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Production Information
Open Your Heart a Little
Abominable Begins
For Abominable writer/director Jill Culton, the road to DreamWorks Animation has been a long and winding one. After she graduated from CalArts, she cut her teeth as an animator and storyboard artist at Pixar, where she collaborated on Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life before helping to craft the story for Monster's, Inc. As well, she spent several years at Sony Animation, where she directed their first animated-feature film, Open Season. Culton had met with DreamWorks over the years to discuss various projects, but it was not until she was swept away at an early screening of How to Train Your Dragon that everything clicked into place and she decided to join the studio.

Oriental DreamWorks, the company that later became Pearl Studio, and DreamWorks Animation pitched Culton the idea for a "Yeti movie," and she took the seed of that idea back to her home in a small town nestled in the woods of Marin County in Northern California. There, surrounded by majestic redwoods, she began to imagine an epic tale of a young woman who finds herself at an unimaginable crossroads.

"When you have a blank slate like that to play with, you tend to fill it in with what you know and love," Culton says. Turns out her greatest inspirations were also her largest. "I've had huge, 90-pound-plus dogs for most of my life. They are my kids; I've had bloodhounds mostly, and they're sloppy, slobbery and hilarious. I could just see myself connecting through the relationship that Yi has with the Yeti, and I drew the initial sketches of them together. I initially wanted him to be huge, like the kind of dogs I've had. Additionally, all my love for nature got poured into this-including my experiences camping and traveling. My dad loves the outdoors, and that was a big deal for our family growing up."

The massive contrast in size between the Yeti, Everest, and Yi was inspired by a very specific memory from Culton's childhood. "When I was five or six, my neighbors had this giant London Great Dane that had to be almost 200 pounds," she says. "I was always scared but intrigued; he outweighed me by more than double. One day, my friend Nancy and I were running around the house, and he started chasing us. I jumped off the stairs to avoid him, and I fell. This giant dog pinned me to the ground and was breathing in my face, staring into me; I was terrified but amazed at the same time. Since then, I've only had big dogs. They're just this huge, fascinating presence in my world."

Culton has always been passionate about the emotion that a musical score brings to a film, a love of which she's brought into the medium of hand-drawn art. Culton knew that she needed music to play a central role in Abominable. Yi is a violinist and often uses music to express feelings she cannot put into words, and Everest possesses a nature-based magic with musical undertones. "I wanted Yi and Everest to travel the world to all these beautiful places outside a big city; that narrative connected to me," Culton says. "I play guitar and piano and absolutely love music."

Violin, however? That was a beast entirely new to her. She laughs: "All the early drawings I started sketching of Yi-where she's holding the violin completely wrong-were some of the first ones I did. I'd have her doing everything from riding on top of Everest to standing on a rooftop. I just kept drawing her with a violin with the bright lights and glass buildings of the city as she played...such a hard image and romantic at the same time.

"I started asking myself, 'What could her violin have to do with Everest himself?' Culton continues. "I wanted a bit of magic, so I thought about how mystics have that chanting hum. I knew Everest and Yi could connect on that level. Growing up, my favorite Disney movies were the ones where there wasn't a lot of talking. I was hell-bent on not having our Yeti speak, but rather communicate like a dog does-more intuitively with her."

That idea resonated with producer Suzanne Buirgy. What Yi, and audiences, will later discover is that the hair of the Yeti and Yi's violin connect on a magical, almost mystical level. "That's integral to a kid watching the film and thinking, 'I may not have magic Yeti strings, but somewhere in me, I have that magic in me...I can make things happen,'" Buirgy says. "That's how Yi's able to save him: the power of creativity."

Culton also wanted the story to explore themes of deep love and loss in an honest and direct way. As the story begins, Yi's father has died and Everest is lost, separated from his family and unable to find his way home. In her own life, Culton's most poignant memories are also accompanied by her most painful, and she knew that for audiences to connect with Yi, she had to address that pain head-on, not shy away from it. "There's always been a thread in this movie where this violin belongs to Yi's dad, who passed away," Culton says. "While I don't have a personal death like that in my family, when I was a teenager, my dad left the family. My parents got a divorce, and it was devastating. I can relate to Yi's loss on that level...especially how she's disconnected from her family. When you're a kid going through a difficult divorce and your parents want to 'sit down and talk about this...' you're like, 'No! I don't want to talk about it!' Nobody does. That reality of a teenager going through something devastating that's changing the family is very real and personal to me."

As she wrote, Culton wove the tale of an independent 16-year-old who has lost her father and has grown disconnected from her mother and grandmother, who are trying to get Yi to open up and rejoin the family. The filmmaker wanted Yi to be feisty and independent, a tomboy who's not quite ready to reveal her true pain. "I certainly was like her when I was younger," Culton says. "She feels like she doesn't need anyone."

Yi discovers Everest on her roof at a critical juncture in her life, when she is beginning to see that she needs to reconnect with others. Because Everest is leagues away from his own home in the Himalayas and desperately needs her help, Yi learns to open her heart a crack and decides to take him back to where he belongs. "Yi meets Everest on the rooftop when he wakes up as she's playing her violin," Buirgy says. "Jill long had a picture in her head of Yi standing on the rooftop, with the lights of the city spread out before her."

When Culton began her story, she conceived of it as a journey with Everest and Yi alone, but as the story evolved over the years more characters were added. In 2015, the filmmaker paused her involvement in Abominable for a time to focus upon other projects. While she was on hiatus, executive producer and Abominable godfather Tim Johnson and Culton's longtime comrade-in-arms Todd Wilderman, who became the film's co-director, contributed narrative arcs that honored her vision.

"When I came back on the show [in 2017], I started thinking of it as not just Yi and Everest on an adventure like in E.T. but more of an ensemble story like Stand by Me, with a group of kids who must deal with each other, as well as with hard issues, as they go on this journey. Still, Everest is the core of changing their lives."

The realization for Yi that she's the principal person who can aid this Yeti is a gradual one, but her instinct to protect him is immediate. As Yi leads Everest back, he helps her understand how to go home herself. This emotional truth of the story is paramount to filmmakers. "I used to think of a story as a big puzzle," Culton says. "Now I think of it as a house of cards, where if you pull out key pillars, it could fall apart. When I sit down to plot out a script, I know to consider the physical cards, which is the journey itself; I put down physical obstacles for those. If the cards are too easy, the audience will get bored. You absolutely have to have twists and turns."

She pauses. "But then you have your emotional cards to play, the ones that tell you why the character is the way she is...the ones set up at the beginning. Yi is a headstrong teen who is distant from her family; the emotional cards lay out the 'why' she is that way. You have to parse that out, or you lose your drive. The plot is the drive, but so is the emotional journey. If you give it all away too soon, you have nowhere to go. We've given bits and pieces of Yi's background out all along the way. If you hear a stranger is going through something tough, you feel bad for them. But if it's someone you know well, you empathize with and emote for them. That is why it is important to save some emotional reveals for later in the film, after we know the characters. Those big revelations allow us to care about them and feel empathy for them."

It was also critical to Culton that audiences not see Everest's home on Mt. Everest until he, Yi, and the boys arrive there. We experience Mt. Everest for the first time at the same time Yi does. "You have to earn the awe at the end of the movie," Culton says. "You want to go on this journey with them to the Himalayas. When we finally get there and that shot opens up and we see the beauty of them, we wanted the audience to gasp and go, 'I've been waiting for this!' just as the kids in the story are in awe."

Trio of Powerhouse Women
Buirgy and Chou Join Culton
In bringing Abominable to life, Culton would find kindred spirits in producer Suzanne Buirgy, DreamWorks Animation's longtime champion of the production, and Peilin Chou, chief creative officer of Pearl Studio and our story's Yi writ large. Making history as the first trio of female filmmakers to bring a big-studio animated feature to the big screen, the collaborators did and do not take that historic designation lightly.

