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By Visiting A Modern One
Considerable time and effort was taken to anchor "Kung Fu Panda 2” in a more expansive canvas than previously explored as the characters venture from the Valley of Peace to Gongmen City. More environments meant more detail, and so department heads headed off to China, where they took inspiration from some very real locations.

Glenn Berger comments, "I don't how Raymond creates everything, but I'm glad he does. We're just lucky we get to write inside that world. When we got to travel to China with the departments, they were constantly pulling out their sketch pads, they were always taking photographs—and we can actually see moments from those trips appearing in the second movie, inspiring landscapes and city-scapes…we're just in awe of what these guys do.”

Producer Cobb: "Raymond is fearless about pushing the visual boundaries. He gets an idea in his head and he's relentless about making sure that it gets on the screen. So he and Jen are a great team. They work really closely together—they collaborated a lot on the first film, and they're working really closely together on this movie. They really share a vision for what the film could be, and Raymond brings the artistic vision to elevate the project—lighting, effects, the look of the characters, the richness of the world, the detail of the surfacing. They're both such astute artists that together, they bring out the best in each other.”

Aibel says, "I recently looked through the photos I had taken on our China visit—us standing at the Great Wall of China, in front of temples and monuments. And when I looked through Raymond's and [art director] Tang's photos, they're of bricks, moss, old wood, scraps of fabric. And when I see that all of this stuff they've literally—or should I say, ‘virtually'—put into the movie. Everything in this movie had to be created, every surface, every detail, every texture. I look at it and it feels like a real place, all because of what they did.”

Berger counters, "Yeah, it makes you realize we had a much better time in China than they did. They were actually working! I mean, we can just breezily write a line about the soothsayer goat chewing on the hem of the peacock's silk robe, just because we think it's funny. They actually have to design a silk robe, a goat's teeth, how that fabric looks chewed and wet with her saliva…it's astounding to me. And I'm glad it's not us!”

While the first film was inspired and informed by reference materials—piles and piles of books on (and internet searches for!) Chinese art and architecture, symbolism, costume, cuisine, landscape, along with discussions with cultural experts—the second film was a hands-on experience for the filmmakers, who explored all of those facets of the country with their own eyes. Zibach relates, "Even with our ‘long distance' work on the first film, it struck a chord there (in China). Some people basically said, ‘You're from the U.S., how did you nail this?' That was the most flattering thing you could have told me. I have to say, I love the culture. I think the fact that we started with inspiration from artwork, which comes from very deep within a culture, and having that influence the story, every aspect, that's what made it feel authentic, even to the Chinese.”

Says Nelson, "Being in China was amazing, because there's a certain level of tactile knowledge of a place that you'll never get from a book. Actually being there and feeling what the air feels like, or the way the light hits the side of a building or a tile; there are all these tiny details that really push the movie forward.”

For visual inspiration, the creative team visited the ancient walled city of Pingyao, the Shaolin Monastery, and Beijing, but travel time was concentrated in Chengdu, in the southwestern Sichuan Province. Time was spent at a panda reserve and among Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines, many nestled in the "misty and mystical mountains near the area,” says Zibach. "That, for me, was what informed a lot of the look of this film.”

The Sichuan province is the natural habitat of the panda, and currently home to 80% of the nation's panda population, thanks to the Panda Breeding and Research Center, located a few miles from downtown Chengdu. Jonathan Aibel offers, "No surprise to anyone, but pandas are as gentle and as fun and frolicky as you would hope they are.”

Glenn Berger comments, "We actually got to meet, pet and unofficially kiss some pandas in the reserve. There was a bassinet filled with five, teeny baby pandas, and if I could have snuck one out in my jacket, I would have. But I did notice, for all their cuteness, they aren't nearly as funny as Jack.”

Part of what makes Jack funny (as Po, anyway) are the things his character can accomplish on screen. Visual effects supervisor Alex Parkinson describes his job as "where animation meets computer animation. We take all of the crazy ideas that the director, the writers and the story people have, and couple those together with the amazing artwork that the production designer and art director creates, and actually deliver that onto the screen. So we supervise all the computer graphics, part of the process.”

Parkinson was also a returnee to "Kung Fu Panda 2”: "Like everyone else in the world, I wanted to know what Po's backstory was. I think one of the wonderful things about the first movie was it left questions unanswered. Everybody wanted to know, why is Po's dad a goose? Why is he the only panda in the village? So, I thought the best way to find out the answers to those questions was to work on the second movie.”

In addition to answering the unanswered was the opportunity to work on larger vistas than the first film, particularly the environs of Gongmen City ("it's a sprawling mass of Chinese architecture!”) and one of the distinguishing features of albino peacock Lord Shen: "Feathers are more difficult than fur, because you can see the penetrations. Because fur is thinner, it can pass through and go somewhat unnoticed. But with feathers, if they pass through each other, you see the collision—so our term for making sure every single feather is separate and does not pass through any other feather is de-interpenetration. Each one has to be handled separately.”

So what about sequences that combine every challenging aspect of digital animation? "Kung Fu Panda 2” filmmakers never once considered taking the easy way out. Writer/co-producer Glenn Berger offers, "It's very easy for us to say in a script, ‘And then there's a big battle here, in which such-and-such happens, and there's a cannon, with Po facing up to a cannon ball.' But then, to see how that's turned into a five-minute epic battle is just unbelievable.”

Writer/co-producer Jonathan Aibel offers, "And that turns into a two-year epic work experience for hundreds of people. What took us a few days to write becomes the task of entire departments—and along the way, we learned some very interesting things about animation. For instance, what we thought was going to be the most expensive and time-consuming, cannons exploding entire cities, apparently is not as expensive as characters getting wet. Fur getting wet, feathers getting wet—looking beyond the creation of them, getting them to look and act real, which is challenging enough, now getting them wet…well, we learned that that is very expensive.”

Berger jokes, "Yes, and we've spared no expense in this film—we have a lot of explosions and a lot of wet fur and feathers! There's an old joke that the most expensive line a writer can write is, ‘And then, it started to rain.' And it rains in this movie, too.”

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