How Nicolas Marlet mastered art of 'Kung Fu'

From its opening logo (a variation on DreamWorks Animation’s crescent moon, featuring a distinctly Chinese fisherman), “Kung Fu Panda” doesn’t look like the studio’s other toons. That’s because animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg approved a single designer to create all the characters’ looks.

Animation is an inherently collaborative medium in which multiple artists are typically assigned to create different characters. But when it comes to the designs of soft-spoken French animator Nicolas Marlet, “He was so unique in his solutions that I had a hard time finding other people to emulate it,” says production designer Raymond Zibach, who created dimensional paintings of Marlet’s designs so management could see how his creations would translate to CG.

For DreamWorks, the closest precedent was “Madagascar,” on which Craig Kellman created the majority of the toon’s incredibly stylized characters. “That really opened the doors for ‘Kung Fu Panda’ to follow one shape language,” Zibach says. “Nico does these amazing pages where he has 20 or 30 characters on one page and you’re ready to make that movie, they’re so charming.”

Kicking Back With the Master

Sitting at his desk at DreamWork’s Glendale headquarters, Marlet pulls out a stack of early drawings. “This is how I work,” he says, leafing through pages of finely detailed sketches depicting a menagerie of different animals in every conceivable pose. “I work with markers, not on the computer. It’s just faster for me.”

Marlet has worked with DreamWorks since the company’s beginnings; his first assignment, 13 years ago, was a never-realized adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” He went on to design the armadillo for “The Road to El Dorado,” the roc bird in “Sinbad” and a lineup of unkempt critters for “Over the Hedge.”

“I was a bit scared when they asked me to work on this project because I don’t know anything about kung fu,” Marlet blushes, admitting that he watched his first Bruce Lee movie to prepare for the assignment.

An Uphill Battle

When Marlet began designing, the filmmakers were still shaping the plot for “Kung Fu Panda.” However, they knew that the film would tell how a lowly panda named Po would discover his inner discipline to trump animals representing the five base forms of kung fu — tiger, crane, monkey, viper and praying mantis.

Multiple artists took passes at Po, offering various solutions to anthropomorphize the film’s titular panda. Marlet’s approach broke from the assumption that animals needed to look human in order to practice kung fu.

“The way Nico designs, he looks at the actual animal and tries to distill down what’s there into something that works for the film,” Zibach says. “Some of the rules we followed were actually his, like we don’t stick necks straight up out of torsos and then put animal heads on the top or it just looks like a guy in a costume. Instead, we have the neck coming forward, so the head and neck and body are really one unit.”

Marlet’s early designs explored the panda’s basic shape — round curves, stooped neck, heavy belly. “They’re very appealing already,” Marlet says of the animal. Then he tested the balance of black and white in the bear’s face: “Jeffrey didn’t want to have too much black.” His breakthrough was the bear’s brows, which were big and flexible enough to accommodate the full range of Jack Black’s expressions — even though the actor had yet to be cast when Katzenberg signed off on Marlet’s approach.

The Furious Five

For the supporting cast, Marlet had to juggle multiple considerations. In addition to representing the animals’ true natures, the designs had to be flexible enough to reflect their respective fighting styles and distinguish the characters not only from one another but also from animated films that had come before. Tigress reflects a particularly striking solution — and one of Marlet’s favorites.

“I love cats,” he says. “They are perfect for kung fu. The way they fight is very elegant and at the same time very powerful, almost like a dance. If you look at different styles of tai chi, they do the same movement very slow and hold the pose.” Marlet based Tigress’ proportions on actual cats, emphasizing the short hind legs and elongated torso, which posed a challenge for the modelers and riggers accustomed to animating human-shaped characters.

Tigress’ markings reflect traditional Chinese theatrical makeup, with its heavy catlike eyeshadow (by contrast, Marlet lifted the menacing snow leopard Tai Lung’s brows from a book of puppets designed by an old Chinese monk). But her shape was key: “What I like about cats is you can take any kind of pose, and they’re always elegant because it’s just one line from the tip of the tail through the spine to the neck, and that’s how I draw it. I start with the tail and follow the line.”

Animal Nature

Crane uses his legs as a stick, but provided unexpected challenges (unlike fur, individual feathers attract attention if they don’t layer properly). Monkey was adapted to provide more comic relief (evolving from a macaque to a golden monkey to accommodate a wider range of expressions). And Mantis provided his share of rigging headaches (the abdomen, small torso and four front legs demanded a custom armature).

But Marlet’s biggest challenge was Viper. “What am I going to do with a snake? A snake is just a tube,” he fretted before stumbling across a book with the perfect solution: “There was a photograph of this girl, and her back was entirely covered in tattoos,” Marlet remembers. So he applied the idea to Viper, devising an intricate pattern for her back. “I love Chinese writing, so I thought it would be nice to have the symbols tell a poem.”

Although the concept provided a welcome alternative to costuming the unwieldy character, abstract symbols eventually replaced the specific words on Viper’s back. “I did many pages with her, and on one of them people could read the poetry,” Marlet says. The concept did survive with Mantis, however, whose markings reveal the familiar Chinese sign for good luck.

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