Open Your Heart a Little
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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 adventure...no 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
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,
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."
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
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 into...to 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
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."
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
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 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
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
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."
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
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
tangents...in 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
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 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
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
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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