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Finding Your Way Home with “Abominable”

By Melody Yuan

Sep. 19, 2019
Abominable poster
“Abominable" is coming to the big screen this fall. (Photo credit): DreamWorks Animation

DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s animated co-production arrives in theaters this fall.

“Abominable,” the highly-anticipated upcoming animation co-production from DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio, is centered on the journey of a magical Yeti and his three human friends across China. The epic 3-D adventure is the culmination of groundbreaking work by animators from both the U.S. and China in a unique collaboration. East West Bank is the official bank partner helping to promote “Abominable.”

The first female-led, major-studio animated film with a central female character, “Abominable” is written and directed by Jill Culton (“Open Season,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Toy Story 2”), and produced by Suzanne Buirgy p.g.a. (“Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Home”) and Peilin Chou of Pearl Studio (“Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Mulan”).

With decades of experience in animation, Culton has been integral in shaping the animation industry. From creating the cowgirl Jessie in the blockbuster “Toy Story” franchise, to serving as the head of story development and being credited with “original story by” on “Monsters Inc.,” Culton was at the core of many Pixar films during her early career.

“I’ve worn every hat,” Culton says. “I’ve been an animator, storyboard artist, character designer, and over the years - I’ve had a lot of encouragement from other wonderful people in my life to embrace my own stories.” The opportunity for Culton to write her own story came when DreamWorks Animation approached her about creating a Yeti movie.

“Princesses don’t make treehouses:” Story and character development

“For ‘Abominable,’ I was lucky enough that the studio told me they wanted a Yeti movie, and they had a totally blank canvas,” Culton says. “So, I pulled a lot of the storytelling from my own experiences.”

It all starts when Yi, a teenage girl living in a modern Chinese city, finds a Yeti—a mythical creature from the Himalayas—on her apartment roof. She decides to name him Everest and embarks on a journey across China with her friends to bring him home.

Yi is a total tomboy, a character modeled after Culton’s own childhood and personality. “When I was a kid growing up, there were a lot of princess movies out there, but I was a tomboy who grew up skateboarding, surfing and getting dirty while making treehouses—and we all know princesses don’t make treehouses,” the filmmaker fondly recalls of her childhood. “I always used to think, ‘Where was the role model for kids like me?’ So I created Yi as a girl who has an independent spirit and as someone who wasn’t afraid to go on adventures.”

As for Everest the Yeti, Culton admits that the magical creature was inspired heavily by her dogs. “It sounds really weird, but I’ve had giant dogs my entire life, from Great Danes to 100-pound bloodhounds,” Culton says. “I always loved the nonverbal communication you can have with your dog. I really didn’t want Everest to speak English or be super chatty. I wanted him to be more animalistic but still have full communication with Yi. I felt like that made the relationship more special.”

The team did extensive research on the behavioral cues of teenagers and children to create dynamic friendships among the characters of Yi, Everest, older teen Jin and Jin’s young cousin Peng. At its core, the animation revolves around family, as Yi struggles to find a connection to her mother and grandmother after her father’s death. The film also places value on friendship and the family that you create for yourself…as the group bond grows stronger by overcoming many challenges together.

“It’s all those fantastic family dynamics you have within this traveling ensemble that makes this movie so lovable,” Culton says.

“This is just such a great story,” adds Emily Wang, senior vice president and director of marketing at East West Bank. “We love the essence of Eastern and Western culture, and the spirit of collaboration involved in making the movie. The animation also drives home the message that no matter how hard the journey gets, everyone needs to stick together and stay positive.”

“To look and feel like China:” Authenticity and inspiration with cross-border collaboration

“I actually wrote the script almost seven years ago,” Culton says. “Stories always evolve, and they’re never written and ready to go up on screen from the get-go. So while the central themes like the concept of family, Everest’s ability to control nature, and Yi’s desire to get Everest home remained the same, there were still a lot of changes.”

Some of the evolutions within the story included the ages of the characters. “When I first started writing, our main protagonist, Yi, was only nine years old. But we decided that she needed to be 16 because I wanted to showcase her independent side and for her to have a job. In China, you have to be 16 to hold a job,” Culton says.

With the evolution of Oriental DreamWorks, which started as a DreamWorks Animation joint venture with China, and in recent years has separated from Dreamworks to become a new stand-alone multimedia company - now called Pearl Studio – , “Abominable” grew from an auxiliary property to a co-production between the two companies.

DreamWorks Animation’s collaboration with Pearl was a crucial part of creating the film’s authenticity. “Pearl was so instrumental, and we worked with them every day,” Culton says. “They were involved back when we were first developing the movie seven years ago. Their studio in Shanghai is filled with phenomenal artists, and we relied on them to make sure that the cityscape—everything from the food carts, to even trash cans—were the same. We wanted everything to look and feel like China.”

The filmmaker reflects that part of the reason the movie is set in China is because of the studios’ partnership, but more so than that, the decision was based on geography. “One of the only things we know about Yetis is the fact that they live on Mt. Everest, so we really only had a couple of geographical choices,” Culton says. “I love that our movie journeys across China and that we could explore this culture.”

"Stories always evolve, they're never written and ready to go up on the screen from the get-go."

-Jill Culton

The writer/director/producer used a giant physical map of China to plot out the journey of Everest and his friends, from their coastal metropolis in the east to the Himalayan mountains out west. “One thing that struck me about creating ‘Abominable’ is that the more research we did into China, the more we realized how diverse and gorgeous this country is,” Culton says. “From a Westerner’s point of view, we know about the big cities, the Great Wall and the terracotta soldiers, but I’d never heard of the Leshan Buddha. I don’t believe much of the world outside of China has seen or heard about some of the astonishing places featured in our film.”

“No technology or template for imagination”: Overcoming challenges

The biggest challenge Culton and her team faced came in the form of visual effects. “Depicting the magical pieces were so difficult,” Culton says. “There’s a scene where Everest has to escape villains, so he takes a boat off the water and makes it go across a field of yellow canola flowers. He then turns those flower fields into giant waves. When you sit in a room full of 50 people, we have to think, ‘Ok, how are we going to do this?’ Because there’s no technology or template for imagination.”

Mark Edwards, the film’s visual effects supervisor - who has been with DreamWorks Animation for more than 22 years - and his team worked tirelessly to imagine various scenarios. “These are sequences where the audience is supposed to be in awe, and they might burst out laughing if we do it wrong,” Culton says. “Some of these big-set scenes took us an entire year to work on, and we tested so many sequences until we figured it out one day. I remember all of us just screamed, ‘Yes!’”

The making of this animation was as colorful and exciting as the film itself. Culton believes that her team’s perseverance and dedication to ensuring the film’s astonishing quality will resonate with the audience. “I would love for audiences around the world to embrace Yi’s spirit,” Culton says, “and realize that no matter how hard the journey gets, to never give up.”

“Abominable” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and arrives in theaters in the United States on September 27. This October, the highly anticipated film will be released in China, where it will be distributed by Pearl Studio.

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