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Like the hero of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise to which she has dedicated the last 12 years of her life, Jennifer Yuh Nelson believes in destiny.

Born in South Korea, the star DreamWorks Animation director moved to California when she was 4 years old. Raised by a family of artists, Yuh Nelson and her sisters sketched constantly, telling stories with pictures and holding competitive “draw-offs” around the coffee table. A quick learner, she picked up English — and a lifelong appetite for kung fu — in three months by watching TV, mostly cartoons and action movies.

“I’ve been watching things like ‘Master of the Flying Guillotine’ since I was 5,” says Yuh Nelson, referring to the bloody wuxia classic — not at all suitable for young viewers — in which an assassin roams the countryside decapitating his victims with a boomerang-style blade.

Now, nearly four decades later, Yuh Nelson is the custodian of the most successful martial arts film series on earth, animated or otherwise. That’s a big reason Nelson was the 2016 recipient of Variety’s Creative Impact in Animation honor. CalArts’ Maureen Furniss was also honored with Variety’s Creative Impact in Animation Education Award.

Nelson served as head of story on the original “Kung Fu Panda,” went on to direct the second film and co-helmed the third with Alessandro Carloni.

All told, the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy has earned more than $2 billion around the globe, with the latest doing big business in China, where DreamWorks released a custom-animated Mandarin-language version.

A self-described introvert, Yuh Nelson fought for the right to work on the project years earlier. Initially hired by DWA to do storyboards on “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” when the studio was desperate to find illustrators who could draw horses, Yuh Nelson (already an Emmy winner for her work on Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” animated series) stuck around for “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas,” a hybrid hand-drawn/CG cartoon.

The studio was making a dramatic transition to digital animation with “Shrek” when Yuh Nelson caught wind of a project called “Kung Fu Panda” and, hooked by the title alone, begged for a chance to get involved. “It was the first time I asked for anything,” she says. “I wanted to be on that so desperately.”

“People have a huge amount of respect for her opinion, so even if she expands it in a quiet manner, the whole room hushes and leans forward to hear what she has to say.”
Melissa Cobb

The project spoke to the paradoxical nature of Yuh Nelson’s personality. Though she tends to be soft-spoken, her colleagues describe her as a hard-core action fan who counts sports cars and firing ranges among her passions. When she takes a vacation, it’s not unusual for her to spend all of it playing first-person-shooter games with her husband at home.

Early on, producer Melissa Cobb (who was recently promoted to head of studio of Oriental DreamWorks) picked up on Yuh Nelson’s different sides. On the first movie, Cobb noticed how Yuh Nelson often let louder voices dominate the story meetings. But all Yuh Nelson had to do was raise her index finger, and the room would fall silent. They would let her go off and draw it out on storyboards, nearly always coming back with a solution that took the best ideas into account.

“People have a huge amount of respect for her opinion, so even if she expands it in a quiet manner, the whole room hushes and leans forward to hear what she has to say,” Cobb explains. “Jennifer has a very interesting brain. I don’t think there’s anyone who can conceive and draw an action scene of five characters kung-fu fighting in three-dimensional space as well as she can.”

It was Cobb who initially recognized Yuh Nelson’s potential as a director, raising the idea on the first film. “Directors are very loud and they yell a lot. They tend to be very assertive people,” Cobb says, whereas Yuh Nelson is the opposite.

“I like to draw, and my drawings are what yell and scream for me,” says Yuh Nelson, who got her break when “Kung Fu Panda” co-director John Stevenson proposed a super-graphic anime-styled opening sequence for the first film.

At Cobb’s encouragement, Yuh Nelson agreed to oversee the sequence, working with James Baxter Animation to deliver a vivid, 2½-minute intro that set the cheeky, high-kicking tone for the rest of the film — and went on to open the door for considerable stylistic innovation in the sequels down the road.

Only later, after Yuh Nelson had won an Annie Award for her storyboarding work on the sequence and the prospect of directing the second feature was presented did Cobb explain her plan. “She was very sneaky,” Yuh Nelson recalls. “She was trying to manipulate me into having the self-confidence in believing about me.”

Around the same time, Guillermo del Toro came aboard at DreamWorks and offered Yuh Nelson the tough-love pep talk she needed. “He’s one of those rare birds. He won’t assert what he would do. Instead, he sees what you would do and tries to help you do that better,” she says.

Yuh Nelson credits the original “Kung Fu Panda” team with making her job easy on the sequels: “We worked on the first movie with so much love and care, we really over-built the characters. It became much easier to find connections later on because the detail was already in there,” she says. But it was her sensibility that convinced DreamWorks to greenlight the sequel. Yuh Nelson had sketched a scene in which Po looks up at the night sky, and when she flipped it over, it revealed the crescent of his mom’s head reflected in the moonlight — his memory of her tucking him into his basket.

“That was literally the thing we were trying to get to,” Cobb recalls. “It started with, ‘What is that moment, and how do we build the movie that will get us to that moment?’ So it was an emotional core.”

And with that idea in place, Yuh Nelson and her crew were free to unleash their die-hard love of Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Shaw Bros. movies, while innovating the genre in a way that the physical limitations of live-action filmmaking simply doesn’t allow.
“Animation as a medium lets you do things that would kill people,” she says. “It just frees you to do beautiful choreography, and that’s why I signed on.”