With the conclusion of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, Dreamworks is set to release their new film Abominable this year. The story centers around Yi (voiced by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Chloe Bennett), a teenage girl in modern day China, and her quest to bring the Yeti she found, while playing her violin on the roof, back home in the Himalayas. She is joined by her childhood friend and popular kid, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), and Jin’s young cousin, Peng (Albert Tsai).
Yi names the Yeti “Everest” and embark on a journey visiting several landmarks in China. Of course, they encounter the villains — Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and zoologist (Sarah Paulson) who want to capture Everest in the name of science. Everest is no ordinary Yeti. He has magical powers that will help them along the way.
The Nerds of Color visited the Dreamworks animation offices to chat with the creative team behind Abominable. We got to chat with director Jill Culton, co-director Todd Wilderman, producer Suzanne Buirgy, production designer Max Boas, Head of Character Animation John Hill, and Head of Story Ennio Torresan.
Here are a few things we learned from the set:
- Before we began the day, Wilderman showed us some footage from the film, which already had many of us in tears with the storytelling and animation. Wilderman described the beginning of the film with Everest’s point of view as he escapes from Burnish’s lab. We are then shown a clip introducing the audience to Yi. She lives at home with her mother and Nai Nai (Chinese for “grandmother”). She goes about her day working several jobs including dog-walking, babysitting, and working trash duty. At the end of the day, she is disheveled and dirty and ready to go home but not before running into her classmates, including Jin, who look at her with judgement. In the middle of the night, Yi leaves her room to her hideout on the roof of her building where she places all the money she has earned. We learn that she is saving up to travel to all the different places she and her father, who we find out passed away prior to the film events, were planning to visit. She opens up her violin case and begins to play. Then a helicopter flies by, causing her to drop the violin. She then sees a paw near her violin and she grabs her violin and moves away, but accidentally wakes Everest up. Everest is then scared when the helicopter returns and tries to hide. Seeing Everest scared, Yi grabs items from her hideout to cover up Everest. Later on, she attempts to help him by covering his injury on his paw with a bandage. She then lulls him to sleep with the sound of her violin and the audience sees Everest’s power brings her plant back to life. After seeing a poster for Everest, which Everest stared at intensely, Yi decides to call him that and take him back to his home.
- Culton was pitched the idea of using a Yeti as the creature over a decade ago. She then pulled the story from her own life as a tomboy, and she also owns giant pets (two Great Danes). The reason the film is set in China is because Yetis are from the Himalayas. It’s right next to China. She wanted Everest to be found in a location that is completely different from the Himalayas, which was a city filled with lights.
- The city that Yi lives in was inspired by Shanghai.
- Yi’s story is not about a dead parent. It is about the disconnect from family and bringing her back to her family.
- Jin is a popular kid in school who cares more about his vanity than anything else. He is also a childhood friend of Yi’s who lives in the same building as her, but they grew apart due to his rising popularity. But, don’t expect a budding romance between the two. This is all about Yi’s journey.
- Culton and Wilderman were determined to cast the main characters with people of Chinese descent. “If you’re going to do a film set in China, you got to do it well,” said Culton. “Casting is important. We also had a loop group (background voices) and everyone in there had to be Asian.”
- For the role of Yi, Culton and Wilderman saw Bennet on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and were charmed by her. They had to call her in to read for the role.
- The team at Dreamworks worked with Pearl Studio, a Chinese film production company, for the development of the film. They used them for help with the story and used some of their animators to help design the production design including the look of the apartments and signage around the city. They also had experts on the Himalayas come in to discuss how it should look in the film.
- Everyone, especially the team in China, had a point of view on the character of Nai Nai. She was made to look like the typical ‘Shanghai’ grandma. Wilderman said, “Yeah, we really wanted to make her feel like ‘yeah. that’s my grandma.’ Everybody at the end feels pretty happy with how she turned out.” Bennet’s own grandmother seemed just like Nai Nai.
- Speaking of Nai Nai, the team initially wanted her to go along with Yi on her adventure, but the team decided it wouldn’t work. Torresan said they wanted it to be realistic and it would be difficult to have Nai Nai on the adventure due to her age. Also, having a grownup on the journey would take away from the humor.
- The film also initially had Yi be a little girl who was an orphan raised by her grandmother, but they wanted the character to be a strong female lead with an older actress being the voice.
- The film had 50 animators, some of which just came off of How to Train Your Dragon.
- All of Everest’s powers are nature-based — humming would cause the plants to grow and control the Earth’s movements.
- Everest is actually a young Yeti. That is why Peng and Everest get along so well.
- For the scenes with the violin, the production team called in professional violinist Charlene Huang and recorded her playing music from the film and watch every detail of her performance to match her finger and body placement for Yi. So, the scene where Yi is playing the violin, those are the correct way to play that.
- All the locations that the quartet travel to are real locations in China. Culton mapped out the locations on a map leading to the Himalayas. The Giant Buddha in Leshan, Sichuan province makes a major appearance in the film.
- There is an emotional scene in the film that uses Coldplay’s ‘Fix You.’ When they tested the Chinese audience with the scene, the English song took the audience out of the scene. So, the creatives decided to replace it with a Chinese cover of ‘Fix You’ just for the Chinese release.
- Eddie Izzard completely did improv during his voice recording for the villain, Burnish. The team wanted a comedian as the main villain. “We wanted someone funny,” said Buirgy. “He brought the funny.”
- The most difficult scene in the film was the cloud Koi fish. The animators had to make the clouds look like Koi and still be able to ride them.
- Culton had planned for the film to be a one-off, but they’ll figure it out if Dreamworks wants to make a sequel.
Abominable opens in theaters everywhere on September 27th.