A performer who began her career in theater, Buirgy became a songwriter at the age of 10 and was in the first national tour of Pirates of Penzance through the New York Shakespeare Festival. Playing in bands to support herself, Buirgy got her first job in the film industry as an assistant at visual effects house Digital Domain and worked her way up through the help of her mentor, the late Nancy Bernstein (Rise of the Guardians), who served as DreamWorks Animation's head of production.

After Bernstein came to the studio from Digital Domain, in 2005, the production head called Buirgy to join her on DreamWorks' Glendale, California, campus. Ready to say goodbye to the touring life of a musician, Buirgy wanted to start a family with her wife in L.A. "I could feel the creative energy on the DreamWorks campus," she notes. "I thought, 'This is a place where everything I bring to the table can be put into the mix.'"

Buirgy joined then production executive Jill Hopper (now DreamWorks Animation's head of global productions) more than 14 years ago on the campus. At the time, Buirgy says, she was "in charge of care and feeding of all artists-where they were going, putting them on the proper movies, listening to what they had to say and what they wanted. From deals on, I learned so much about the animation pipeline."

Over the years, these experiences would take Buirgy through the ranks to become producer of director Tim Johnson's Home for DreamWorks Animation, and for him to join her as executive producer on Abominable. "My career has come together in a fashion that is specifically my own, but also works well at DreamWorks," she says. Likewise, Buirgy and Culton share another mentor. "Bill Damaschke was in the creative role back then; just when we would get comfortable, he would move us on to something else. That kept us on our creative toes."

It was that "shake-it-up" style that allowed Buirgy to study every facet of the animation process. "I worked on preproduction of How to Train Your Dragon as an associate producer, supporting scheduling and budgeting," she says. "Then, I was onto Kung Fu Panda 2 as co-producer. It was a great boot camp for budgeting and scheduling in this creative world. I served as a producer on Home, where I was involved in creative, as well as the music with Rihanna and J. Lo. That teed me up for the creative producer role on this movie."

Discussing her experience producing Culton, Buirgy says: "I've always believed that it's my job to usher through and execute a filmmaker's vision; Here, I hoped to make Abominable as good as it can be. I've made sure that Jill held onto her vision, while pushing the envelope so that she takes in information she could make her own. It's a testament to Jill that we've been able to get her strong vision on the screen and that this movie is as beautiful as it is."

Buirgy also appreciates that the director has always been steadfast, never precious. "Jill's had this dedication to change throughout this process. You don't start with a script in animation; you start with an idea. She had an idea for the movie, and many things have happened that added to the work over the years. I'm thrilled that she was able to come back and complete that vision."

Buirgy's protection of the project was deeply valued by its creator. "Suzanne has navigated all the changes with the film, especially as new voices came into it," Culton says. "I so appreciate her being able to protect the core of what this film is. She genuinely loved it from the beginning, and you can feel that. It's so important to filmmakers when your producing partner is not only onboard but loves and gets the film, and is willing to protect it no matter what. That's big."

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. Buirgy admires that Pearl has "such a unique way of looking at things" and was able to bring such important insight into China while offering a unique and indispensable layer of creative collaboration to the DNA of the Abominable storyline, which crisscrosses and artistically showcases one of the world's biggest countries."

In turn, former Disney, Nickelodeon and Oriental DreamWorks' executive Peilin Chou, who now serves as the chief creative officer for Pearl Studio, was integral in Culton's 2017 return to the project. "Peilin has been a wonderful partner for us," Buirgy says. "Not only has she kept us on track, she worked with the art team at Pearl to bring authenticity to the movie."

The mission of Pearl Studio is to make global family films that have hyper-appeal in China, and Chou-key to Kung Fu Panda's extensive Mandarin adaptation-believed Abominable was a perfect fit for that mission. She loved that the adventure was set in modern-day China and represented modern Chinese teens. "A great story is a great story no matter where you live, and this film has such wonderful universal appeal and global playability," Chou says. "Everyone can relate to the theme of finding your way home and the importance of family, and I believe these things will resonate particularly deeply with Chinese audiences. We have never seen a major studio release an animated film quite like this. We believe this film will also continue to move the needle for multicultural storytelling."

Chou respected that Culton has the ability to tune out all the noise and laser-focus on her calling. "It's a rare dynamic and a rare director that can take in all the various things people are saying but then get very quiet in their own head and put together something that's even better than all the conversations," Chou says. "Jill's openness and collaboration are so unique, and the film has benefited from it tremendously. It's also been wonderful to see her partnership with Suzanne and that dialogue has been so easy and open; there's a lot of mutual respect."

Chou also believes that this film is, in many ways, Culton's destiny. "Jill was uniquely positioned to tell this story that is so personal to her, and she always believed she was meant to direct this film," she says. "She has such an intensity toward it, that even during changes of leadership-and during a hiatus from the project when she was working on other movies-Abominable was still in the back of her mind. We never abandoned the project, and she never abandoned us. There's this mysticism to her. She knew in her heart of hearts she was meant to bring this film to the screen. And she was right! Jill never gave up on it, and it came true. She's like Everest; she showed us the way home."

It's also fair to say that no one on the Abominable production team feels closer to the heroine's arc than Chou, who says that if she'd seen a character like Yi on screen when she was a girl it would've been life changing. "It would've meant everything," Chou says. "I look back and realize now that so many people were having the same experience of feeling isolated when I was growing up. Yet, all of us are now connected by that experience we then thought was so singular. When you grow up and feel like an outsider, you feel like you're going to have to change yourself so you fit in. My sister and I bleached our hair; we shunned everything that was Asian. I was embarrassed to take my mom's meals to school that she made. You suppress who you are because you think that person is unacceptable and needs to be hidden, because they'll never be accepted in mainstream society. If I would've seen a movie with a heroine like Yi, I'd have thought, 'Hell yeah! That's me! That's awesome!' I love the fact that she exists in the world. The 10-year-old I was would maybe have thought about me differently."

The most recent female creative forces on Abominable have been MARGIE COHN, president of DreamWorks Animation, who rose to that position earlier this year after years of building the studio's TV empire, and KRISTIN LOWE, recently appointed chief creative officer for the studio, who moved over from Universal, where she served as executive vice president. "Margie has so much experience in both TV and features," Culton says. "She has such a unique lens into the work we do. And, Kristin has been such a big fan of ours. I have felt for quite a while that her quiet confidence and sense of big picture made our movie better. For her to step into this role was a natural fit; she's been a partner for this entire journey."

For Cohn, working with Culton and her team has been a highlight of her new tenure. "It was exciting to discover this team led by such formidable women working on a movie with such a fresh vision," Cohn says. "Abominable is a very personal movie for Jill and the crew she has assembled. The kids, with their relationships and actions, feel authentic and that gives the film emotional resonance. Along with breathtaking animation from talented artists at DreamWorks, the film is ambitious, visually stunning and heartfelt."

Partners in Crime
Co-director Todd Wilderman and EP Tim Johnson
Serving as Culton's co-pilot on this adventure has been Abominable co-director Todd Wilderman, whom she has known for more than two decades. "We've worked at the same studios on and off for many years," Culton says. "Todd was a lead animator when I was directing Open Season, and we collaborated on a small film called Cats Don't Dance. We're not only very close friends, we've also had many conversations about how he wanted the chance to be a director. For Todd to get the opportunity to be a co-director on this film with me is wonderful. I've gotten to see his whole journey from coming straight out of CalArts, where he was a couple years younger, to today. I'm so thrilled we get to do this with one another."

