Director Jill Culton talks to us about ABOMINABLE, the new movie from DreamWorks Animation. It’s the first time a woman has a sole writer/director credit on a major studio animated film. ABOMINABLE tells the story of a teenager called Yi (Chloe Bennet) who encounters a young Yeti on the roof of her apartment building in Shanghai, she and her mischievous friends, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai), name him “Everest” and embark on an epic quest to reunite the magical creature with his family at the highest point on Earth.
ABOMINABLE opens in Irish cinemas on Friday October 11th.
What was it like designing the world of ‘Abominable’? When I first took this movie it was a blank slate and they just wanted a yeti movie, they had no story so I got the great opportunity to invent the story, to invent what a yeti is. I googled yeti and we don’t know really anything about them. The myth goes they walk on two feet and look like men in furry suits so I just wanted this yeti to be its own version and so I kept imagining it more animalistic, more of nature. My inspiration was the massive dogs I have grown up with. I wanted Everest to be a creature that walks on all fours instead of two. He doesn’t speak, he more so groans giving another animalistic quality.
We also needed Everest to look appealing as well as ferocious when necessary so we designed his hair to be longer in the back so it can stand up like a dog when he’s threatened or angry. We wanted him to be recognisable as a yeti but not a yeti you’ve ever seen before so I worked with my character designer Nico Marlet who has worked on Kung Fu Panda and How to Train your Dragon. He’s such a great designer and he came up with that design which I loved and we didn’t stray too much from that design. What’s great about Everest is he has so much flexibility so it’s great to animate. He can walk on his hind legs, or on all fours or roll into a ball so those qualities are fun to play with.
As far as the kids, with Yi (Chloe Bennett) I wanted to capture her independent spirit in the way she looks and the way she dresses. I may have fashioned her after myself as I was more of a tomboy when I was growing up. I burped and I skateboarded and I went camping and I would throw on any clothes I could find never looking in the mirror so she really looks like that. Her design is all over the place. We also tried to make the characters more graphic which allowed them to pop more and this was all down to Nico’s genius.
You spoke on Yi’s tomboy nature. Did that inspire your casting with Chloe Bennett who audiences will know from ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ as Daisy? After all, she portrays an independent and strong character. With Chloe what we really loved about her was her kind of raspy voice. It’s so different from your typical girly voice. So when we began the casting process what we normally would do is we’d put the voice next to the character design so we’re not even looking at the actor we’re just listening to the character. That was more of the draw with her. The crazy part was once she was cast we began to learn all these things about her. She was a tomboy growing up, that she had six brothers, that she grew up in Shaghai with her grandma and I feel like she’s a lot like Nai Nai from the film. Chloe really embodies Yi and she helped hone that character with me because I had that freedom as the writer of the film to make the script more flexible.
There is the scene in the bamboo grove that requires her to be so vulnerable. That scene, in particular, was really fun to record because I’d written it a few times to get the emotions in there. Then Tenzing Trainor came in so we recorded them at the same time and we recorded that scene twenty times and I kept “workshopping” it. She’d tell that story and I’d say that’s not quite right and she’d go how about we try this and it was one of those great moments where everyone is collaborating. After quite a few records I just took the script and I threw it away and I said Chloe you know this just tell the story, so she fumbled her words in such a beautiful way and started to tear up and I started to tear up and everyone started to tear up. It was a beautiful moment.
You’ve written before, and you’ve directed before, do you have a preference? I was at Pixar for a decade and that’s how I saw my colleagues do this. Andrew Stanton started to do a lot of writing on ‘Toy Story’ even though we’d have writers and it lead to him writing ‘Finding Nemo’, his first script and that’s a natural way to get into this. You’re a storyteller for so long that you end up jumping in. I’ve written a lot along the way, this is the first one I’ve gotten to write and direct and it’s made me realise I love doing them both. I love doing both together. What I mean by that is as a director I feel like the film has a more singular and focused vision when you’re also the writer. That doesn’t mean you don’t work with your team honing the story but it just means every inch of this movie was something I felt, something I internalised because I know why it’s in the movie. So when I’m sitting in front of a bunch of people discussing a scene you know why that scene is there and what the intention of it is and how you want it to feel and what symbolism it has in the movie and all those things really add to being a better director. I think when you’re a writer and a director it makes your work more powerful.
