Production Information (Cont'd)
CHARACTER DESIGN AND EVOLUTION
When it comes to character creation and design, Culton takes her craft with
the utmost seriousness. This work ethic and passion goes back to her first
feature, Toy Story, when she was in her early 20s. "A bunch of us from CalArts
moved up to Northern California," Culton says. "This was the first
computer-animated film, and Pixar wanted 12 animators to start on the same day;
I was one of those. We had to learn UNIX, and every day, we'd come in and
software would be either broken or enhanced. It was so hard every day, and none
of us knew at the time that CG was the way that the world was going."
The filmmaker's passion for inventive storytelling extended to the creation
of one of that studio's most beloved characters, Jessie, from Toy Story 2. All
her hard work proved worth it, not just on a creative level, but a humanitarian
one. "I'll never forget that after the film came out, letters started coming to
the studio and they were posted on the wall," she continues. "They were, 'My kid
fought cancer because he thought he was Buzz Lightyear and could go to infinity
and beyond.' I realized the power of movies then. We give our lives to these
things, and I knew I didn't want to ever be on a movie that was just sheer
entertainment. They have to mean something."
This discipline and affection for the art of animation was not lost on the
film's actors. "I've learned that great animators are extraordinary observers of
behavior," says Sarah Paulson. "A gesture, look or a walk they've observed can
be animated, and therefore transformed, into something we the audience recognize
as shockingly human. I asked one of the animators if he stares at people all the
time-not just the ones he's animating, but people in general to get a sense of
movement and how tiny gestures communicate story. Animators must be wonderful
observers, which is not that different than great acting, when it's brought to
you by people who observe human behavior and reflect that back. When it's
effective, we are moved by a nuance we see as something a family member, friend
or we ourselves might do."
Over the course of production, Yi evolved from a younger kid to an older one.
Although much of her character's core design has remained the same, for the
filmmakers it's been like watching a little girl grow up into a young woman of
16. One of the reasons was that, in order for Yi to do odd jobs and earn money
by herself in a large city in China, she needed to be this age.
Early on, the team sent the designs to Pearl Studio for feedback and to get
Yi feeling like an authentic, independent teenager in modern-day China. "For me,
Abominable is next level in that it's obviously a Chinese girl in a story set in
China, but it's also not about that," Chou says. "It's an amazing adventure, and
this wonderful story about this girl and a Yeti. Yi happens to be Chinese, and
they happen to be traveling through the country. It's just great, organic
Making Yi both specific and universal was key. "These characters are very
authentic to their country and nationality, but they are also archetypal-so
relatable to every kid," Culton says. "That's a fine line to walk when you're
designing characters. We wanted both. Even with Yi's haircut, we had storyboard
artists who interned from China, and we asked them to come up with cool hair
designs for her. They came up with her current bob, which was so unexpected."
It was important for Culton to have her heroine's clothes be fun and playful
and not something typically girly; still, the accessories were the toughest to
tackle. "In order to take Yi's violin on the journey, her backpack became a big
thing," Culton says. "It's a challenge in CG to have something like that be on
your lead character the entire time-taking it on and off and pulling the violin
out of the pack." Turns out that creative necessity is the mother of invention.
"We asked ourselves: 'What if you could put her backpack on your head and it
would turn into the face of Everest?' Peng puts it on his head so they can play
'monster' together. It has button eyes and a nose, as well as a face mask that
With his thick, ruffle-able white fur, Everest himself was, without a doubt,
the single hardest character to bring to life on the production. "The normal
thing would be to have this Yeti talk, possibly sing and be anthropomorphic so
we could relate to him in that way," Culton says. "I wanted none of that. We
wanted Everest to be on four legs, and then two whenever needed."
The idea that the mystical, magical creature could roll up into a ball
whenever he wanted was an idea of Everest character designer NICOLAS "NICO"
MARLET, who designed on How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda and was also
lead designer on Yi. Marlet drew creativity from his pack of adorable pups. "Nico
has been a good friend of mine for decades," says Culton. "He has three fluffy
little dogs, Shih Tzus and Malteses. I swear that the inspiration for Everest
was his fascination with them. Nico just made them gigantic.
"You can see them in the hair that comes down over Everest's face," continues
Culton. "He evolved from a character that was a little more edgy and monster-ish
to more charming and cute. That evolved with the story as we realized Everest is
a kid. He became a little bit more approachable."
Culton's actors appreciated the painstaking attention, and that our Yeti is
dualistic in every frame of the film. "Everest is really just a big fur ball,
and I know audiences are going to find him so cute," says Albert Tsai. "At
first, you find him a little scary, but he's really a best friend to everyone,
By far the most challenging aspect of Everest's design, over the seven years
of the film's development, was the look of his white fur against white snow.
