The Making of Kung Fu Panda by John Stevenson

By CHAITRA SHETTY | 23 December, 2009 - 16:28

The Making of Kung Fu Panda master class by director John Stevenson on the first day of Kre8tif brought to fore some very deep ground rules and practices that the team followed in making this amazingly hilarious, entertaining and yet emotionally touching film.

The Vision
John says that when he joined the team for the film it had been going on for some months already and the film was not in good shape and not very popular within the studio. "It was a challenge but also an opportunity and a really good one at that. We wanted to make a real Kung Fu movie in animation, something that had not been done in the West. When I started on it, the movie felt like a parody, not respectful to the art of Kung Fu. I wanted to make a funny movie but I didn't want to make a parody," he adds.

The team tried to reinvent the film with the challenge that John gave to himself and to everybody working on the movie-how to make the least good film at the studio into the best one. He said, "We had no idea how we were going to do it. We challenged ourselves and set a high benchmark. We decided it was going to be a funny movie but a real Kung Fu movie with total respect to the art form. But the movie was being made in animation and we couldn't just make an animated Jackie Chan film, so the trick was to get the right mix of comedy, action and emotion".

John said that the most popular Kung Fu movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero had an emotional story along with the action component and it's the emotional quality that made it a strong story. That is what the team wanted in their movie, a real Kung Fu movie with the blend of action, emotion and humor. "Getting the story right was the biggest challenge as story is king, more important than anything else in the film. We worked on the story every single day for the four and half years of the films schedule. For the the first two years we worked intensely everyday and then tweaking and modifying the story as we moved along into production. At the beginning it wasn't good, we couldn't get the tone and balance right nor the Kung Fu or the emotions. We had lot of false starts and mistakes. That's the reason why DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky, or Sony spends that kind of time on the story- to learn from those initial mistakes so that they don't make them again."

The Look
The movie really found its tone after a story pitch for the 'chopstick fight' sequence, informs John. "When we saw that, we were like -'that's our movie!' We then made our rules for our movie-no pop culture references as it should be a timeless film, no pop songs and no fart jokes. The final version of the chopstick fight in the movie is very close to that first story pitch."

Simultaneously, along with working on the story the team designed the look of the film as they also wanted to make the most beautiful movie yet made at the studio. "We didn't have a natural world but a stylized one with a stylized color scheme and stylized lighting. We didn't want our movie to be claustrophobic as Kung Fu movies are painted on an epic canvas. So 50% of the world of KFP is matte painting. The movie has more matte paintings than any DreamWorks movie ever. The reason for it partly was expense but also artistic. We used matte paintings to create a large world that we could not afford to build in the computer, but by using matte paintings we also created a more painterly, artistic feel for our film that fit with our overall Chinese aesthetic. Using matte paintings we had to give up some flexibility as they are assembled from a series of flat levels and you can't move the camera much. But if you have a restriction, make it an asset and not a drawback, so the scenes with matte painting had to have formal camera moves, and this helped establish the rules for our cinematography."

The Characters
John wanted one single character designer to design all the characters. "Having been a character designer and art director before becoming a director I am very critical of character design and I can easily see if there have been multiple hands involved in the creation of the characters. Usually you see that the primary and secondary characters are done by different designers and the change in style is very noticeable. I thought it would be better to find one designer to shape all of the characters in our world. We started with Po and there was this guy Nicholas Marlet at DreamWorks who had only done background characters up to this point. I absolutely loved Nico's work and asked him to come up with some designs for Po. We had a few other artists take a crack at Po as well, but when I saw Nico's designs there was no doubt in my mind that we had found our designer. There was a unique graphic sensibility and charm in his drawings and we thought he would be the best person to design all the characters for the movie. He is now the lead character designer at DreamWorks."

