Zheng Kang is redefining the role of animator. Yes, he is technically given the title director/animator but he does (pun intended) the lion’s share of the work on Lion Dance. For this production, he helped create the script, directed a live action cast (more about this later), directed the animation (coordinated with different teams on different continents), animated, and essentially helped to coordinate every aspect of this film. Zheng has been a driving force behind so many animated productions (Comedy Central’s TripTank, Diors Samurai, Baby and Granny, etc.) that he is constantly striving to create original approaches to ward off any unconscious attempt to fall into a pattern. In Lion Dance, Kang has gone to new heights of diligence and preparation in order to create a unique look and storyline to reflect accurately on his native culture and the characters of the film. It’s this intense work ethic and attention to even the smallest detail that led to a host of accolades for Lion Dance, not the least of which was the decision to use Lion Dance as a teaching aid by the faculty at USC (University of Southern California) School of Cinematic Arts for their graduate animation classes. Winning awards and screenings at prestigious festivals is high praise (both of which Lion Dance has garnered) but being used as a template to the premier graduate students in the field is a rare accomplishment indeed. It doesn’t come easy; Zheng can attest to this. He worked hard to make Lion Dance an epitome of its ilk. The achievements and praise of the film confirm that all of this tenacity paid off in spades for this young and creative professional. Lion Dance continues to focus attention on Zheng Kang’s contributions to the animation film world.
In creating Lion Dance, Kang wanted to present a love story that was original. Just as importantly, he wanted to present its main characters in a new way. He states, “As a Chinese man, I’m well aware that the male Chinese characters are often presented as comic relief. I was committed to portraying my leading man as exactly that, a leading man. I wanted to show that he could be brave, kind, searching for love; I wanted him to represent all those qualities that Asian men are seen void of.” The Hero, Jian, is the “head” of the lion in the traditional ‘Lion Dance’ during the parade celebrating Chinese New Year in his town. He and Ayumi (the female lead) lock eyes and fall in love, but Jian is in mid- parade and must continue his march through the town. It is typical when the Lion Dance is performed in real-life that two teams will take turns performing inside the Lion costume because it is so heavy and hot! When Jian hears a hand tapping on his Lion costume, he assumes it is the relief team and he races off to find Ayumi. He arrives at her balcony and is sad to see she is not there. Heartbroken, he heads back to take his place in the parade. The film then switches to Ayumi’s perspective of the events. After their eyes met, Ayumi decides that she can’t let Jian simply march away. She races after him, catching up with his Lion at the same time as the relief teams are taking their shift. She taps Jian’s Lion costume, and he mistakes her for the relief team. Throwing the Lion head onto Ayumi without looking, he races off to find her, unaware that she was standing right next to him! Now, as the relief team begin to march, poor Ayumi finds herself pushed along inside the parade. The star-crossed lovers seem doomed at this point to be diverted from each other. In the final act of the film, a sad Jian becomes very confused when he spots that his Lion is no longer in the parade, and is instead playing with local children. He walks over and lifts the Lion’s head off to find Ayumi underneath. Both are surprised, and relieved, having finally found each other. In the final scene, the camera drifts off to a romantic firework display as the young heroes fall in love. Zheng created these young characters to provide a role model he felt had been too often overlooked in film. He comments, “I wanted to ensure that I was as diverse as possible and created a starring role for an Asian man that allowed him to be an action hero (rather than a comedy relief) and a starring role for an Asian woman that allowed her to have confidence, strength of character, and personality (rather than being a Caucasian guy’s one-dimensional love interest). I believe that no matter what art form you work in, you have the ability to inspire and educate society with a positive message.
In his role as director/animator for Lion Dance, Kang utilized a very unique approach. Because he wanted the characters to avoid any status-quo type movements found in animation, Zheng cast and directed a group of live actors in order to get completely original movements and expressions. Employing a method known as rotoscoping, the animators would work on top of the live action footage and follow the actual live sequences. This led the animators to following the movements of the actors rather than deferring to their stock ideas about what movements should look like in animation. The result is immediately noticeable as different from the vast majority of animation productions. Zheng concedes that this method was every bit as successful as he had imagined. The only difficult aspect was that he had so many great actors auditioning with interesting interpretations of the characters.
To meet the scheduling and budgetary constraints but yet still bring his vision to completion, Kang hatched another ingenious approach. Coordinating multiple crews on different continents, he created a twenty-four hour per day work schedule. Zheng’s co-director Tim Pattinson was astonished as he relates, “On Lion Dance, Zheng’s directing skills were exceptional. Using a series of sketches, drawovers, and video calling, he was able to effectively and assuredly communicate very complex animation direction to teams across 5 continents, resulting in the successful completion of our animated scenes. In Tokyo, Zheng created a complex and incredibly successful method of visually communicating the direction of our original sound and score design to Japanese speaking team members, via a series of graphs showing our story’s emotional peaks and troughs, high-energy moments, etc. Lion Dance has been very well-received globally and I have no doubt that it could not have enjoyed any of this success without Zheng’s clear, confident, and incredibly commercially-successful direction. Zheng’s skills on Lion Dance as the Animation Lead were invaluable, in terms of achieving our finished film.” The recognition and achievements Lion Dance has received are literally too numerous to mention in one article but a few include: Award of Recognition (Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival 2016), Animation Of The Month (The Monthly Film Festival) October 2016, Best Animation (Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards) November 2016, Best Animated Short Film (Chandler International Film Festival) October 2017, Best Animation (Asian On Film), Best Short Animation (Canadian Diversity Film Festival), Best Short Animation (Canadian Diversity Film Festival), and official screenings around the world in LA, London, Guam, Toronto, and many others.
When asked what fueled the herculean amount of work he did for Lion Dance, Zheng reveals, “I really do feel that any artist can have a positive effect. I knew that this was a great love story that could also show people from my part of the world to be the same as anywhere else. There will always be cultural differences but in our hearts we all want the same things. Animation serves to tell that story just as well as a feature film, a great song, or a moving painting. Oh, and one other thing fueled all of this. Typically, for a whole year, the work for me was 15-hour days/7 days- per-week. Approaching the last month of production, the light at the end of the tunnel was visible. Tim [Pattinson] and I have a friend named Konie and his fantastic Korean cooking kept us going. we’d have been living on hot dogs and potato chips for that last month if not for him. That’s a hero to me as well!”