It has been a long-term ambition for John Stevenson to direct his first animated feature and Kung Fu Panda is a pretty good start - bearing in mind it recently screened in official selection at Cannes.
Co-directed by Stevenson and Mark Osborne for DreamWorks Animation, the film is expected to be one of the biggest hits of the summer (taking an estimated $81.7m worldwide in its opening weekend), and received an enthusiastic response from exhibitors at ShoWest in Las Vegas in March.
UK-born Stevenson started his career in his teens at Jim Henson Productions as a storyboard artist and character designer on The Muppet Show. After moving to the US, in 1999 he was hired as head of story by DreamWorks, where he was story artist on the first wave of the studio's animated blockbusters such as Shrek and Madagascar.
'After a few years, I asked Jeffrey (Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation chief) for my chance to direct,' he says. Kung Fu Panda took four years to complete. 'It's definitely a marathon doing one of these things,' he explains, adding that there is never a final script on an animated movie and that the screenwriters work closely with the story artists.
'There was one scene with Jack Black (as the film's hero Po) and Dustin Hoffman (as kung-fu master Shifu) which we couldn't get quite right and we asked them to redo it on 15 or 20 different occasions over 18 months,' he says. 'It became known as the 'Po and Shifu have it out' scene, and we only got it right towards the end.
'With a title like Kung Fu Panda, you need to make it funny but also give the audience more than they were expecting. Great action scenes but also real emotional weight. In the pursuit of being truthful with that scene, we had to keep on working and working.'
So what makes Stevenson so story savvy' 'I started as a character designer, doing storyboards on The Muppet Show, and I was always trying to figure out how to visualise the crazy ideas Jim (Henson) had. So over time, the artist and story skills tied together.'
On Kung Fu Panda, he and Osborne were 'both involved in everything. He took the lead in working with the animators and, because my background is in art design, I focused on the cinematography and lighting. It was good to have someone to share the load with.'
He now hopes to direct a live-action feature with a special-effects component or a motion-capture movie, following in the footsteps of Shrek and Shrek 2 director Andrew Adamson who went on to direct the Chronicles Of Narnia films. 'Andrew is the one everybody looks to,' he smiles.
[s19] See review, p26.