'Puss in Boots,' 'Kung Fu Panda 2' Give DreamWorks an Oscar Double Hitter

Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Chris Miller are called up to the Academy Awards' major leagues with first time nominations at the animation studio.

If DreamWorks Animation could have shot off predawn fireworks over its Glendale campus when the Oscar nominees for best animated feature were announced Jan. 24, it would have. The mentions for Jennifer Yuh Nelson's Chinese-themed Kung Fu Panda 2 and Chris Miller's Spanish-flavored Puss in Boots were as much an institutional victory as they were personal bests for their respective directors. Both Miller and Nelson joined DWA 14 years ago and steadily worked their way up through the ranks.

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In live-action filmmaking, most directors lead a nomadic existence, moving from studio to studio. However, says Bill Damaschke, who as DWA's chief creative officer deals with a work force of 2,300 distributed among three facilities, "looking at Jen and Chris and our next half-dozen movies, in most cases the people directing our films are homegrown talent. They started in different roles and grew into leadership positions on the films."

Nelson had been working in TV animation when she heard DreamWorks was producing 2002's Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, so she applied for a job because "I liked drawing horses." That led to a role as head story artist on 2008's first Kung Fu Panda film, on which she helped define lead panda Po's personality, then to her first directorial assignment on the sequel. Although she doesn't know what her next project will be, knowing it will be at DWA makes life "a little less stressful. You don't have to hustle. Everyone here knows exactly who you are and what you can do best."

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Miller first knocked on DreamWorks' door when the studio was making 1998's Antz. He nearly was turned away until a sympathetic Latifa Ouaou, then an assistant to Antz producer Aron Warner, took Miller under her wing. Flash forward a dozen years, and Ouaou served as one of her protege's producers on Puss. Miller became a story artist on 2001's Shrek and graduated to director on 2007's Shrek the Third (Warner was a producer on both). Along the way, he has observed: "The studio has evolved in finding its way in making movies. I look at every film since Kung Fu Panda, and stylistically each one is different. They all have their unique voice."