Few weeks ago I asked questions to my Team – Generation Y. Now the Generation Y strikes back with their own questions to me. Wendy Zhao, the project’s production manager, editor, compositor, art assistant and a, accomplished artist of her own asked me a few questions. Age-wise I belong to Generation X, so let’s see if we can close the generation gap here.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you have been drawn to stories and storytelling since a young age. Looking back, what kinds of differences (if any) do you notice between the stories you used to tell, and the stories you feel compelled to tell now? And why do you think these changes developed?
When I was 5 I told magic stories involving animals and toys. When I was 8 I wrote a sex/adventure novel, but since I hid it from Mom it never got published and then it got lost in the attic. From age 8 till about 14 I wrote a lot of sentimental stories about old people, their suffering and regrets. My first story that got published was at age 14, it was a realistic comedy about me clearing the pantry out of old and unused stuff and Mom getting upset and putting everything I threw out back into the pantry. The story was a big hit and brought some attention to my name.
Then I got into writing poetry about feelings (had a lot of those) and wrote nasty essays about the sufferings and pain of my generation. The older generation felt compelled to publish this “voice of the upcoming”.
One day I dropped the field of writing and possible career in it, and went to Moscow to study Philosophy. I wrote some short surreal stories while I was there but didn’t try to publish them.
Soon animation overtook my desire of telling written stories, although I still keep writing. A blog, for one thing.
As to the difference between the stories I told when I was 5 and now when am much older… The core is still there – the desire to please, to entertain. I tell stories in part to disconnect from the pain of life, in part to grab people’s attention, in part to express the Inexpressable Self.
In the environment and the time when I grew up fiction/invented stories was the hot stuff. In the environment and time I am now, I see an obsession with ‘true stories’. I think when I tried to invent stories I wasn’t as good. My calling is to observe the absurdity, irony of life and spit it back right at the readers. To get Mom upset and to tell everybody about it.
Q: Your artistic style is very striking and beautiful. Have you always drawn/painted this way? What changes do you notice along your artistic developments over the years, and why do you think they happened?
I never studied art and I don’t know how to draw ‘by the books’. I draw the way I feel. It has advantages – I never was pressured to copy anybody’s style, I have my own style and intuitive approach to making work. Disadvantages – I am limited in my ability to express everything I want to express. Can’t animate bodies entwined in complicated action like, for example, Pat Smith can do.
To be honest, I did want to learn drawing when I was 10 but several art teachers told me I didn’t have it, because I couldn’t copy a gypsum head from life. They recommended me to focus on linocut:
– Your naive simplistic style calls for it, – they said. What they meant was that no one else in the class wanted to do it. It was a technically challenging process, potential with injuries, requiring a lot of patience and knack for detail and suffering. It was also not considered quite art. Applied art, maybe. I did it for a year out of sheer spite and pride. My most stellar achievement in linocut was an illustration of dancing Esmeralda from “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”. After that I dropped the idea of making art – why do it if everybody around you tells you got no talent? I had other great talents to explore.
I have to say, an environment impacts what you draw. When I lived in Latvia, I drew a lot of trees, animals because that was around me. I also drew lonely and very still landscapes because that’s how I felt – I couldn’t move from where I was (physically, mentally and emotionally).
In New York I started to draw a lot of people. And sometimes animals, but those are domesticated cute animals like rabbits and dogs.
My first attempt of water color and gouache at age 22 (to disguise the fact that my forms are accidental/inept, and my skills abysmal I overcompensate with decoration):
Q: You’ve mentioned that you are especially influenced by Eastern European illustration and poster art. Could you please elaborate upon these influences, and why do they resonate with you stronger and deeper than other artworks that appeal to you?
