By Iain Blair
Jennifer Yuh Nelson has been an acclaimed — and highly bankable — director in animation for years, thanks to her work on the billion-dollar-grossing Kung Fu Panda franchise.
Now she’s taken on her first live-action film with Fox’s The Darkest Minds. Adapted from the best-selling book by Alexandra Bracken, the first in a YA trilogy, the film stars Amandla Stenberg in the lead as Ruby, along with Harris Dickinson, Miya Cech and Skylan Brooks.
The Darkest Minds also features adults, including Mandy Moore and Bradley Whitford, and revolves around a group of teens who mysteriously develop powerful new abilities and who are then declared a threat by the government and detained. It’s essentially a genre mash-up — a road movie with some sci-fi elements and lots of kinetic action. It was written by Chad Hodge, best known for his work as the creator and executive producer of TNT’s Good Behavior and Fox’s Wayward Pines.
Nelson’s creative team included DP Kramer Morgenthau (Terminator Genisys, Thor: The Dark World), editors Maryann Brandon (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Dean Zimmerman (Stranger Things), and visual effects supervisor Björn Mayer (Oblivion). Fox-based 21 Laps’ (Stranger Things, Arrival) Shawn Levy and Dan Levine produced.
I recently spoke with Nelson about making the film.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
To start off with, I wanted a great emotional core, and as this was based off a book, it already had that built in… even in early versions of the script. It had great characters with strong relationships, and I wanted to do some action stuff.
Any big surprises making the move to a major live-action film, or were you pretty prepared in terms of prep thanks to your background in animation?
I was pretty prepared, and the prep’s essentially the same as in animation. But, of course, production is utterly different, along with the experience of being on location. I had a really great crew and a fantastic DP, which helped me a lot. The big difference is suddenly you have the luxury of coverage, which you don’t get in animation. There you need to know exactly what you want, as it’s so expensive to create. Being outside all day on location, and dealing with the elements and crew and cast all at once — that was a big learning curve, but I really loved it. I had a fantastic time!
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
There were a lot of moving parts, and the main one was probably all the VFX involved. It’s a very reality-based book. It’s not set in outer space, and it’s supposed to look very grounded and seamless with reality. So you have these characters with superpowers that are meant to be very believable, but then we had fire, flamethrowers, 300 extras running around, wind machines and so on. Then all the post fire stuff we had to add later.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Right at the start, and my VFX super Björn Mayer was so smart about it and figuring out ways to get really cool looks. We tried out a ton of visual approaches. Some were done in camera, most were done in post or augmented in post – especially all the fire effects. It was intense reality, not complete reality, that we aimed for, so we had some flexibility.
I assume you did a lot of previs?
Quite a lot, and that was also a big help. We did full-3D previs, like we do in animation, so I was pretty used to that. We also storyboarded a big chunk of the movie, including scenes that normally you wouldn’t have to storyboard because I wanted to make completely sure we were covered on everything.
Didn’t you start off as a storyboard artist?
I did, and my husband’s one too, so I roped him in and we did the whole thing ourselves. It’s just an invaluable tool for showing people what’s going on in a director’s head, and when they’ve seen the pictures they can then offer creative ideas as everyone knows what you’re trying to achieve.
How tough was the shoot?
We shot in Atlanta, and it went smoothly considering there’s always unexpected things. We had freak thunderstorms and a lot of rain that made some sets sink and so on, but it’s how you respond to all that that counts. Everyone was calm and organized.
Where did you post?
Here in LA. We rented some offices near my home and just set up editorial and all our VFX there. It was very convenient.
In a sense, animation is all post, so you must love the post process?
You’re right – animation is like a long-running post for the whole production. I love post because it’s so transformative, and it’s beautiful to see all the VFX get layered in and see the movie suddenly come to life.
Talk about editing this with two editors. How did that work?
Maryann was on the set with us, working as we shot, and then Dean came on later in post, so we had a great team.
What were the big editing challenges?
I think the big one was making all the relationships believable over the course of the film, and so much of it is very subtle. It can come down to just a look or a moment, and we had to carefully plot the gradations and work hard to make it all feel real.
All the VFX play a big role. How many were there?
Well over 2,000 I think, and MPC and Crafty Apes did most of them. I loved working on them with my VFX supervisor. It’s very similar to working with them in animation, which is essentially one big VFX show. So I was very familiar with the process, although integrating them into live action instead of a virtual world is quite different. I loved seeing how it all got integrated so seamlessly.
Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
It was so important to me, and we had quite a few songs in the film because it’s partly a road trip. There’s the big dance scene where we found a great song and then were able to shoot to the track. We mixed all the sound on the Fox lot.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Technicolor, and I’m pretty involved, although I don’t micro-manage. I’d give notes, and we’d make some stuff pop a bit more and play around with the palette, but basically it went pretty quickly as what we shot already looked really sweet.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did, and I can’t wait to do another live-action film. I adore animation, but live action’s like this new shiny toy.
You’re that Hollywood rarity — a successful female director. What advice would you give to young women who want to direct?
Do what makes you happy. Don’t do it just because someone says “you can” or “you can’t.” You’ve got to have that personal desire to do this job, and it’s not easy and I don’t expect change to come very quickly to Hollywood. But it is coming.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.