Still, this painstaking attention to detail was worth every moment of the
production. Buirgy says, "All of the things that came together to make Everest
look as good as he does-from Nico's initial character designs to our modelers,
led by our head of modeling, JEFF HAYES, to our riggers, to John Hill, our head
of character animation, and to the amazing animation supervisors we have-all of
those things made Everest work so beautifully."
Because Everest is a non-speaking character, there needed to be so much
nuance through his performance. "We had to make sure everyone understood the
potential of his character and keep him alive, even though he doesn't have a lot
of dialogue," says Wilderman. "It's more, 'How's he reacting to this line, or is
he curious about something else while they're talking about over there?' We'd
talk through a lot of this with the story artists and explore that to keep the
sequences. This ensured that something wasn't just a set piece, it allowed for a
Even though growling vocalizations could be hard on Joseph Izzo's throat,
just reflecting on the beloved beast makes the performer smile. "You look at the
posters and design and just want to hug him," Izzo says.
For most of the film Everest is the only Yeti we see, until a thrilling
moment near the end of Abominable where we glimpse Everest's parents shrouded in
the Himalayas. "Yetis never show themselves," Culton shares. "They're really
good at covering their tracks and disappearing into the snow...that's why people
don't know they exist.
"These Yetis, for one moment, are willing to show themselves to these kids
who brought their child back home. It's almost the gift in return that they're
willing to be vulnerable and show themselves...just for a moment, just for these
kids," Culton continues. "They step back and disappear, just as if Yetis never
existed. It's that special glimpse that you give the audience along with these
kids. We feel like we've brought Everest home. We get to keep the secret, and
we're bringing the audience in on the secret."
GROUNDBREAKING VISUAL EFFECTS
Abominable VFX supervisor Mark Edwards has been with DreamWorks Animation for
more than 22 years, spending the majority of his first two decades at the studio
working in lighting and effects. Elevated to his current role during production
of 2016's Kung Fu Panda 3, Edwards partnered with the majority of Jill Culton's
production departments to help realize his director's creative vision for this
From modeling, surfacing and character effects to the decisions about how to
build out landscapes-not to mention simulations such as the evolution of Everest
and Yi's magic, as well as final lighting and destruction scenes such as the
Himalayan avalanche-his department's contributions permeate the animation.
Sharing his experience during production, Edwards says, "It was the most
challenging film I've been on, but the crew was so capable. It was so fun to
give them creative guidance and to let them go and do their best work."
Echoing his fellow crew and the film's cast, the VFX supervisor found his
experience with Culton and co-director Todd Wilderman to be quite the
educational one. "Jill and Todd involved our department early on with story
brainstorming and allowed us to be a part of evolving character arcs-including
effects and location designs for where Yi and her friends travel with Everest,"
Edwards says. "We would discuss each story scene, their thoughts about the
location and how the magic would work for that sequence, as well as how we would
build up Everest's magic over the course of the film. They were open to taking
the best of new ideas from all the crew."
Edwards also worked closely with production designer Max Boas, with whom his
crew would share art-design ideas and puzzle through how they would build pieces
in layout, as well as elicit the ideal elements from the lighting and surfacing
divisions. Ultimately, they would review the final lighting and provide wrap
notes at that end stage.
To take this intricate work from the theoretical to the practical, let us
walk through a scene that demonstrates how the VFX department dovetailed with
the rest of Abominable's production.
Within the Leshan Buddha sequence, during which Yi has a breakthrough about
love and loss, Edwards' goal was to create an artistically elevated, yet
realistic, portrayal of this actual location just east of Leshan City, Sichuan
Province. This scene showcases how Everest guides Yi to play for her father, to
let out all the sorrow that she's been holding inside...and celebrate this new
chapter she's beginning. For the VFX division, it was crucial that they craft
the scene to scale, with head of layout Robert Crawford helping to figure out
how they would shoot the characters and magic to make them feel integral to the
setting. "We looked at the textures and foliage to make sure we could build
those assets to reflect the real world," Edwards says. "We developed how Everest
and Yi's magic would effectively create the field of flowers that blossom and
grow as she plays."
Partnering with head of effects Jeff Budsberg's division, Edwards and his
team tested how the flowers would bloom as Yi's confidence in her playing
builds, the variance they would need and how the magic would affect each element
within the scene. "A lot of that is based on the timing of the musical cues,
when the flowers would sprout and fill in," Edwards says. "We did a lot of work
mocking up the timing to make sure Jill was happy with how that plays out. We
also partnered closely with lighting supervisor SONDRA VERLANDER and digimatte
supervisor DANNY JANEVSKI to figure out the lighting and matte painting
direction. It's a tricky scene, and-as Yi releases her pent-up emotions and
finally grieves her father-we wanted it to go from overcast, somber and gloomy
to bright and cheerful. This meant working with lighting, surfacing and
digimatte to transform everything from the initial blue-gray color palette to a
Premo and MoonRay
Producer Suzanne Buirgy acknowledges that none of this would have been
possible without proprietary DreamWorks animation technology: "The software
we've secured is incredible," Buirgy says. "This combination of Premo, which is
an amazing animation software, and MoonRay, a near-real-time rendering one,
created wondrous animation renders that look incredible. It's stunning that we
are able to have representative lighting in them, which allowed us to look at
scenes early on versus waiting for lighting later."
