Jennifer Yuh Nelson

ANIMATOR/DIRECTOR, DREAMWORKS



Project: Develop the Villain for Kung Fu Panda 2



Special Report: How Genius Works After serving as an artist on 2008's Kung Fu Panda, Nelson was tapped by DreamWorks to make her feature-length directorial debut on the film's 3-D sequel. Here she describes the three-year process she and her team used to create their underhanded new antagonist, Lord Shen.

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A movie is only as good as its villain. So Lord Shen was one of the first things we thought about when we began work three years ago. A small group of us gets together. We get a lot of snacks, and we get in a room and start spitballing ideas. In the first movie, we had Tai Lung—a guy who could walk into a room and punch someone in the face. We thought, Why don’t we go in the opposite direction—somebody who is devious, sharp, and dangerous in a different way? We made him into a peacock, a character with speed and flash.

I admit, my initial reaction was “That’s not intimidating.” I drew a white peacock—because white is the color of death in Asia—and I happened to have red on the computer, so it got red eyes. Then other people piled on with ideas and soon we realized it was really cool, and so unexpected. Of course, the voice informs how you get to where you want to go. Gary Oldman was the only voice I’d ever thought of—he can read a grocery list and it’ll sound dangerous.

So we take our ideas to the character designer. Hundreds of people work on the film, but we have only one character designer. One. That way we get a consistent look. Nico Marlet does his drawings on paper, on what looks like parchment. You wonder how he doesn’t mess up. From those drawings, the production designer begins turning the 2-D designs into 3-D images on the computer. His team creates something that rotates in space, which then has to be surfaced with colors and textures. We have very complicated textures—things like fur and fabric. Shen, for example, has feathers that all move independently. It’s so freakishly complicated.

Ultimately, making a character is about more than making a model or a picture. When we take him into animation, we look for the tiny things that make him like a real person. It takes a lot of time to make something real. You look at a scene and go, “Oh man, that doesn’t work,” and then you do it again and again and again. It is an utter marathon.

—As told to Geoffrey Gagnon

Above image: After Nelson and her team settle on a concept, they share their ideas with the film's character designer, Nico Marlet, who creates hand drawings of Lord Shen.


Above image: Once two-dimensional sketches are created, the drawings are given to computer modelers who translate what they see into a character that can be rotated in a three dimensional space.


Above image: Animators apply elements like feathers, clothes, and fur in a process called surfacing. Advances in technology and know-how now allow animators to render things like flowing fabrics and feathers, which add to the realism of the finished character.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/05/jennifer-yuh-nelson/308465/