The journey to make the hoped-for timeless fable of “Kung Fu Panda” resembled somewhat the tale of the panda at the center of it all. The film had spent years in development, hardly piquing anyone’s interest. But with the production team’s zealous efforts, filmmakers had begun (metaphorically speaking) mining a rich vein — so rich, in fact, that the mine was overproducing. With this abundance of material, what was needed was a little specificity of product.
Enter two miners, um, writers, the talented duo of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Jonathan Aibel explains, “Originally, what they had was great stuff. We just came on for a week to story consult, to help shape it. What scenes are needed and which ones aren’t? Are they in the right order? How can we focus the story? So, we looked at what they had and made some suggestions. That week became a month, and that month became three months, which became another 19 months — we just got so involved in the process.”
Per Glenn Berger: “It was an embarrassment of riches — amazing fight sequences, a lot of wonderful comedy. We were brought in to cut back the forest, to find the heart of the movie they were always aiming to make. But with such a beautiful world and fun characters, stuff had naturally grown out of that…the central story had gotten covered up. So we were there to help focus and tell the story everyone wanted told.”
And that story, all agreed, was about Po. So filmmakers convened several times to forge the story: Who is Po? What does he want? How does he get it? What happens? And how does it end? And all of this was to be decided without dependence upon a particular sequence or joke or set piece, to keep storytelling options fluid. And once that was agreed to, according to Berger, “That became the final say every step of the process. So at any time during the making of the film, and there came a disagreement on a certain element, no matter who it came from, we were able to ask some key questions.”
Aibel continues, “‘Is it telling the story?’ If it is, great. So then, ‘Okay, can we expand on it—make it funnier, more dramatic, more action-packed?’ If it wasn’t telling the story, whether or not it’s funny becomes moot. This has happened on nearly every project we’ve worked on — they think it’s a great bit, and it is, but it doesn’t advance the story at all, so, it’s cut.”
And unlike Po’s belief in himself, the studio’s belief in the film remained constant throughout the lengthy development process. Bill Damaschke, co-president of production for feature animation and the film’s executive producer voices, “We knew that the film could be special. Throughout its development, we were frequently amazed by the talent and tenacity of the filmmakers in their pursuit of making ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ In a nutshell, we always believed in the film and in the filmmakers behind it.”
Producer Cobb asserts, “Jonathan and Glenn were a tremendous addition to the crew. They helped us to refine the story, make it really solid, and helped us find the characters and the tone of the project. They had a deep understanding of the characters early on and dove into the project with abandon.”
The film’s somewhat panda-paced development track changed when the studio experienced a momentous “a-ha!” breakthrough — of the big, light-bulb-above-your-head kind. Head of Character Animation Dan Wagner took a few sound bites of Jack Black’s and animated Po saying them. The marriage was an unqualified success.
Per Osborne: “Jack Black sort of tied everything together. He was ideal casting. I’m a huge Jack Black and Tenacious D [Black’s band] fan. I’ve always been really inspired by his work; he’s incredible. When he signed on, I thought, ‘That’s it!’ We said in the beginning that we wanted this to be a vehicle for Jack, and we really let him be the best version of Jack Black possible…which, you know, ties in thematically to the movie. It’s all about being the best version of yourself.”
Stevenson offers, “Jack’s a wonderful person — he’s just a great guy. And I think that you get that in his previous movies — even when he’s playing a very abrasive character. He’s always very funny and, despite how irritating his character may be, immensely appealing. And while he plays those kinds of characters exceedingly well, we wanted Po to be enthusiastic, likeable, eager…all of the best things that are almost always at the heart of Jack’s characters.”
One could have easily assumed that casting the accessible and hilarious Black for the project meant that “Kung Fu Panda” would move somewhere in the vicinity of a parody. But that was definitely not the case.
Director Stevenson explains, “One of the things that was important to me — and, I think, to everybody who ended up working on the film — was that we definitely didn’t want to do a parody, because everybody involved really admired martial arts movies. We all wanted to respect and honor those movies.”
“Kung Fu Panda” — which serves as the feature directing debut for both Stevenson and Osborne — was to be an exciting, animated kung fu movie, albeit one with plenty of laughs.
Osborne affirms, “An animated film is a huge labor of love, but it also is a huge labor, period. It takes years of work, probably about five years for ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ when all is said and done. So, it’s very helpful to have someone with whom to share the load. John and I work well together. And we actually ended up figuring out ways of taking different aspects of the project, to help split up the workload somewhat.”
Adds producer Cobb, “John Stevenson is a fantastic director. He’s been in the animation business for many years. He started out actually working with Jim Henson as a puppeteer, and has worked extensively as a storyboard artist on some amazing films. He came to ‘Kung Fu Panda’ with a commanding understanding of and a great attitude about the animation process. Having been through so many movies, he was always saying, ‘Trust the process. Trust the process.’ And that was really helpful. He had that sort of Zen attitude about directing the movie. ‘It’ll all work out in the end, and we just have to keep doing a great job.’ He was really very involved in the look of the movie and the design of the characters and constantly pushing the design team to challenge themselves, to take things further and to really explore where animation could go.
