‘Kung Fu Panda 4’s’ Chameleon Was One of Dreamworks’ Most Complex Creations: ‘Every Little Spike on Her Head…Was Completely Animatable’

“Kung Fu Panda 4” director Mike Mitchell gravitates toward villains that can “reflect the hero.” And that’s something that he leaned into with the Chameleon, a threatening two-and-a half foot shape shifter voiced by Oscar winner Viola Davis, who is the nemesis of Jack Black’s titular panda Po in the latest installment of the DreamWorks Animation franchise.

In the movie, which Universal opens in theaters this weekend, “Dragon Warrior” Po is instructed to find a successor as he moves to a new role as spiritual leader in the Valley of Peace when a formidable foe appears, threatening the village. “The Chameleon is a little character who has been underestimated and that’s similar to Po, who has been underestimated,” says Mitchell, whose directing credits include DWA’s “Trolls” and “Shrek Forever After.” “Who would think that a roly poly panda could ever become a Kung Fu master?”

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The petite Chameleon comes to life with Davis’ performance. Mitchell notes that she gave the character a commanding presence as well as an elegance, dressed in a robe which took some inspiration from Taotie.

For head of character animation Sean Sexton, the villain was among the studio’s most complex from a technical standpoint. “It’s really difficult for the rigging department and for the animation team to move around because there’s so much detail,” he explains. “We had 8,130 individual controls. Every little spike on her head , the flaps on her dress, everything, was completely animatable.”

Her movement was complex, as throughout the story she would shape shift into more than 10 different characters including villains. Animation test helped to determine how she would move while in her chameleon form. That included how her costume would move and how much kung fu would be required.

Kung Fu Panda 4 Chameleon
‘Kung Fu Panda 4’s’ Chameleon

And there were the intricacies of the shape-shifting movement — including size — as the tiny Chameleon transforms at one point into 7-foot tall snow leopard Tai Lung, the antagonist from the first “Kung Fu Panda” film. “We would take the character rigs (a sort of computerized puppet) of Tai Lung and the Chameleon, and we would animate them both simultaneously,” Sexton explains, adding that the Chameleon needed not just Tai Lung’s appearance, but also his Kung Fu prowess.

“We would have two character rigs on top of each other,” he continues. “We’d have to move them simultaneously so that the effects department could meld those two character rigs and the models would basically be copied on top of each other.

“We’d have let’s say 8000 controls for the Chameleon. And then we’d have another 5000 controls for Tai Lung,” he continues. We would have to move all of them in order to make the chameleon transform into Tai Lung. It was complicated and very time consuming.”

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