As an internationally sought-after motion designer, Xu combines her passions of animation and illustration to bring captivating and artistic graphics to various projects all over the world. She specializes in two-dimensional character animation, which involves bringing small characters to life on every project she embarks on. She begins by taking a script or basic description of the character and plays with lines, shapes, and color until she eventually has created an all new being. It is truly magical.
Xu had worked as an animator with many high-profile design and animation studios for countless renowned clients, including Apple, Samsung, T-Mobile, HBO, AirBnB, and more. However, one thing she loves about her job is that in addition to working on television shows, movies, commercials, and videos, she also gets to work on concerts for some of the world’s biggest stars.
“Pop music has always been one of my interests. I am a sucker for almost all the mainstream music. I love listening to music and I am usually stuck in one to two hours of traffic every day, so I pass the time by doing car karaoke while driving. It is exciting to get to work with well-known pop stars on their music videos and graphics projects,” she said.
Xu worked with Possible Inc., a leading design company, as one of the lead animators/compositors on the project. She worked closely with Creative Director Michael Figge to design, shoot, animate, and edit together 27 custom full-song scenics for artist Chris Brown’s European tour. The concept was to use different graphics elements and textures for each song to convey different moods to the fans at the concerts.
Each artist was assigned five songs and needed to create visual elements for the music videos first and combine those elements into After Effects software for compositing. Xu was responsible for “Don’t Judge Me”, “New Flame”, “Five More Hours”, “Ayo” and “Loyal”, some of Brown’s biggest hits. She combined visual elements for the songs and put them together onto one screen, making sure that all those elements were part of the same scene and matched with the themes of the music videos.
“I like Chris Brown’s music. It is thrilling to get to work on some animation and compositing for something you listen to every day. Also, I like doing composting work for music videos. It is amazing to see how visual elements synchronize with the beats, tempo, and the whole style of the music. For example, in the song “New Flame”, we created lots of different shapes and forms of flames for the song. It was fun to composite different shapes of fire to get the best result for the music videos,” said Xu.
Xu’s graphics were played in 15 different cities in Europe during the “One Hell of a Night Tour” including Munich, Paris, Hamburg, Oslo, and more. The tour and its animation received a lot of public attention and they delivered a successful sold out tour to the fans. For Xu, knowing so many around Europe saw her beautiful artwork is reward enough, because she simply loves doing what she does.
As an animator, Andrea Mercado is tasked with bringing characters to life. It is one thing to make a character move, but something entirely different to make it look like it is truly alive. This is where she excels. She appreciates that the character needs to have physicality and transfer feelings to the audience, making sure they are always rooting for the protagonist, no matter how small a story. It is such a deep and thorough understanding of her craft that makes her a formidable leader in her industry, and her passion for what she does is evident in every project she takes on.
Often working on projects that inspire both herself and her audience, Mercado’s work as both an animator and graphic designer has been seen and appreciated by millions around the globe. She finds meaning in what she does with companies like NeuroNet, which manufactures learning software for children, and a recent mobile application she created for pediatricians that allows doctors to quickly find the best dosage of medicine for various conditions. She also helps to tell stories through her animation, whether for the web series Paradigm Spiral or girls video games for Driver Digital.
“I like bringing characters to life. I like knowing that people will see the animations and feel for the characters. More importantly, I like bringing joy into people’s lives, and animation is a nice way of doing that,” she said.
Recently, Mercado also debuted one of her passion projects, the film PINOF Animate! It is a film of her own creation, which features animations from various artists from around the world to recreate, shot by shot, PINOF 9. The reason for this project is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the PINOF series, created by Mercado’s favorite YouTubers, Daniel Howell and amazingphil.
“We are just a bunch of artists from around the world who really like and admire two British dorks from YouTube,” said Mercado. “The film showcases talent from people from different ethnicities, ages and perspectives. Not all of them are professionals in the field. In fact, some of them are still in middle-school. I even received a message from one of the artists who worked with me, thanking me because now they know animation is something they are really passionate about and that a career in it is an achievable goal. At the end of the day, I think inspiring young people to follow their dreams and create their own projects is the most important thing that has come out of this project,” said Mercado.