Wilderman was involved in all areas, from every big-story brainstorming session to the most minute of lines. "We did the movie side-by-side as sounding boards," Culton says. "This was an original vision of mine and I was able to write the script, but Todd's been the voice all along that I was able to bounce ideas off and come up with gags together in the middle of the night when we were giddy and tired. Todd is a fantastic animator and storyboard artist and took on projects when we couldn't crack it with other folks. We did animation dailies together and served as a check-and-balance system to catch what the others didn't."

Wilderman, who spent almost 15 years at Sony Animation and joined DreamWorks Animation in 2011, loved how he and Culton worked together. "Jill and I partner really well and challenge each other in all sorts of ways to solve problems," he says. "It's wonderful to have a second person to workshop through things constantly. It's been a heavy workload, and we've made decisions fast. We don't divide and conquer; we go into everything together."

Buirgy recognized the quiet strength of the Culton-Wilderman collaboration. "They're both amazingly talented," the producer says. "Todd is a brilliant story artist, and he is also such a steady being. He's very present and was able to be such a good partner to Jill in helping her continually visualize what it was she was trying to do. She knew the story she wanted to tell, and she didn't veer off that. That's a gift when there is white noise. The beauty of what Jill did is that she was able to bring in outside input and make it her own...and still make it fit the vision of what she wanted to do. I have deep respect for both of them."

Likewise, EP Johnson proved an invaluable partner as the production moved forward over the years. "Tim and I worked together on Home alongside Todd, and Tim was on this movie for a bit of time," Buirgy says. "I always think of different people as being guardians of Abominable at any given moment. Tim brought in other characters that really enriched the narrative, and he has had amazing input on the film. He's an incredibly exact storyteller, and he was brought on to add key characters with Todd and to expand the sense of magic. Characters evolved, but ultimately the story was Jill's. When she came back, she brought those characters into her narrative. That made the story bigger and better. She's been incredibly resourceful at figuring out how to turn her passion and vision into this film."

Johnson was inspired by the cross-cultural nature of Abominable's narrative. "The film is an interesting marriage between Western storytelling and a more Asian narrative," Johnson says. "We brought together this story of a magical Yeti with a team of kids on this adventure, and we wanted to make sure that the audience wanted to be on screen with the characters. The movie offers this appeal of an ancient, prehuman culture...the idea that Everest's kind have this primitive intelligence different from humanity. We loved the idea that the Yetis would be closer to nature and have this shamanistic nature with magic, and that Everest knew his own heart and the heart of others."

For Johnson, Abominable also explores the wisdom in animals that are companions to humans-a spirit that the team wanted to magnify and amplify. Indeed, the film stands out in its imagery and narrative, and that's what gives it a place in the studio's canon. "DreamWorks is an innovative visual world creator," Johnson says. "Madagascar looks different than ANTZ, which looks different from How to Train Your Dragon. Visually, Abominable sits wonderfully on the shelf of DreamWorks movies in that it generates its own unique world visually and has a beautiful, magical logic to it."

Abominable is about a dreamer, Yi, who is supported on her journey by a skeptic (Jin) and the ultimate child (Peng). As they struggle, and ultimately triumph, in their quest, they are buoyed by Yi's loving mother and grandmother Nai Nai, and are challenged by those with sinister or ulterior motives (Burnish and Dr. Zara). Ultimately, the narrative and the characters all relate to themes of disconnection and reconnection.

"Yi's known Jin since they were kids, but they, too, have become disconnected," Culton says. "Jin is into his friends and the way he looks, but he is concerned about Yi and ends up following her on this quest. His little cousin, Peng, comes along as well, and he's totally into the journey and the fun of finding a kindred spirit in Everest. Each of them changes, and Everest is responsible for those changes as well."

Chloe Bennet
When she was growing up, Culton didn't feel that pop culture, and movies in particular, understood her or even saw her. So as Culton imagined Yi, it was crucial to create a character who would have spoken to her as a girl. "While there were lots of princess movies growing up, I was a total tomboy," the filmmaker says. "My sister loved dressing up in pretty clothes, but I never wore makeup. I had holes in my jeans. I was always climbing trees, building a treehouse, surfing or skateboarding. I would watch these movies, and no female characters felt like me. What I love about Yi is that she's a strong-willed, strong-minded character who isn't afraid to get dirty. We're reversing the role play here, where Jin cares about his hair and getting dirty, while Yi is the exact opposite. She doesn't care about sleeping in the woods. It's not just a modern twist; we all know someone like that.

"I'm so glad we get to bring Yi to the world, as there are a lot of girls who can relate to her," Culton continues. "She's like me in that she leaps before she looks. I've gotten myself into a lot of trouble that way, but it's a great characteristic where you appreciate her ability to dive into matter the cost. I also love the relationship between Everest and Yi. I always ask myself the central story question: 'Why did this Yeti come to this rooftop?'"

It was a query inspired by Culton's favorite film as a child, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. "I would ask the same question: 'Why did E.T. land in Elliott's shed?'" Culton says. "Here it became, 'What does Everest bring Yi?' In the beginning, you feel like he's a victim in the city, and she has to take care of him. By the end, he's taking care of her. Still, the bigger arc is that, in the beginning, we think that he's just a scared creature that Yi takes care of; he's wounded. They're like Androcles and the Lion, where she helps him and they have a bond. As the journey goes forward, you realize that he's more than that. Of course, he has magic powers to control nature, but he also helps lead Yi to her own healing."

As a female character, Yi also upends expectations and erases boundaries. "In animation, there are so many princess stories and girly girls that are supposed to act and to be a certain way, but Yi is just her own person," Chou says. "We've evolved from waiting for the prince in most of those, but there's this long history of that in entertainment. Yi is not like that, nor is she a reaction to that. She's unique in that she knows who she is, and she's very determined. She has a vision of her own path, and she's going to follow through with that, no matter what."

When it came to casting Yi, it was an easy choice for Culton, Buirgy and Chou. Chloe Bennet, best known for her work as Skye/Quake on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., gave them everything they hoped Yi would be, and more. "Chloe has a great tone to her voice we all love," Culton says. "But more than anything, she's so willing to go to these incredibly vulnerable places. That's very difficult for any actor. She gets to be a superhero in S.H.I.E.L.D., and this role gives her a lot of depth to play with; she was so ready and is so proud of this movie."

For Bennet, the role of Yi had unexpected echoes with her own life. "My agents called me and told me that DreamWorks and Pearl were doing this new film, and the character is a young Chinese girl who lives with her grandmother in China as a teenager," the actress says. "I also lived with my grandmother in China as a teenager. I thought, 'Well, that's a weird coincidence.' When I went in and talked with them and learned about the person Yi is, and how strong-willed she is, her journey resonated so deeply with me. It paralleled my life. I left that meeting and said, 'If I don't get this movie, I'm horrible at my job. That is me.' It felt almost too good to be true."

The coincidences between Bennet's life and Yi's didn't stop there. "It's all been a very destined process," she says. "I grew up with brothers in the city of Chicago, and they're similar to other characters in the film. I was so very similar to Yi, doing odd jobs like mobile lemonade stands and dog walking. I always felt like an outcast because I wasn't a girly girl and didn't know how to interact well outside of my own big family. I felt surrounded but isolated in a way that anyone who feels differently, especially teenagers, can feel."

The actress appreciated that Culton infused Abominable with surprising emotional weight, and she hopes that a character like Yi will become a touchstone for a generation of girls. "It's a funny, light-hearted adventure in a way, but Abominable has these serious undertones that are important themes-like loss and pain-for people of all ages to deal with," Bennet says. "A lot of people, especially teenagers, are scared to reach out when things are hard. That's my favorite part of the film, and the one that resonates with me the most-and I hope it does for other girls as well."