The Mystical and Mythological are very strong in Eastern European visual tradition. The mystery of life is hiding behind an inexpressive mask, our inability to see nor comprehend is holding the mask in place. I look at the mask and I can’t take my eyes away. Stasys Eidrigevičius is the Artist that influenced me the most. See some of his work:
Then, of course, Jan Švankmajer. His name needs no introduction, but some samples will help to see how he he influenced my work:
Besides the Mystery and Mysticism in Eastern Europe’s visual tradition there is also a school of conceptual shortcuts. Realism is for sissies and Americans. An image always means something else, use it and be bold. Eastern European Soviet era poster art had an amazing influence on how think visually. See examples:
I was also fascinated and influenced by humor and satire of Easter European cartoons – the humor that not always is accessible to outsiders, with elements of Mythical, like this:
Q: And what are some other artworks that appeal to you?
Q: This is your first feature film! What is one obstacle you faced/are facing that you did not foresee before starting the project?
We all know that it is good to set ambitious goals. That is not a problem. The hardest thing for me personally is to lead people to the battle under my flag. I have to assert that MY project is more important than yours, Wendy. YOU have to temporarily give up your goals and ambitions while you are doing work on my film. Who do I think I am? But in order to this this film I do have to think I am some female Quentin Tarantino. Not easy for me.
Q: If budget and resources were not a problem, would you be inclined to make live-action features?
Sure thing. Although I know that 80 per cent of making a live action film would involve hoarding and organizing people and telling them what to do. Sometime it is easier to just to it myself. If I had a group of about 12 professional, knowledgeable people who trusted me and I trusted them, I’d do a live action film tomorrow.
Q: What are some advantages and disadvantages that you have experienced that, you feel, were directly related to you being a woman in film, and a non-US-native in film?
Yes, I am a woman and an emigrant. Advantages are that I can try to employ ‘affirmative action’ on my behalf. Disadvantages – that I won’t be taken seriously in Hollywood.
The biggest disadvantage on being a woman is that I was brought up to be a team player, not a leader. Overcoming it took a while and now I see am behind the race.
The other disadvantage – as a woman I was trained to use my soft womanly charms. They can get you only so far (someone important’s bedroom at the best). Men cut their deals with swords.
See how differently men and women state their goals. You, Wendy, once said your artistic goal was to be happy (a valid goal indeed). Mike, on the other hand, said he wanted to change the whole TV industry, he felt there were not enough good shows in TV.
We start with our goals.
I feel I started too low, too humble (20 years ago: – I just want to make my films.)
Q: What are some things you wish you had known when you were just getting started in animation/filmmaking?
Everything. I didn’t know anything 20 years ago and I still know very little. I wish I went to a good filmmaking school, learned about cameras and angles (camera angles are not my forte), lighting, acting and screenwriting. I just fly by the seat of my pants, always.
7. Of the short films you’ve made, which one is your personal favorite? Which one is your least favorite?
My personal favorite is “Birth”.
My least favorite, hmm… The one I can’t watch without cringing (wish I could remake it) is “Natasha”.
8. Hypothetically, if you had to, in which order would you give up your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste?
Although taste is crucial for survival I think I would be able to work without it. Wouldn’t be able to work without sight or hearing, as sound and pictures are what movies are made of.
And if I can’t work, I am pretty much dead.
9. Hypothetically, if you had to, in which order would you give up your abilities to: draw, animate, write, talk, edit?
I could never give up talking. It includes all the other skills you mentioned – writing (words), editing (organizing material in a certain way) and animating (movement and gestures). Talking for me is expressing myself the most directly, with words, body and acting. It is immediate – in connection with audience and satisfaction.
Animation is more indirect form of expression, although much more lasting.
10. Last but not least: what usually goes through your mind when you first present a finished film to a group of viewers?
Fear of rejection.
When I hear the audience laugh I briefly feel exhilarating relief but then worry again that they don’t like it enough.
First time screenings are nerve wrecking for short films. As to features – they must be 90 times more nerve wrecking.
I think I’ll faint when “Rocks in My Pockets” will premiere, from sheer nerves.