Jennifer Yuh Nelson at the Los Angeles premiere of "Kung Fu Panda 2." (Photo:  Tinseltown/ Jennifer Yuh Nelson at the Los Angeles premiere of "Kung Fu Panda 2." (Photo:  Tinseltown/

Meet Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the director of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’

The Korean-American director of Kung Fu Panda 2, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, is (I believe) the first female Asian director of a major animated feature.

The lack of racial and gender diversity in Hollywood animation, particularly in the upper-tier creative positions, has always been disheartening to me, because the animation that appears in theaters and on TV often reflects the limited experiences and points of view of the people who create animation. It’s encouraging to see a new generation of directors, like Yuh Nelson and Rio‘s Carlos Saldanha, breaking Hollywood’s traditional mold of animation directors. Here’s her official bio from DreamWorks:

Jennifer Yuh Nelson has lent her talents to four of DreamWorks Animation’s motion pictures: 2008’s Kung Fu Panda (as head of story), 2005’s Madagascar (as story artist), 2003’s Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (as head of story) and 2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (also as story artist).

Prior to joining DreamWorks, Nelson worked at HBO Animation, developing various projects and short series. She has worn many hats, serving as director, story artist and character designer for HBO’s animated series Spawn, which won an Emmy Award in 1999 for Outstanding Animated Program.

Nelson’s career in animation has spanned several countries, including Korea and Japan, where she oversaw animation for HBO. Nelson has also worked in Sydney, Australia, serving as a story artist and illustrator for the live-action feature Dark City for Mystery Clock Productions.

Nelson attended California State University, Long Beach where she received a BFA in Illustration. Nelson has also published several independent comic books.

And here’s an interview with her:

(Photo: Tinseltown/

  • tommy

    Happiness for her aside, I can’t wait to see how this will affect criticism of Pixar. Now people will have a harder time calling Kung Fu Panda racist, and Dreamworks will be totally bulletproof when it comes to accusations of sexism. I expect to see people (either rightly, or because they have to get mad at something and there’s already a narrative to continue) really having to come down hard on Pixar, which is (unluckily for Pixar) releasing another male-starred movie, which seems from the trailer to have some borderline racist jokes. People will probably think “Ehn… Korean, Chinese; potato, potahto. Close enough. You’re free to go, Kung Fu Panda 2. But Cars 2, you’re directed by a couple of white guys!”

    • Bud

      [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Be considerate and respectful of others in the discussion. Defamatory, rude or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

      • tommy

        It wasn’t supposed to be a rant. See my reply to Gray64. I’m not mad about anything. I am just predicting the reactions on blogs/in newspapers to Cars 2 and why there will be those reactions.

        I don’t know what “seen Jane” means, tho, so I might be missing something.

      • Keith

        i agree with you on this, but Brenda chapman is co-directing the upcoming pixar movie brave. So pixar is just a little behind i guess. If memory serves me, wasn’t she supposed to direct a movie on her own and got canned?

  • NC

    Looks like DW finally beat Pixar at something.

  • Gray64

    I dunno…people will likely find the stereotypes offensive regardless of who is propogating them. Kudos to Ms. Yuh Nelson, though.
    Since nobody asked, why couldn’t Po (the protagonist of Kung-Fu Panda) have been female? Other than that they would have had to cast someone other than Jack Black for the voice?
    I dislike the tone I’ve heard the diversity discussion take recently. Of course we want diverse creative personel, and we want leadership positions to be available to anyone who can bring talent and vision to a project, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. However, comments like (to paraphrase) “Pixar is releasing another movie with a male protagonist, made largely by men” really makes it seem like you’re keeping a tally somewhere, which really makes it look like you want some kind of quota. What should be the percentage? For every two films directed by men, should you have 1 directed by a woman, with one of the male-directed ones having a female protagonist, with every third female directed film having a male protagonist?

