Kung Fu Panda 2: Hollywood works harder to win Chinese audiences
Kung Fu Panda 2, which opened May 27 in China, includes references that will be familiar to Chinese audiences – part of a broader Hollywood effort to flourish in the booming market.
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Hollywood seems equally eager to do so. MGM recently scrubbed all references to a Chinese enemy from its upcoming remake of the 1984 cold-war-era drama "Red Dawn," digitally replacing Chinese military insignias with North Korean ones in a late edit.
Betting that China's multiplex owners, like their counterparts around the world, want as many high-earning 3-D films as possible, DreamWorks is playing one of its strong cards: attention to detail.
"3-D technology forced us to give depth to the film and show off the research we did in China so carefully this time around," says Raymond Zibach, veteran DreamWorks production designer for "Kung Fu Panda," during a three-day promotional tour to this cradle of the panda.
Before the first "Kung Fu Panda," which took five years to make, Mr. Zibach fought with DreamWorks chief executive officer Jeffrey Katzenberg for a China visit. He was told it would be too costly. Then the movie grossed $633 million worldwide. On his second request, Zibach got his trip.
In November 2008, with much of the first film's core creative crew in tow, Zibach went to Beijing; to Chengdu, in central China, to see pandas face to face; and then, outside Chengdu, to Mt. Qingcheng, a wellspring of Taoist philosophy and home to its own kung fu tradition.
"The mountain changed how we went about making the second film," says the California native, revisiting Chengdu and Mt. Qingcheng in late May, on only his second trip to China. "We absorbed its colors, its misty atmosphere, and its magic."
His group took 40,000 photos on that first trip and have incorporated inspiration from China's architecture and color palette into the sequel's computer-generated imagery. Local audiences may perk up at the Chinese characters for Mt. Qingcheng carved into rocks in digital scenery. "That's not product placement. It was just a nod of 'thank you,' " Zibach says.
Not long before Zibach and his team arrived to research the sequel, Mt. Qingcheng was a mess, its park and kung fu school closed in the wake of the magnitude-8.0 Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, which collapsed thousands of buildings and killed some 68,000 people.
"We wanted to help in whatever way we could," Zibach says, "and I was so proud to hear from Chinese who saw the movie that they felt it was a part of them, that they'd had a hand in making it."
How a trip to China shaped Kung Fu Panda 2
DreamWorks Animation's Raymond Zibach says the first "Kung Fu Panda" film was designed from books and Internet research, but he knew he had to go to China for "Kung Fu Panda 2": "We'd fallen in love with pandas from afar and had to go see them for ourselves to get the second film right," the production designer says.
Mr. Zibach digitally "painted" the film's sets based on photographs he took in the Forbidden City – the walled North China city of Pingyao, in Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province) – and on Mt. Qingcheng, a center of kung fu tradition.
The character of baby Po, the panda who grows up to be the film's hero, was drawn after studying the movements of a baby panda at a Chengdu panda breeding facility.
The movements of Lord Shen, the evil peacock villain, are based on a particularly flexible and captivating kung fu master Zibach observed at Mt. Qingcheng.
Architectural and landscape details were drawn from elements such as the ceramic animal tiles found along traditional Chinese sloping roofs and from the lush green bamboo forests. Classical Chinese painting and martial arts films of the past decade – think "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" – also played a role in the film's "look," Zibach says.