Creating PINOF Animate! was the most fun Mercado has had working on any project in her career, but it was also very stressful. She had the opportunity to work with over 30 artists from around the world and before she could assign each of them their shots, she had to group the people based on their experience and quality of work. Advanced animators got longer shots, intermediate animators got shots that were only a few seconds long, and beginner animators got the shortest shots. She also received messages from artists who didn’t know animation but who wanted to join to project, so she gave them a few shots that would work perfectly as illustrated stills.
“Working with Andrea was a very relaxed and easy experience. She was very organized on this project, and kept the collaborators involved frequently updated with full transparency. She demonstrated full understanding if an artist was having trouble meeting their deadline. She also encouraged and supported the idea of artists showcasing to their social media any progress made along the way. I would definitely work with Andrea on any future projects,” said Victoria Putinski, Layout Artist at Wild Kratts Animation Studio who created several shots for the film.
Once PINOF Animate! was completed, Mercado uploaded it to YouTube. It did not take long for Daniel Howell and amazingphil to discover the film and tweet the link, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of viewers who quickly became fans of the unique project. Mercado was touched by such a response.
“It feels incredible. It was stressful and a lot of work, but in the end it paid off. All the fans that watched our video gave us amazing reviews and kept asking if we were going to do another one next year. Some people even emailed me saying they are ready to join the next project, even though I won’t be recruiting new talent until July. And of course, Phil Lester (amazingphil, one of the youtubers), linked our animation in one of his tweets and said it was amazing. Everyone started congratulating us and we felt very validated,” she concluded.
As an animation concept artist, Zanda Tang shows his imagination and design to others through painting. He accumulates his knowledge and life experience into his art, creating a cathartic experience that audiences around the world can relate to. He researches every element of his designs, knowing the backstory of even inanimate objects, all to better tell the story he is visualizing.
Tang has risen to the top of his industry in China working on many distinguished projects. He has helped to market many illustrious brands in his country, from the China Academy of Space Technology to the Huiju Shopping Center Beijing. His work has captivated millions around the world, and several of his works, including Diors Samurai, Lion Dance, and Baby and Granny have made their way to many prestigious international film festivals.
Baby and Granny is a multi-award-winning short. The 2D animated action-comedy is about a baby and granny who share a common bond, as Baby’s mother is Granny’s daughter, but who fight like crazy when left alone.
“The story of the animation itself is one of the reasons why I joined the project. When I saw the story, I thought it would be a very interesting animation. This unexpected dichotomy lies behind the identities of two common characters. Such exaggerated and interesting stories are helpful for design. The story unfolds with a realistic plot. Granny scrambled to take care of the baby, but Baby couldn’t communicate with Granny. The story uses hyperbole to create a confrontation when two people fight. At the beginning and the end of the story, mother is at home, and they are in a normal state of quiet. And when mom goes out, two people become combative. The exaggerated character setting and rich story rhythm make the story very attractive,” said Tang.
The visuals are highly-influenced by the work of 60’s Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein. This created a unique challenge, as they had to honor his style while still making their own. Tang did his part by researching the style and the script, figuring out how to best combine them. He was the props and weapons designer for the film, so he worked closely with the team to choose a weapon that is more suitable for both characters. In the early scripts, both characters used guns to attack each other. Tang did not agree with this. He thought the weapon choice could better explain the characters and therefore further immerse the audience into the story.
Tang’s role was pivotal for the climax of the film, the fight scene. Granny’s weapon consists of two Chinese kitchen knives that are drawn closer to the character’s identity and can be used to indicate her superb kung fu skills. For Baby, he designed more exaggerated firearms, such as an oversized gun to bring a sense of humor into the picture and added lovely and lively colors to help shape the character. In the background of most of the shots, Tang also designed many flying props. The props symbolize the characters’ respective identities and show off the absurdity of the fight, making the animation that much more entertaining.
