Interview: Jennifer Yuh Nelson (director of Kung Fu Panda 2)

Interview: Jennifer Yuh Nelson (director of Kung Fu Panda 2). By Simon Miraudo.

Kung Fu Panda 2 helmer Jennifer Yuh Nelson has the distinct honour of being the first sole female director of an American animated film. We spoke with Nelson about her journey to the upper echelons at DreamWorks Animation studio, from her beginnings as a copy-maker and sci-fi aficionado. She also shared with us her thoughts on the current gender controversies in animation, as well as her five favourite films and her surprising love for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg.

Watch the video here!

You can also check out our interview with Kung Fu Panda 2’s Lucy Liu here!

SM: Do you remember seeing a film when you were growing up that gave you the spark of inspiration to get into filmmaking?

JYN: Oh absolutely. It had to be Blade Runner. That was like … wow. That was truly an escape.

SM: What about animated films? What was the first animated film you saw where you thought, “Someone actually drew this! I could do this for a living”.

JYN: It’s funny, because I remember watching the classic Disney animated films when I was little and I don’t think I completely understood how they were made. So I didn’t think of it really like something I could do; I just enjoyed them as a kid. But I drew my whole life and I only really found out about doing animation, as a field, in college.

SM: You definitely have, as you said with Blade Runner, a sci-fi interest. I believe you worked on Dark City [as an animator] as well?

JYN: Yes I did.

SM: Tell me how you got into animation, and at DreamWorks.

JYN: Well my first job was really making copies at their animation studio [laughs]. And that was a little summer job that I was doing at college. It was wonderful to see that, as an artist, you could draw a movie. Because I loved drawing, and I love movies. And to combine the two into something like that was just a real opportunity, and there were lots of opportunities opening up in animation at the time I was graduating, so it kind of made sense.

SM: Can you explain to me a little bit about inside the DreamWorks studio system, how does one graduate to become a director? Do you audition, in a sense?

JYN: No, you don’t really audition. One thing that’s really nice about DreamWorks is there are a lot of directors there that worked up through the ranks. It’s not like you have to come in and say, “Alright, I’m coming in as a director”. They have nurtured a lot of people to come up from many different departments and many different directions to become directors there.  And we’re allowed to make the movie that we want to make. In my case I was a story artist there for many years, and became a head of story, and as a head of story you are very much a big part of story development, and character development, and it seemed to be a natural step to directing.

SM: I understand you’ve been working on this for a number of years. Is there a particular sequence you take great pride in? Something that you really love that has your name on it?

JYN: It is the scene where Po finds ‘the truth’, in this movie. It was the first scene that we boarded, and it’s the scene that makes me cry every single time, and I’ve watched the movie a lot and it still hits me.

SM: You’re also the first sole female to direct a Hollywood animated film, so congratulations.

JYN: Thank you [laughs].

SM: There’s been a bit of a controversy in the last few years, with some people saying there’s been a lack of female protagonists in animated films. How do you feel about that?

JYN: I don’t quite know why that’s the case. Certainly during the making of the movie, it never came up. No one noticed or pointed out or seemed to care one way or the other if their director was a male or a female, and I think that’s the way it should be. You’re a director; you’re not a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ director. You’re just a director. You’re making the film you want to make without gender being involved at all. Certainly, controversy aside, I don’t think the Panda movies are any particular gender one way or another. They seem to be popular with males and females, so I don’t know exactly why that’s the case.

SM: I like to wrap up interviews by asking for your five favourite films.

JYN: Five?! That’s a tough question.

SM: It’s so funny, everyone responds the exact same way.

JYN: I would say, five films off the top of my head are: Miyazaki’s [My Neighbour] Totoro. Blade Runner is certainly one of them. Alien is definitely one of them. [Laughs] Oh, gosh, two more. What do I do?

SM: You could also say Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut and The Final Cut.

JYN: That’s true. The Director’s Cut is probably my favourite one. Two more?

SM: Two more.

JYN: Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg [laughs].

SM: Nice one. Sure! I felt the influence of that in Kung Fu Panda 2, actually.

JYN: Oh really? And finally, probably Drunken Master.

Kung Fu Panda 2 opens in Australian cinemas June 23, 2011.

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