    • tommy

      I’m not keeping a tally, or at least I’m not keeping one on purpose. I was just talking about the number of male protagonists/directors because lots of people seem to have been criticizing Pixar for it lately, and I’m interested in what the reaction to Cars 2 will be, mostly because of how it might affect future Pixar. Also, tho, because I want to watch the fight.

      I doubt that Pixar is sexist. I’m not in the animation industry, so I wouldn’t know, but I’m guessing that, because of the way in which animators have to spend a long time working their way up to directing, and the length of time they stay there, any paucity of female directors would mostly only reflect poorly on the Pixar of 20 years ago, or maybe the industry in general 20 years ago. Once the Brad Birds and John Lasseters retire, I’m sure Pixar will have a female director.

    • Steve Gattuso

      “Since nobody asked, why couldn’t Po (the protagonist of Kung-Fu Panda) have been female?”

      Probably because they didn’t want to tread a line where they’d have a female protagonist who’s essentially a fat fangirl. In return, two of the Masters ARE female, so they can provide positive role models to the audience.

      As for quotas, they’re the other side of the coin (financial gain being the other) that treats creativity as if it’s a Newtonian physics equation where one plugs in the numbers and turns a crank for the result. And I’m just as disdainful of it as you are.

      • Orly

        “Fat fangirl”? LOL! Po is a PANDA. Pandas ALL come in one size only.
        Anyway I assure you that’s not why “they” made Po a male character.

  • Ideally a film should be directed by the best candidate for the position. According to her Dreamworks bio, Jennifer Yuh Nelson certainly has the skills and background to do a good job. Good for her.

  • Orly

    Gray64, I don’t think the point of interest here has anything to do with quotas at all. It’s making general observations about the facts of who works on what.

    People do tend to hire and bring onto projects other people like themselves, not with any agenda or malice or anything except the basic human tendency of like attracting like. Obviously, that can skew any number of things. Better? Worse? Not easy to say, but while it may be impossible to “do” anything about it it would at least be good if some people didn’t flip out over just noting it.

    • Gray64

      Oh, I get your point entirely. It just seems like any time it gets pointed out, there’s an accusation attached to it, whether spoken or unspoken. It always seems to be voiced as “Pixar should develop more projects featuring women/ directed by women/ developed by women” rather than “female animators/directors/ screenwriters should take their projects to Pixar, and Pixar should be open to them.” I’d just prefer the process of film creation be as organic as possible. “As organic as possible” may not be very organic at all in reality, but you see what I mean.

      • Orly

        And I get your point. : )
        But I don’t see any real “accusations” in this post. What I see much more often is that just bringing up the subject is taken as an instant accusation.

        I think any question is less one of ‘Studio X should have more female directors” and much more one of “why aren’t there more female directors at Studio X?”. It’s not a “should” or a “wrong”, it’s just a question. And again I state I think it’s because people are much more receptive to other people who are most like themselves. Artists are as prone to this as anyone else.

  • Trevor

    I’m more impressed that she’s not from CalArts than her gender/background.

  • Yes, kids, it doesn’t matter any more whether you’re a boy or girl or what color you are, any of you can one day direct a paint-by-numbers animated film!

    • I’m sorry but I disagree. Anyone who actual does animation instead of only write about it knows how difficult film making is.

    • Steve Gattuso

      If this was something like “Space Chimps 3,” I could see being snarky prior to release. But the first film was very good, and I’m willing to give this team another shot at the target. I’m about 50/50 with my likes & dislikes when it comes to Ms. Nelson’s prior work, a better batting average than most, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this movie turns out.

  • Murray Bain

    Dark city is an very cool underated film. Watch the recent director’s cut! I quite like Kungfu panda; I’m very interested to see what Jennifer does with it.(and I also hope for another amazing 2D fantasy sequence.)

  • Ethan

    She seems to have a very calm and laid back personality for someone with the pressure of directing a major animated feature. It’s probably a very good thing, especially for a film about inner peace!

    There’s been lot’s of good buzz coming from the premiere at Cannes, it could make 800M+ worldwide easily. Good luck!

