Monday, September 11, 2006

Meet the Animation Students

The morning of July 17th, 2006 didn't seem to be an auspicious one for Liwen and I. We spent 20 minutes and 20 yuan sitting in a taxi just to take a U-turn and come to the other side of the street, and then, we're dumped by the driver! For not being auspicious customers I guess. Anyway, we managed to beat Beijing mornig traffic and meet the other five members of Project Good Luck in front of the grand gate of Beijing Film Academy on our scheduled meeting time with the animation students.

There were around fifteen of them, who remained on campus for various reasons even though school had ended. Most of them are graduate students or recent grads from the Animation School majoring in animation or game design. Some were TAing for a summer program offered to prospective students or people who are simply interested in animation, others were busy engaged in a feature-length animaiton film scheduled for theater release early next year.

Being a first-time moderator, I started the discussion with a very abrupt question to dumbfound every participant including myself. Thanks to Prof. Coleman, we dragged it back to track with the subsequent questions.

I'm first of all interested in how these students set their feet into the trade of animation filmmaking. As far as I know, being an art major in China means that one has to undergo a different educational path, concentrating wholly on the acquisition of artistic skills from a very early age by going to special art training schools at the expense of learnings of other subjects. Not surprisingly, many of them did come from that path with very specialized art education background; surprisingly, some of the graduate students come with various backgrounds in computer science, architecture and film literature. What they all share in common is a passionate love for drawing, be the skills acquired from teacher, father or neighbor.

Animation filmmaking is both an old and new trade in China, old in that there was a fairly flourishing period for Chinese animation from 1950s to early 1980s, BFA itself has over fifty years experience in animation education; new in that the indigenous animation sector was literally wiped out by the inburst of Japanese animation and Disney animation in the past two decades. For these young animation students, who grew up watching Doraemon and Mickey Mouse, what does it mean to be a Chinese creative artists? They frankly admit that they do get a lot of influence from Japanese and American animation, because that's what's "out there". But they never worry that they will simply become the followers or the imitators, though they do ususally go through an imitating period in the early stage of their artistic creation and do absorb many things from their foreign counterparts that they consider good for themselves. "We live in this country and are immersed in this culutre, our story is definitely going to be Chinese." Most of the students are interested in telling what is happening around them through their films. The simple appearance of Chinese symbols or icons only counts for "chineseness" on a shallow level, what's more important is to bring out the essence of Chinese culture and to attend to the concerns of the Chinese people.

The feature length animation film, It Is Nine, that some of the graduate students are working on can be regarded as a very Chinese one. It's made up of nine 10-minute-long short stories, stories that are happening right now in China and are meaningful to everyone. It's reality, it's humor, and it's a little bit of spoof. It's simply for fun. But it's a lot of work for the students. What interests us more, besides student's involovement in such a huge project, though, is their usage of blog. They keep a project blog to document their process of production, to make friends, and to collect feedbacks. This is the idea of their respected (monkey) "King" (the students call themselves the "little goblins"), Dean of the Animation School, Prof. Sun Lijun. These people are consciously experimenting with new media by engaging it into the creative, production and distribution process of their works, as well as their pedegogical enterprise.

Of course, meanwhile, the students are also among the early trend adopters and even trend makers. We were curious in how many of them own a cell phone. Then we realized that there's an easier way to ask the question and reworded it as "how many of you do not own a cell phone". And, no need to count, no hand. Then, like paparazzos, we took pictures of their cell phones, their removable hard disk, and their finger nails.

We also took a quick tour of the "It Is Nine" studio situated in a small flat house outside the main building of the Animation School. By flat house, we mean single-level building, which is truly a luxury in today's Beijing. Everyone was working hard there, so we took off quietly for lunch that's awaiting us in the international student's dining hall of the Acadamy before we set off for our next interview site.

And, guess what... Right, the "It Is Nine" bloggers are much quicker than I am in updating their blog. Our visit was reported in their blog right after we left. One comment appeared in that post and I kept hearing from them is, "your director is a real cool professor". :D

We also made headline on the Animation School's news page.

Wandering in Shanghai Art Museum

Last semester for Henry's class, I did an observational exercise with Amanda and Karen, by which we looked at people's usage of their personal media in the setting of a museum space. Habitually, when our group was taking a tour in Shanghai Art Musuem on July 14, I paid a lot of attention to the museum visitors, how they interact with the exhibition and the engagement of their personal media in the gallary.

Pictures allowed. Cell phones allowed. Food and drink prohibited.

The lower levels are holding an exhibition of photography. They are gorgeous pictures. And visitors are replicating the pictures with their digital cameras or camera phones. On the second level, there is actually an exhibition of photos taken by cell phones.

My favorite part of the exhibition was the comic books section. The title says "read a missing age". Chinese people who were born in the 1960s and 70s, me included, grew up in a golden age of little comic books. We call these comic books "little people book", which I guess both because the size of the book is small and because they are made for the little ones. These books were illustrated by the best artists of the time, telling stories ranging from legends, classics, to reality. Even though many of the stories, seen from today's perspective, were propaganda about class struggle and wars, the kids just enjoyed. Like film-going, reading and collecting little people books were an irreplaceable fun part of the childhood of Chinese kids spent in the 70s and early 80s. Sadly, the advent of TV and the transformation of the nation's socio-economic pattern wiped the little people book out of the media scape in the late 1980s for its "inappropriateness" with the times. But the memory lingers.

Besides some original collections of little comic book, the musuem also provided an interactive electronic reading experience to visitors. By clicking the arrows on the screen, you turn the pages of a virtual little people book.I conducted a quick interview with two sisters visiting the comic section. One was around the same age as me, who showed deep nostalgia over seeing the little comic books after a "long time no see"; the other was a much younger girl born in the 80s, who more or less felt distanced from the strange-looking, yellowish, poor-paper-quality little books.

Two ladies in their fifities stood in front of this photo for at least five minutes. They were trying to figure out how many characters on earth were depicted in this picture. They first tried to count by the head, which they knew would produce inaccurate result unless they fill in the missing part with their imagination and reason. And it's six! Just to make sure, they then decided to count by the feet, which turned out to be a more challening approach since they're more intertwined with each other. And, guess what, there're feet of six persons again! The ladies left with full satisfaction.