But these were characters meant for the CG medium and Nico designed in a very graphic 2D way, working primarily in monochrome. "We had to prove to the studio that his designs could translate into three dimensional computer graphics and handle volume, shading, light and many other things. To illustrate the point Ramone Zibach, the production designer, took Nico's designs and did 'paint overs' showing fur detail, clothing textures, and light and shade". These illustrations proved absolutely that Nico's designs would work well in computer graphics. This step was followed by expression tests for all the characters. "I think Tigress was my personal favorite of Nico's designs, but I love them all and each one has something unique about their appeal. Mantis was a challenging one as it was difficult to get that kind of Kung Fu attitude in an insect. Also complicated was the character of Viper as before her a snake had never been rigged completely in CG, (even in movies like 'Anaconda' the snake had multiple versions). The character took eighteen months of R&D by two MIT professors. Also initially Viper was to sport an umbrella and do Kung Fu moves with the same, but we found that was too unweildy. When it came to Crane he was the first fully feathered character to be made by the studio. Every feather was separate and rigged to allow him to do elaborate and graceful Kung Fu. Nico also designed some wonderful extra characters that didn't end up in the film for purely budgetary reasons but some of them are being developed for the sequel and some found their way into the videogame" says John.
The team wanted the village in the Valley of Peace to be populated by gentle herbivorous animals, who have the Kung Fu masters The Furious Five as their only protection from predatory animals. But although Nico had designed many possible species to inhabit the village in the end for budgetary reasons they had to select three species to be developed and multiplied. They ended up with pigs, rabbits and geese in the village and Rhinos as prison guards.

 Among the characters that didn't made it to the movie were the animals that were designed to be a part of Tai Lung's gang, a bunch of wolves, crocodiles, gorillas and some other bad guys. "They were super cool and we went as far as modeling them, but we cut them out for two reasons. First, of course, was the budget and secondly for the story. We realized that the story we were telling was that of the least likely guy going up against the most skilled, powerful, bad ass Kung Fu guy, and that antagonist would not need anybody else to back him up. The climax could only work with the one man army fighting the guy who didn't have any chance against him."

The movie didn't have any human beings in the story; it was a mythical world so everything had to be animal based. Even the equipment used in Shifu's training school had an animal element to it, for instance the balancing bowl is based on a tortoise and the Shaolin wooden men are based on crocodiles. This 'animal only' rule was strictly followed to maintain the integrity of the world.

The Environment
Once the characters were designed, the team created the world to fit with those designs. They looked at Chinese culture for reference. "There was no exact period in which the story was set, it is a mythical period which never existed". John added, "We had to train ourselves in the difference between Western art and Asian art. We did all our research on Google, as there was no budget for a research trip to China, The idea was to create a world that could contain all the elements of a typical Kung Fu movie, like a rooftop chase which is a standard for such films."

Color Scripts
"This is a tool that shows you the progression of color and contrast in the film. The production designer makes a series of small postage stamp colour and contrast studies based on the key scene for every sequence in the film. You then put all these images together and you have an overall snapshot of how the film is going to feel to an audience. It can be very revealing. What can happen when you are working on sequences individually and then see everything all assembled into one image is that you discover the places where inadvertently you may have a run of too many scenes set in the same location or time of day. For instance, you could see that you have a whole lot of night sequences all close together. This would not only get monotonous but also might make the film unnecessarily dark. The reverse is also true-too many day time scenes in a row would be just as boring. You want variety. Break out every sequence in the film and understand the color value it will have. Then make sure in your colour script that you have the right mix of day scenes to night scenes, high contrast scenes to low contrast scenes etc. I came up with a vocabulary for the use of color in Kung Fu Panda, and assigned every color an emotional value."

"We didn't expect anybody watching the movie to understand these rules conciously; we made the rules for ourselves and stuck by them as it was about integrity. Every colour choice in the movie is there by design; blue was our colour for everything negative, gold was our colour for heroism, brown was the everyday, red was for power and green was for wisdom. In the opening hand drawn animation there is a lot of gold and red, because it was about a dream of heroism and power, when we cut from that scene to Po's bedroom it is all in shades of brown to represent the mundane and everyday and the film ends with Po's triumph over Tai Lung bathed in gold as Po has finally become his own hero. By following our self imposed rules we had a sense of the deeper emotional meanings to the things in the film. I recommend you do this important step if you are planning a visual story of any length. It doesn't take much time to do as you are working small, and you want to make sure your film has the right mix of dark and light which helps establish a comfortable balance in the overall look. You should make sure there is a pleasing symmetry to the film, if you don't do that the film will decide for itself the overall look- and you may not like it ."

The Fight Sequences
In the sequence where the Furious Five showcase their talents in the competition to see who should be crowned as the Dragon Warrior, originally they were to be fighting five mammoth machines dragged in and operated by pigs which the heroes would destroy with their Kung Fu. "We cut them, as it made the sequence too long and in order to see them we would have to break out of Po's perspective when the whole point of the scene was to stay with Po's perspective as it added to the comedy. He wanted to see the competition so badly but couldn't and we could feel and share his frustration."

Tai Lung's prison was an important location as it was also a piece of his character; he is the worst guy ever, and the amount of security in the jail that is holding him tells you how dangerous he is. The team took this brief and exaggerated it. "First there was going to be a prison with many dangerous inmates but then to increase his stature further we decided to create a prison carved out of a mountain with crazy security measures all to hold only one inmate. This established Tai Lung's threat even before he had done anything and the audience knew he was a villain to be feared."

