Spotlight On: Jen Nelson

In celebration of DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition, we thought we’d ask our friends at the world’s largest animation studio to give their insights into their journey from sketch to screen.

A portrait of the director

Jen Nelson

Jen Nelson has spent 16 years working on many films at DreamWorks Animation. She most recently directed Kung Fu Panda 2, and is currently directing Kung Fu Panda 3.

What inspired you to get into animation?
I always loved storyboarding, and felt that animation was a field filled with artists who loved the same things I did.

How were you introduced to the world of DreamWorks Animation?
My sister suggested I send in my portfolio for Spirit since I liked drawing horses. The Spirit team hired me, and I started a crash course on feature animation.

How has DreamWorks Animation evolved since you worked on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron?
DreamWorks Animation has grown from a startup making one traditional animation film at a time, to a thriving vet that has maybe ten CG films either in production or development at once. The number of artists here at the Glendale studio is just staggering. It’s hard to find a table at lunch!

What are the most common misconceptions people have about making an animated film?
I think people figure animation is easier because everything is made up. It’s actually really difficult since you have nothing you can take for granted. Every knot in the wood, a simple cup, everything has to be designed and made frame by frame. Also, people seem surprised we actually work with the actors. Voice acting requires the actor to go through the same hurdles of finding the character, and reaching for those emotional moments.  The only difference is that they can show up in their pyjamas.

You’re a fan of martial arts movies, how did you feel when you found out you would work on Kung Fu Panda?
Verrrrry happy. I just love action scenes. It was crazy amazing when they asked me to be head of story…because I could storyboard action scenes inspired by all those years of drooling over movies and anime.

Early concept sketches of character's from kung fu panda

Did you have any particular inspirations for the fight scenes you’ve directed in the Kung Fu Panda series?
I tend to be heavily influenced by anime and games. Tigress’ leap off the Jade Palace was inspired by Ghost in the Shell. Shen’s use of blades was influenced by Raiden on Metal Gear.

In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po is searching for inner-peace; any hints on what direction we can expect his character to go in Kung Fu Panda 3?
Po’s journey through all the films has always been one of finding his own innate power. No matter how far he goes or how many times he saves the world, he is always that humble character that has self doubt. That is why we identify with him. He will always face greater challenges that make him have to dig deeper for that inner strength.

How did you feel when you found out your directorial feature debut, Kung Fu Panda 2, was the all-time highest grossing film by a female director?
First I went, “Wow”. Then I went, “Really?”

Is there a need for more female voices in the animation industry?
I think there is a need for a balanced voice, not necessarily a female one. Ideally you shouldn’t be able to tell whether a film has been done by a woman or a man.

Can you describe your typical work day?
Usually I spend most of the day in meetings with the department heads. We gather to look at shots, acting, lighting, designs, everything that needs a decision. I like to give the creative leads a lot of autonomy since that is how the happy discoveries can happen. I also try to carve out some time to storyboard, so I don’t get all artistically flabby. Mixed in are recording sessions with the actors, edit sessions reviewing cuts, and the rare moment I can get to chat with friends. I tend to crank hard during the day so I can get home at a decent time.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a similar career?
Educate yourself in what you want to do. Opportunities happen all the time, but if you are not ready, they could pass you by. That doesn’t mean you have to be fully cooked. It just means meet your employer halfway so they can see a reason to help you get there.

Which DreamWorks Animation world would you most want to live in?
Po’s of course. Because they have some really nice swords.

DreamWorks Animation: The Exhibition runs from Thursday 10 April – Sunday 5 October 2014. 

Check out the full program of events and don’t forget to visit our ACMI DreamWorks Online Hub for exclusive behind-the-scenes videos, concept art, articles and insight into the world’s largest animation studio.

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