With a reported budget of $34 million, no major stars attached, and a late summer release date, The Darkest Minds — an adaptation of author Alexandria Bracken's YA novel about a group of teens who develop superhuman abilities after a pandemic has wiped out nearly all their peers — is nowhere near this season's biggest or most hyped movie. But thanks to the person behind the camera, the project is definitely of the most important.
The superlatives on Jennifer Yuh Nelson's resume are both significant achievements and reminders of Hollywood's historic segregation. Nelson is a two time Annie Award-winner, the first (and still only) woman to solely direct a studio animated feature (2011's Kung Fu Panda 2), and also the first person of color to do so, as well. And until last year's Wonder Woman, Kung Fu Panda 2 was the highest grossing film directed by a woman, ever.
A graduate of California State University, Long Beach, where she earned a degree in illustration, Nelson had been drawing since she and her family first immigrated to California from South Korea, back when she was four years old.
She started her career in TV animation, first as a character designer, background and storyboard artist for The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest, the 1997 reboot of the classic Hanna-Barbera animated series. Nelson, soft-spoken, but with a big, hearty laugh, credits her persistence for getting her the gig. After making repeated requests to show what she can do, the producers of the series gave her a page of the script to storyboard, which she handed in two hours later.
"They gave me the rest of the script and I've been storyboarding ever since," she says.
Nelson went from Johnny Quest to work on two cult classics for HBO: Todd MacFarlane's Spawn, where she worked on as a director and storyboard artist, and Spicy City, a six-episode series created by underground animation legend Ralph Bakshi. In 1998, she moved from television to film, joining DreamWorks to work on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and Madagascar.
Working on the first Kung Fu Panda as head of story, Nelson was given the opportunity to direct a scene, the immaculate opening dream sequence. Highly stylized, full of energy, and done in traditional 2D animation, the opening of Kung Fu Panda is one of, if not the, best-looking sequence in the history of DreamWorks Animation.
According to a Los Angeles Times piece published in 2011, her directing that scene was a test set up by Melissa Cobb, the film's producer, and now-former DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. According to the piece, the test was "not to determine if Nelson could handle the challenge — they were certain of that — but to give Nelson the opportunity to prove to herself that she could lead a large group."
She passed the test with flying colors was offered the director job for Kung Fu Panda 2, which she accepted and made animation and film history. The film went on to gross over $660 million dollars worldwide and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. She returned to direct the series third installment, this time with a co-director, Alessandro Carloni, which was not as successful as the second film, but still turned a profit for DreamWorks.
After nearly two decades working in animation, a world where she is both respected and admired, she could have easily continued her career as an animation director; instead, she decided to embark on a new journey, away from the "indoor pet kind of life" to transform herself into a live-action director.
Why now, and why The Darkest Minds as the film where she would make her live-action debut? While she did meet a lot of people who handed her scripts, the script for The Darkest Minds hit her instantly.
"Even though it was a very early draft of the script, it had an impact, and a lot of drafts I was reading didn't have that," she said. It was the story's emotional core that got her. "That's how I understand how to hang a story together, how I know every single shot, moment, word has to be in service getting to that moment."
Making the transition from animation to live-action was always going to be a challenge — it's rare that filmmakers don't experience a real learning curve. She described working on animated films as " staring at a computer for four years with a bunch of people who are doing the same thing," while live-action offers elemental challenges. "You're outdoors fighting the elements: the rain, the cold, the heat and the bugs, and you have to keep a smile on your face and make sure everyone has what they need to do their jobs well," she says.
Then there is Nelson's personality, which is not what you think of when you think of a director on a film set, at least as has been portrayed in the media. "I'm not a loud person, I don't yell and scream 'ACTION!' If I did, honestly, no one would her me. My loudest volume is probably a whisper on a regularly loud set," she says, laughing.
But while quietly terrified at first, Nelson didn't allow herself to get swallowed up by all the expectations and responsibilities. First, thanks to the advice of her first assistant director H.H Cooper, she got fit. "He said, 'work out, work out hard,' because you got to be a machine." And as far as making sure she was heard on set, she developed a system with Cooper where she would use hand signals: "I would hand signal action and he would yell it to that everyone could hear it, the same with cut."
Working with live-action actors, as opposed to voice actors, wasn't so different for Nelson in the very beginning of production. "Working out the characters and the script and rehearsing is the same," she said. The difference is pretty obvious because instead of a booth, she had to direct people — teenagers, no less — out in the field. Her goal working with the cast was to make sure "there was a bubble around the actors so they could do their job well." And from accounts some of the cast has given to the press, it seems to have worked.
Skylan Brooks, who plays Chubbs, told Variety that Nelson was "a quiet force" on set, going further to say she was "the perfect guide to delivering [my character] Chubs."
The hope is that The Darkest Minds marks the beginning of a franchise like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series before it. Whether Nelson will come back, however, is unclear. "I've always led by project to project. For me, I want the viewer to be satisfied for a single movie and want more versus feeling like they're watching something that's part of an anthology. So I always assume that a movie is a stand-alone and then see what happens from there."
She is still set to direct an American remake of Kim Jee-Won's 2011 South Korean film A Bittersweet Life with Michael B. Jordan set to star, and says the screenwriters are "writing as fast as they can" to deliver the final product.
Nelson is one of the most important people working in entertainment today, even if she doesn't receive the public accolades. She continued to push boundaries and set examples for people like her: people into action movies, cartoons who don't want to put their vocal chords through hell to get heard. When our conversation was coming to a close, I asked her if she could ever see herself returning to the world of animation and she informed me that while she will always have a place in her heart for animation, her goal now is to "get to a point where the medium is not even a thing." If anyone can do it, it's probably going to be her.