Craftsmanship in Stop-Motion Animation
- Exclusive interview with Chinese Stop-Motion Animation Director Jay Weng

For Chinese born in the 1970s and 80s, stop-motion animations by Shanghai Animation Film Studio like the MAGICAL PEN, STORIES OF AFANTI, A TAOIST FROM LAOSHAN MOUNTAIN, etc., are an unforgettable part of their childhood. When this generation grow up and become parents, their children watch animations such as SHAUN THE SHEEP or WALLACE AND GROMIT. The special charms of stop-motion animations don’t change overtime, but figures and stories related with Chinese culture are rarely found in today’s productions.

In 2015, a twelve-minute stop-motion animation BACK DOWN NO MORE quietly went popular on the internet. The protagonist Lin Chong is a household name from classic Chinese novel Water Margin, the exquisite production and unique action scenes brought back the childhood memories of a generation of people, and a wider audience got to know the Director Jay Weng.

 

Weng was born to an artistic family; he grew up learning oil painting, and majored in Sculpture for his Bachelor’s degree with a research focus on space and materials. In the second year of his graduate program at China Academy of Art’s in Sculpture, Weng got an opportunity to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and through trials and errors, he finally found a creative field that suits his style—stop-motion animations. Weng never stops exploring and trying from his first experimental work Tower to the release of BACK DOWN NO MORE. Weng accumulated more and more experiences and learnings in terms of the shooting and making of stop-motion animations. He started Runway Stop Motion Studio with his partners, based in Hangzhou. The studio works on commercial projects to meet overheads and daily maintenance needs, and is planning a long stop-motion animation film LI BAI—YOUNG ADVENTURER. At the moment, this animation is at the early planning and preparation stage, and has gained support and help from the famous writer Dachun Zhang in plot structure. Weng also plans to invite on board artisans and studios that specialize in Chinese traditional architecture techniques to recreate the splendid colors and grandeur of the Tang Dynasty. Although the road forward is not only to be short or easy, Weng has the confidence that together with his team, his studio can roll out a world-class Chinese stop-motion animation.

 

CFM: In 1950s-80s, Shanghai Animation Film Studio produced many well-made stop-motion animations of various styles, what your opinion on inheritance and innovation of Chinese animations in the future now that you have your own creation and practice?

Weng: In the 1980s, China was a world leader in stop-motion animations. Technology-wise, in Stories of Afanti series, many scenes have multiple figures acting simultaneously, and none of these figures are equipped with external support (back then there were no chroma keying or photoshop techniques), so it takes great patience and accurate operation in shooting. We know that at the core of any animation are actually people, the animation makers, so we hold huge respect and admiration towards the artists at that time.

As time progresses, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS by American Director Henry Selick in 1993 incorporated Hollywood filmmaking techniques into the traditional stop-motion animation, connecting it to the film industry. Therefore, stop-motion animations are passed down to today. In an era where CGI animations take the dominant position, stop-motion stands as a unique art form on its own. Laika Entertainment, founded over a decade ago, are releasing new works each year.

Despite the eye-catching fancy techniques the Western world now boasts, stop-motion animation stays an art form that is based on handmaking and craftsman spirit. Compared with the U.S. where everything tends to be mass-manufactured in an industrialized way, China has more handicraft enterprises and small parts manufacturing and processing plants. So as long as we do things right, it’ll be much easier to realize our ideas here than overseas. For example, when making CORPSE BRIDE, Tim Burton had to transport the whole team to a puppet manufacturing plant based in Liverpool, because they couldn’t find such a professional puppet making team in the US. Chinese people are known to be dexterous and skillful; it runs in our blood. When Mike Johnson, Executive Director of CORPSE BRIDE came visiting, he was very much impressed by the armatures, costumes, props, and even tracks and stands that we made ourselves.

Since founding in 2009, our studio has been growing so fast and catching up with our overseas counterparts by exploring domestic resources and learning advanced international technologies at the same time. We have made dramatic progress in the training of animators, studying filmmaking and accumulating experiences.

 

CFM: In your upcoming long animated film, why is Li Bai selected as the protagonist? How far are you into this Li Bai—Young Adventurer now?

Wing: Li Bai, one of the greatest poet in ancient China, is not only well-known in China and Asian area, but also has a very wide audience base with more or less knowledge about him. He is an excellent representative of Chinese cultures. However up till today, there has been no matching TV or film productions that tell Li Bai’s life story.

In our plan, this film will focus on the years of Li Bai as a young poet in his adolescent years: the film begins in Li Bai’s hometown Suiye City, and follows his journey where he travels from the Western regions to Central Plains with his father’s trade caravan, and the series adventurous events that he gets involved in along the way. Featuring an oriental poet and mysterious Chinese Kung-Fu, exotic flavors and a recreation of the grandeur of the Tang Dynasty, presented in the form of stop-motion animation—all of which are going to be the highlights of this film.

Currently, this animation is under pre-shooting preparation. The plot is getting constant refinements and advances, character design is primarily done, and some storyboards and scenery designs are going to production phase.

 

CFM: What are some of the challenges that you face when you try to retell a familiar story

Weng: Many told me Li Bai is a double-edged sword, because there are a thousand Li Bai in a thousand people’s eyes, and it will probably cause much dispute if they see a different interpretation. Li Bai is like perfect stranger that we know too well. We believe that in filmmaking, you have to make brave innovations while respecting traditions. For example, in Medieval Europe, many artists paint Gods in very large size in comparison with people surrounding him, a lot like the relationship between Pharaoh and the slaves. In Renaissance period, Jesus and Madonna were often humanified in paintings. In Michelangelo’s MADONNA AND CHILD, Madonna is portrayed as an ordinary woman holding a thin body, no longer the usual goddess image with angels and halos behind her. The artists at the time started to emphasize the spirit of humanism. This was a reform they pushed forward influenced by the humanistic philosophy at the time.