One of Culton's favorite scenes to record with Bennet is one in which Yi and Jin are in a bamboo grove, right after Yi realizes that her violin, her most tangible connection to her late father, has been destroyed. "The very first time we recorded that, Chloe's father and grandma were visiting," Culton says. "She brought half her family into recording sessions, which I loved, because it allowed us to get to know her better. I was in the booth with her, and I told her, 'This is the point where you realize you're really pulling away from your family and you're telling the story about how much the violin meant to you after it's been broken. We learn that your dad used to play for you every night, and it was a song that made you feel like everything was going to be okay; now, everything's not.'"

At first, the director couldn't understand why Bennet was delivering the line so flat. Was it the dialogue? Was it just an off day? Soon, Culton discovered exactly what Bennet needed to do to shake things up. "Chloe left the booth for a minute and told her family they had to leave. She couldn't do the scene with them there," explains the director. "She came back, and not only did she emote, she was tearing up as she recorded it. Suddenly, I saw her just go there in a way she couldn't with them there; it was too vulnerable. I so appreciate that she was willing to reach that place."

Bennet remembers that day vividly. "My dad and my grandma had come out to see me in L.A., and I brought them into our recording," she says. "I didn't know what scenes we were doing that day, so I got there and realized it was a big scene when Yi's talking about what it's been like to deal with the death of her father. My dad was right in my eyeline. I could see him there with my grandma, and I couldn't do it. It was too much to have them in the room with me, and I needed them to leave. It honestly threw me off. Eventually, we got to the place where it felt like the performance was in the right spot."

Culton then had Bennet return on another day to record the scene again with Tenzing Norgay Trainor, who voices Jin, in the room. The director was just as gobsmacked in this session. "After 20 takes, I told Chloe, 'Just throw away the script. Tell me the story about your dad,'" Culton says. "With tears streaming down her face, she just felt it, fumbled the words and gave this gorgeous performance. The last three takes where she threw the script away? That's in the film. She was just telling it from her heart and letting it out. She embodied Yi in such an organic way. I was staring at her in amazement about how great she is as an actress. I want to be Chloe's champion for the rest of her career. That girl is going places."

For Bennet, Yi is an important, vital step in expanding the representation of Asian people, and Asian girls in particular, in popular culture. "Maybe this character came to me as a nice gift for not having her as a 10-year-old," Bennet says. "It did just as much for me as a 25- to 27-year-old in the process of making it. The power of representation is everything. You don't realize that when you don't see someone who looks like you on TV, on film or in music, you start to idolize the people who don't look like you. It becomes this big snowball effect. 'Those people are successful, and they have blond hair. If they don't have eyes that look like mine, maybe I'm not good enough because I don't look like them.' That's the power of having someone who looks like you on screen. I really hope that whether people acknowledge it or realize it, it makes a difference to young girls who feel different or left out-whether they're tomboys or Asians and feel that they're weird. Because they're not. They're really cool. You can be who you are and be a badass at the same time."

Bennet also formed a powerful and lasting bond with Culton, who became equal parts mentor, friend and creative companion. "Jill is incredible and so talented, warm and wonderful," Bennet says. "I couldn't have asked for a better partner. When you're making a film like this, she was everything. She was set, hair and makeup, every character-painting the picture for everyone. It speaks so much to her talent as a writer and director that she was able to put everyone in this carpeted room in a place of creativity and comfortability. She allowed us to transport ourselves to these crazy situations in China. She was able to pull these performances out of everybody. Animation is way more difficult than people think it is. I'd get comments like, 'Oh, you just go in your pajamas into a room and talk?' Nothing is there, so you're relying on that one person. And that one person was Jill. This movie is her heart and my heart. I was so lucky to be able to work alongside her. She's incredible."

Moving from the world of live action with CG to a fully animated production was challenging, to say the least. Bennet laughs: "I thought working on S.H.I.E.L.D. with green screens was difficult, but I've been working on this for three years now, and it's like going back to that version of myself as a kid, making up stories in my mind. You're trying to imagine what the scenes will look like and what your character is doing. The art and craftsmanship of every single shot-and how much work goes into it-blew me away. Everyone I've worked with on this will be friends for life."

Chou loves hearing those comments and shares that feeling with her star. "Chloe is amazing," Chou says. "The first time I heard her, I thought Yi was reborn that day. Not only does Chloe feel so passionate about the character from a cultural perspective, but the depth that she brought to Yi has been extraordinary. Yi is a complex role. She's one person on the surface but has so much going on underneath. She has to open herself up and be vulnerable; it's very multidimensional. At times, she has to bring humor to the film as well. Chloe delivered on all of those things."

Joseph Izzo
Everest is a massive Yeti who is the age-equivalent of a 9-year-old human boy. When he first appears on Yi's roof, the wounded creature has escaped from Burnish's secret facility-where he was being experimented upon-and is understandably terrified of humans. Although he doesn't speak, he is so expressive and has such a big personality that it is always clear what he's thinking.

Far from his home and family, Everest must rely on Yi and her friends to get him back to the Himalayas. He is curious and playful but can be a beast at times. Like all kids, he plays hard, doesn't know his own strength and his moods are changeable. His relationship with Yi is deep and forms the emotional core of the film. Everest has the power to control nature, as all Yetis do, but he hasn't quite mastered his abilities, often to hilarious effect.

Everest does not speak, but he does have his own distinctive style of communication. To give voice to him, the filmmakers turned to Joseph Izzo. An actor who had worked as a story/editorial production supervisor on the first phase of Abominable, Izzo did a number of vocalizations that the crew used as a temp track. But it was not until Culton returned from hiatus that Izzo was officially cast as Everest.

"When Jill came back on the film, we'd been using [internet star] TEDDY THE PORCUPINE, who chats like crazy," Buirgy says. "She wanted to go back to this idea of Everest having a BIG voice." (Sidenote: Teddy fans, worry not. Wilderman and Buirgy recorded Teddy in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, and he ultimately voices a surprise character in Abominable.)

For Culton, Izzo provided a sound to Everest's voice that no one else could. "Always in our temp reels, we'd use Joe," she says. "We had a special jar, a flower vase that's covered in black gaffer's tape, and he would hold it up and go to the mic and make noise into it...getting the echoes as well. For all of our temp screenings, he was the voice and gave it resonance. We went through quite a few professional creature artists, but no one could do what Joe did; he made the character come to life."

One of the first crew on Abominable, the actor/production supervisor was at Culton's side during story edit and art. "I've known Jill for years, so every day was an absolute pleasure," Izzo says. "I can't speak louder about how generous, calm, articulate and patient she is. If we had a shot I was doing a voice for, we'd watch the scene, she'd talk me through it, and I'd give her a few options. Jill knows when to speak softly and break into moments those times when Everest needed to growl, scream, be touching or silly. We were playful as we went back and forth together to build his voice. She was constantly trying not to ruin a take by laughing in the middle of it...but you knew you hit the take when she had a smile on her face."

Although Izzo's vocalizations were meant to be temporary, Culton and her production team fell in love with the performer as Everest, and eventually couldn't see anyone else portraying him. "At DreamWorks, if someone needs a scratch voice, there is a small band of us who are available. So, at first, I'd just go to the mic and play around," Izzo says. "We just had to make the voice sound deeper, bigger and more animal-like. We built a few things for me to project make me sound like I had bigger lungs and a bigger chest cavity. After everything we tried, it all came down to one of the editor's flower vases. It had the perfect echo to it. We wrapped it in tape, so it wouldn't have a ting; it echoed from inside the vase and made noises sound bigger."