Co-director Todd Wilderman was wowed by just how quickly the software allowed
the team to understand what final sequences would look like. "Using Premo, head
of character animation John Hill and his team moved so fast with the animation,"
Wilderman says. "There are a lot of long shots and complex acting in this film.
Back in the day, you didn't have full fur when you were animating. You almost
had something slick that looked like the Michelin Man. To experience Everest
actually having full fur that made him look exactly the way he does in the
movie...when we were just blocking out animation and approving performance? It was
a dream. It allowed us to see the scene for what it was, make decisions quickly
and approve animation much faster-and know it wasn't a leap of faith. What we
were seeing was what was going to get rendered and lit. Suddenly, he is in full
costume. Same with the kids; they had full-on hair and weren't just geometric
Bringing Animated Life to Key Characters
When it came to delivering the visual effects for all things Everest, the
journey for the production crew was equal parts challenge and discovery.
"Everest was fun to figure out, as he's both a technical challenge and a
creative one," Edwards says. "He starts out the film as beastlike and needs to
be scary at times-as well as a massive, cute, cuddly, furry, fuzzy Yeti. We knew
he had to be super-appealing and bond with audiences, but he's also technically
difficult to animate...including getting his light fur to feel correct and shade
properly." To perfect this, Edwards' artists worked closely with the film's R&D
teams to integrate a new hair-shading model. This ensured that each strand felt
correct and that there were the ideal number of light bounces scattering to keep
Everest, according to Edwards, "nice and light and fluffy."
Meringue-y fluffiness intact, the expressivity and wonder of our beloved Yeti
proved to be a conundrum of its own. "As Sandy Kao, our rigging supervisor would
attest to, there were a lot of rigging challenges in building a face that could
essentially open almost in half," Edwards says. "Everest has a giant mouth, and
we had to keep his underbite and protruding teeth while feeling the lips and not
losing volume in the face-all while making him cute and appealing. Those were
complex problems to solve."
Because so much of Everest's character animation depends upon the negative
space surrounding him, the VFX crew had to use every composition trick in the
book to make sure the other characters were reading ideally as clear as
The team collaborated with art director Paul Duncan and labored a great deal
on the nuances of white fur against clouds or snow; that allowed the production
to have the visual palette to read Everest over myriad white materials in each
scene. To accomplish this, Culton's artists employed a great deal of light and
shadow treatments, including gaps in clouds or rocks in snowy areas, to make
sure Everest stands out-or blends in-brilliantly.
"Paul used to say that creating Everest was like drawing a polar bear in a
snowstorm," Wilderman says. "His team found elegant ways, especially when we get
to the Himalayas, of using shadow. For example, with a shadow side of the
mountain that Everest is against-when light is hitting him-they'd use light
against dark to pull Everest out when we needed. Then, there were other times
when you wanted him to blend in, so he's hiding in plain sight. We show how the
elements are why no one has found a Yeti...and that maybe these creatures are
actually out there after all. It's through this camouflage and magic affecting
nature that we have never seen them."
Even though animating Everest around other characters was tough-regardless of
whether they were in a snowy environment or a warmer climate-the Yeti was even
more complex to bring to life when he was solo on screen. In a pivotal sequence
when Everest is surrounded by flurrying snowfall and whipped wind, the
production designer utilized a phenomenal reference of a light, airy, colorful
palette that was more pastel in nature. "We used color, as well as value
structure, to pop Everest off the screen," Edwards says. "For example, we'd use
orange over purple or pink over blue. Those were trickier than environments
where he's with the kids. In those sequences, he's the one we had to tone back a
bit to make sure the kids come forward as the center of attention."
One of the standout characters for the VFX supervisor was the film's heroine
herself. "Yi turned out exceptionally well," Edwards says, "and what animation
has achieved with the subtleties of her expressions is awesome." As did his
fellow department heads, Edwards found perfecting Yi's movements when playing
her stringed instrument to be some of the most laborious. "The violin controls
and beautiful playing were some of the most challenging to put in," Edwards
says. "I remember when they brought in a violinist for animation reference to
play Yi's theme, and everyone was emotionally charged by that. One of the
supervising animators, Ludo [LUDOVIC BOUANCHEAU], started taking violin lessons
and really embraced the proper playing style to make sure the character was
As a sizable amount of Abominable has close-up shots, head of character
animation John Hill and his animation supervisors were tasked with making the
film's characters especially appealing. "With Yi, we spent weeks and weeks on
her hair, silhouettes and finding her character in a graphic way so that we
could maintain her overall," Edwards says. "Even her shirt color and pattern
evolved. We wanted to stay true to the Chinese cultural aspects and took that to
heart. Red is a symbol of heroes, and eventually we landed on her having a shirt
that color, as she's our hero."
