Star Wars has inspired thousands of filmmakers around the globe since the late-1970s. From Christopher Nolan (Inception) to John Singleton (2 Fast 2 Furious), the films still inspire young creatives to this day (even with the constant alterations by George Lucas). Another person on this endless list is former Brisbane animator Marek Kochout.

It was after seeing the sci-fi flicks that he wanted to learn anything and everything about stop motion effects. After writing letters to FX companies in the US, he enrolled in a traditional animation course at the Queensland College of Art. He then ventured south and joined Disney in Sydney.

After working at Disney for about six years, Kochout joined Fox Animation in the US as an effects animator, before arriving at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California in 1998. He has been there ever since.

A wife and three kids later (two daughters and a son) since moving to the US, Kochout now resides in Burbank – a small 10-minute drive from work and just north of Tinseltown.

Since he’s back in the character animation field at the heavyweight animation studio – best known for the Shrek franchise – he is in his element. Having worked on such titles as Shrek Forever After, Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens to name just a few, Kochout says getting the emotion right in the characters – through proprietary software EMO – always proves very difficult.

He was one of four supervising animators on 3D computer-animated action comedy Kung Fu Panda 2, which hits DVD/Blu-Ray shelves this week.

He says the Paramount-distributed film, which sees Po (Jack Black) protecting the Valley of Peace before being threatened by a new formidable villain Lord Shen, was a challenge because of the large array of characters and fight scenes.

“The level of animation and quality was a step-up,” Kochout says in comparison to the first film, which was released only three years earlier.

Kochout and his animation team were brought on to the sequence-based project after the storyboards were created. This is the usual process. The director and the storyboard crew work on visually portraying the story and then they can essentially watch the film in a sketch-format.

Kochout explains his role.

“For example a particular sequence – one of the ones we did, at the end there’s five who are fighting their way through hordes of wolves, towards Shen just before he blows everything up. What would happen is I’d have a group of 5-6 animators. And between all of us we’d divvy up the shots in it and I was in charge of making sure that everyone was doing what the director wanted, and work out acting choices, and basically supervise their animation.

“I also went through and did very basic animation – instead of putting wolves in the shots, I just used boxes for approximate motion and movement so you can get a very good idea of where things are going and where and the timing and stuff…"

Unlike the first Kung Fu Panda, the sequel is in 3D. He says being 3D doesn’t change too much, although you can’t “cheat” anymore.

“You have to be aware – you can’t cheat things like you used to. In other shows, you’re able to cheat things to the camera. You used to be able to get away with a lot more,” he says.

Kochout sees motion capture – which wasn’t used on Kung Fu Panda 2 but was on Aussie animated flick Happy Feet Two – can be good but it depends on the project.

“It suits some projects but not others. I’ve seen animated films where they are human characters with ultra real textures and they’re motion capture so it looks weird because it should’ve been live-action if you know what I mean,” he says.

“And then stuff like Happy Feet, it works really well because it’s a caricature of the motion capture. It depends – I like it in some things and don’t like it in others.”

The $US150 million Kung Fu Panda 2 had its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year and went on to make $19.5 million in local theatres. It was a hit with fans and critics, and worldwide it made $US663 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

The former Brisbane animator is now working on Turbo – an animated film (featuring the voice of Ryan Reynolds) about a snail with an impossible dream: to become the fastest snail in the world. It's scheduled to hit cinemas in June, 2013. 

To read an interview with DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg on Kung Fu Panda 2 by IF, click here.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Thursday.

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