Interview with animation director Sunny Wai Yan Chan

Sunny is born and raised in Hong Kong. After finishing his bachelor’s degree in Surveying at The University of Hong Kong, he decided to pursue his dream in animation. He is currently an animation student based in the United States, studying Master of Fine Arts in Animation at Savannah College of Art and Design, focusing on 3D character animation and layout.

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

It happened when I watched Up (2008) by Pixar about a decade ago. I was still a teenager back then and it was my first time realizing that animation was so much more than just cartoons. Animation is a filmmaking technique that is well capable of bringing relatable characters to life and telling complex stories. What captivates me about narrative animation is that even though the characters can be so stylized and abstract that they do not physically resemble human beings, the emotions and personalities can be personified so that they become more expressive than actual human.

  • What exactly is the job of an animation director?

Just like live-action directors, an animation director carries the vision of the film. He is the one who has the clearest idea of the message to be delivered, the tone and the style of the film. Even though the animation director is not proficient in every aspect of animation production, he links all the departments together by ensuring that they are following the same vision. If a teammate feels lost, the animation director is the one at fault. When I was directing Godspeed, I made sure everything that appeared on screen was a product of careful decision-making, including every camera angle, animation acting choice, sound effect, music, light, texture, prop etc. I entrusted some of these aspects to my teammates who have more specialized knowledge but I always reminded them of the vision of the film and I tried my best to keep them on track.

  • 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?

Godspeed is a 3D animated film that is 2 minutes and 25 seconds long. There are a total of 18 shots and 2 characters. Apart from me, 6 people are involved in creating this film. My teammates are Brian Lesiangi, Yuna Chen, Aster Lai, Sherryn Pattarawuttiwong, Samantha Lee and Prakash Panchariya. Brian is the Art Director and VFX Supervisor. He is responsible for executing my artistic vision of the film while giving professional advice on how to make the film look better. He is also responsible for leading the lighters, Yuna and Aster, to make sure the shots lit separately by the three of them are consistent throughout the film. Yuna is responsible for lighting and compositing all the close-up shots of the Boy character while Aster is responsible for the Mom character. Sherryn is the texture artist, who joined the team briefly to revise the textures of the Mom character, including her skin, shirt and pants. Samantha is the grooming artist. She created a new hairstyle for Mom. Prakash is a rigger who rigged the backpack of Son so that it can accommodate the Son’s shoulder movement.

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

Throughout my animation study up till Godspeed, I learned that properly digesting other people’s opinions is way more important that seeking feedback. This important lesson happened in the 3D Naturalistic Animation class taught by Professor Bill Tessier during my second year of MFA study in Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Back then, I was super protective of my work. Whenever a classmate suggested something to improve on my animation, I would feel like as if he was implying I did not work hard enough to create the perfect animation. My professor taught me how to identify the “true intention” of a person’s feedback and turn it into useful information for animating. For example, there is a 6-year old girl jumping happily across the screen in an animation. A person may suggest that he does not like the animation because the character’s jumping action does not feel right. The feedback does not aim at the animator himself but to the content of animation. What he really means is the jumping action may not fit the character’s age, sex and personality. Revisions can be made on the height and frequency of the jump, the distance between the steps and the randomness in arms-flinging that resembles a kid’s behavior – these are the useful information, the essence. After this important lesson, I was able to get past my ego, digest different feedback and push myself to polish my animation with multiple point of views.

  • What is the process in creating an animated character?

Creating a 3D animated character involves concept, modeling, rigging, texturing, look development and animating. The concept of a character is the 2D sketches of a character derived from his/her backstory, personality, references, body build, hairstyle etc. The modeler then creates the character in 3D based on the 2D sketches, like a sculptor. The model is then handed to the rigger who creates the character’s bone structure so that it can be manipulated like a puppet for animation. The animator can start animating as soon as the rigging process is complete, along with texturing and look development. The texture artist creates texture maps for the character including skin, eyes, nails, tongue, clothes etc. After that, the look development artist adjusts the texture maps so it looks the way it is intended.

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

Both 2D and 3D animations should be appreciated equally. The same goes to stop motion animation and live-action. They are just different media to visually execute a story. After all, everything revolves around the vision of the film. Each animation style is beautiful in their own way. As an audience, I will respect the choice of animation style of every animated film produced. Miyazaki’s films will feel different if they’re not 2D and also Pixar’s movies if they’re not 3D.

  • 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?

For Godspeed, all the shots were animated in 3D using Autodesk Maya. The first thing to do when I started a shot is to look at the animatic so that I understood what the shot was about and what happened before and after that shot. Then I began setting up the camera in Maya and placed each character at its starting position to nail down the layout. After that, I searched online for similar character behaviors and scenes for references. With specific acting choices in my mind, I recorded videos of myself acting as my characters in the shot. I edited the videos in Adobe Premiere Pro to extract the parts I like and adjust their timing to fit in the visual rhythm of the shot. Based on my videos, I block out my characters’ key poses in the Maya timeline. I asked for other people’s opinions on the rough blocking animation and made some changes accordingly. Then I added more sub-poses between the key poses and asked for more opinions. The same procedure went on when I started smoothing out the animation. After that, it was all about finessing the shot until I was satisfied.

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

The audiences want to be entertained. Just like every kind of entertainment, animation serves to hold the attention and interest of the audience. It is the animator’s role to make sure their acting choices for the characters catches the eye of the audience so that they can stay connected to the story.

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

My film got a lot of exposure from film festivals and I am glad that it gained recognition from people all over the world. It helps a lot that my film is reviewed by professional judges in the film festivals so that I know where my film stands in the industry standard.

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

Finance is a great concern for me being in the animation business. It is not the most well-paid industry so I tried my best to keep my expenses low enough to make ends meet. I am also prepared to move around different places because of the short contract nature in the industry. Working in the animation industry requires a lot of self-motivation because I get to learn new things at every stages of my career. For me, a great career continues to challenge me as an artist as I keep improving on my craft.