Interview with animation director Junyi Xiao

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  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that animation is your way of telling stories?

It was back in 2014, when my animation short film After School got selected in the Annecy Animation Festival for the first time. I sat in the theater along with hundreds of audiences from all over the world. That film has no dialogue, but the audience had a very strong and positive reaction when they saw the big twist at the end of the film. At that moment, I feel like animation can be a language that can be understood by people from different backgrounds, and it can be my way of telling stories.

  • What exactly is the job of an animation director?

The job of an animation director is not always the same. For instance, in a Studio like Ghibli, the animation director is the soul of the film. Miyazaki writes the story and does the storyboards by himself. You can easily tell his style from his films. But in the US, the animation director’s fingerprints are barely visible, especially in films from big studios like Disney and Pixar. Besides those differences, the animation director should be responsible for balancing all the departments and making the right decisions.

  • How many people are involved in creating an animation like yours? And could you tell us a bit about their roles, the flow of the team?

In my case, the 8-minute-long film has about 15 people in the production team. I covered most of the storyboards and concept designs with the help of some friends. Then I have about 5 animators joined for a few weeks to finish the rough animation and tie down animation. Then I cleaned up the key frames for each shot and sent it to China, where I have a small team to help cleaning up the rest. Since I’m in the US, the animation team in China can sent me their progress at their end of the day, and I can work on the notes and draw overs in my morning. It was super efficient.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your animation? How did that lesson happen?

Animation needs cooperation, this might be the most important lesson I’ve learned so far. When I was in school, I always made my films almost all by myself. The good thing is, you can get used to all the processes of animated film making, but most of us are not able to be good at everything. I started to understand how a real team works during my summer internship. In the studio, there are amazing designers who never animated, and very talented AE animators who don’t know how to draw. However, when these people work together, they create a lot of masterpieces. When I worked on Tomato Kitchen, I started to look for cooperation in different aspects, and it turned out a great idea.

  • What is the process in creating an animated character?

Just like creating a character in a live action film, we also need to write a bible for the character. We need to understand the character’s background as well as his/her motivations. For a 2D animated character, when we move to the character design, we may also want to think about how we are going to animate it. In most cases, we don’t want to design a character whose fashion style gets over complicated. Since it will increase a lot of extra work for the cel animators.

  • 2D Animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

Nowadays, this is more like a choice than a battle I think. I prefer the look of 2D, but if there is any need to use some 3D reference, I’ll be totally glad to do that. Besides that, the 2D shaders in 3D softwares are getting more and more advanced. They can achieve really good looking 2D images with the right settings. I would definitely like to give it a try in the future.

  • What does your animation workflow look like while animating? Tell us a little about the tools that you are using. What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins? Techniques?

The adobe suite is the main tool. Storyboard and concept arts are done in Photoshop. Both rough animation and clean up are made in Animate. After Effects is the app for visual effects and editing is done in Premiere. I turn to not using too many plugins, so that you can easily pass your project files to other animators and no need to worry about if they have the same plugins on their end.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the animator’s role to worry about that?

It is almost impossible to predict what the audience wants. If you don’t believe that, just look at those Hollywood movies with huge budgets but totally lost in the box office. I don’t think animators or animation directors need to worry too much about the audiences’ taste, especially for the short films. Stay true to yourself and try your best to improve the quality of your film. The film will find its audience eventually.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Film festival is an encouragement for me. It tells me that there are a lot of people who love the animations I have made and enjoy the stories I have told. And it is also a great chance to see the most creative and interesting animations that have been made recently.

  • What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business, and how do you handle it?

I’m working on animation commercials for most of the time. It is a different world compared with the film industry or TV animation. The difficulty is that you have to be always helping your clients to tell their stories instead of telling your own story. I use my spare time to keep writing stories and working on some concept designs. Just always preparing for the potential chances, maybe one day you can make it happen.