“Many people think that you can easily get a good action movie if you put a lot of effort into the character. In fact, I think when characters move, what really makes their movements seem quick is what’s behind them. In this project, I not only put some props behind the characters, but also made efforts for the rationality and sense of painting of the animation. When two characters jump up to attack each other, something belonging to their characters flies behind them. Items, like Granny’s drawstring balls and kitchenware, which fly up behind the granny’s back, the teapot, and the toys and bottles behind the baby, are added to set off the exaggerated style. The design of these weapons and props is very helpful for the animation of the story picture and character action,” Tang described.
Tang’s efforts helped bring Baby and Granny multiple awards and recognition, including Best Animation Short Student at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival and Best Animation Short Film at the London Monthly Film Festival. It was a semi-finalist at the International Online Web Fest and an Official Selection at over 11 festivals around the world.
“I am glad to have made such a challenging project work. After we tried the new painting style, we can still have such great achievements. We were lucky and our efforts were not in vain. Spending a lot of time choosing weapons and items proved to be a worthwhile investment. This reward also makes the team members trust each other more, so we have more power to plan the next project,” Tang concluded.
As an only child, Sijia Huang was always looking for ways to entertain herself. She didn’t have any siblings to play with, and growing up in Chongqing, China, she immersed herself into movies from a young age, finding that it not only passed the time, but consumed her every thought. She knew she had to be a part of that world, and loving drawing from an early age, she became committed to knowing everything she could about animation. She studied her favorite films and scoured video stores to find new movies she could learn from. Now, she is an acclaimed animator, winning audiences around the world over with her unique style and commitment to her craft.
Her films Box Home, Quitting Brave Victory, Measures and Frames and Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil have allowed the world to see just what Huang is capable of. Her ability to generate smooth animation while still maintaining a good balance between tension and looseness generate the perfect rhythm for her films. She knows that in animated films, her work is the entirety of the visual aspect, making up 50 per cent of the movie goers experience, and she knows how to make that lasting impression.
“Just like having good actors or actresses in a film, a professional animator can create lively characters that will contribute lots to the story. A good story is one of the most important parts of a film. The power of a well animated character, a good story, and the aesthetic value behind an animated film is why I want to be a professional animator,” she said.
Huang’s most recent film is titled Breakfast, in which she was both the director and leading animator. She designed and crafted all the puppets and did all the stop-motion animation. Breakfast is a combination of 2D and stop-motion animation. The character design is what intrigued Huang to take part in the film, with a unique take on stop-motion puppets. She also found the script interesting, with funny and unique characters.
The story begins with two hands hitting two eggs. As the hitting goes on, the two eggs start to crack and finally explode into pieces. Two creatures come out of the eggs. One is a duck with hairy human legs. The other one is a muscular man with duck feet. The duck and the man both have a crush on each other and start to dance. In the middle of the dance, the two hands interrupt them by hitting them on their heads. A chase and fight commence. In the end, it turns out all the encounters and fights are happening in a child’s imaginary world when he plays with his toys – a rubber duck and an action figure, during his breakfast.
“The story is more about viewing the world with children’s perspective and the positive messages behind the story include love, support and equality,” said Huang.
Huang began working on the animation back in 2015, and it took over two years to perfect every image. After premiering at the New York Short Film Festival 2018 where it was an Official Selection, the film has already seen great acclaim. It was an Official Selection at the 2018 GUKIFF Animated Short, UK Monthly Film Festival, and the Oniros Film Awards. It also had an Official Screen at the Oregon Shorts section in the 41st Portland International Film Festival. At the Los Angeles Movie Awards, Huang was awarded with Best Animation for her work on the film, and at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival she won Best Director. Needless to say, none of the film’s success could have been possible without her considerable contributions.
“Knowing the film has been so successful means a lot to me, as the director and the leading animator on this film, I had a lot of pressure. At the beginning, I didn’t know if the audiences would like the characters or not. This film is all about these interesting characters, which I personally love and had lots of fun on animating. It turns out that audiences really like it too, Every effort paid off at the end,” said Huang.
