.

Abominable is a story about a teenage girl who is disconnected from her family and longs to reconnect with them in the end. Every kid in the world can relate to times when their relationship with family was strained. Whether it's a kid being bullied at school who won't talk to their parents about it, or something even more significant, like a divorce. We all can relate to wanting to be close to family. So, “family” is a global theme to work with.

Chinese culture, in particular, really cherishes family. Even things like Nai Nai living with Yi and her mom, that’s very common in China. So, while those details were very specific to Chinese culture, they’re specific to other cultures as well. Then, as far as the kids go, Yi is this stubborn, independent, strong willed tomboy character. Jin is the slightly arrogant, socialite kid, always on social media, who cares a great deal about his clothes. Peng is the fun-loving kid who always lives in the moment, looking for a friend. Those archetypal characters exist in every single culture.

The great thing about this movie is, while we definitely took steps to make a film authentically set in China, with a Chinese cast, when audiences start watching, after five minutes, they mostly lose the barriers that separate the Chinese and the American of it all. And, that’s powerful to talk about; this type of story is something that brings us together to realize that we're more similar than we are different. In today’s climate, where everyone wants to divide, and literally put walls up, movies like this can bring cultures together.

DS: Part of the power of the film is how it touches on a number of important issues that ring true in all cultures. This film's been in production for quite some time. During the course of development, there were a number of significant, corporate changes at both the studios. What were the biggest challenges for you to keep this project moving forward and finally get made?

JC: It's interesting, because even though the film was written seven years ago, we only had an 18-month production schedule. Films always go through changes, but once we really locked into what our story was going to be, that initial, original idea, making this movie in 18 months was insanely fast. We had to make decisions quite quickly.

Some of my biggest challenges were making sure that the story was strong and had those powerful moments even though we didn’t have much time to make the movie. Even more challenging was the difficulty in making the film look so good in that amount of time. A lot of people comment on how stunning the visuals are. Producing this film required so much technology we had to invent from scratch. Especially on those magical set pieces.

We had between 350 and 400 people working on this movie. We had to bring together maybe 60 people at a time and discuss, for example, how we're going to make fish in the clouds look beautiful, stunning and not ridiculously silly… then develop the technology to create it.

Most of those big set pieces, like the bridge, the koi fish clouds and the canola field waves, those sequences took a year to produce from beginning to end. It went down to the wire on some of them, whether or not we were going to get the technology right. We'd be in the screening room watching a sequence when we'd have a breakthrough, and everyone would be cheering. Making those pieces work was the most difficult part of the production.

DS: Speaking of those magical set pieces, the film enjoys a number of poignant moments, exciting moments, that really anchor the story. You do a great job of bringing together epic locations, beautiful visuals and lovely music at critical points in the film. A tremendous amount of animation, production design and technology came together to makes those happen. Can you tell me a little bit about the challenges of making some of these big set pieces work?

JC: Those set pieces were extremely hard. We would sit in a room... me, my visual effects supervisor, Mark Edwards, and my production designer, Max Boas. They all did a fantastic job on making the film look tremendous. But, there were these challenges.

In the story, it's fairly easily to write, “And then they go on an ethereal journey above the clouds on a giant koi fish.” But, when you get to the practical reality of producing, well sure, we've seen clouds before, but we've never seen clouds like this. We've seen waves before, but we've never seen waves of canola flowers. So, how does that work and what technology do we need to come up with?

When we were talking about the canola wave sequences, Max was saying, "Wouldn't it be great if the flower petals were like ocean spray… and wouldn't it be great if when the boat comes down, we could see it leave a trail in the face of the flowers that exposes the green stems?” We needed to consider details like that in order to make these key scenes believable. That was a challenge itself.

The other challenge on some of those set pieces, as you can see, was coming up with Everest’s glowing look whenever he was humming. Or Yi's ability to play that magical violin. With Everest, we needed his powers to come out in a very organic way. The idea that his powers were based in nature was very purposeful. I love nature myself; I'm a big camper and hiker. I wanted to bring nature to audiences in a way that makes it more surreal and beautiful than they could ever imagine. That’s why I gave him those powers.

We also ground his magic so he can't just do anything, at any time he wants to. His powers grow the closer he gets to Mount Everest. We realize he's just a kid, who can’t control his powers early on, which gives the film a lot of humor. How do you make a glow look and feel organic? We kept going back to the beautiful phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis. For the magic storm he created at the end, the blue glow coming off him mimics the Aurora. With Everest’s ability to hum, I really wanted to establish the bond of music connecting him and Yi's violin playing.

Rupert Gregson-Williams, our composer, came on way earlier than most composer's do, because we needed those themes so the animators could animate to the violin music. He brought so much to the movie with the music. I told him, "Yi's violin is like a voice. She can say things with it that she can't say with words." I remember when he sent me the piece for the first time Everest hums to make the flowers grow. It's in harmony with her violin playing; he used his voice to create the hum. When we put it into the scene for the first time, I got chills. He said, "Of course, I'm going to get someone to do the hum, not me" and I said, "No, you have to do it." He's like, "No, no, no" and I said, "Yes, you have to do it.”

For me it was special, not just because it was the right hum for Everest's voice, but because it’s important to me that our composer is truly part of the movie in a strong way. It made the effort so much more special that all of us wrapped our arms around this crazy idea of a movie where music and magic are characters. What does that look like? How do we combine these things in a believable way that doesn't look silly?

DS: Well, it comes off as anything but silly; those scenes are high points of the film. Let’s talk about the character of your heroine, Yi. There aren’t that many strong young female lead characters in films like this. She's not a little kid; though she’s still a kid, she's more adult than kid in many ways. There's a strength to her character that I found extremely compelling. You deftly captured what the violin playing meant to her, and consequently, to the narrative. Did you ever take pause considering a female lead?

JC: Writing the character of Yi was always exciting. It was a huge personal goal to create a strong willed, stubborn character who leaps before she looks, which sometimes gets her into trouble. Who's flawed, who's going through hard times and who doesn't know how to fix them. She's quite a complex character. She is me growing up. I was a tomboy. I grew up in Ventura. I was a surfer and a skateborder; I never thought about what I was wearing. I had no self-awareness of what the typical image of a girl should be, quote unquote. The princess movies I grew up on had nothing for me to relate to. Yi’s the role model I wish I’d had. There’s a lot of me in her.

DS: Along these same lines, there haven’t been that many female directors helming big studio animated features. Did that fact add to the intense pressure I’m sure you were already feeling on the production?

JC: As far as me being a female director and feeling pressure, you do feel additional pressure. I've been in this industry for 29 years. Luckily, I'm good friends with all the female directors in feature animation in this industry. We all know each other very well. All of us feel compelled to make strong films that go out there in the world and make a difference. That's what filmmakers hope to do. Honestly, all directors feel pressure, but the pressure for us is that we hope this opens up more doors for women out there who see our example and say, "I want to do that. I want to get into filmmaking. I never thought I could."

At the end of the day I'm glad this movie is resonating with audiences on a deep, emotional level. I love that it makes them laugh. When it comes to an audience’s emotions, you can't “make” somebody cry. In fact, if you try, you're going to fail, or it will come off as manipulative. As a filmmaker, the only way people will respond emotionally to your movie is if you've been completely authentic and true; you must be vulnerable enough to allow people into your world, to feel what you're feeling, what the characters are feeling. So, during the journey of Abominable, I've allowed myself to be vulnerable at times as a storyteller and as a director. The fact that people are willing to come on that journey and feel that emotion as well really means a lot to me.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.