Animation Artist Junjie Zhang Describes the Creative Production Process to VPA Seniors

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From Hong Kong, Junjie “Jake” Zhang spoke with students at Syracuse University on Zoom on Wednesday morning. His talk was about his work as a director for “Blood Swim,” an animated short released earlier this year. Using his work to frame the discussion, he offered students a step-by-step guide on how to create their own animated shorts, from the planning stages through to post-production.

“When storyboarding, ask yourself: are you more of a visual artist?” Zhang said. “There’s no right or wrong for this one, especially in pre-production. Creating the concept (of a story) is more like taking notes, pulling the most interesting moments from your mind. »

Zhang is an award-winning freelance animation artist. He has won numerous awards and accolades for his animated shorts, most recently earning international accolades for his 2016 short “Pokey Pokey.” The animator has expanded his career into the world of education, as Assistant Professor of Computational Arts Practice at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Although Zhang’s event was open to all SU students, it was aimed at a particular audience: Professor Rebecca Ruige Xu’s CAR 430 Computer Art Seminar class, who attended the conference. The seminar is aimed at seniors in the College of Visual and Performing Arts who are majoring in computer art and animation, with the intention of preparing them for their graduate theses on creating animated shorts. Zhang’s lecture served as a guide in their pre-production planning.



Zhang oriented his speech informatively, describing his filmmaking process. He discussed his creative process from mystery to certainty to illustrate what students should be looking for in their projects. The artist posed three questions to the students developing their story concepts: “What is it? How does it look? What is it made of?”

“Embrace the random…Amplify, so the audience can fully immerse themselves in the story,” Zhang said.

After establishing these questions, the artist offered the audience a preview of “Blood Swim.” He played the eight-minute short, which he used to start his lecture, explaining how he answered the same questions he posed to the audience during his development.

Zhang expanded on his creative process, talking to students about his storyboarding methods, which he emphasized aren’t about art. Nonetheless, the storyboard is important because it’s the first and most crucial step in what Zhang calls the film production pipeline.

When Zhang creates storyboards, he focuses on writing down his characters’ actions first and refining the animation later. He first used 2D storyboards and simple animatics to finalize the flow of “Blood Swim” before animating it in more detail.

“I’m more of a visual type,” Zhang said. “I like to create key moments in my mind that can be included in the final production.”

Zhang told the students to “accept chance” when describing an animated film.
Zoom Screenshot

He stressed the importance of story and camera placement when developing storyboards, pointing out that until the storyboards are executed according to the director’s vision, the rest of the project cannot continue.

“You create a space based on the story and…you make a decision for the best choice to shoot the scene,” Zhang said. “In your mind, there should be a three-dimensional thought…you choose the best one based on the need to tell the story.”

Zhang’s biggest advice regarding animation was for aspiring directors to clearly define what they want their outcome to be with character design, mainly because the director is usually not the one animating during a project.

Towards the end of his speech, Zhang offered practical advice on how to make a film during the pandemic. Although it is possible, it is a challenge, especially with an international team, he said. He emphasized the importance of organization and provided attendees with the methods he uses to keep his work in order.

“As a director, you have to be very clear about the pipeline,” Zhang said. “You need to be very clear that each component has an outcome so you can define the time management (for the project).”

He concluded his speech by answering questions from the audience, most of which were from Xu’s students. Before leaving the Zoom call, Zhang offered one final piece of advice for budding filmmakers.

“You have to come back to what is the most interesting part of the animation,” Zhang said. “Find the most exciting part…the most interesting part that motivates you to create.”

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