Huang was responsible for all the stop-motion animation in Breakfast, which was 90 per cent of the entire animation. Stop-motion requires working with puppets. While making the puppets, she was very careful when it came to the mold and cast process, one of the greatest challenges. When she began the process, she had no experience in casting them, and through trial and error, eventually created characters that were even better than the original design.
“I first met Sijia when we worked together on some digital content pieces for Stan Lee, and immediately recognized her exceptional talent and matchless vision. She is one of these rare talents, as she clearly demonstrated in Breakfast, and her reputation precedes her in the industry. Her stop-motion work is renowned for being refreshing in the animation world, as it is simultaneously mature, artistic, and avant-garde,” said Yifu Zhou, Vice President and Visual Effects Supervisor at Digital Domain.
Although they are not human actors, Huang says the puppets require a lot of care. For example, the Duck character has a pair of hairy legs that need special handling and care when animating. Therefore, she chose to only touch the joints that she needed to bend so that the leg hair would not fall off. She also used baby powder to help reduce the stickiness of the silicon surface.
“The ball and socket armatures were so fun to animate. I enjoyed the experience of animating on stage. It is hard to imagine without the ball and socket armatures, how to work on some of the shots. The most difficult part is to animate characters in the air. Two characters in the film are made of silicon and super sculpted. The materials and steal ball and socket armatures make the puppets heavy to animate. In order to stable them in the air, I used special designed rigs, so I can tie the puppets to the flying rigs to create movement in the air,” Huang described.
Music was also a big part of the film. Not only did Huang find the ideal composer in Lance Trevino, she also needed the choreography to be perfect. This required an ample amount of research on Tango dancing in order to perfectly execute the animation. To do so, Huang analyzed the patters of the dance steps and extracted the key movements to fit the animation style. Her dedicated resulted in the Tango being the highlight of the film.
“I loved the film, so animating it was really fun. When you see the characters on this film, you will know why I love them so much,” she concluded.
Be sure to check out Breakfast to know just what Huang is talking about.
One of the most unique joys of being an artist is knowing that your work evokes raw, human emotions within those around you. Visual arts have the ability to transcend the mundane aspects of human life and to push people to explore themselves and the world around them. Over time, art has created change. It has inspired and influenced. It has created chaos and disruption, and it has birthed a community of dreamers, and creators. It has produced renowned artists like Tooba Rezaei, whose passion has allowed her to touch the lives of several different people throughout her career. For Rezaei, the true joy of her craft comes from the platform it gives her to make people feel things that they may not otherwise have the chance to feel. She gets to tell stories and to motivate her audiences to dream without limits.
When Rezaei was a child, she would immerse herself in cartoon television shows. When each show ended, she would take her pen and paper and challenge herself to draw all of her favorite characters. She was energized by the feeling of her pencils exploring the paper and loved the creating things that hadn’t otherwise existed. As she grew up, she continued to test her skills against various mediums and art forms within the field of visual arts. This led her to discover the wonderful world of animation, a world in which she feels that she belongs. She has a natural affinity for bringing her drawings to life via animation and loves the dynamics that the motion brings to her artwork. As an animator, Rezaei has created a number of well-known animations, such as her original animation, A Sweet Dream. Prior to creating A Sweet Dream, however, Rezaei experienced her first sense of impacting the lives of others through her artwork with her animations for the game SilverFit.
SilverFit was a game designed specifically for use by an older demographic. Essentially, it is a virtual therapy system to be used to train gross motor skills and ADL tasks during rehabilitation sessions. The game presents the necessary exercises for elderly individuals to follow along with and keep their muscles working accordingly. Since its inception, the game received great success and is now used by over 20,000 individuals a week. As SilverFit’s first designer, Rezaei acted as the background designer, background painter, character designer, and character animator. She designed a wide variety of different games, each based on the use of different motor skills to suit the game’s intended audience. In working for SilverFit, Rezaei got a taste of what it felt like to know that her work would directly aid in helping improve the health of its target audience. It gave Rezaei’s art a meaningful sense of purpose and she was addicted to the high of helping those around her. SilverFit’s founder and managing director, Maaike Dekkers-Duijts, was blessed to have Rezaei on board for the project. Her talents exceeded far beyond simply animating.
