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Inside 'Kung Fu' Panda


Look & Tone
Master Shifu (center, Dustin Hoffman), the legendary trainer of the Furious Five; (left to right) charming and strong Viper (Lucy Liu); easygoing yet formidable Monkey (Jackie Chan); fast and quick-tempered Mantis (Seth Rogan); Tigress (Angelina Jolie),
Master Shifu (center, Dustin Hoffman), the legendary trainer of the Furious Five; (left to right) charming and strong Viper (Lucy Liu); easygoing yet formidable Monkey (Jackie Chan); fast and quick-tempered Mantis (Seth Rogan); Tigress (Angelina Jolie),
DreamWorks Animation LLC

The directors and their design team took a cue from classic martial arts films in creating the milieu for "Kung Fu Panda." Incorporating a 2-D anime-style dream sequence that opens the film, "Even though we were doing a comedy adventure we strove very hard to make an epic, beautiful backdrop against which those comic stories could play out," adds Stevenson.

"It’s not a particular time period, but down to the details of roof shingles and water buckets and the tables and the cutlery, we did a lot of research to make sure that there was nothing in terms of the architecture or the references that would be incorrect," he notes. "We’re asking people to buy a lot of big crazy stuff in the film and to do that they need to accept that the baseline for the world is honest and genuine and credible."

Just for fun, they threw in some subtle in-jokes for the enjoyment of fellow kung fu aficionados -- and those who can read Chinese. Stevenson offers the example of a sign reading "Dragon Gate Inn" in Chinese. "That’s a reference to a great martial arts movie from the ‘60s. We’d sprinkle little things like that in. It doesn’t affect the story, but it made us happy."

Unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy and train in the art of kung fu, giant panda Po begins his study under Master Shifu.
Unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy and train in the art of kung fu, giant panda Po begins his study under Master Shifu.
DreamWorks Animation LLC

Nevertheless, they intentionally avoided delving too far into pop culture and contemporary references. "It would have been a very easy choice to go for the kung fu parody with puns and that kind of stuff but parodies wear out their welcome after about ten minutes," observes Stevenson. "We were trying to return to a more timeless form of storytelling. I think a lot of animated films have chosen to go with pop culture references and be very post-modern in their attitude. We wanted a completely unique world that you’d never been to before that had its own rules and that didn’t reference anything from today."

What they did want, however, was for the actors to bring the characters to life -- to give them their own spin on what the scriptwriters have given them. In the next section, we’ll look at how they did it.

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