Coming Soon Visits Dreamworks to Learn More About Abominable!
In the last year, cinemas have seen a number of yeti-related animated projects: Small Foot. Missing Link. And coming up in September: Abominable.
Abominable promises to be different in a few ways, as we were shown when invited to an edit bay visit to preview some scenes. The film follows a teenager as she discovers a yeti hiding out on the roof of her building. The girl, Yi, and two of her friends, guide the yeti (who they name Everest) back home to Mt. Everest. Along the way, the trio discovers the yeti has magical powers, which turn out to be helpful as they must also dodge a wealthy man hellbent on capturing a real, live yeti.
Yi, the film’s lead, is female – something that was missing from previous yeti animations. It seems on-point that a female lead should come from a female writer/director, Jill Culton. She is the first woman to write and direct a feature animated film for a major studio. When given the opportunity, Culton told us that she wanted to do a yeti story, and she wanted a “kick-ass tomboy girl,” one that reminded her of herself when she was little, even though Culton is not Chinese.
That was one of the biggest concerns Culton and her team had when making the film: keeping it “culturally true.” The team did a ton of research, including multiple trips to China. Culton had a huge map of China, on which she plotted Yi and Everest’s route from Shanghai to the Himalayas. Big name stars were ignored in favor of Chinese actors – except for the villains. Producer Suzanne Buirgy didn’t want the villains to be Chinese; she wanted to “flip it.” Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson – a Brit and an American – were cast in those roles. “It was incredibly important to make this authentic,” reiterated Culton. “We didn’t want to pander to a Chinese audience.” Even everyone in the “loop group” (the background voices) was Asian.
Yi is voiced by Chloe Bennet, best known as Daisy on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Bennet is half-Chinese, and spent several years living in China with her paternal grandparents while she pursued a singing career. One of the stories we heard from multiple people was that Bennet marveled at how accurate Yi’s grandmother, Nai Nai, was in the movie. She matched Bennet’s grandmother, even down to the haircut. “Chloe helped shape Yi,” explains co-director Todd Wilderman. “She embraced that Yi could be wrong, could show flaws. She brought a realness to the role.”
The other thing that helped production was the fact that Abominable was a co-production with Pearl Studio, a Chinese production company. Buirgy said they leaned on their Chinese counterparts heavily for concept art, signage, and to check tiny details that most people wouldn’t think about, like whether a background character would carry a paper or plastic shopping bag. The city that Yi lives in is “inspired by” Shanghai, but not modeled specifically after Shanghai so as to avoid political issues. Similarly, they had a sign for a mahjong club, but that was changed so that the Chinese government wouldn’t have issues with the idea of gambling.
In addition to being a story about a girl and her yeti, Abominable is the story about family – disconnected family, and the family that you choose to create for yourself. Yi is very distant from her mother and grandmother, and her only connection to her dead father is through his violin, her most prized possession. When one of the chords on her violin breaks, Yi restrings it with Everest’s hair, giving her some of his magical properties and making Everest a part of her family.
The violin is an integral part of the story, and the filmmakers didn’t want to screw it up. Real violinists came in, not only to play the violin parts on the soundtrack, but the musicians actually gave the animators violin lessons. The artists learned fingering techniques and how to hold the violin properly, so that the animation could remain authentic.
Abominable went through a number of changes in the six years it has been in production. Yi was initially meant to be significantly younger. Her violin was, at one point, a guitar, and a character in and of itself. And at one point, Nai Nai went on the adventure with Yi – and apparently she kicked a lot of ass. But the story – and the characters – evolved over the years, and became what they were meant to be.
Abominable hits theaters on September 27th.