Peilin Chou on bringing cultural authenticity to DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s “Abominable”

A Chinese American woman with straight hair crosses her arms and smiles for the camera.
Peilin Chou of Pearl Studio
To Chou, she defines authenticity as truth rendered through an intimate understanding of character and setting, both inside and out.

Peilin Chou, Chief Creative Officer at Pearl Studio, brings over two decades of experience in animation and television as she worked hand-in-hand with DreamWorks Animation in a joint operation to co-produce animated film Abominable, which opens in theaters September 27, 2019.

At Pearl Studio, Chou says her job includes overseeing buying and developing ideas and scripts, overseeing films in production, and working with writers, producers, songwriters, and visual artists. Also, she plays a role in the overall creative direction and goals of the studio. 

Prior to Pearl Studio, Chou was the Development Executive at Walt Disney Feature Animation, contributing to animated films like Mulan and Toy Story 2, worked as Director of Development at Nickelodeon, and as Vice President of Original Series at Spike TV.

Written and Directed by Jill Culton, and along with Chou, produced by Suzanne Buirgy and Rebecca Huntley, Abominable follows protagonist Yi and her friends on a journey to return a Yeti they had discovered back to its home through China and into the Himalayas. The film is executive produced by Tim Johnson, Frank Zhu, and Li Ruigang and is co-directed by Todd Wilderman.

The animated film is voiced by Asian American actors including Chloe Bennet, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Albert Tsai, Tsai Chin, and Michelle Wong.

It’s Yi’s (Bennet) steadfast, iron-willed resolve, along with a dash of courage and a wisp of magic, that helps return the aptly name Everest back home. Along the way, Yi learns more clearly about who she really is and the importance of her family and friends.

At Pearl Studio, Chou is leading the charge in telling animated stories that oscillate the very cultural core of a global audiences base. Yi strikes such a chord for Chou, and likely for other Asian American audiences too, because she was designed with authenticity at it’s heart. For Chou, she feels a responsibility to protect the authenticity of the film.

“We went to great lengths in this unique partnership to ensure that this film is as culturally authentic as possible.”

To Chou, she defines authenticity as truth rendered through an intimate understanding of character and setting, both inside and out.

“Authenticity is when you watch this film, these characters and these settings are as close to the real thing as they can be. Both in superficial appearance as well as going deeper into who these people are and how they interact with each other.”

As fraught as jostling between truth and narrative can be, Chou believes that the joint venture between Pearl Studio and DreamWorks Animation has got it down right. She says that from the get go, the story was intentionally conceived to appeal to both American and Chinese markets alike.

“A great story is a great story no matter where you live, and this film has such wonderful universal appeal and global playability,” she said.

As one of the producers of the film, Chou was instrumental in orienting the film towards a direction that looked visually legitimate to Chinese audiences.

From the fluorescent lights of Shanghai to the rolling fields around the Yangtze River, Chou says that decisions were made deliberately to simulate a look and feel that’s as close as possible to the truth so many Chinese are familiar with.

“In terms of the environment, there are literally hundreds of examples I can tell you. Of street signs, of food, of elements in the home — like the grandma’s water kettle to the Chinese calendar she got at the supermarket, to the upside down fu character hung on the door. These are all nuances that make you feel like you’re there.”

The relationship Yi has with her grandmother, who Chou identifies as a beloved, albeit at times aggravating, maternal figure, is a case study of why small affectations matter too in creating authenticity.

“Chinese grandmothers are quite a beloved group, and we wanted to make sure that character was relatable and real and that people would watch and say, ‘Wow, that’s just like my grandmother!’ We had a lot of discussion on every single sequence and interaction in the film to make sure it really felt true.”

Consider this scene, where careful attention placed into the interaction between Yi and her grandmother:

“There’s one scene where Yi’s grandmother asks her to do something, and she doesn’t want to. What would Yi say where she can be who she is as a character, but still be respectful to her grandmother and true to the culture? We wanted her to walk out of the room and shut the door. There was conversation about would she actually shut the door, how far she would shut the door, what she would say before she shut the door.”

Yet it’s more than design choices or visual aesthetic that composes authenticity. It matters for the film to be thematically true too.

“Everyone can relate to the themes of finding your way home and the importance of family, and I believe they will resonate particularly deeply with Chinese audiences.”

For Chou, these themes hit particularly close to home, beckoning some of the growing pains she felt during her formative years as a Chinese American.

“I look back and realize now that so many people were having the same experience of feeling isolated when I was growing up. You suppress who you are because you think that person is unacceptable and needs to be hidden, because they’ll never be accepted in mainstream society. It’s like you’re invisible.”

While it may not have been the case for her younger self in the past, Chou hopes that Abominable can inspire in an audience what she had used to turn away.

“If I would’ve seen a movie with a heroine like Yi, I’d have thought, ‘Hell yeah! That’s me! That’s awesome!’ I love the fact that she exists in the world. The 10-year-old would maybe have thought about me differently.”

 

Abominable opens in theaters worldwide beginning September 27, 2019.

Ryan Leon Chen is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco covering culture and media. 

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