As Culton and Izzo perfected Everest's sound, it became incredibly useful that Izzo was constantly on and nearby set, as opposed to being called in for vocal sessions. "Because I worked in editorial managing the storyboard artists and editors, I knew the exact sequence," Izzo says. "It was my job to manage the scene on a production level, so it made it easier to know the characters incredibly well. I was in editorial for hours on end, knew Jill's notes and what she was looking for. The further we got into production, we used our time more as ADR sessions versus creating his voice. They animated off what I'd done temporarily, so to go in and ADR it made it feel like we were perfecting the action."

To assist Culton and Izzo, sound designers E2, ETHAN VAN DER RYN and ERIK AADAHL, who have created signature sounds for movies from Godzilla to A Quiet Place, were brought aboard for amplification. "Many films have creatures in them, but very few of the creatures 'act,'" Culton says. "They don't have to hold the place of a main character with an emotional arc throughout. In order to emote with people, you need an actor. Joe not only embodied the charm and humor of Everest, but he added that personality that the animators could take and truly make a performance out of-one that made him feel unique."

So, how did they get that signature Everest sound? "Ethan and Erik would come into our recording sessions with Joe and run his voice through this special box, which took his voice to a lower frequency," explains Culton. "I could hear him in the cans [earphones], and I'd direct him to go through the sequence. We'd do it just as if I was recording an actor. I'd talk him through where all his emotional content was-what the subtext was. 'In this moment, you're telling Yi, "Go play the violin and let this go!"' but he had to do it in his own creature way. I could hear his affected voice through the cans to make sure we were getting the right dimensions from him. He wasn't just recording in the booth, he was listening back to his own affected voice...and course correcting from there."

Izzo has a self-professed goofiness to him, which reminded Culton and Buirgy of the silliness of their pets. That allowed them to make Everest more curious about nature and life. "You ascribe those noises to your pets when you look at them, but Joe can give vocalizations to them," Culton says. "He became everyone's pet on steroids. He embodies the best sides of them and how silly and curious they are. We wanted the audience to see the world through this new, innocent way-whether it's experiencing koi fish or turtles for the first time or being in nature. This character grew up on Mt. Everest and was captured and put into a facility. This is his first time out in nature and exploring. We wanted everyone to go on that journey with our kids and Everest."

Over the course of production, Izzo became the owner of a big dog himself and infused Everest with a blend of several creatures, all inspired by his beloved bernedoodle, Marty. "Everest's sounds are a mix of ape, with a lot of dog and a bit of horse in there," Izzo says. Still, the voice is always reflective of the artwork. "You need to stick to the design as much as possible," Izzo says. "Everest has this big mouth, big voice and big teeth...but he reminds me of a friendly gorilla. He started out more beastlike but has softened up over the years. It helped to lighten up his character thinking of little subtleties my own dog has. Everest is smart but can't vocalize too much. It came down to giving him subtle grunts and reactions."

To perform opposite Everest, Chloe Bennet pulled from her experiences with her dogs, past and present. "Everest is every dog I've ever had," Bennet says. "I grew up with bullmastiffs. One of our mastiffs had long hair, weighed 215 pounds and her name was Kitty. She was massive. I grew up with six brothers and three massive dogs in Chicago. So, the chaos of having this massive animal and trying to keep it on a roof was so weirdly organic. I also have a French bulldog who is white, and he is so similar to Everest in his mannerisms.

"Everest is just so cute," Bennet continues. "It was so fun to see his evolution, the noises he makes and the combination of how the filmmakers got to that place of creating this lovable icon. If you love animals, the power of having a stressful day and coming home to an animal that you love is so real. Anyone who cares about animals can relate to Everest. He's very real to me."

Tenzing Norgay Trainor
Jin is a popular and self-involved 18-year-old. He and Yi have grown up together, yet they have developed different tastes and are no longer close. But when Yi needs his help getting Everest home, Jin rises to the occasion and is willing to endure even the loss of Wi-Fi to help his friend. He's not just the opposite of Yi. He's the one who's primped out and would never leave the city. She's the one who is looking over the wall. The more Jin's afraid to get dirty, the more Yi is rough and tumble.

When they were kids, Jin watched out for Yi because she would get into trouble. He ends up going on this journey because Everest grabs Yi from the rooftop-where she's been taking care of him-when Burnish's mercenaries come after them and the Yeti takes her on his back across the city. Along with Peng, Jin chases after her until they end up on a dock. She puts Everest on a rickety barge, where he is clearly not going to be okay. Yi makes that leap of faith to jump onto the vessel with him, and of course Peng follows; Jin makes the choice to jump into action. Their lives will never be the same.

"Jin is connected to his friends, but what he's looking for is something deeper-this way to be connected to his more authentic self," Buirgy says. "He finds his way to that as he makes his journey with, and gets separated from, Yi and Peng. He gets on board with the idea that Everest is important, and they need to get him back home. Still it is NOT Jin's job to save Yi. That was never the idea with this story, and that's not going to happen. You feel a little [romantic] twinkle [between them], but Yi's not there yet. It's a friendship. He respects her, and she learns to respect him."

Culton agrees that they have always thought of Yi and Jin as growing up together. "You learn that throughout the story, but we add later in the film that they were best friends when they were little kids and Jin always looked after Yi like she was his little sister," the director says. "When you have characters that are that close but drift apart, they still always know each other. It's like kids I grew up with on my block. Even though we had different personalities and fell into different social groups...if anything should happen to me, or if I was upset, you crossed the lines. The barriers of social groups can be crossed if something extraordinary happens, whether it's a tragedy or a joy."

Brought aboard to play Jin was breakout TV performer Tenzing Norgay Trainor, who has made a name for himself in the past several years on the Disney Channel. The actor liked to offer multiple versions of his lines and was willing to try just about anything for the sake of the film. "Tenzing was so funny when he would go to these great extremes," Culton says. "He would make Jin throw a fit, and his voice would go to this squeaky place. His character is so specific to these guys who really care about what they look like and seem so suave on the outside but can come unravelled about the dumbest things like their shoes getting dirty. He would just go there on his tirades that were so funny and not flattering, like yelling, 'Do you know how much I paid for these shoes!?'" Yet, Jin is the most responsible character in the film. He looks out for everyone, and you love him for that. Tenzing brought comedy but also a soulfulness to this character, who truly transforms over the film."

For Trainor, the most interesting aspect of the years-long production was getting the opportunity with Culton's crew to riff. "Jill, Todd and I would constantly bounce ideas off each other, like, 'What if Jin said this?' Trainor says. "Sometimes we would, with the animators in the room, ask, 'What if he did this, as well as saying this?' They'd have cameras on me to mimic my actions. We constantly thought of different ways to do things."

As so much of vocal performance in animation is a solitary exercise, Trainor welcomed the rare opportunity to act alongside his fellow Abominable performers, especially when it came to the infamous "maybe it's you" scene. "Chloe and I were able to record twice, once with no cameras," Trainor says. "That was the best experience I've had. She's such a great actor and being able to go into the booth together and talk face-to-face during the making of an animated movie was so cool. We were able to say our lines differently because we could see each other's faces, as well as how we were reacting to the dialogue. In the booth, it was Jill, Chloe and me. It was a creative space where we could all just talk to each other. I feel like the words had more meaning behind them. The scene we did together was one of the most emotional in the movie."

Culton loved that her young cast welcomed opportunities to challenge themselves. Even though she wrote the script, she was open to letting the actors try what felt most natural to them. "I feel like after so many recording sessions, the actors become the characters," Culton says. "If I heard them tripping up during a read, I'd ask them, 'What do you think you would say here?' We'd workshop the script pages, and it was exciting to watch it unfold. Someone might accidentally say something so much better. In live action, you don't always have the opportunity to do that."

