As a South Korean immigrant who moved not knowing a word of English, Jennifer Yuh Nelson could have never imagined her bright future in Hollywood.
By Ivana Nguyen
As a South Korean immigrant who moved to the United States not knowing a word of English, Jennifer Yuh Nelson could have never imagined her bright future in Hollywood.
But she went from being a self-described “oddball” to the first woman to solo direct an animated film for a major Hollywood studio, and the second to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. The Oscar nomination was for the 2011 DreamWorks production “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which included the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan.
In a few weeks, Yuh Nelson will add another accolade: She is the recipient of this year’s Vision Award presented by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association. She will be honored at the fifth annual V3con, which recognizes the “vision, visibility and voice” of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in digital and social media. The conference aims to connect communities and build new media skills.
Growing up with two older sisters who also liked to draw, Yuh Nelson followed in their footsteps and graduated with her degree in illustration at California State University, Long Beach.
From there she went to DreamWorks, where she worked as the head of story and director of the opening sequence on the first “Kung Fu Panda” film. She was then asked to direct the sequel and co-directed the third installment in the series, which is still in theaters.
She didn’t expect to be a director – and didn’t believe she could be.
But the “Kung Fu Panda” producer, Melissa Cobb, believed it, Yuh Nelson said.
“I said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it,’” Yuh Nelson said.She said,‘Well you’ve already done it.’ And that was when I realized she had been training me all along and was just waiting for me to gain my self confidence.”
Yuh Nelson was four when she immigrated with her family to Long Beach. In her suburban neighborhood, Yuh Nelson was the only Asian student in her classes.
As an adult, Yuh Nelson said she was able to relate to the “Kung Fu Panda” protagonist, Po.. The quirky panda becomes the unlikely hero in the films.
“Knowing what it feels like when you walk into school and feeling like that oddball trying to succeed, trying to fulfill your dreams despite that,” Yuh Nelson said. “That sort of empathy that we feel for Po is something that I felt and I think everyone else feels over many times in their lives.”
Nelson’s latest animated feature is “Kung Fu Panda 3,” which will be available on Blu-ray and DVD June 28.
Yuh Nelson’s other work includes “Madagascar,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and “Spawn.” Although she has always worked on animated features, Yuh Nelson is ready to try her hand at directing live action films.
“I would love to [direct a live action film],” Yuh Nelson said.“I think doing a live action movie someday would be really cool.”