  • Gray64

    It is always eddifying to see an artist put in control of a film in this way. From her impressive list of credits, it really sounds like she’s paid her dues. It’s quite a good sign (or at least I think so) that part of her background is in the story department, considering that story often seems to be pretty low priority to entirely too many filmmakers…

  • After knowing that she directed the 2D sequence in the first Kung Fu Panda, NOW I’m excited to see the movie!!!

    She knows her craft. Congrats, Dreamworks!

  • I still say Po shouldn’t have “killed” Tai Lung at the end of the first movie.

    He wasn’t truly evil…and “killing” in this kind of film, (under the circumstances of the story) and in such a “direct” way just never sat well with me.

    The previous directors had to know that is what is implied when someone is vaporized and there’s no body.

    Anyway, I’m curious to see what choices and standards of “right and wrong” Jennifer will present in this installment.

    • Ethan

      There’s absolutely NO proof that Po is a murderer. Come on, give the poor panda a fair trial :-)

      He said he “defeated” him, he never implied he killed him. We do not see what happens, we do not know what caused the blast of chi. There are no explanations of what the finger hold actually does. The official directors’ answer about it is that “we do not know”. Not yet anyway.

    • Scarabim

      I agree. For all we know, Po is a killer. And he seemed pretty unfazed by it. In the Panda Christmas special, when Mr. Ping has a bad dream about Po and Tai Lung, Po says to Tai “I thought you were dead!” So I think we’ve got our answer.

      Come to think of it, in most Disney films, the hero doesn’t kill the villain. The Dwarfs didn’t kill the wicked Queen. Simba didn’t kill Scar. Aladdin didn’t kill Jafar. Whether the killing of a villain is justifiable or not, it’s a little disconcerting when a good guy destroys somebody. Maybe that’s why Po leaves me more than a little cold.

      • Ethan

        Good point about the xmas special! But it doesn’t “prove” anything, it’s possibly a clever misdirection :-) It was Mr. Ping’s dream not Po’s, it represents Mr Ping’s own perception of the situation, and his assumptions about Po. Mr Ping wasn’t there when it happened, nobody was. The only character who knows what happened is Po. That scene only showed us the point of view of the closest character to the event, which is master tigress, and she was miles away. They REALLY didn’t want us to see anything, or know anything.

        I’m just saying that killing him would go completely against Po’s good natured character, and against all the teachings of kung fu, that would be crazy. However, if he didn’t kill him, it makes all the script’s cogs inter-mesh like swiss watch.

  • beenaroundtheblock

    Congratulations, Ms. Nelson, on crashing the boys’ club. And you were promoted for your merits and experience. Even better news.

  • Surf

    Studios now place a lone talented woman on a story team as a kind of spokesperson for their kind which is a slow start, however, that this gives that one person the heavy princess crown of being the first and only woman. As she navigates the landscape of being alone she becomes madly protective of the crown. Studios should hire lots of talented women of different ages (like the men) and support them. Honest and talented women will give an exciting new perspective and can even write their own stories. Women however, really need each other to thrive for the long run even if they don’t know it themselves. One is not enough.

  • Good to see another animator for Cal State Long Beach moving up in the ranks! Congrats!

  • I worked with her on Spirit, and she is a terrific storyboard artist. She worked on HBO’s SPAWN and she designed much of the opening 2D of the first KFP. I am so happy she got to direct, and is kicking major ass!

  • John Kafka

    I was Jennifer’s producer at SPAWN. She is one of the top three animation talents I have known in my entire career, hard-working, visually brilliant, and really nice. Watching her career blossom over the years has been an ongoing enjoyable experience. In one corner of the animation world, one person is doing exactly what she should be and that makes me very happy.

  • Saw the movie and enjoyed it greatly. She’s done a fabulous job; sometimes I wished I could just slow down the film to enjoy the amazing details. There’s great use of 2-D in the flashback scenes, and the comic timing is perfect.