Just as it took some time to perfect Yi's arc, Culton and her fellow filmmakers evolved Jin's interplay in the saga. "My character went from being the whiny, complain-y kid to the more mature one," Trainor says. "They went back and split the difference and, by the end of the film, alongside Yi, he's taken the grown-up role." The performer appreciates that his character evolves as much as any other in Abominable. "One of the biggest themes of the movie is being open to change," Trainor says. "Yi's character opens her heart and learns to embrace her family. Jin does as well. He starts as this conceited kid who is trying to be popular and not including the family. His revelation is that the problem has been with him himself the whole time."

Albert Tsai
Peng is a fun-loving, basketball-playing 9-year-old who is constantly trying to get Yi or his cousin Jin to play with him. Voiced by 15-year-old Albert Tsai, best known for his roles on the ABC series Trophy Wife and Dr. Ken-and who got his start at the age of 8 on CBS' hit series How I Met Your Mother-Peng finds a kindred spirit in Everest. He is instantly enthusiastic about the adventure to help return his new Yeti back home. The antics of Peng and Everest are the source of much hilarity on their journey to the Himalayas. Tsai was the first member of the production to be cast and has been recording with Abominable since he was 12.

For Buirgy, the scenes between Peng and Everest are among her most cherished in the film. "I adore the sequence between the two of them when they're playing in the background and you realize that Everest is just a kid," the producer says. "That whole scene with that crazy humor is so relatable, yet you're in an all-new place in their world. That's a gentle way of saying, 'We are all connected; we can find common ground if we look for it.'"

Joseph Izzo appreciated the familial interaction Culton fostered between Peng and Everest, and he brought that into his character work. "I grew up in a big family," Izzo says. "I have younger siblings and nine nieces and nephews. In those moments with Peng, I couldn't help but think that's what I'd do with them. I'd play monster with them. Even though the other actors weren't in the room, it felt like such a playful moment."

The Peng-Everest scenes are some of Chloe Bennet's favorites, too. "From a comedic standpoint, anything with Peng and Everest is so funny and exciting for me," the actor says. "I have a little brother who was so similar to Peng when we were growing up. Getting to watch a Chinese family, in a story that takes place in China, being completely normalized is what I've been craving to see on screen since I was a kid."

While Yi leaps before she looks, and Jin is the too-cautious skeptic, Peng is pure joy. "We've always looked at Peng as the true kid in the moment who's enjoying everything," Culton says. "He doesn't think that anything is going to happen to them. If he's crying one moment, he is laughing the next. He's all emotion and wearing his heart on his sleeve. Because he's a kid, Yi and Jin take the role of parents. They have to watch out for him because he will get himself into trouble. This journey has forced them to take on adult roles.

"We wanted Peng to also be a kid, so we could show how his playing with Everest made it obvious to Yi that Everest was a kid himself," Culton continues. "The way they bond, the way they play and do thumb wars together-this rough-and-tumble bond Peng has with Everest-makes Yi realize Everest has parents waiting on him that he must get back to. That tugs deeply at her heartstrings and makes her more determined to get him home; it also comes from her deep-seated longing to have her own family back together again. That means not just her own mom and grandma, but with the greater family of Jin and Peng as part of that."

Culton found Tsai and his family to be eager collaborators, and she was constantly amused by how the young performer served as a de facto script supervisor and junior rigger on Abominable. "Albert has these high-powered parents willing to give up everything to fly down here from San Jose for recording sessions," she says. "He must have this photographic memory. Every time I would change one word of the script-whether his lines or anyone else's-he'd say something like, 'Didn't this used to say...?' 'Is this the scene that's between the canola fields and the bamboo grove? You guys took a scene out of here, right?'"

The filmmaker loved that her young star was as invested in the production as anyone on set. "Albert had done an animation camp once, and he would come upstairs to talk to his character's lead animator and would know all the technical terms," Culton recalls. "He'd ask questions like, 'Did you put the rigging here?'"

Tsai responded to the character and instantly saw that he and Peng have several similar personality traits-both confident, happy, fun-loving and energetic. As well, Tsai drew much inspiration for Peng from his younger cousin, with whom he is quite close. It was poignant for the Taiwanese-American performer to be involved in a project with such familial ties, as well as to help showcase the beauty of China.

For the actor, it became a bit of a game to discover if Culton had altered even one word of a scene when he'd come back to re-record. "I love reading scripts, and I like to pick up on changes in sequences, or if they'd swap something," Tsai says. "One of my favorite parts of filming was watching the different clips that Jill and Todd would show before each recording session. Even the visuals of the same scene would change so much that it'd become a whole new scene to me."

Tsai admits that he feels a great deal of affection not only toward the process, but for his Abominable family. "Every time we went back to record, Jill and Todd would have animated more scenes, and they would show me clips my character was in," Tsai says. "It was interesting to see Abominable go from basic sketches to 3D animation and finally in a movie theater, with the lighting, music and all details completed. It was so emotional. One of my favorite moments was getting to meet the cast at the EPK shoot, because I'd always recorded alone with Jill and Todd. Chloe, Tenzing and I finally got to record side by side."

When asked if he's been bitten by the animation bug and has any interest in laboring on the other side of the camera, Tsai says: "I'd love to go behind the scenes and work in animation one day. It's such a different process than live action and TV-where we film with the cast all at once. The creative process is so amazing. I saw how Jill, Todd and Suzanne went through and turned the script for Abominable into a full movie."

Throughout the process, Tsai embraced his role. "Albert was always willing to be in the moment and make things up," says his director. "He is that kid who's in the moment, and I appreciate his brightness. He also has the funniest giggle in the world. He was so happy to just be there and embody the character, as well as to know more about the movie and to be a part of the crew. He's a delight."

Nai Nai
Tsai Chin
Nai Nai is Yi's opinionated grandmother whose words of wisdom don't always make immediate sense. She is a traditionalist, baffled by Yi's habit of running from place to place. Nai Nai suspects that Yi is not dealing well with the death of her father and spends her days trying to keep her little family intact.

Brought to life by legendary actress Ms. Tsai Chin-whose career has spanned early days as an ingenue in the James Bond series and as the toast of the West End in the '60s, to latter scene-stealing work in The Joy Luck Club and a celebrated role in this year's Lucky Grandma-Nai Nai is Yi's paternal grandmother, who serves as a poignant reminder that it's not only Yi who's grieving. In one scene where Yi's mom is telling Nai Nai how much Yi misses her dad, Nai Nai replies, "We all do."

For Chou, working with the actress was one of the pinnacles of her career. "Tsai Chin is an icon and seeing The Joy Luck Club was one of those seminal moments in my life," Chou says. "That film was the first time that I felt like anything on screen that related to me and my family was in mainstream media. I was in my early 20s working at Touchstone Pictures right before it came out, and I saw it in a screening room. By the end, I was the only person left in this giant room by myself. Everyone else had left. There were tears streaming down my face; it was this surreal moment. I remember at that time with anyone I dated-who I thought it could be serious-I'd tell them, 'You have to watch The Joy Luck Club with me. I have to know your reaction.' That was the litmus test for a viable relationship."

The fabulous octogenarian, who was a young girl in Shanghai during World War II, reflects on her storied career-noting that she owes much of who she is as a performer to the three countries she has called home. "I always think that China gave me my roots, England nurtured me and America rewarded me," Ms. Chin says. As a teacher of aspiring actors, she offers advice she's given to her students for decades. "Acting is like a pyramid. Talent is at the bottom, but it has a lot to do with luck," Ms. Chin says. "The rest is training and hard work. If you have talent but don't work hard, train hard and have some luck, it doesn't matter."