"I decided to use a restricted palette for the Tai Lung prison escape. It became a battle between red and blue, with red representing power in our colour theory, or the forces of law and order. We had determined that all cool colours would be negative as Tai Lung was a snow leopard, with blue being our colour to represent evil. The scene is also designed like a video game with the prison having several different levels. Every time Tai Lung crushes the defenses of one level the red light of that level is extinguished and only blue remains. That was the theory behind our lighting, it could be very stylized but light had to behave like light and obey the rules of physics. We decided our world would be theatrical, that we could use odd colors to heighten emotions but the light beams had to interact with the environment as they would in the real world."

Title Dream Sequence
John says, "I thought it would be fun to have a 2D hand drawn animated sequence in a CG movie and the best place to put it was in the beginning. We didn't want it to look like the American hand drawn animation of recent theatrical features so we did a bunch of exploration to make it suit our world and our story. We studied anime, and the use of interesting textures in the backgrounds and eventually evolved a look that we are really proud of for the opening hand drawn sequence. I think James Baxter (who was the Animation Director for the dream sequence) is the greatest animator in the world; he usually gets to do all the difficult stuff like princesses (he animated Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast) or horses (Spirit; Stallion of the Cimarron) He was really happy to get to do something so stylized. The sequence was directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who is directing the sequel to Kung Fu Panda-The Kaboom of Doom."

"We shot the film in CinemaScope. All great Kung Fu movies are shot in the anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1 which is the best format to stage action scenes. The studio hadn't made a computer animation film in that ratio and there was some doubt about doing so as there was an extra cost attached, but in the end it was an artistic decision and everyone agreed it was the best choice for our movie."

"Our rule for our cinematography was that it had to be focused on character; character and comedy were our ruling principles. The team had to establish the difference between the characters that do Kung Fu and the ones that don't. In a live action Kung Fu movie you know that the physical feats that a Jackie Chan or a Bruce Lee can perform set them apart from normal human beings, but in animation anything can happen. So the narrative sequences which didn't involve Kung Fu were kept formal and constrained with only simple pans, pull outs and push ins and all the rules of physics and gravity were obeyed. If characters were too squash and stretchy in the normal sequences then the Kung Fu scenes wouldn't stand out as anything special. There was normal acting with constrained camera movements in everyday scenes, and then when we got into a martial arts sequence, the camera could go wild and break the rules of physics. As you watch the film you don't consciously know that but you do feel the change."

It was observed that in the case of animators who hadn't done martial arts before, their animation of Kung Fu would feel soft, the punches were not hard enough, they weren't sure how much extension the body would have. John says, "We had to make sure that our Kung Fu was actually Kung Fu and not just a generic imitation. We got an actual Kung Fu instructor and did some intense and miserable training with him as we wanted to know what it was like to be Po. We told him not to be soft on us. He beat the crap out of us for a day. We did stretches, forms, combat training, weapon training, and ended the session doing knuckle push ups on the concrete floor. We wanted to make our animators have a real sense of what Po would have to go through."

"Also our Kung Fu moves had to be an interpretation of how an actual Kung Fu move would be done by an animal character. If we were to do it exactly as Jackie Chan might do it it would not be different or interesting in an animated film. We wanted to show Crane doing crane style, Mantis doing mantis style and so on, but the way an animal would do it, using the restrictions of the different animals anatomies. The objective was to have martial arts with integrity but at the same time not rotoscope a Bruce Lee film"

"The scene where Tai Lung escapes was the first action sequence in the movie, the first time we were going to show our audience how the action in the movie was going to be. We wanted to establish that whenever there was going to be action it would be kick ass. Also from a story point of view it had to establish the power of Tai Lung and raise the question in the audience's mind as to how Po will ever defeat him. Also there is no substantial action sequence after this for the next 40 minutes, so it had to be satisfying and big. The 3 minute sequence (which was originally 6 minutes) had complex and expensive FX which took 18 months of production time. The challenge was integrating the martial arts and visual effects along with incredibly difficult weight and balance work and elaborate Kung Fu choreography."

He concluded by saying, "Every scene, as Robert Zemeckis says, has a 'Red Dot', one thing that the audience must understand in order for the story to work. It can either be a vital plot point, a character moment, or an overwhelming emotion or theme. You have to discover and understand that 'Red Dot' and why it is vital for your story."