Were there any challenges because talking to you now it seems like you relished in this new opportunity. I got to fill so much of the story myself and that’s rare. I just put a lot of myself into Abominable. Yi is like me even down to her relationship with Everest reflecting that of the relationship with my dog. I also loved bringing in my adoration of nature into the story because nature is such an important part of my life. If I ever have writers block I go for a hike. It enhances my own life, and as Everest evolves and you peel the layers back and he’s in a way orchestrated this journey for Yi he also takes on a guardian angel role.
You spoke on the power of nature and when you talked about that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the meadow wave scene in the film. Which is a breathtaking scene. What was it like for yourself and the animation department designing that scene?
Max Boas is my production designer and he is brilliant, He and I talked a lot about the colour script. When you’re making a travel movie one thing I’ve learned over the years is if you don’t change the colour palette of each sequence you don’t feel like the characters are progressing. You almost need to lean into hard. If there’s one prominent colour for the majority of the film you feel like they’ve not moved location. Luckily the locations chosen had the clear dynamic of colour variants. The yellow canola field is one of those and so we leaned into that yellow.
That scene was incredibly difficult technically for our VFX team. You can dream up these magic sequences but when it comes to executing them none of this is out of the box. You can put a wave simulation into it and we’ve all done waves before but to do it with flowers had so many problems. The thing that Max brought to it was questions, could we use petals instead of mist? Can the boat they’re on rip through the wave? Instead of just yellow can we see the green stocks underneath so we can the wake in there? So those all added to the effect.
The cast of ‘Abominable’ is great. Was it tough to get someone to portray Everest a character, who has no dialogue throughout the entire film? So the casting of Everest is funny. We work with E2 which is our sound designers Ethan and Eric and they cam in and we started talking about the voice of Everest. They brought in a creature guy at first. The guy was so ridiculously talented but he sounded like a dinosaur. We needed something that would come off with more personality and so Joe (Joseph Izzo) had done some temp stuff for us so whenever we are preparing story reels we’ll use our own guys before we bring in the actors. So we had this vase that we wrapped in ducktape and he’d make this noise that sounded great. I showed this to Ethan and Eric saying we need something like this and they said just get Joe to do it then.
So I’d work with Joe and then Ethan and Eric would run it through an audio simulation which would make it deeper and then they pepper in bear growls and different animal sounds to enhance it. So some of Everest’s roars are partially Joe mixed with animal sounds but Joe is the heart of Everest. Whenever Everest laughed that was all Joe.
What was it like seeing the finished product for the first time, combining Rupert Gregson Williams’ music and Robert Edward Crawford’s cinematography with your direction? It was really emotional. I’ve worked with Rupert for years, we were really lucky he wanted to come in early because usually, music is later in the process but because of the violin was such a prominent part of this movie I had him come in early because we had to write new scenes because it had to be animated. The animators were so meticulous about her violin playing. They took violin lessons from Charlene (Ann Huang). We had a violinist come in and play them over and over again so they could animate her fingers. The artists were constantly watching her to see how to hold a violin and how to string it.
Rupert worked also on Everest’s humming, he even sent in a demo of him humming along with the tune and I plugged it into the reels and it gave me chills so I made Rupert do the humming because he was perfect. It honestly made it feel so much more special for me. We then started working on the score together in AIR Studios in London, and we had a fifty-piece orchestra playing while in another room there was a choir. It was twelve-hour days, five days in a row watching a live score being played to a film and it’s powerful. Watching these two pieces married together was incredible. Then in the final mix when it’s all together it was pretty magical.
What do you hope audiences young and old take away from ‘Abominable’? I love that this film tackles some touch subject matter but ends in hope. I hope that people understand that no matter how hard the journey gets you should never give up. Also, the idea that family can be so much more than what you expect. I think it can be summed up in the last shot of the film. The film starts with a disconnect and by the end, there is a reconnection. I love the idea of getting through our issues with the help of our friends and that there is always hope.