Edwards echoes director Culton's comments about the struggles that became
Yi's backpack. While imperative to shelter her beloved violin, adding an
omnipresent element that moves, sways and jostles with your lead character could
occasionally hamper production. "Early on, Jill did sketches with Yi's backpack
that would allow Peng to wear it on his head and look like Everest," Edwards
says. "We took that sketch and made sure it'd eventually work that way. We went
back and designed it around that thought, even though there were so many
complexities to it."
It's impossible for the visual effects supervisor to discuss Yi without
bringing up what he declares is his proudest moment of the years of production.
"It has to be when Yi is on the bridge and she finds the resilience to climb up
and grab her violin," Edwards says. We channel all her magic, mingled with
Everest's magic, to bring him back. It's visually demanding, but I feel like
effects, digimatte and lighting made that work so powerfully."
Yi's Mom and Nai Nai
With three generations of family in the same home, the visual effects
department had its work cut out for it when deciding what moves, expressions and
particularities should fit Yi, Yi's Mom and Nai Nai as they interacted.
"Creatively, with Yi's Mom, we wanted to make sure that she fit in terms of
age," Edwards says. "We did a lot of work with modeling, surfacing and character
animation to make her fit that way. For example, you don't want to add deep
crow's feet but do want to get a bit of age in there to underscore a parental
When it came to Yi's colorfully wise grandmother, the creative team found
that giving Nai Nai a robust figure and tracksuit made her that much more
interesting to animate. While they made sure that Nai Nai's desired range of
motions and simulations worked with her-and those with whom she lovingly feeds
her dumplings-Edwards' crew was pleased to learn that her cloth and skin reacted
properly to adjustments. As with all things Abominable, cultural sensitivity was
paramount. "Everything ran through Peilin Chou and Pearl to make sure we were
being culturally accurate," Edwards says. "Nico Marlet initially designed Nai
Nai with a bun and grey hair. We got a lot of feedback that that's not
necessarily what grandmas in China look like. Many love to keep their hair dyed
black. We ended up changing Nai Nai to make sure she felt modern and proper."
Peng and Jin
One character whose animated code was wildly complex to crack was Peng. With
spiky hair that betrays its cowlicks the second a lock leaves a brush, Peng
spends his journey roughhousing with best friend Everest. Wonderful for the
audience, but complex indeed for the visual effects division! "Peng was
particularly challenging in terms of his hairstyle," Edwards says. "Nico had
done a graphic, almost manga hairdo for him, but translating that into 3D and
making sure it moved reasonably took some iterations. We did a lot of work where
we'd tone down the reflectivity of the hair and how flashy it would get when
Peng's flipping it around-just to make sure we kept the graphic quality. That
was a little complex."
Perhaps more than any other character, Jin goes through an arc that finds
him, at least in terms of maturity, 180 degrees from where we meet him at the
beginning of the journey. "Jin was challenging in his overall transformation,"
Edwards says. "He starts the film one variant with a slicked-back hairstyle and
vest-proper and clean. By the end, he's in a completely different state, which
mirrors his overall arc but in a physical way. Tracking his variants and dealing
with all the different dirty shoes, losing his vest and adding a new
hairstyle...all that was challenging but fun for him."
Dr. Zara and Burnish
Jin and Peng weren't the only principal characters to grapple with haircare
in Abominable. For brilliant zoologist Dr. Zara, the long trek to the Himalayas
showed its wear and tear on her coiffed look as well. "Our big challenge with
Dr. Zara was her hair," Edwards says. "She changes her look over the course of
the journey, so we needed to develop two distinct styles and merge them together
over a reasonable transition." Fortunately for the VFX crew, the character
effects team, led by Damon Riesberg, took those seemingly effortless transition
shots and made them work beautifully. "It was tricky to have Zara's ponytail
move in a realistic way-all the while holding onto the graphic nature that Nico
wanted-and making sure that when her hair was down, that it felt and looked
While Zara has all the curls, her employer's strands were limited to the back
of his head and his wildly bushy eyebrows. "Burnish was interesting in that he
was very stylized, which we all loved from Nico's design, but we had to make
sure he could fit in our world as well," Edwards says. "We had to do a lot of
massaging to scale to make sure that his head wasn't too big or that he wasn't
too short-so he'd fit well with the other characters. He also evolves over
Abominable. We changed out some of his props, like his pickaxe-what it meant,
where it came from and how he uses it. All these story points influenced his
character, as well as how he moves and interacts."
