Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the director of the new animated film “Kung Fu Panda 2,” might have been destined for a career in pictures. After immigrating to the United States from South Korea with her parents and two sisters when she was 4, Nelson spent her childhood in Lakewood watching martial arts movies, playing with cars and drawing.
As a young girl, she would sit at the kitchen table for hours and watch her mother draw, copying her every stroke. Nelson traces the lineage of her career to those formative family experiences.
“Growing up, my sisters and I would always talk stories,” said Nelson, 39, over lunch at the commissary on the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale. “One of my frustrations was I didn’t know anything about cameras. I didn’t know how to make a film and I obviously didn’t have a special effects budget. I was a kid. So I was learning to draw to get down the stuff that was in my head, that I couldn’t afford to actually do.”
Nelson conceived the story for “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which follows the continuing adventures of the roly-poly panda Po (Jack Black) as he struggles to come to terms with the sad truth about his family at the same time he and his band of cohorts face off against the evil Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). And now, with the film set to open in theaters Thursday, she will become the first woman to solely direct an animated feature from a major Hollywood studio.
Despite Kathryn Bigelow having claimed the directing Oscar in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker,” women still remain a rarity among the ranks of Hollywood filmmakers, representing only 7% of the field, according to a recent survey released by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. In the world of animation, the dearth of female directors is more pronounced.
Nelson is one of four women to have directed a feature at her home studio of DreamWorks Animation -- though her contemporaries, Brenda Chapman (“Prince of Egypt”), Vicky Jenson (“Shark Tale,” “Shrek”) and Lorna Cook (“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”) shared their duties with at least one male counterpart. And though the company’s chief competitor, Pixar Animation Studios, has released 11 consecutive hit films, none were directed or co-directed by a woman.
Late last year, Pixar fired Chapman from its upcoming movie “Brave,” after she’d spent six years working on the project about a young Scottish princess, which she co-wrote with Irene Mecchi.
“There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson said. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”
Nelson attended Cal State Long Beach and graduated with a degree in illustration. Although she had no animation experience, her older sisters were both in the business and Nelson began her career making photocopies for an animation house. She spent a brief time in television before joining DreamWorks in March 1998 as a storyboard artist on “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” quickly moving through the ranks to become head of story on “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.”
Chapman, who met Nelson while working as a consultant on “Sinbad” and served as something of a mentor to the younger artist, was impressed not only by the beauty of Nelson’s drawings but also by her “filmic ability,” which she described as Nelson’s understanding of where to put cameras to push the story forward.
“Sometimes artists will make really pretty drawings but they don’t work for story flow, it’s just a pretty drawing,” Chapman said. “But with Jennifer ... she could really get across what the scene could look like, give it acting, give it emotion. That is so rare.”
Nelson served as head of story on “Kung Fu Panda,” and she also directed the opening sequence of the movie, a two-minute hand-drawn, highly graphic 2-D segment that featured no CG animation and was heavily influenced by classic anime stylings.
It was a test, of a sort, set up by producer Melissa Cobb and DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, not to determine if Nelson could handle the challenge -- they were certain of that -- but to give Nelson the opportunity to prove to herself that she could lead a large group.
“She loves the filmmaking process, she loves the storytelling process. I don’t know that she naturally thinks of herself as a leader. Or she did at the time,” Cobb said. “As the head of story you are supervising all the artists. As the director of one of these movies you are really directing 300 to 400 people. It’s a big deal.”
When Cobb and Katzenberg asked Nelson to take on “Kung Fu Panda 2,” Nelson had to reconcile her initial idea of a director, as someone rather tyrannical, with her own more subdued personality.
“I’m a very soft-spoken person. I don’t throw furniture. I don’t throw tantrums,” Nelson said. “As a director, your job is to protect this movie with your life. Protect it against anything that would take it off its course and turn it beige. You have to be very, very ferocious and that was the hardest part for me because I’m not used to yelling.”
“What I always find so amazing about Jennifer is that inside this beautiful, soulful, soft-spoken, elegant lady is this macho, kung fu-loving action dynamo,” Katzenberg said. “It’s the opposite of what we’re all used to dealing with in the world, the macho exterior and marshmallow center. There is very much a cult following that she has among our artists. They all want to work with her.”
Nelson’s transition to the director’s chair was made easier by the fact that she knew the story she wanted to tell with the sequel: In the script from Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, Po undertakes a journey to discover his heritage and find contentment.
Still, Nelson struggled throughout the years of production to ensure that the movie had a real emotional payoff.
Although the film still has lots of action and comedic touches, that emphasis on sincerity is perhaps a departure from what some audiences might expect from a “Kung Fu Panda” sequel, though the tone dovetails with last year’s critically acclaimed DreamWorks’ film “How to Train Your Dragon.”
“If you have a movie that doesn’t strive to go to a certain emotional point you can do anything and it will be fine and funny,” Nelson said. “But if you have something pretty emotional at its core, you have to make it right. You don’t want it overwrought or unearned. Everything has to be moving towards this one thing.”