The first Asian student ever admitted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-as well as the first Asian woman to headline a sold-out show in the West End and on Broadway-the titular star of The World of Suzie Wong discusses where she's been, as well as what drives her and informs her performances. "When you get to a certain age, you're playing the mother, then the grandmother. Eventually, I'll play great-grandmother," Ms. Chin says. "Still, I've never played anyone as a victim. That's what I tell a lot of young actors. 'Stop whining. Fight, but don't whine. It gets very boring!' My mother was a strong woman, and I'm not a shrinking violet. Even when I was small, I fought with boys. I didn't always win, but I'd get up and fight again. It's not in me to play somebody weak. I always try and infuse some punch into my character."

Ms. Chin credits her beloved parents for the sense of confidence she's brought to characters including Yi's Nai Nai, a trait she infused in the vocal work for Abominable and echoes the strong heroine Culton created. "My father was very progressive for a classical actor, and from a small age, my mother told me that it's not about marrying a rich person. It's about being strong and educated," Ms. Chin says. "Very early on, I've learned the power of saying 'no.' I've been acting for 62 years and have done everything, including having a huge record. After a while, you go beyond the technique. You're free, but you have all the technique inside you." When queried to describe her experience with the DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio team over the past couple of years, Ms. Chin says, "I just love the people there. The great thing about animation is that you're very close to the director. I told Jill, 'It takes a woman to put me in the back of the kitchen!'"

Chin's emotional depth and more than six decades of experience as a performer imbued her scenes with grace and gravitas. "Grandma is the one holding the family together," Culton says. "At the end of the film, when Yi comes back, Nai Nai says, 'It's good to have you back, granddaughter.' That statement has a double meaning. It means, 'I'm glad you're back from Beijing' and it also means, 'I'm glad we can now have you back, connected with the family.'" After Culton explained the double entendre to Ms. Chin during her recording session, something changed. "She stopped for a minute, looked at me, then went somewhere in her head," Culton says. "When she came back, from wherever that was, and said that line, it brought tears to all our eyes. She dug into a place within herself where it resonated within herself and her own family. She's the heart of the film. I couldn't love Tsai more; she's a treasure."

Now that she's traversed roles from stage to screen, as well as student to professor, Ms. Chin notes that this unexpected, new period in her career offers rewards in a different way. Indeed, that freedom allowed her to bring to Nai Nai the spirit of one tough, lovable grandma. "The great thing about voice is that you don't do it every day. Also, they pay much better than being in a play," Ms. Chin says, dryly. "That's the irony of it all: The harder you work, the less you get! I love the crew of Abominable, and what's wonderful is that you can make all sorts of noises you normally don't make in polite society, as well as make people laugh."

Yi's Mom
Michelle Wong
Yi's Mom is sad and worried about her daughter. She is still suffering from the loss of her husband, but her most immediate concern is helping her child. Her strength and belief will come to be great sources of comfort for Yi.

Carnegie Mellon-trained thespian Michelle Wong, known for her role in Dear White People and a wide array of vocal work, brings her talents to the role of the woman struggling to hold her family together after her partner's death. While Nai Nai can't understand why Yi is so distant, Mom knows that her daughter needs time to process the grief. "Michelle was perfect for Mom," says Buirgy. "We were all kind of knocked out when we found out how young she was because her voice has such warmth to it."

We meet Yi's Mom at the beginning of Yi's journey and through her character we see the family is struggling to move on after a devastating blow. As the film's star has such unique intonations, it took some time to find the ideal actress to bring life to Yi's mother. "Chloe has a rich, deep voice, and they needed someone with a deep voice to match hers," Wong says. "It was nice to live in my natural tone. As a woman, I find myself often having to lighten my voice and make it a bit brighter, but as Yi's Mom, I really got to sit in the depth, roundness and warmth of it...since that's what Jill and her team were drawn to."

From the first time she saw Culton's visuals for the animation, the San Diego, California, native was impressed by the attention to detail and respect paid to Asian heritage. "I was blown away by how gorgeous everything was and so excited to see how much Chinese culture was incorporated into Abominable," Wong says. "It was so cool to see a Chinese family portrayed on screen as a real family...not a caricature of one. This is a family that is similar to the one I grew up in. When I was auditioning for the role of Yi's Mom, I thought a lot about how my own mom talks to me when I'm in a tough place. There's a fine line between stern and loving." The actress echoes her co-stars when reflecting upon the connectedness of this tale. "I hope that people recognize the relatability of the problems this family is dealing with and the journey they're taking," Wong says. "The relationships are so honest, and I'm so grateful that we can tell a story that takes place with Asian characters but is about the universality of humans."

All people feel distant from their family and friends at some point in their lives, and the role of Yi's mother represents that safe space that Yi, and by extension every child, needs. "Whether it's a kid that's bullied in school and won't talk to their parents about it, or whether it's a divorce, we all long to connect with our family," Culton says. "But along the way, circumstances happen where that's not possible. When we're distanced from our families, that tugs at everybody's heartstrings. You want to feel bonded to the people who are part of your central unit."

It is Yi's Mom's steady guiding hand and unconditional love that will ultimately give Yi the courage she needs. "Yi's going on this journey to reconnect back to her family," Culton says. "She needs to realize that her Mom and Nai Nai are still there. Plus, her extended family of Jin and Peng is even bigger and more supportive than she thought it could be. We didn't want to shy away from the hard feelings of going through grief, but we also didn't want that to lead the story."

Reflecting upon the moment that Yi's Mom closes the door to her daughter's room and sighs, Wong agrees that so much of Abominable is in the moments that aren't said-looks, sighs and double meanings all exist between the dialogue. "In a family dynamic where you don't talk about emotions very much, that inhale-and-exhale expression is everything," Wong says. "I remember how much Jill and I worked on conveying looking at a child and wanting them to be safe...and wishing that you knew how to make it all better. Sometimes there aren't words to express what you're feeling."

Eddie Izzard
When Burnish was a kid, he claimed he saw a Yeti, and the world laughed at him in disbelief. Since then, he has built incredible wealth and destroyed as much natural beauty as possible. Now, as an old man, he still dreams of proving to the world that Yetis exist. In Burnish's mind, capturing Everest would be the ultimate revenge.

For the production, it took a while to figure out the dynamic between Burnish and Everest. "It's really tough to have villains that you care about," says Buirgy, "but you need some reason for why they're doing what they're doing. In the end, here's this guy who wants to prove to himself that he saw a Yeti." Driven by that obsession, he's disconnected from the world.

But as Burnish pursues Everest, he's thrust into nature and is forced to reinsert himself into life; that changes him. "The idea that there are precious things we must take care of is important to the story," Buirgy says. "The message is 'interact with them but put them back.' When Burnish reconnects with life, he is given a choice to make."

Brought on board to play Burnish was British actor Eddie Izzard, who is equal parts actor and comedian. "Eddie has done some animation before, but I was lucky that a good friend of mine had worked with him before," says Culton. "He told me Eddie loves to play with the role; you can't hold him to the pages. He's not only an incredible performer, he's an amazing person."

Her colleague wasn't kidding. Culton was stunned to find out that Izzard had, only a few years prior, run 27 marathons in 27 days. "Eddie has stamina and willpower like no one I have ever seen," she says. "The strength of will and mind is key to who he is as a person; he's intense. I told him 'We want you to play with this character and make him your own. If that means going off script, as long as we get the main content we need, I'm totally good with that."

Together, they dove into the character, and Izzard mined the depth of the Yeti-obsessed Burnish, finding layers and complexity within what could have been a stock villain. "We want you to see two sides of the same coin with all the characters," Culton says. "At the end of the first day of recording, Eddie said, 'I really love this character!'"

The filmmaker found working with Izzard to be a delightful roller coaster. "Anytime you record Eddie, he'll start with the script, then go off on a stunning way," Culton says. "When we got his recordings back, I had every word he gave us transcribed. It was countless pages of beautiful tangents that would weave in and out of the plot, ones we folded into the character. With someone like him, you're getting unexpected humor-twists that give the character a nuance I didn't write. That's the beautiful thing with filmmakers and actors. You're creating one thing, but the performers give it such dimension. He did that in spades here."