Race Across the City
Delivering motion and movement to Everest's wild trek across Yi's massive
urban Chinese city were some of the more creatively head-scratching months of
production for Culton's team. To find inspiration, the group of animators (and
lifelong pupils) did what students have done for centuries: They took a field
trip. "Early on in lighting, we went to the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale,
California, to study reference and see how signs interact with white-fur
samples," Edwards says. "We were inspired by this saturated-color palette and
how all these big signs could interact with this giant city landscape."
As they were building and attempting to replicate a metropolitan city across
multiple lighting environments and situations, the visual effects supervisor's
crew had to be strategic about their builds. "We did a lot of research on types
of structures and signage that would bring believability," Edwards says. "It was
big kudos to our head of modelling Jeff Hayes, and layout and set-dressing
teams-led by DAVE VALERA and executed by RHIANNON WILLIAMS-who put the city
Once Culton and Edwards walked Rhiannon through the steps where Yi and
Everest were traveling, and structural pieces Yi and her friends would find on
their journey throughout the city, Rhiannon filled in the gaps. "She did a
phenomenal job of set dressing these bits and pieces to give this perfect feel,"
Edwards says. "From the apple carts and scooters to the air-conditioners and
piping. Plus, surfacing, led by LISA SLATES CONNORS, added a whole new layer
with the signage." Throughout the course of production, the crew leaned on Pearl
Studio for authenticity and expertise. "Pearl artists created a number of
authentic advertising signs," Edwards says. "We propagated those throughout the
city. Lighting, supervised by our head of lighting Michael Necci, then took it
to the next level. We had this tremendous art backdrop in terms of the color
Inarguably one of the most spectacular sequences in Abominable is the scene
in which Everest's magic allows Yi, Jin, Peng and the young Yeti to surf a wave
of gorgeous canola flowers and escape from those with nefarious intentions. For
the animators, they were just as surprised by the results as the characters
asked to ride the florae-infused rapids. "When we started that, we had no idea
what it would be," Edwards says. "Even with the concept of 'riding on a canola
wave,' we asked, 'What's a canola wave look like?' Luckily, our head of effects
[Jeff Budsberg] did a very early test in which he took a water simulation we had
and propagated flowers and foliage on top of it. That simulation indicated what
would and wouldn't work, in terms of detail and motion."
For this sequence, the animators borrowed as much from the properties of
water as they did from snowfall during the Himalaya scenes. "One of our FX
leads, MICHAEL LOSURE, started translating all of our water language into,
effectively canola-flower language," Edwards says. "This gave us a spray of
petals and pollen-replicated water spray, and we had a certain weight that
revealed the green underneath. We could also track our heroes but feel the water
weight, as well as big-foam characters of flower petals once the large wave was
revealing. Even when the four principals are coming down in the last wave crash,
we looked at a surfer references to make it translucent right through the wave;
volumetric techniques replicated that through the canola to give the scene a
nice ocean-wave feel."
For director Culton and co-director Wilderman, the illusions created by the
team exceeded all expectations. "The magic was all so whimsical and specific to
this movie, all created from scratch," Wilderman says. "Across the board, every
department plussed it along the way. When we'd see the characters in lighting
and it all came together, I was just blown away; it was better than I could have
ever imagined. For example, when you watch these maverick fields of canola in a
gorgeous landscape, and you experience this surreal monolith move through like a
tidal wave? It was stunning. It's so humbling to have worked with such an
The animation for Yi and Jin's moving breakthrough scene in the bamboo forest
was inspired by an unlikely source. To accomplish his envisioned intention,
Edwards looked to one of his favorite films. "We were designing the set around
an emotional moment," says Edwards. "I love in American Beauty where
cinematographer Conrad Hall shot a scene where the computer screen has
reflection lines like prison bars. We wanted this isolated spot to feel almost
like a prison for our two characters. To do that, we took away a lot of the
color palette and made it monochromatic; that gave Yi this space to talk to Jin.
It turned out to be this great little set, complete with layers of depth in
stereo that feel incredibly intimate."
Clouds of Koi
As our heroes inch closer to the Himalayas, Everest enacts his magic once
again to allow them to soar above the land on billowy Koi fish comprised of
clouds. If the visual effects supervisor thought turning canola fields into
waves was a challenge, he never could have fathomed the hurdles concomitant with
cloud Koi. "I mean, these were tricky!" Edwards says. "Similar to the canola
waves, you talk about riding these fish clouds but don't really know what that
means. We did a lot of early tests with FX lead DOMIN LEE, prototyping how we
would make it work. It was a lot of making sure that the fish shape stayed
reasonably cohesive...yet ephemeral enough that they looked like they were clouds.