When we try to depict a character in the history, or retell classics, we must avoid simply translating what’s on the books into motion pictures, but should instead design them in a way that feel real and relatable. We need to consider our realities and our own experience; when we are young, aren’t we all rebellious and uninhibited like Li Bai? A good screen production should be able to reflect the times we now live in, and a masterpiece will be even more ahead of our times. So the challenge we face is to make innovations while respecting what’s in the past, and that takes lots of courage.

 

CFM: Are there anything special in terms of the subject matter and production of stop-motion animations? What are some of unique ideas of your film Li Bai?

Wing: American stop-motion animations tend to have a spooky atmosphere; representatives like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE XMAS, corpse bride, CORALINE, PARANORMAN, FRANKENWEENIE, and the latest KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. All are darker stories about life after death. And UK representative works such as WALLACE & GROMIT, CHICKEN RUN, and SHAUN THE SHEEP are stories that happen in a small town or village, and all have a country vibe to them. Well, first of all I think this is related with the creative style of the Directors, and also I think the reason why the majority of the stories take place in a small space and time scale could also be due to the fact that scenery making takes a huge ton of work.

The Li Bai film in our mind, however, is going to be set in the middle section on the silk road, the busiest trade center where the West meets the East. Different ethnic cultures from Europe to Western Asia flow together here, an inclusion the exotic and vibrant characteristics of the desert area west of China, and in middle Sichuan you see pavilions and pagodas that are of Tang style. This is an embodiment of the pride and magnificence of Chinese culture. There are many engineers and craftsmen dedicated to inheriting and innovating Chinese traditional architecture, such as the study and use of Dougong(corbel bracket) and Mortise-Tenon Connection. We hope to collaborate with these dedicated studios and artisans in the set and architecture design of this film, to showcase to the world the spectacular Chinese traditional buildings and amazing skills of the craftsmen.

 

CFM: Today’s filmmaking industry is hugely driven by the rapidly changing technology, is this also the case for stop-motion animations too? How do you see the relationship between the craftsmanship in stop-motion animations and new technologies?

Weng: There’s no denying of the influence modern technologies has on stop-motion animations. In the past, the puppets are made with iron wires that are somewhat resilient and thus difficult to act precisely. But today’s 3D printing technology can achieve subtle facial expression changes, and the armatures and joints are made by numerical control machines, not only does it match the needs of movements of the puppets also improves the animators’ work efficiency. Everything from the backbone and four limbs of a puppet are all tied to the armature, so modern industries have overhauled the puppet making techniques. Visual affects also add much to the final result: fire and explosions, blizzards and rain effects, etc., can solve many difficulties brought by material restrictions not possible to be overcome in the past. But technologies alone are not enough for a stop-motion animation, the costumes and scenes still rely on handcrafting, which depends further on the modelers’ understanding of materials and their dexterity. This is essential in stop-motion animations and cannot be avoided no matter where they are being made or however advanced the technologies are. Therefore, how to combine modern technologies with handmaking skills are both the challenge and charm of today’s stop-motion films.

 

CFM: Why did you start a stop-motion animation studio? What are some of the problems or challenges you faced in your creation and business running?

Weng: Due to family influence, I grew up learning oil painting and majored in sculpture for both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. The decision to switch my career to stop-motion animation is purely out of my passion. For years, I have been looking for a path where stop-motion animations can develop sustainably, and the breakthroughs in shooting and technologies gave me more confidence in leading a team to success. That’s how the studio came into being.

There are very few professional stop-motion animators teams in China, in contrast, many are fans, supporters, amateurs of this genre of art, even those who want to take it as their career. So I really feel very thrilled to be able to lead and work with a team of young people that have the passion, abilities and dreams to make a success in stop-motion animation industry. Stop-motion itself is fascinating enough: each step of the process requires ideas and brainstorming, and each day you are faced with new challenges. I’d say this is ideal for the young people who want to give full play to their creativity and passion.

For our studio, the most important task right now is to make good films, and to try to stand out with our production quality and creativity. We need to build up our reputation within and out of the industry, so that the young people can be more confident and hopeful about the future of stop-motion animations, and the industry can grow stronger with more talented people joining in.

 

CFM: We all know that stop-motion animation production can be extremely time-consuming, which seems to contradict the outside environment where everybody is after faster production and returns, what’s the studio’s solution in funding? Any ideas on future collaboration projects?

Wing: Actually there’s no big difference in terms of production time between stop-motion and CGI animations of equally good quality. We even found some special sweet spots of stop-motion, for example, in the training efficiency of the high level of animators, or the flexibility of the team. Admittedly, fast production and fast returns are the trends in today’s business environment. While we work on improving our production efficiency, we must also trust the audience in being able to tell what’s good, and have faith that high-quality works will eventually stand out

Our studio is on one hand preparing for our own independent project, and on the other hand engaged in some commercial cooperation projects for funding needs. In order to facilitate larger projects in the future, we are now looking for partners in funding and resource supplies as well. It’s my hope that more people will join us on this journey and take an interest in the modern stop-motion animation industry, for it really a fascinating combination of the time-honored art form and most avant grade innovations.

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