“Her animations really seem to come alive. They really ‘touch’ you. She is a great artist, creating extraordinarily beautiful animations. She is so artistic and has exceptional talent,” regarded Dekkers-Duijts.
After the success of Silverfit, Rezaei then extended her talents to the children’s show Parparook for Persian Gulf TV. Parparook (meaning ‘Pinwheel’ in the South of Iran) is a special program that is produced and distributed in Kahlije Fars IRIB (Islamis Repablic of Iran Broadcasting, also known as Persian Gulf). Rezaei wrote, directed, designed, painted and animated all the characters and all the objects on the background of Parparook, creating everything from scratch and differentiating her shorts from everything on the show. The producer and manager of the program were so happy with results that years later they used some of Rezaei’s work for other kid’s television programs as well.
Knowing that she had always wanted to create her own animated story, she knew that in order for it to be truly worth her while, she would need to give it an element of social influence. She wanted to do more than just entertain, and out of this determination, A Sweet Dream was born. A Sweet Dream can be described as a bittersweet, allegorical look at the desires of a little girl who wants the world to see her talents shine through her difficult life circumstances. Not only did Rezaei animate this project from start to finish, she also wrote and directed the storyline. To fit with the animated short’s premise, Rezaei felt it fitting to use a simple, two dimensional, flat design. In fact, she felt that the simplicity of the drawings was imperative to the overall mood she was attempting to portray. She wanted it to seem as if the little girl could’ve drawn the lines and shapes herself, making her world easier to relate to for her audience. Rezaei then added a second element to her design concept by showcasing the little girl’s reality through dark blue tones and contrasting it with her dream state, which Rezaei colored in golden tones.
“In her dream world, forms are curvaceous and delicate. There is dance and movement and inspiration. However, in reality, she is in an orphanage and the forms of the beds and the room are sharp and straight with harsh angles, alluding to her real-life struggles and difficulties,” said Rezaei.
Rezaei hoped that A Sweet Dream would challenge her audience to question their own harsh realities and evaluate them against their own hopes and dreams. She wanted them to think about how they would react if they were in the little girl’s shoes. Would their dreams be squandered by their reality? According to Rezaei, if we don’t push ourselves to understand the lives of others, we can never truly improve our society as a whole and make our collective world a better place. She felt as though A Sweet Dream helped to remind her why she does the work that she does. Seeing her audiences shed tears over her story solidified the reality that this is exactly what she wants to be doing and that she had succeeded in her efforts to make them stop and think about the consequences of their actions.
After screening at a number of different film festivals, A Sweet Dream even went on to win Best Animation at the Los Angeles CineFest, as well as Finalist in Animation Short at both the International Film Awards in Berlin, Germany, as well as at Constatine’s Gold Coin Festival in Serbia. If you wish to experience the magic, watch A Sweet Dream for yourself and you won’t be disappointed.
Image by Tooba Rezaei, captured from ‘A Sweet Dream’
Despite working all around the world, Cynthia Larenas’ upbringing is very important to her. She was born in Quito Ecuador, and moved to Australia at the age of four. Growing up in Adelaide, she still stuck to her Spanish roots and is completely bilingual. Her heritage is something that she wants to keep alive while travelling for her work.
Larenas is a designer and animator, working for large companies and small businesses to create apps, videos, print designs, and much more. Her extreme versatility lends it hands to many mediums, and she has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, including eBay.
“I wanted to work at eBay because I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn new things, to challenge myself, and experience working at a large company. I wanted to undertake the rebranding projects because I thought it was a fun and exciting opportunity to produce work that would be seen at such a huge scale,” said Larenas.
As only one of two in-house designers for eBay Australia and New Zealand, Larenas’ responsibilities included rebranding Group Deal, Flash Sale and Fashion Gallery creative, and leading the design of eBay’s fashion Gallery brand towards a more Gen Y demographic. She created eDM design and build, was involved in casting, photo and design direction of external agencies, created promotional material for in-house employee engagement campaigns, and did animation work for eBay’s 2013 Christmas Campaign. Her work was featured on the homepage of eBay Australia and New Zealand every day for a year.
