DICE 2011: Kung Fu Panda’s John Stevenson On Love Driving Work

In one of the few D.I.C.E. Summit talks not explicitly focused on game development, Kung Fu Panda co-creator John Stevenson shared film industry lessons that he hoped would inspire the audience to do their best work.
In one of the few D.I.C.E. Summit talks not explicitly focused on game development, Kung Fu Panda CG movie co-creator and co-director John Stevenson shared lessons from his experience in the movie industry that he hoped would inspire the audience to do their best work. The number one lesson that the British animation veteran cited were the words of actor Jeffrey Tambor, who said that “the job is to fall in love.” Without love in what you do, Stevenson said, your project will never touch or inspire anybody. This lesson applies, Stevenson said, even if you’re forced to take a project that doesn’t naturally excite your passions. He gave the example of a toilet paper commercial that he was forced to take during his freelance days. “At the end of the day, it might not be Citizen Kane, but it might be the Citizen Kane of toilet paper commercials.” The reason for giving it your all on the “toilet paper commercial” projects, Stevenson said, is to prepare yourself for when the big break finally does come along. “If that dream job comes in one day, you have exercised your professional and creative muscles constantly at peak performance for everything you’ve ever done, so you’ll be ready for that,” he said. Stevenson outlined how a childhood love for the claymation films of Ray Harryhausen eventually led him to apply for a job with Jim Henson’s Muppet Show, despite a total lack of the experience necessary for the job. He figured he’d at least have a chance to see the Muppets before they threw him out on the street again. But Stevenson was surprised to find he got the job despite his lack of qualifications, something he says happened “because I loved the Muppets. I genuinely loved them and [Henson] saw that. I understood what he and they were doing, and I would have paid him to just be part of it.” Collaborating with Henson proved to Stevenson that you don’t have to be an asshole to succeed in the entertainment business, and that saying something as simple as “thank you” or “I don’t know” in a meeting can be the key to getting the best work from your team. He was also inspired by a practice Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones called “The yes sessions,” meetings where no one was allowed to say anything negative that might damage a fragile creative idea. “Even most negative, uncreative people would get so frustrated by not being able to say anything, they’d wrack their brains for something creative to add,” Stevenson said. Stevenson, who now has a producing/directing pact with Vanguard Films and is working on new movie Alien Rock Band, also encouraged team leaders to let their teams contribute while the project is still rough, and not worry about getting the credit for a good idea. “I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room,” Stevenson noted. “I just have to be smart enough to know who the smartest person in the room is.”

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