“Before Mark Osborne directed ‘Kung Fu Panda,’” the producer continues, “he had directed an Oscar®-nominated short called ‘More,’ which, if you haven’t seen it, you absolutely should. It’s a spectacular stop-motion animated movie without dialogue, with amazing acting and an emotionally heartfelt story. ‘Kung Fu Panda’ is the first animated feature he worked on. Because of his stop-motion background, he really gravitated towards working with the animators and spent a great deal of his time on the movie working hand-in-hand with them. He understood, frame-by-frame, what they were doing in the animation process, and he became a great collaborator.”
From Cobb’s perspective, the two directors became the consummate team, melding their different backgrounds and tastes into a balanced sort of ‘yin and yang’ working style. The result? Per Cobb: “We went to great lengths to bring together the most talented writers, actors and artists that we could. Putting John and Mark at the helm resulted in one of the greatest working processes I’ve ever experienced. We put everything that we could into this film, and we hope that audiences love it as much as we do.”
Screenwriter Berger observes, “There are a lot of different voices on a film, and it’s about getting everyone to share the same vision. It takes writers to write the scenes, expressing what needs to be expressed. It takes artists to render the scenes, actors to record the voices, animators to bring the characters to life, lighters, editors, composers to score…so at DreamWorks it really isn’t an autocracy, it’s about bringing all of these voices into unison.”
Aibel says, “And sometimes, that process is truly democratic. A town hall meeting with every say equal. The directors’ and producer’s job is then to listen to all of those voices and make sure they are telling the same story. It’s always a process of weighing what is being said and checking it against the unified story, and always keeping the audience’s experience in mind.”
From the outset, the producer and the two directors set out to create “one of the best-looking movies this studio has ever produced,” which was less hubris than a goal inspired by the first two words of their title — kung fu. Though inexorably linked (in the Western mind, at least) to martial arts, ‘kung fu’ also refers to the excellence of self and its attainment through hard work. At its heart, “Kung Fu Panda” is about being the best ‘you’ that you can possibly be…to be your own hero.
This message underscored an important part of Mark Osborne’s life. The future director’s father had run car dealerships. It would have been easy for the young Osborne to head for the same career. “But instead, my father encouraged me to pursue a path that would make me happy, and paid to send me to art school. When I wanted to make my first animated short, my dad paid for it. My Academy Award®-nominated short ‘More’ was funded by and produced by my dad’s employer, who saw an opportunity to help me achieve my dreams. So, the idea of being your own hero really resonates deeply with me.”
Once Stevenson and Osborne signed on to the project, they made a promise to themselves and the crew: “We were aiming as high as we could with this project—to make it everyone’s best. We set that as our goal and figured we’d see how close we could get. I think the animation in ‘Kung Fu Panda’ is some of the finest we’ve ever done, and Mark played a huge part in raising the bar when working with the animators, trying to go for a heightened level of subtlety, nuance, sophistication and reality,” says Stevenson. (One of their mottos was “If it’s easy or obvious, it’s not in the movie.”)
Osborne adds, “One of the things we thought would be interesting was to create broadly designed, somewhat ‘cartoony’ animal characters. But we didn’t want them to act in the usual ‘cartoony’ style. We wanted stylized characters who acted in a believable way…but could also be involved in some slapstick, ‘cartoony’ things — like dropping a character hundreds of feet and it wouldn’t die.”
Their aim was to find a visual language from which the filmmakers could transition from something as subtle as looking into the eyes of characters and sensing that they were conflicted, to a broadly comic situation, where someone gets whacked in the head and tumbles down a flight of stairs. The true challenge was to render both of these aspects believably in the same film, sometimes even in the same sequence. “Mark was a huge part of figuring out how to do that. And the fact that the animation is so good is, in large part, due to his leadership,” states Stevenson.
All involved are quick to point out that while “Kung Fu Panda” is a family comedy, it also boasts the same kind of action and adventure that made the martial arts films of the ‘70s such a pulse-quickening genre. Stevenson comments, “The basic comedic premise of our movie is in the title, ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ As a martial art, kung fu is extremely athletic and requires lots of self-discipline and physical ability. And pandas, well, everybody thinks of them as this soft, sleepy, roly-poly animal — probably the biggest, funniest and most cuddly creature you can imagine. Almost everyone involved in this project is a fan of those kung fu movies, and we all wanted to do a real kung fu movie…but we wanted it to be funny — the kind of funny that came out of character rather than from crafting a parody that made fun of the genre. With a panda learning kung fu, you get that. And each one of the Furious Five, Shifu, Tai Lung — are truly compelling characters. I think it’s funny and fast-paced, and tells a wonderfully touching story.”
Osborne continues, “There is a huge amount of heart in this project and it all comes directly from Jack Black. Early on, we were trying to understand why Po loved kung fu and wanted to be a kung fu hero, but kept his desires a secret from his father and the world. I found the inspiration from Jack’s band Tenacious D in their song ‘Cosmic Shame,’ since it’s about how important it is to follow your heart; that the key to true happiness is to pursue your dreams. Yet, the ultimate irony is that if you fail at your dreams, you fail big time. This was a perfect basis for Po’s inner conflict; he’d rather keep his kung fu dreams as a safe haven to escape to, than risk the ‘Cosmic Shame’ of trying to realize it and fail. If you go out on a limb, you can fall (especially if you are a fat panda) and Po doesn’t believe in himself enough to think he can make his dream come true. His accidental hero’s journey, however, ultimately takes him to a place where he must try with all his heart.”