'Kung Fu Panda's' Jennifer Yuh Nelson Eyes Virtual Reality's Creative Possibilities

Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Peggy Sirota

"Jen is amazingly talented. She's a great artist, a great visualist and a superb storyteller. She can kick ass with the best of them. She walks softly, but carries a big stick." -- Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation CEO

Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director of DreamWorks Animation's latest movie, Kung Fu Panda 3, eyed virtual reality as the next creative frontier as she participated in a panel at the FMX animation and visual effects confab in Stuttgart, Germany on Thursday. According to Nelson, DWA has been testing VR with its various properties, including Kung Fu Panda. "People talk about spending more time with [the characters]. What better way than to interact with them [in VR]?," she said. "The great thing about computer animation is that all of those environments exist as three-dimensional worlds, so these VR worlds already exist."

Asked about the types of content that could be created for the new platform, Nelson said, "It boils down to how much do you expect the audience to participate. You can entice users to make decisions. There no legacy of expectations. That’s incredibly liberating. It’s also scary and challenging. There’s no right or wrong way.”

New filmmaking tools were also discussed during the panel, which also included Steve Martino, director of Fox/Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie, and Kevin Margo, an indie director from Blur Studio (the company owned by Deadpool helmer Tim Miller).

"Technology is our paintbrush," Martino said. "I don't know the details at the coding level, but I'm paying attention to if there's another paintbrush that I bring to my next film. I think what's exciting in animation is that we are looking stylistically at different ways to create a movie."

The others agreed, with Margo adding, "The palette has become more broad, which I love ... and understanding the technology also makes you more efficient."

During the session, Nelson earned applause when asked about the gender issue and what it's like being a female director. She joked, “I don't know because I’ve never been a man."

“I walk into a room and people see me as a director, not a woman,” she added. “If the environment is such, then you are there because you can do the job. Everyone brings something unique to the table. The more it becomes not a ‘thing,’ the better."

“I’m a hard-core geek. I like action. It’s not typical but it’s a passion,” she added, telling the women in the audience, “Just forget about [gender]. Do what you want to do. Just be useful [in making successful movies] and you’ll be fine.”