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Director Jill Culton on the Evolution of ‘Abominable,’ Working With Pearl Studio

It took several years, but writer-director Jill Culton has finally seen her animated film “Abominable” come to the big screen, and in a big way. The DreamWorks Animation-Pearl Studio production led the domestic box office with $21 million in its opening weekend. As of Oct. 8, it has taken in nearly $80 million worldwide, and critics have sung its praises.

The longtime animator first started the project at DWA seven years ago, but left it for awhile after the company experienced exec changes and was sold. Then, not that long ago, Culton was asked to come back on to see it to fruition.

Culton, who will be among the keynote speakers at the 2019 View Conference Oct. 21-25 in Turin, Italy, spoke with Variety about her upcoming View presentation and about her journey to finish the story of a girl who learns to move past the grief of losing her father by helping a lost yeti return to its home on Mount Everest.

Variety: What will you be speaking about at the View Conference?

Jill CultonLuckily, they’re showing the movie at the conference right before the conference starts as part of the film festival. And so, knowing that, I’m going to show some parts of the movie, but I’m also going to talk about the origins of the idea and how I came up with the story. That’s probably the most common question I get asked. For me, this has been a great movie because I got a little bit of a blank canvas. The studio wanted a yeti movie, and I got to come up with the rest.

I’ll give the backstory of why I came up with this story and how, in this kind of storytelling, you put a lot of your own influences from your own life into it. Or you pull inspiration from your own life, and how that gives your stories more of an authentic grounding. I’m going to walk through the movie that way.

I also want to highlight some of the music. There was so much that I couldn’t say [earlier this year] because the movie hadn’t come out yet. I couldn’t show clips and things. And now, I want to show a little bit of that, like the orchestration, which was such a big part . We recorded at this old cathedral, and I’m going to share some footage from that. I’m going to talk about the magic [in the movie] and how our great team came up with that technically.

Variety: Is this your first time speaking at VIEW Conference?

Culton: It is the first time I’m speaking, and I’m really excited because [conference director Maria Elena Gutierrez] had contacted me and said, “We have Brad Bird, and we have Peter Ramsey, and we have Dean [DeBlois]. But we have no women on board.” And I was like, “Sign me up. I’ll do it.” I’m literally, right now, putting my thoughts together a little bit. I’m anxious about that, but I’m also super excited to go and just be a part of it all. I have heard such great things, so I’m thrilled.

Variety: Abominable has been kind of a long process for you. You started on it, then you were away, and then you were back with it. How much did the story change from the first to what you finally came up with?

Culton: I wrote the movie about seven years ago, and the core of the movie was always about taking Everest [the yeti] back home. Then we went through a lot of studio head changes. When the dust kind of settled, they said, “Can you come back and do this movie in 18 months?” Which is very quick for animation. And so, I jumped at the chance because I love the movie, and it’s still the core story of a journey across China. [The supporting characters of ] Jin and Peng were added in there. Also I aged [main character] Yi up a little bit, and that was for a lot of reasons. I wanted her to be able to work and earn some money, and you can’t do that in China if you’re not 16. And Jin [aged up as well]; they could not travel across China unaccompanied unless he was 18. Then there were a few practical reasons why we aged the kids up. It all worked out for a better story because they ended up being teens that are kind of on the verge of adulthood, and I think that gave the story so much more to grapple with and deal with.

The story evolved a little bit, but honestly it didn’t change that much from the beginning, from the original: The Buddha’s in there, and the South Mountain hike, and the Yellow Mountains, and getting Everest back, and the magic ability to control nature. All of it was in the original version seven years ago. So it was actually a delight to come back and recapture all that because it felt like a story that wanted to be told.

Variety: Have you actually taken the journey across China yourself? Did you go to all those places?

Culton: I have not. I wish I could go to all those places. I wish I could go to the Himalayas. But I really started with research, writing with a map on the wall. I knew that I wanted to end up in the Himalayas, and I knew that I wanted it set in China because it’s bordering that. And of course we were working with Pearl Studio, so it was a perfect fit.

Pearl is in Shanghai, so I picked Shanghai as the inspiration for the city [where the characters start their journey]. It’s not exactly Shanghai, but knowing that it’s based on Shanghai, I knew we could plot a logical journey all the way across to the Himalayas. I kept stumbling upon these amazing places in China just by doing research. And I’d be like, “How come nobody knows about this place?” And then I’d research the next place. “How come nobody knows about this place? I have to set something here.”