While Izzard has done a number of comedic roles for animation and live action, he appreciated the opportunity to bring a more serious side to the grizzled Burnish-empathizing with the antagonist's wounded qualities. "You have to find the humanity to him to crack the arc of this guy who is a bit pompous and bombastic," Izzard says. "I've trained myself to do both comedic, off-the-wall, as well as more dramatic. In life I've found that there are qualities one can have like, say, determination that-depending on whether you have a positive heart or a negative heart-will express themselves differently. Burnish is a determined little bastard of small stature who has no sense of humor, whereas I do have a sense of humor. He's fearful and suspicious, while I try to be brave and curious."

When he was a boy, Burnish believed that he narrowly escaped an attack on Mt. Everest by a Yeti, and he's spent his life trying to convince anyone who will listen how he is the wounded party, as well as that these creatures are vicious and must be destroyed. Izzard was keen to explore how early fear deeply shapes personality traits. Much like his director, the performer mined pathos within comedy. "You have to think about how scared Burnish felt up on that mountain and how he reacted with anger," Izzard says. "That taps into the life of human beings as we've known in our time and down through the centuries. If you're scared, some people attack, instead of asking yourself if you should be brave and curious."

Echoing producer Buirgy's comments regarding respecting the order of the natural world, Izzard extends his thoughts to the power of connectivity Abominable explores. "The film shows quite a childlike quality of the character of Everest," Izzard says. "If you track almost all mammals in the world, they all have this childlike beginning. But when they become adult, we can become afraid of them. This creature looks very alien, but in the end, there's this connectivity between Everest and humans. Maybe we see ourselves reflected in a scared creature that is lost. How would you feel if you were lost and didn't know how to find your way home?"

The performer and activist pauses, offering that just as Burnish misjudges Everest, so often do humans initially stereotype one another. "Shyness and aloofness can look like the same thing," Izzard says. "Many people have been attacked when they were seen to be standoffish, but they were just shy. Hopefully, audiences can look at this and see a story of someone who is quite like humans in the end...someone just trying to get back home."

Dr. Zara
Sarah Paulson
Dr. Zara is much more than she appears to be. On the surface, she is a British zoologist who loves animals and works to ensure their safety and well-being. Although she is helping Burnish find Everest, she swears that her goal is to protect Everest from Burnish's darker impulses. As the story unfolds, though, we wonder if the brilliant scientist is as wholly altruistic as she claims to be.

Bringing the character to life is multihyphenate Sarah Paulson, an award-winning performer who became a huge contributor on set. "I've always loved Sarah as an actress, and from the outside she appears so casual, so happy-go-lucky...but she is a perfectionist with her craft," says Culton. "When we pitched her the idea that she'd have a British accent, she had two things that were important to her: 1) not being too cartoony, which I appreciate because we always try to make our characters steeped in reality, and 2) she also didn't want to have an accent everyone could tell was fake. Sarah asked for a dialect coach [JESSICA DRAKE, Forrest Gump, AMC's The Walking Dead], and she really studied. The dialect coach was in the room or on the monitor with me in the booth. Sarah would go through her lines, and we'd either get the thumbs up or down from the coach. She was course correcting throughout her performances."

Over the course of production, Paulson was never precious and was willing to take any direction, no matter how small. Culton laughs: "Jessica would say, 'It's like you have a ping-pong ball in your mouth...'. Sarah had to keep track of not just performance, but also this person correcting her dialect. To navigate a good performance through that is incredible. Her accent turned out fantastic, but even more than that, she allows the character to go from uptight and proper to totally undone. Her entire body posture changed with that transition, and we then worked with the animators to reflect that, to make every nuance appropriate."

For the actor, bringing life to Dr. Zara equalled a lifelong coming to terms of her own. Despite the success Paulson has found on screen, the actor assumed she'd never be able to work in animation. Turns out that what she supposed was a deterrent was just what Culton saw as the embodiment of the tale's zoologist. "Early in my career, I lost a job with a lot of voiceover because I have a sibilant 's' when I speak," Paulson says. "I was told that because of my slight speech impediment, it would be hard for me to get employed on a project with heavy voiceover work. I had a misconception about this world, and I was anxious and unsure." Fortunately, what was a lifelong knack for off-the-cuff vocals ended up landing her the work. "I got on the phone with Jill, who had seen me on Jimmy Fallon doing certain impressions," Paulson says. "She felt the film would be a natural fit, and I told her I was apoplectic about doing it, but she talked me into the film. It was empowering, and I credit the team for making me feel comfortable, and that I was the only one they wanted to voice Zara."

As brave and curious as Eddie Izzard asks us all to be, Paulson found her foray into voiceover brought challenges to her craft she never expected. "With this kind of work, bigger is better, which is the opposite of most work as an actor," Paulson says. "Traditionally, naturalism is king, or queen, something I adhere to. This role pushed the limits of my comfort zone, to go bigger, bigger, bigger. But when we played back recordings with the rough animation, I could tell that it needed more. After going in to record blindly, then seeing it matched with animation, I realized I could go bigger and that this part needed to go bigger."

As she went through the years-long process of animation, the performer appreciated the level to which her director allowed her to tinker with the role. "Jill and I kept talking about how I could modulate the believability of the character. It was important to both of us that Dr. Zara not be a wallflower or overly meek at the top. She didn't want to put that out in the world. The idea of Zara being a very capable scientist and a strong woman was very important, and it was to Jill whom I looked for guidance with the character. I relied solely on that. She's a wonderful person."

Paulson found that bringing life to her zoologist was both affirming and utterly terrifying. "Everyone I know who's done voiceover work says it's the greatest job in the world," Paulson says. "I'm such a perfectionist, who's been told I didn't have a voice for this world, that I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to give them what they needed. It was a big release for me that by the end of the process I did have fun. The team made me feel valued."

Likewise, she appreciates that Abominable is for all audiences, and that its core message is one of empowerment. "I'm grateful to be a part of a movie that I'm so proud to send my two nieces off to, and they'll see that their Aunt Sarah was a part of this entire universe," Paulson says. "It's a powerful thing to say to them, 'This is a movie written and directed by a woman, produced by women and starring women. Look what you can do. Being a woman is an asset, not a hindrance. Go out and shake things up.'"

The actor shares that moviegoers demand the life they experience be reflected and elevated. "For audiences and the world at large, when you're telling stories, you want to see what your world looks like represented on screen," Paulson says. "Given that there are so many women walking the planet, you want to feel that represented in the manner that this story is given to you-through the lens, the gaze or the eye of the female perspective. Having that all around you while you're working on a story about this young girl and her journey is moving and beautiful. Any time you feel yourself represented, it makes you feel less alone on the planet. The more you feel connected to those around you, there's a general sense of goodwill. In order for that to happen, you have to have your world reflected back to you in the art that we digest. I'm glad to be part of something that represents a real shift into more of this work happening."

Jerboas and Whooping Snakes
Abominable's Animal Oddities
Much like Yi and Everest, the supporting creatures in this film have evolved over the years. Originally, Yi had a mouse named Ling-Ling, but the character eventually became, instead, a jerboa (desert-dwelling rodent) named Duchess. And, perhaps the production's favorite surprise were the whooping snakes, genetically engineered creatures that originated from a very unexpected place. "It was late night during a brainstorm when we came up with this idea that made us giggle," Buirgy says. "The whooping snakes became the 'whack-a-mole' of the movie. Kids just dug the unexpected 'Whoop. Whoop!' They're just so funny."

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