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KUNG FU PANDA

Breathing Life Into A World Of Characters
Po's journey is transformative and, in the end, his efforts are revealed to the citizens of the Valley. In a similar vein, the creation of Po and a legion of unique and beautifully designed characters is for Nicolas Marlet a story of recognition. The accomplished character designer and Annie Award winner has been with DreamWorks since the studio's early days, having worked designing characters for the studio's animated debut, "The Prince of Egypt,” and on the character design of the subsequent "The Road to El Dorado,” "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas,” "Madagascar” and "Over the Hedge.”

But with his work on "Kung Fu Panda,” Marlet has been given a singular honor for his designs, the ultimate sign of accomplishment for an artist. Typically, characters undergo countless iterations until they work perfectly within their specially created world. With Po, Shifu, Tai Lung, the Furious Five…Marlet's initial designs have not been altered since they were crafted — what is seen onscreen is what he originally created. From creation to final touches, the characters remain as Marlet envisioned.

Per director Stevenson: "Nico [Marlet], the character designer, did a great job. He does a very traditional animation style of drawing with these great circles the animators do to follow through on their shapes. It worked perfectly for what we needed for the character design, and his creations stayed as he gave them to us.”

Head of Character Animation Dan Wagner was charged with establishing the style of animation for each character — how they move and how they behave. Part of that meant finding ways to ensure consistency with the characters Marlet created. Wagner smiles, "Having furry animals kick each other's butt is a fun idea. So, for a start, we brought in someone with zoological training, a bio-mechanist named Stuart Sumida, who's very knowledgeable on how animals are put together and how they move — he's helped us on other films in the past. We had a few classes with Stuart, going over each of our specific animals, just how they operate and how they behave — also, their bones and muscles, how they connect and work together to bend and move.”

For characters' facial expressions, Wagner could look to ‘lipstick cam' footage, captured during the actors' recording sessions, but he usually opted for folding the expressions and mannerisms of the actor into the character, rather than trying to re-create the expression exactly.

What lies beneath the garments and the characters' features and appearance is the domain of Character TD Supervisor Nathan Loofbourrow, who takes a sculpture of the character in a neutral, standing pose, and then lays in a skeleton, muscles and skin to create a puppet (called a "rig”) for the animators to use.

Working on animals is commonplace for Loofbourrow, but the cast of "Kung Fu Panda” was an altogether different animal: "The mantra we heard at the beginning of the production was that every character had to be able to do kung fu. So, that meant pushing the performance further than we were used to doing — quick moves, strong fighting poses, all the stuff that fans of the genre want to see characters do in an animated kung fu movie. Because of that demand, we really had to push rigs to be able to hit more dynamic poses, to execute really exciting, fast action. And, of course, we wanted every character to look good while doing it, which was our biggest challenge.”

It's already a tall enough order for the athletic Furious Five and the diminutive Shifu…but a 260-pound, out of shape panda? Loofbourrow solved that problem by using Po's big torso as a sort of shock absorber that would allow him to retract and extend his arms and legs — when that happens, his belly moves and creates a bit of dynamic motion. By creating volume, Loofbourrow provides Po with the abili

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