Jill and Todd were very specific that if it was simply flying in the sky, it
would feel too off, and not grounded enough."
Just as pondering neon signage helped to inform Yi's big-city home, so would
examining the behavior of cumulus layers amid valleys dictate this sequence. "We
looked at time-lapse footage of mountains where clouds would fill in these
valleys and almost form rivers," Edwards says. "We decided to have a cloud river
that the characters are almost 'swimming' up. That helped us to keep them
grounded, not out in space. It also allowed for this effects interaction, and I
think it became one of the most beautiful sequences in our film."
THE PRODUCTION DESIGN
Authenticity and Easter Eggs
Creating Modern China
It was crucial to the production that the film accurately highlight Chinese
landscapes and culture, from the glistening buildings of the big city to the
countryside, with beauty, artistry and precision. That process was divided
equally between DreamWorks Animation in America and Pearl Studio in China.
Production designer Max Boas would work with the team at Pearl Studio on
specific design elements-like Yi's apartment and bedroom-and together, the teams
would go to painstaking lengths to make it as realistic as possible. Boas and
his team in Glendale, California, sought out the input and feedback from the
team at Pearl throughout the course of production. This unique East/West
creative collaboration between the two partner studios brought a vibrant China
to life through animation as it has never been captured before on the big
Culton and Wilderman went to China a number of times to immerse themselves in
the nation's culture. "Our first trip was 10 days, and we spent it on a photo
safari in the city and outskirts including river villages," Wilderman says. "On
a couple of occasions, people would see this large group, and they would ask our
tour guide, Maxine, what was going on. They were so welcoming and would invite
us into their homes. That happened at apartments in the city, as well as at a
grade school and middle school. In one smaller village, this man invited us into
his house and showed us around. It helped us so much with the design
authenticity, and making our apartments and sets feel like the spaces in China
where kids like Yi, Peng and Jin are growing up."
The film is packed with little nods and grace notes to Chinese culture. For
instance, for a scene near the end of the film, the DreamWorks Animation
Glendale team had created a family dinner scene with Yi and her family. It was
lovely, but the Pearl team immediately spotted an inconsistency: The table
wasn't nearly full enough. "Members of the Pearl team said, 'No Chinese grandma
would ever feed that little food to her family! You need four more dishes on the
table!'" Chou says, laughing. "Then they'd shift out plates for bowls-it was an
ongoing dialogue from early on all the way to the end to ensure authenticity and
accuracy across the board. There are dozens of Easter eggs like that in
Abominable, but what's cool about them is that they're not plot points...they're
just there because it's authentic to a Chinese home-from food to games and
bamboo scaffolding to scooters."
Building the Cityscapes of China
Bamboo Scaffolds and Golden Arches
In Abominable, the city skyline is filled with details typical of a modern
Chinese metropolis. Signs dotting the skyline advertise tea shops, popular
international supermarkets (with imported goods), Huazhu Hotel (one of China's
largest hotel brands), authentic specialty food restaurants, and even
McDonald's. (Fun fact: China reportedly has the third most McDonald's
restaurants in the world-after only the U.S. and Japan.)
Despite how modern Chinese cities are, they're also teeming with traditional
elements. Bamboo scaffolding is still commonly used when renovating old
buildings, for example. So, Yi's building features this type of scaffolding,
which both she and Everest use to scale the building. Traditional Chinese
medicine shops-such as acupuncture, fire cupping and massage-are also common on
the streets of big cities and can be glimpsed in the film.
Box Car Bonanza
Teetering Towers of Transport
When Yi runs across the street on her way home in one scene in Abominable,
you'll see a car completely overloaded with boxes. These types of cars or bikes
are still a common sight throughout the country. While people are buying cars in
China faster than any other country in the world, it is still very common for
families not to own cars. Instead, many opt for electric scooters (like the one
Jin and Peng ride) or even bicycles, which they park inside their apartment
buildings, and which eagle-eyed audiences can see in a scene set in Yi and
Peng's apartment building stairwell.
Good Fortune, Upside Down
Inside Yi's Apartment
In China, one Chinese character you often see hung on doors is the character
that means "good fortune." This character is featured on Yi's apartment door. In
China, this character is often intentionally hung upside down. This is because
in Chinese the saying, "good fortune is coming" sounds homophonically the same
as "good fortune is upside down." So, there's a fun superstition that if you
hang your "good fortune" character upside down, then good fortune will come to
In one hallway scene with Yi, Jin and Peng, you see red posters hanging
around the door of one of the apartments. This is a very common sight within
China because the words offer hope and wishes for the coming year. They are
usually hung around Chinese New Year, but many people leave them up year-round.
