How Shine Paid Tribute to the Film Crew by Keeping Audiences in Their Seats

Kung Fu Panda has captured critics and audiences with its irreverent mix of martial arts and heart – it’s a tale of a slacker panda who dreams of being a kung fu master. Design and branding studio Shine was tasked with creating a main title sequence that conveyed all this while serving as a bookend to the 2D dream sequence that opens the film, and crediting the 900 people who worked on it. The result, which clocks in at nine minutes, is a mini-movie in its own right.

Shine delivered 13,000 frames, all pumped out of After Effects. “The challenge was the sheer duration of it,” said Shine Creative Director Michael Riley, “and making sure all the images worked fluently and were respectful to the 900 people who contributed to the film.”

The process began when Riley and Shine Executive Producer Bob Swenson first read the script and screened the movie in progress. “The filmmakers wanted to make a movie with heart, and that came through with the first showing of the movie,” said Riley. “I was blown away and wanted to come up with a way to work on this movie.”

They next spoke to Kung Fu Panda directors Mark Osborne (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) and John Stevenson (in his directorial debut; he was previously storyboard artist on Madagascar and Shrek 2). “They had a really clear vision of what they wanted,” said Riley. “The beginning of the movie had a 2D dream sequence, designed and animated in collaboration with James Baxter Animation, so they wanted the end title sequence to have a similar feel to it.”

The filmmakers had another request. “Everyone had worked so hard for five years – they wanted a title sequence that would encourage people to stay and spend time looking at the names and appreciate who worked on it,” he said. “A movie like this is an enormous collaboration. The title sequence needed to be very legible and respectful.”

Comparing Notes
The pitch process was organic, said Riley. “We tried to come back with as many ideas as we could, in storyboard form with Adobe Illustrator, painted textures, photographs, and collages in Photoshop,” he said. “We tried to make it a conversation about the range of things they could do.” Shine came in on the project nine months from theatrical release, so Riley said he relied on the insight of the filmmakers who had “gone around the block as far as who the characters are and what they’d realistically do in a title sequence.”

Ideas went back and forth – not just between Shine and the Kung Fu Panda filmmakers, but also with James Baxter Animation, which had created the opening dream sequence. “It was much longer than a typical design process, ” said Riley. “Designers always like to take more time and think about what could make this thing better. The first meeting was in August and we landed on a board we were planning on producing in late September. This sequence was a mix between ideas from Shine, DreamWorks and the inspiration from that collaboration. It couldn’t have been done just by either of us.”

At the very first meeting, says Riley, he suggested an unusual creative device: a horizontal crawl. It’s one of those givens that title sequences crawl vertically, but Riley wanted to replicate the opening of a Chinese scroll in a nod to the movie’s theme and an echo of the film’s opening 2D sequence.

What Riley hadn’t counted on was that DreamWorks Animation would prove to be a treasure trove of imagery for the title sequence. “Production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Tang Kheng Heng had done this exhaustive visual exploration, and had all these wonderful Photoshop illustrations,” said Riley. “By having a lot of contact with DreamWorks, they were able to give us concept stills that had images of the characters, set illustrations and so on. Raymond and Tang are amazing, amazing artists and I felt so lucky to have had the chance to work with their material. That was the springboard for all the imagery we used.”

Riley’s team also found additional images at DreamWorks. “We found little bits of great background elements or an image – say of a building or a cliff or some clouds – just pinned up in the hallway at DreamWorks,” he said. “We’d ask to use it, and a couple of hours later, [production manager] Jeffrey Paul Hermann would hand us a jump drive with Photoshop files.”

Staying in Character
Head of story/dream sequence director Jennifer Yuh Nelson helped guide Shine with regard to the character actions. “She provided insight into what they might do,” said Riley. “For example, in the opening scene, she came up with a funny gag. Po was dramatically swinging his sword around, and there was this blow-up punching bag next to him. He waves the sword at the punching bag, loses control of the sword and then bumps the punching bag out of frame. His own clumsiness and silliness pushes the bag away, not the sword. Po’s talents are not being a great sword warrior but his funny personality gives him his power.” Riley also credits directors Osborne and Stevenson and producers Melissa Cobb and Hermann as being “instrumental in helping us interface and keeping the dialogue moving along.”

Shine hadn’t previously done cel animation work, so this part of the project required ” a huge amount of collaboration” with a team of 30 animators, clean-up artists, ink-and-paint and lighters from both James Baxter Animation and DreamWorks Animation. “The cel animators would come up with these little animated sketches drawn in pencil and scanned in frame-by-frame,” said Riley. “We’d get QuickTimes that we’d put into After Effects, which we used from start to finish.”

Riley also worked with Jason Wu, a master calligrapher in Southern California, on ideas about Chinese-language characters. “We tried to come up with words relevant to the movie, such as honor, strength, courage, vision, loyalty,” said Riley. “The first idea is that each character in the movie might land on a word that related to them. In the end, we used the characters that said ‘Kung Fu Panda’ before you move into discovering all the characters. We decided to bring the other characters back in the end scroll, and we tied them to match various images.”

Shine’s creative team suggested the idea of a Chinese translation for all of the credits. “We used a red ‘chop’ or stamp for each of the characters and the directed by/produced by production crew credits,” said Riley. Shine originally used an Internet translation program, without much success. Instead, DreamWorks found someone on staff that was fluent in Mandarin. “We had to be careful the translations were exactly right,” said Riley. “When this film goes international, people will see it as a movie with a lot of heart that was true to kung fu movies.” The Shine team took the Chinese characters into Adobe Illustrator to smudge them to look like real ink stamps.

After Effects was also the primary camera tool. “All the 3D camera moves were done in After Effects,” said Riley. The animators used Cambridge Animation Systems’ Animo, and then imported the animation sequences into After Effects as TIFFs. “At first, the illustrations were QuickTime movies we placed into 3D camera space, and once they were in color, they were TIFF sequences,” explained Riley. “They had perfect mattes cut, so we were able to move them around in 3D space.”

“We wanted to use After Effects because we could see there was a ton of elements, and it would be a much less interactive process in other software,” he continued. “The initial brief from the directors was that they wanted this to be a 2D sequence. If we were to start in 2D and become 3D, After Effects was the perfect tool for that. We could easily swap elements in and out and move cameras around.”

Riley now says he looks back on the experience of creating the sequence “with a lot of fondness.” “This was one of the nicest clients I’ve worked with,” he said. “It’s always great when the process is so much fun. It was a top-down vision and we did our best to follow that.”