Jennifer Yuh Nelson, a seasoned and bankable director in animation thanks to her work on the billion-dollar-grossing “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, has taken on her first live-action film with “The Darkest Minds,” to be released by Fox on Aug. 3. Adapted from the best-selling book by Alexandra Bracken, the first in a YA trilogy, the film stars Amandla Stenberg in the lead as Ruby, alongside Harris Dickinson (“Beach Rats”), Miya Cech (“American Horror Story”) and Skylan Brooks (“Southpaw”).
The film, which also stars Mandy Moore and Bradley Whitford, revolves around a group of teens who mysteriously develop powerful abilities, and are declared a threat by the government and detained. It’s essentially a genre mash-up — a road movie with some sci-fi elements and lots of kinetic action.
“Jen is a badass who wants to make big, action-packed, event movies, but her artistic side always shines through,” says Jason Young, senior vice president of production at Fox. “She’s been an artist her entire life; her mother was an artist and her husband is an artist. That history and sensibility enables her to see filmmaking through a unique lens and create an elegance that you rarely see in hardcore action sequences.”
Although the studio and the film’s producers reportedly considered numerous directors for the job, Nelson’s background in animation and love of martial arts and action films helped seal the deal.
“We knew she was the perfect choice for the project when she crafted an incredible hand-drawn and animated previsualization of the final action sequence that was incredibly intense and yet so emotional it brought some of us to tears,” adds Young. “It’s that combination of grit and emotion that this movie needed, and each of those attributes come so naturally to Jen as a filmmaker.”
Nelson also brought her natural talent for dealing with a young, diverse cast to the project, he notes. “With so many young actors, we needed someone to put them at ease and give them structure each and every day, and Jen is one of the most prepared and reassuring directors around. That resulted in some incredible acting performances from our cast.”
“Jennifer Yuh Nelson is a quiet force that speaks volumes with her beautiful direction and smooth sense of humor,” says Brooks. “She gave me the perfect guide to delivering [my character] Chubs.”
Behind the camera Nelson teamed up with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (“Terminator Genisys,” “Thor: The Dark World”), who says: “Although this was her first live-action film, she has so much experience with visual storytelling and structure. And then with her background as a storyboarder, it was a much easier and smoother transition than, say, working with a first-time director. And everything in animation is storyboarded first, so she’s very experienced with the whole process and knew exactly what she needed, and that was our launching point.”
Morgenthau and Nelson had to integrate all the visual effects and post “right from the start, and we also used a fair amount of previsualization so we could see what Ruby’s powers might look like and the best way of portraying them.”
The Atlanta shoot “went very smoothly,” he says. “There was very little wasted effort, despite having to deal with a lot of visual effects for the kids’ special powers, and then all the fight scenes and stunts. So there’s a lot going on visually.
“But Jen isn’t just a great visual stylist: she’s also great with actors, as she has so much experience working with them on voice-overs. And she’s so compassionate. She really understands human nature.”