From the Western perspective, you think of China as full of big cities. And you think of the Great Wall and the Potala Palace, but China’s very diverse. It’s got so many different landscapes. It’s got amazing things like the [Leshan] Buddha, like the Yellow Mountains and the stairways; all those ancient stairways, and no one really knows who carved them. I fell in love with the landscape and I actually started deciding on places that I wanted to have that would be setpieces. We have gone to China quite a few times, and we’ve gone to the Li River, which was amazing. And we’ve spent time in Shanghai. I hope after this movie, they make an “Abominable” tour, and I will give that tour, if I can.

Variety: Talk about your collaboration with Pearl studios. How did that work?

Culton: Peilin Chou is the chief creative officer of Pearl, and Margie Cohn is our president over at DreamWorks. When we met for any story thing, to review locations, to go over screening notes, any of that, they were both in the room. It really did feel like a partnership. One benefit we had was that the artists that were working at Pearl were in Shanghai. So they designed the city, which our whole first act is in. There was no way that, from a Western perspective, we could do enough research that could give you the details of a city like that, and give you the spiritual feeling like you’re in China. So, they designed most of the city. They designed the apartments. Again, it’s not even just the look of it, it’s the feel of the whole thing. We relied on them for etiquette and behavior. When we were getting into animation, we would show them the blocking and they would say, “Oh no, no, no. Yi can’t turn her back on her grandma like that. That’s very disrespectful.”

Because I’m setting something in China with a mainly Chinese cast and it’s the first CG feature film to highlight that, as a filmmaker I absolutely  wanted to do it right. And I wanted to make sure that not only to audiences around the world, but to those in China especially, that there was nothing in the movie that would make them go, “Oh, a Western company did this.” So we relied on our partners at Pearl.

We would hand stuff back and forth constantly. They would help us with line work; they helped us with color keys. We would constantly send stuff back and forth, or talk to them whenever possible. A lot of it was through email. But it really did feel like we had a second unit that was working side by side with us. The people at Pearl embraced this movie so much and they have promoted it everywhere in China. They’re very proud of this movie.

Variety: Talk about the art direction and production design.

Culton: Max Boas is our production designer and Nico Marlet is our character designer. One of the things that we really wanted in this movie, because nature’s so highlighted, was to give the audience the feeling of being in nature. Nature’s a big part of my life. I live in Los Angeles, but my main house is in the woods of Marin County, which is right above San Francisco. I love camping. I love skiing. I love surfing. Nature, to me, is kind of like fuel.

I wanted to really let the audience feel what it feels like when you’re camping. When you stand under a blanket of stars, without the noise from the city, and to feel like you’re so small in nature. It’s just so big and giant around you. It is that natural high that people talk about.

And so, in order to do that, we needed lush detail. And the fur texture of Everest, too, was really important. I have to tell you, two or three years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to get the lush details. There’s a proprietary rendering tool called MoonRay that DreamWorks developed. In kind of in simple terms, it’s a tool that lets you carry more detail in the computer. It allowed us to get those lush details.

Also, there’s something that we do called the color script. It’s when you kind of walk through the whole movie. You set it up in a line, almost like a graph, and you pick the color palettes for each sequence. I’ve worked on a lot of travel movies, and one thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t change palettes from sequence to sequence, and give each sequence it’s own signature color, you don’t feel like you’re moving anywhere. For instance, if the characters are walking through the woods and it’s blue, then they come upon a lake and it’s blue, then they come to the angry river and it’s blue, you feel like it’s all in the same location. So, you change palettes kind of extremely. t’s almost like different flavors of ice cream. You’re like, “Yum, that was great. On to vanilla, on to chocolate.” And you’re going down the line. Each sequence has its own signature color, its own signature thing that you, as an audience, remember. That vivid mist of the color palettes changing from the yellow canola fields to the violet Buddha, into the bright turquoise blue of the lakes. It was very purposeful, and I think it adds that feeling of a really great sensory experience.

Variety: What’s next for you? Are you working on something or getting ideas?

Culton: I always have ideas. If you talk to most directors, they have a whole drawer, an open filing cabinet of ideas. So I always have those. But right now, in all honesty, I’m just trying to wrap this movie up, finish the promotion on it, and looking forward to the View Conference. Then, I’m going to take a little bit of a break, which I think of as a palate cleanser. I have a lot of plans, but I need to step back, just for a moment.

Variety: With the success that Abominable, do you think it could open doors for more women directors? There haven’t been a lot of solo women directors, in animation or in film in general.

Culton: Yes. I’m very hopeful. I feel like it is changing. When I was at Calarts 21 years ago in my class of 90, there were only four women. And now Calarts is 60% women. I think in order for it to really change, you have to keep seeing movies that have female directors. And then women go, “Oh wow, I can do this.” It has to become more of the norm, I think.

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