January 12, 2022

Animation artist Junjie Zhang presents the creative production process to VPA seniors

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From Hong Kong, Junjie “Jake” Zhang spoke with students at Syracuse University on Zoom Wednesday morning. His talk focused on his work as a director for “Blood Swim”, an animated short released earlier this year. Using his work to frame the discussion, he offered students a step-by-step guide on how to create their own animated shorts, from planning stages to post-production.

“When storyboarding, ask yourself: are you more of a visual artist? Zhang said. “There’s no right or wrong about this one, especially in pre-production. Creating the concept (for a story) is more like taking notes, pulling the most interesting moments out of your mind.

Zhang is an award-winning freelance animation artist. He has won numerous awards and recognitions for his animated short films, and recently won international accolades for his 2016 short film “Pokey Pokey”. The host has extended his career to the world of education, now serving as an Assistant Professor of Digital Arts Practice at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Although Zhang’s event was open to all SU students, it was aimed at a special audience: the CAR 430 Computer Art Seminar class of Professor Rebecca Ruige Xu, who attended the conference. The seminar is aimed at seniors from the College of Visual and Performing Arts specializing in computer art and animation, with the aim of preparing them for their final theses on the creation of animated short films. Zhang’s lecture served as a guide in their pre-production planning.

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Zhang oriented his speech informatively, describing his process of making films. He discussed his creative process from mystery to certainty to illustrate what students should be aiming for in their projects. The artist asked three questions to the students developing their story concepts: “What is it? What does it look like? What is it made of? ”

“Accept the randomness… Amplify, so that the audience can fully immerse themselves in the story,” Zhang said.

After asking these questions, the artist offered the audience a preview of “Blood Swim”. He played the eight-minute short, which he used to start his lecture, explaining how he answered the same questions he asked audiences during his development.

Zhang developed his creative process, talking to students about his storyboarding methods, which he says are not about art. Nonetheless, the storyboard is important because it is the first and most crucial step in what Zhang calls the film production pipeline.

When Zhang screenwrites, he focuses first on the paper of the actions of his characters and on the refinement of the animation later. He first used 2D storyboards and simple animatics to finalize the flow of “Blood Swim” before animating it in more detail.

“I’m more of the visual kind,” Zhang said. “I like to create key moments in my mind that can be included in the final production.”

Zhang told the students to “embrace chance” when describing an animated film.
Zoom screenshot

He stressed the importance of story and camera placement when developing storyboards, pointing out that until the storyboards are executed according to the director’s vision, the rest of the project cannot continue.

“You create a space based on the story and… make a decision for the best choice for the shooting of the scene,” Zhang said. “In your mind there should be a three dimensional thought… you choose the best one based on the need to tell the story.”

Zhang’s biggest advice about animation was that aspiring directors make it clear what they want their outcome to be with the character design, mainly because the director is usually not the one animating during a project.

Towards the end of his speech, Zhang offered practical advice on how to make a movie during the pandemic. While it is possible, it is a challenge, especially with an international team, he said. He stressed the importance of organization and explained to the participants the methods he uses to keep his work in order.

“As a director, you have to be very clear about the pipeline,” Zhang said. “You have to be very clear that each component has an outcome so that you can define time management (for the project). “

He concluded his speech by answering questions from the audience, most of which came from Xu’s students. Before leaving the Zoom call, Zhang offered one final piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers.

“You have to come back to the most interesting part of the animation,” Zhang said. “Find the most passionate part… the most interesting part that motivates you to create. ”

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