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Monday, January 25, 2016

1-3 Punch: Directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni Knock Us Out With Kung Fu Panda 3

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 10:30 AM

click to enlarge Jennifer Yuh and Alesandro Carloni codirect Kung Fu Panda 3, which opens wide Jan. 29. - NATHANIEL CHADWICK
  • Nathaniel Chadwick
  • Jennifer Yuh and Alesandro Carloni codirect Kung Fu Panda 3, which opens wide Jan. 29.

When it came time to begin work on Kung Fu Panda 3, co-directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni wondered what Po, the film's hefty hero, has left to learn in the third and what would become the most entertaining installment of the DreamWorks franchise, which sees the young panda reuniting with his biological family and testing his strength against supernatural super villain Kai.

"We kind of struggled with how do we make a new Po movie, where people learn something?" Carloni admitted to SF Weekly in a recent interview, alongside Yuh. "But that's a ridiculous question, because there's always a next step to be made and a next challenge to face in order to take the next step." Yuh and Carloni also chatted about what they learned from each other and the talented ensemble cast and what they hope we take away from the film. 

Jennifer, how does co-directing Kung Fu Panda 3 with Alessandro compare to your previous directing experiences on 1 and 2?

Jennifer Yuh: Fantastic! Alessandro has been involved in all the Panda movies as a story artist and animation supervisor, so we created these characters together. We've been working on them for a very long time, so for us it's shorthand to understand what these characters need to do. It's been a great resource to have him be a partner in this.  

Can you talk about the introduction of the Kai character?

Alessandro Carloni: Sure. We're very excited that he's our first supernatural villain. There have always been chi forces and supernatural forces, but after seeing those amazing wire fu movies made in China with those amazing supernatural forces and powers, we secretly wished we could do some of that on the other two. But on this movie we did. Kai has found a way to distort and corrupt the positive force of chi, and he can absorb other characters' power.

But the true excitement happened when, to our surprise, working with J.K. Simmons, the character started demonstrating a comedic aspect and vulnerability. Sometimes he is even petty and insecure. So he's scary but also funny and entertaining.

There are so many major actors involved in this picture. Did you have to employ different direction techniques for each of them?

JY: As a baseline all actors want to feel safe and have a clear idea of what the character is experiencing at the moment, which helps them get into that emotional brain space. We have access to the most amazing cast of actors. Working with some of these actors, you make a slight nudge one way or the other, and it's wonderful to see them craft often ad-lib moments of spontaneity that would surprise us.

AC: If anything, for us, it's fascinating seeing their different approaches. Dustin Hoffman is an actor who seems to truly find it by repetition. He likes to repeat a line over and over until he feels he found the true accent of the line. While Angelina Jolie, she wanted a deep understanding of her character first, so Jennifer [Yuh] would go into detail by explaining the emotional moment of the scene she will portray.

The other thing we do is that actors generally need to act the scene with someone, because they're performers, not just readers. So there's an actor named Stephen Kearin, who's an improv teacher and he always comes in any time one of our actors comes in for recording, so he can play the scene with them. Actors like Bryan Cranston and Jack Black are truly gifted improvisers, and sometimes we love letting them take the scene in a direction that may surprise even us. They do so by acting out the scene with Steven, where they can spar and take the scene in a different direction. It's helpful for us as storytellers, as well, because we are introduced to a slightly different angle of a scene that we didn't expect.

Jennifer, I've read that you've always been interested in martial arts? How come?

JY: I don't do martial arts, but I love the movies, because of the complexity of the choreography and the inventiveness of incredible action scenes. It just went to an incredible place in my brain. It was so exciting to see.

How important is it when you're making a film like this to stay true to the spirit of classic kung fu films?

JY: It's so important. If you're not true to it or don't show respect to it, it becomes obnoxious, because there's so much to draw from. We're fans of martial arts movies. We sat there through lunch on the first movie, researching every single Shaw Brothers movie. We watched all the Bruce Lee movies. We watched Master of the Flying Guillotine and had so much fun, so why not pay tribute to it?

AC: We're doing those movies in honor of that culture, so not to embrace it would seem a contradiction. In this movie, we allowed ourselves, when Po gets to teach kung fu, to more fully embrace what it means — the excellence of self.

What I love about Po is that he's a hero who isn't fit in the traditional sense, yet can still kick ass.

JY: I think that that's part of the whole humor—the friction between the idea of this hardcore kung fu world and this cuddly, fat panda. I think that's why we empathize and identify with him, because he wants to do this so badly, but he may not have the exact ability right now. So to battle to become something better, that's something you just want to root for.

AC: The driving force behind the whole franchise is self-empowerment and self-betterment and becoming the best version of himself. Po doesn't have to become fit or ripped to be a martial arts master. He becomes a better version of himself. 

JY: I love that we designed the Mei Mei character, not as an hourglass figure, but as a panda girl. She's big, confident and lovely the way she is. 

Jennifer, you are one of the foremost women in animation, working yourself up from storyboard artist to the first woman to solely direct a major animated feature. How important is it to you to be a role model to young girls hoping to break into animation or moviemaking?

JY: It's important, because girls come up to me and tell me that they are encouraged because they see someone doing something like this that looks like them. That gives me chills. Just today, I met this little girl, and she gave me a drawing she did for me and told me, 'I want to be just like you and direct movies.' She was maybe about eight. Seeing that spark of encouragement in girls' eyes means so much to me. 

What do you want young kids to take away from the movie?

AC: The thematic core of the movie is again a wonderful story of self-empowerment and Shifu (Po's teacher) says to Po in the beginning of the movie that if you only do what you can do, then you'll never be more than what you are now. It's kind of a powerful message and remains true to the Panda franchise's message of being true to yourself and becoming the best version of yourself. That's not just universal but very heartwarming for us when someone as charming as Po has to deal with that struggle. 


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