One of Kung Fu Panda's leaders marries martial arts and animation
Rodolphe Guenoden, 39, originally from Noyon, France, is an animator at Dream Works, and a martial arts veteran. He's worked on blockbusters like Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, and Madagascar.
And, now, a lead animator for Kung Fu Panda. The animated film, which hit theaters June 6, features the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu, and tells the tale of a lazy panda seeking to embrace his fate as a great warrior.SI.com got the chance to speak with Guenoden about his latest film and his martial arts' knowledge.
Epstein: So you've studied martial arts, including karate, taekwondo, and Krav Maga, for 18 years. This movie must have been a pretty cool project for you then, huh?
Guenoden: Yeah, it mixes my two passions: drawing and martial arts. I've been [working] on the movie for five years now, starting from when they gave it the green light.
Epstein: How do you have animated animals doing martial arts without it looking hokey?
Guenoden: We had to adapt a lot, because we really wanted to stay true to the martial arts. We had to do adaptations for the characters: a tiger, monkey, snake, mantis, panda and crane. We actually adapted the five most renowned animal styles [of kung fu]: tiger, crane, viper, mantis, and monkey. Those traditional forms have some animal elements that are translated into human form.
Epstein: But still, humans have four limbs.
Guenoden: Right. For example, we couldn't add any legs or arms to the viper in the movie to get those forms. And with the crane technique, there are a lot of strikes for a human that mimic the beak with just a human hand. But we didn't want our crane to be striking with the beak, and we didn't want him to make a fist with his wings. We had to take a few liberties to stay moret true to the animal.
The crane was a great opportunity to make our character very weightless. With just a simple flick of wings he'd be able to take off. Pretty much like actors on wires, he could just take off, but it makes more sense for Crane than with a human.
With Monkey [voiced by Jackie Chan], of course we used Monkey's agility to some extent. We wanted him to be extremely acrobatic and to use his tail in many ways to help him up. But we tried to stay grounded. We didn't want to bring any fantasy or magic or anything like that. We still wanted them to have weight or be believable when they moved
Epstein: What about Snake?
Guenoden: We would find ways of mimicking a shape in silhouette -- mimicking an actual joint in its shape or silhouette with the viper's body, in order to portray a kick or punch. The viper was the most challenging, probably because of the nature of the snake.
We did try to keep some of the animal traits. The human tiger style is from southern China, and the strength of the style relies more on the upper body, the arms and posture. It's not that acrobatic. We wanted our tiger character [voiced by Angelina Jolie] to be able to jump super high and twist in many ways. In that sense ... we can make our cat more of a cat when she fights.
Epstein: So did you also tailor the styles to express who the characters are?
Guenoden: Yes, of course. Bruce Lee always said martial arts is an expression of self.
Epstein: Panda kung fu is not a real style though.
Guenoden: Well, the panda in the film is totally inadequate to be a martial artist at first. He's physically inept. He's just a big fan. It's like somebody doing air guitar but not knowing how to play. But he is chosen to be the ultimate warrior and defend the valley against Tai Lung [the snow leopard]. Tai Lung is coming for revenge, so Po the panda [voiced by Jack Black] has to be trained.
Epstein: Did you have to teach other animators about martial arts so the movements would be more believable?
Guenoden: We gave martial arts classes to the animators for them to understand the basic mechanics. Every week we had a session of just training and watching movies, and analyzing and drawing from classic movies from the 1970s, or like Hero, or Flash Point, and of course Bruce Lee. And Jackie Chan was a big influence.
Epstein: So did you actually have a full-on martial arts class at your office?
Guenoden: At the peak, we were about 35 animators, and once Eric Chen [a martial artist] came with students and gave an all-day class, and then we tried to keep that up among ourselves. We would find an empty room and do it on our own. I think it was important for animators to understand how they should place their hips or weight on a kick, so they could recreate it.
Epstein: What was your favorite character to make?
Guenoden: I was pretty keen on Crane. The huge wing-span, the graceful, circular movements. It's pretty similar to aikido or tai chi. I also love the very, very old turtle who is the wise man, father figure of the valley. We wanted to give a hint of his tai chi style even in his normal movements. So he will be talking with this grace and shift of weight that would be so controlled. We had a tai chi master that came over and gave classes.
Epstein: Did anybody get hurt in any of the martial arts classes?
Guenoden: We had a few people falling down. One while trying to kick. There were some class where I could see some people nearly hurting themselves, nearly falling back on a table or something. I tried to make sure we moved the tables.
Epstein: So as someone who appreciates the martial arts, what do you want other martial artists to see in the film?
Guenoden: I would love for the audience first to appreciate the integrity of the movie for the culture, and because of the architecture and scenery, which shows all the beauty of China and the martial arts. And the integrity in not making [Kung Fu Panda] magical. It's still believable.