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Immersed in Movies: How DreamWorks Made ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ as a Crossroads to China

Immersed in Movies: How DreamWorks Made 'Kung Fu Panda 3' as a Crossroads to China

Kung Fu Panda 3 marks a new phase for DreamWorks Animation: the start of a $330 million joint venture in Shanghai with China Media Capital and Shanghai Media Group to expand its global reach in the world’s dominant market. This includes an east/west artistic collaboration through the new Oriental DreamWork studio, which will make movies for both China and a worldwide audience. As a result, KFP3 contains two animated versions and separate casts for American and Chinese consumption.

As for the movie, it fittingly wraps up the saga of Po (Jack Black) by looking forward and back through the force of Chi and the introduction of biological father Li (Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston), maniacal villain Kei (Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons) and overzealous ribbon dancer Mei Mei (Kate Hudson). I recently chatted with producer Melissa Cobb and directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni.

Bill Desowitz: It’s such a natural progression for Po to meet his biological father to help fulfill his destiny as the Dragon Warrior.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Each of these movies has a moment that tells Po what he needs to be for the next one. So we had to set up what happened to the father, what happened to the pandas and that led us to the third one.
Melissa Cobb: The audience does too. After we went to China after the first one, everyone wanted to know why Po has a goose for a dad, so we had to answer that.
BD: And so you combined everything into one and we enter the spirit realm for a final confrontation.
Alessandro Carloni: That’s exactly what we wanted to do. In Panda, the movie starts with this epic vision of what a legendary warrior is in Po’s mind. And we wanted the spirit realm to be the wish-fulfillment of Po’s vision of the legendary warrior. And so he ends up living the dream of what the Dragon Warrior truly is. 
And Raymond Zibach, our production designer, actually used the original design of the dream of Po to paint and create the spirit realm and we recreated that exact environment so he’s living the dream in Panda 1.
BD: Tell me about going to China and collaborating with Oriental DreamWorks in Shanghai.
JYN: It’s been very amazing to collaborate with ODW because on the first film we had to research most of our stuff online and in books. On the second film we went and did a lot of research. But this time we actually have artists there and they’re doing designs. In fact, early on, we went to ODW and the first time we met the crew, they were fully dressed in traditional clothing to show us how to design Mei Mei, and everybody did ceremonies to show how these clothes were used for a specific time and not to mix dynasties. And nobody here would know that.
MC: Someone could write calligraphy  for you or design something in that traditional style. 
BD: It’s a wonderful hybrid of east and west.
MC: Yeah, and it’s a perfect chance to take their skills and apply it to a Hollywood movie.
JYN: And there are a little details that people don’t initially notice like the calligraphy in one of the sequences is actually composed by a famous Chinese poet. 
AC: Who translated the story of Kei and Oogway.
JYN: And we have the design element in one 2D sequence. And that’s something we would have never been able to do here.
AC: It’s the backstory of Kei and Oogway.
MC: That was inspired by our trip to China and we saw one of the most ancient scrolls in the history of China. We saw an installation where they had taken it and made it as big as a baseball field. It was a huge scroll and they animated it and we were very inspired by seeing that art in China. And we were inspired to animate a scroll for our movie and have it look like it has calligraphy and move.
JYN: A wet ink process.
MC: Yeah, a lot of complex art went into creating that look.
BD: Where was it done?
AC: It was done here. A lot of our animators still possess that skill and long to use it. And our design team of Max Boas and Raymond would then just turn it into watercolor. And it’s not just 2D but the next step of 2D watching watercolor in rice paper.
BD: Talk a little more about the stylized spirit realm.
MC: Raymond really wanted to take the stylized and graphic nature of 2D animation into CG — and it was a big challenge for our lighters and our modelers and our surfacers, who had to rethink the way they were working.
JYN: We tried to go for a hyper-reality, pushed look to make the biggest impact visually in the shortest amount of time. It really punches you in the face with it and we’re trying to reflect people’s moods in the spirit realm. Whoever’s in it is going to reflect the visualization of the place. When you see Oogway, it’s gold around him; when you see Kei, you see green around him. It’s actually color-coded to who’s in it. When Po takes over, it’s gold and red and all his colors of heroism. And you see elements that are formed completely based off his dreams from the first movie and we’re bringing it all back. But taking it to a whole new level graphically in 3-D that’s never been seen before.
AC: I the scene where Po teaches the panda’s, Raymond and Max also created that completely graphically. They pushed it way further than we expected, which was like a kung-fu poster from the ’80s. It’s more toward a comic book, and the fascinating thing is it feels new cinematically for the crew.
BD: Then there’s the panda Shangri-La.
MC: We went through many different ideas of what that could be, but the idea of it being a remote and hidden location was obviously necessary for the story. And I think Max and Raymond saw it as glaciers and hot springs there from some kind of volcanic activity. So they built this amazing village around that vision. It’s a big fantasy conceit that’s coupled with the reality. We had taken a trip to Chengdu on a hike up the mountains there, where we saw these beautiful, musk-colored, ancient structures. So there’s a real strength from the elements of the Chinese trip and the imagination. Putting those two things together makes it a very unique environment.
JYN: In fact, the reaction when Po sees the village for the first time happened to us. There was a mist and all these wet rocks and gnarled trees and you walk past shelters you can barely see. These shelters are very organic and covered in green moss and we saw the mist part and saw the temple on top. And it looked like that and we were thinking we just gotta do that. Our production designer actually used the original design of the dream of Po to paint and create the spirit realm, and we recreated that exact environment so he’s living the dream in Panda 1.

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