“It was great to work at eBay and I got to learn a lot, particularly what is involved to run and maintain the creative on such a big website. It was also fun seeing what you had worked on up on the website and seeing that the hard work you were doing were converting to sales. It’s been the best place where I have been able to get direct results of my creative,” she said.
While working with eBay, Larenas had the ability to measure her work, test mobile placements, pitch ideas, and challenge herself. For the Fashion Gallery rebranding project, the aim was to attract a more Gen Y audience to the gallery. This meant she got to research and create some fun pieces that brought something different to the eBay site, directly contributing to their sales and growth.
“It was really cool to see. I remember I was subscribed to eBay eDMs before I worked there, and shortly after I started, I received an email as I normally did, however this time I saw my work on there being shared out to me. It was a funny and proud moment in my career,” said Larenas.
Larenas’ work continued to impress with the different companies she worked for. While working as an animator with Electric Studios, she helped on campaigns for Bosistos, Old Spice, and Jack Daniels. She also was a Creative Director, Designer, and Animator for Nectar + Co, and Designer at Imano, where she helped shape Ray-Ban’s app “Never Hide” during that time.
“I love that I get to make things look good and have then opportunity to influence the world around me,” said Larenas.
Continuing with this trend, Larenas worked with the American musician, vocalist, producer and DJ, Egyptian Lover. He was an important part of the L.A. dance music and rap scene in the early 1980s. He is widely known as being ‘The King’ of the Roland-TR 808. For the release of his song “Into the Future”, Larenas and Carl Jiorjio were asked to create an animated music video for it. Jiorjio and Larenas have worked together on a few different promotional animations and music videos for artists in the UK and US, but the most notable was for Egyptian Lover last year.
“Cynthia is one of the most dedicated and hardworking individuals I have worked with. For as long as I have known her she has always been working hard on different projects that have been keeping her busy in the creative industry. What I like most about working with Cynthia is her ability to push herself when it comes to a project, often studying to expand her skill set and knowledge for the greater good of the projects she undertakes. I’ve also admired her fearlessness when it comes to design or animation challenges, always pushing to provide creative and powerful solutions. She is motivated by pressure and never turns down a job because it’s too hard. I have witnessed her time and time again take up challenges, learn new programs and techniques that exceed clients’ expectations. Her all-round knowledge and broad range of skills are rare in the design world these days,” said Jiorjio.
“Having worked all around the world has helped her not only to understand different cultures and approaches, but it has also resulted in her applying a professional and easy to work with ethic. I have never seen her become defeated by a job and have recommended her highly throughout my career,” he continued.
Jiorjio served as creative guidance and did the final editing of the clip. As the two of them were fully responsible for the music video, from concepts to storyboards, to animation and final editing, it meant they had complete creative freedom to explore our imaginations as far as they wanted.
“Working on the Egyptian Lover video was rewarding, challenging, fun and one of my favorite projects to date,” said Larenas. “I love collaborating with musicians or other artists because I get to work with really talented creative people that push me to do better.”
Her tasks involved art direction, storyboarding, compositing, 2D and 3D animation and illustration. Although the video was released only a couple of months ago, it has received an extremely positive response. It already has over 8,500 hits on YouTube and was shown on LA television station Link TV which reaches 33.7 million US homes and 6.7 million regular viewers. None of this could have been possible without Larenas’ dedication to the project.
“Making this clip for Egyptian Lover was also humbling as he is a pioneer in electronic music, with thousands of adoring fans across the world,” said Larenas. “Although it was a massive task, that spanned over a year, it was extremely rewarding when it was finished.”
Larenas’ extraordinary talent is evident to all those that saw the Egyptian Lover music video, and all of her other work. With such innate talent, there is no doubt as to why she is so respected in the industry, and considered one of the best at what she does.
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 andGranny, 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 LionDance 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!”
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