Yi's apartment is full of things typically found in a Chinese home. Wall
calendars are still a very popular item, and the filmmakers feature one in the
kitchen-something Nai Nai surely put up. There is also a wall calendar in Yi's
room-this one features a pig because Abominable comes out in the Year of the Pig
(2019). A large water thermos and other tea-drinking accessories are also
present-and their specific style and aesthetic would make any Chinese person
feel right at home.
People in China never wear outdoor shoes when inside the home, but they are
also almost never barefoot. Instead, they opt to wear house slippers that they
change into right at their entryway. The film features all our characters
wearing these typical house slippers when they're hanging out at home-they can
be seen most clearly in the last dinner seen of the film. In addition, Yi's
hallway features a rack for outdoor shoes-a typical accessory right outside the
front door of any Chinese home.
Dumplings to Donuts, Soup to Buns
Street Food and Good Home Cooking
Street food is always present in any Chinese city. They are foods that are
sold off carts or in tiny shops that are right on the street. Classic favorites
include cold noodles, lamb kebabs, youtiao (a Chinese donut) and pan-browned
dumplings. The filmmakers are proud to feature all of these beloved Chinese
street foods in the film.
Even though street food is delicious, the Chinese consider the best food to
always be that which is cooked at home. Chinese buns are a bread-like steamed
dumpling that can have a variety of fillings. In Abominable, these are Nai Nai's
signature dish (beloved by both Peng and Everest!), and Nai Nai's specialty is
pork buns. In the film, we see her cooking them by placing them in a steamer set
atop a giant wok.
At the end of the film, Yi and her family sit down together at last for a
homecooked Chinese dinner. This is a symbol of her family finally coming
together. Family dinners are always shared family-style, and each person will
have their own small bowl (no plates). The meal is typically quite plentiful,
and it is common to have a greater number of dishes than people. In South China,
dinner will usually be finished with soup, which is featured in the meal at the
end of the film.
From Nai Nai's infamous chicken soup (placed at the center of the table) to
her Coca-Cola chicken wings, to her bok choy with shitake and braised fish, to
her braised prawns, garlic sprout pork, the table is a feast for the senses.
Games People Play
Rock, Paper, Scissors
"Rock, Paper, Scissors" is a favorite children's game in China as well as in
the U.S., so a scene where Peng is playing it with Everest on the train is
definitely authentic to China. The filmmakers thought it would be a fun
opportunity to integrate some Mandarin into the film and chose to have Peng say,
"Rock, Paper, Scissors" in Chinese.
One insider fun fact to note is that in China, the game's name takes on a
slightly different order. So, when Peng calls out the game in Mandarin on the
train, he is authentically scrambling the order to say, "Scissors, Rock, Paper!"
The Healing Power of Music
Yi's manner of expressing herself is through her music, and that's ultimately
what bonds her forever with Everest. She won't play her violin for her family;
she only plays for herself. Yi's almost stuck in suspended animation, and that
is her attempt to keep her dad's memory alive. When Everest comes to her,
because he's wounded and scared, she grabs her violin to soothe him. But by
helping him, what Yi is also doing is opening a crack in herself, which helps
her heal in return.
Their shared musicality draws out the defiant spirit of both. In turn,
Everest's sound brings back the music in Yi. When he gives her Yeti hair for her
violin string, he passes on the knowledge that she's always had that power to
heal herself. Composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, who most recently crafted the
signature sounds for Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the Abominable score is both
gorgeously haunting and wildly uplifting.
For the score, Culton found a kindred spirit in her producer. "Suzanne and I
share a bond in music, which is as big to her as it is to me," says the
filmmaker. "It's the emotion of the movie, and it sets a tone. I'm so proud of
the fact that we did a musical without breaking into song, but Abominable is
ultimately a musical. With those components, Suzanne's been such a great
resource. We licensed the Coldplay song 'Fix You,' which was so perfect for the
theme of the film." The song is integral to the scene where Yi discovers that
her violin is broken. "Suzanne was able to bring STARGATE, the powerhouse
producing team she worked with on Home, to give it a delicate twist."
Buirgy explains that the music of the film is inextricable with its
narrative: "Sometimes, when you're listening to a record you think, 'Today, this
song resonates with me.' Then, the next day, it's another song. That's how I
feel about Abominable. There are so many different pieces of it that I can't
pick the one that is my favorite."
One that rises to the top for the producer is when Yi discovers Everest on
her roof. "The animators needed to animate to a theme," Buirgy says. "When Yi is
playing the piece where she's trying to soothe Everest, the animation has to
match exactly. You can have someone trace over an animation cell, but you'd lose
the soul of it-even if you were exact in the execution."
