Abominable is no Disney princess story
WHEN DreamWorks gave Jill Culton the reins to write and direct her own animated film, she wanted it to centre on the type of girl she would have looked up to as a teenager.
The filmmaker, who cut her teeth as an animator and writer on the now classic Pixar films Toy Story and Monsters Inc, took a very loose brief for a 'yeti movie' and returned to her home in the hills of Marin County outside San Francisco to craft what would become Abominable.
The family film follows Yi, a 16-year-old who lives in a bustling Chinese city with her mother and grandmother.
Still mourning the death of her father, Yi's world is turned upside down when she finds a magical yeti on the roof of her building. Determined to help the creature return to his home of Mount Everest, she embarks on a 3000km journey across China.
"I loved the idea that this was not a typical princess movie," Culton says.
"I grew up as a tomboy in Ventura (California), a beach town. I surfed and skateboarded; I didn't care about being dirty. I wanted this character to be the same. She's the role model I wish I had. She's adventurous and stubborn, just like I was. She's wonderfully flawed - aren't we all?"
Culton's 50kg pet bloodhounds helped to inspire the yeti's personality and movements.
"I've had a lot of big dogs in my life and they're so funny. Their personalities make me laugh so hard," she says.
"I felt that non-verbal communication you have with your pet, I wanted to capture that in the movie. The yeti didn't need to speak English to carry the weight of this movie.
"I asked myself a central question: Why did this yeti come to this girl's roof? At the beginning of the film the answer to that is so that Yi could take him back to his home. But at the end of the film the answer is because she needed to heal to become a normal person...the yeti takes on a significant role in leading Yi to a place she can heal. He takes on a guardian angel aspect."
Growing up as a kid who was always drawing and creating stories, Ms Culton knew she'd go into a creative industry. After finding graphic design was not for her, she changed her studies to animation and landed a job with Pixar just in time to work on the animation studio's first major film.
"The first film I worked on was Toy Story as a CG animator, but there so much math involved I thought I was going to die," she says. "I finally got to do animation and storyboarding there, and I got to design Jessie the Cowboy (for Toy Story 2). Pixar was a fun decade for me learning how to tell stories from the heart."
Culton says stepping up to the role of writer and director requires a steadfast vision to navigate a story through years of development and production. Working with producers Suzanne Buirgy (Kung Fu Panda 2) and Peilin Chou (Kung Fu Panda 3, Mulan), Culton helms the first female-led, major-studio animated film with a central female character.
"Animation takes years so a project always goes through changes," she says.
"I think the hardest part about being a writer/director is you have a vision for the film and you have to hold tight to that vision and fight for it so the important pieces of it don't get taken away or changed into something they're not supposed to be."
She hopes Abominable not only strikes a chord in China, but that it inspires Western audiences to learn more about the country.
"I was blown away by the beauty of the Chinese landscape," she says.
"I hope this movie hits people the way it hit me while I was doing the research. China is a lot more than the big cities and the Great Wall.
"As a filmmaker, I am committed to telling universal stories. Regardless of where they're set these themes of family, never giving up when times get hard, disconnection and reconnection reach all cultures."
Abominable opens in cinemas on Thursday.