Not only did Gregson-Williams prove integral to bringing Yi's theme to its
crescendo, he complements the work of Joseph Izzo's vocals by serving as the
humming voice of Everest, which serves as countermelody to Yi's theme. "Rupert
is so lovely and incredibly talented," says Buirgy. "He wrote the violin theme,
and he enlisted a brother-and-sister team of violinists [CLIO GOULD and THOMAS
GOULD] to play the music throughout so beautifully." Of note, Buirgy appreciated
the composer's subtle use of guitars and the occasional synthetic sounds, as
well as the deceptively humorous saxophone for Burnish's theme.
Clio Gould celebrates the dedication from her DreamWorks Animation and Pearl
Studio filmmakers to perfectly reflect the deft, delicate motions and lines of
those artists in her line of work. "This is quite an unusual, lopsided position
to spend your life in," Gould says. "I've always felt that our bodies grow
around the violin like a vine growing around a pipe. I understand that the
animators were forensically analyzing how a violinist plays, because if it was
approximately right then it wouldn't have that wonderful feeling. It's been an
absolute labor of love, and everyone involved has been incredibly concerned to
get those tiny details so authentic."
The violinist, who has led symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras in her
own right, shares that Yi's signature sound is steeped in centuries of history.
"I'm lucky to have been able to borrow an amazing Stradivarius," Clio Gould
says, "so that's what you're hearing on the soundtrack. It's a 300-year-plus-old
instrument that's been doing its job for all that time. The violin is difficult,
and not something that gives away all of its secrets very easily." She
empathizes with her on-screen avatar, a fellow struggling string musician.
"Every violinist goes through years and years of not making the sound they
want," Gould says, "and then suddenly it all gels and then it gives so much
The filmmakers also brought in CHARLENE HUANG, who originally worked with
SUNNY PARK in DreamWorks Animation's music department, to deliver reference for
key sequences. "When Yi plays the violin by the Buddha, it's the most amazing
sequence of animation," Buirgy says. "That and the sequence between Yi and Jin
in the bamboo forest-supervising animator Ludovic Bouancheau and animator
GUILLERMO CAREAGA created that."
The composer acknowledges that he's a massive fan of his collaborators,
marveling at how seamlessly facile it appears for Abominable's instrumentalists
to ply their trade. "When Yi picks up a violin, you see her connecting to it,
but when you see these guys pick up their violin, it's not a bit of work,"
Gregson-Williams says. "This is connected to them, and the vibrations and
everything. The violin is a part of their lives."
One of Gregson-Williams' most cherished sequences in the animation is Yi's
rebirth at the Buddha. He walks the reader through the scene, and the power of
musicality therein. "When Yi and her friends arrive, there is nothing of color,
nothing alive in terms of vegetation," Gregson-Williams says. "What Jill wanted,
as Yi plays, was for the magic and the wonder of the violin piece to build and
swirl. As the vegetation becomes life, the colors emerge. The piece had to
reflect that, so Yi plays her violin gently to the tune. As the tune becomes
more excited, then magic start to happen. The music travels over the Himalayas
and delivers you home."
Gregson-Williams' intertwining Yi and Everest themes are central to the
moment when Yi realizes that Everest has, without her realizing it, taken her to
every place that she-and her father-wanted to go. "Yi realizes they've been on
this journey," Culton says. "She thought they were lost, but now we have this
feeling that Everest orchestrated this entire thing. It's why people get
teary-eyed in that moment. We've waited and waited, and we've gotten to know
this girl. She spills her guts to Jin, telling him that her family is so
distant, and she doesn't know how to fix it. When Jin says, 'Maybe they're not
the ones who are so distant?,' Yi has a 'heart-hit' moment where she realizes
she's been the one causing this all along."
Right after that sequence, our heroes realize they're at the Leshan Giant
Buddha, and Everest pushes the violin toward her. "Yi says, 'I wish my dad could
see this,' and he's pushing the instrument toward her," Culton notes. "Everest
is basically saying, 'Play for him. Play. Let it go.' Then, she does. You've
been waiting for this moment. She couldn't do that at the beginning of this
film; she had to go through this emotional journey to get herself to that
For Michelle Wong, who grew up playing piano and studying classical music,
the nuanced decisions of the composer and artists were deeply welcome ones. "The
sweeping classical piece Yi plays almost brought me to tears, it is so
incredibly scored," says Wong. "To hear classical music being composed for an
animated film is so exciting. I have such a deep love for it, and you don't get
to see many animated movies utilizing this type of music-or for the main
character to play this type of instrument."
Not only did Gregson-Williams employ instrumentation, but the composer wove
in a good deal of literal humanity into the Abominable score. A choir brought in
the fantastical scene when Yi uses her violin to create her own magic, is
accompanied by Gregson-Williams' string arrangement of Coldplay's "Fix You."
"This choir is part of the emotional backbone of the film," Gregson-Williams
says. "We've used them in more of the magical moments. In addition to Everest's
humming-which is the answering phase to Yi's theme-there was something lovely,
ambient and guttural about the addition of these human voices."
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