By Woojin Lim AB '22
Renee Zhan AB '16 is a director and animator who uses dark, visceral images to explore the ugliness of beautiful things. She has participated and won awards at numerous film festivals, including the Jury Award for Best Animated Short at Sundance Film Festival. A native of Houston, Texas, Zhan received her Master of Arts at the National Film and Television School in London.
Q. Let’s talk about your background. How did you start out in animation and what made you stay?
A. Growing up, I started out by doing paintings and drawings, and watching a lot of movies. I felt that animation was the perfect marriage. In college, I took a freshman seminar on animation run by Ruth Lingford. It was so different from what I expected it to be. In our first class, I was expecting to watch Finding Nemo, but we watched these crazy old Russian shorts, such as Hedgehog in the Fog. I was so confused, but I loved it. It just felt like magic to me—drawing a bunch of things in a row and suddenly they’re moving.
I also liked how much time animation took. When I started, I liked things that I can just draw while watching TV for hours and not think, doing a repetitive process. I no longer enjoy that because it takes so long. I’m considering my next move into live-action. I did a stop-motion film at the end of NFTS, and I was just in a dark room by myself for 7 months. So I definitely have a love-hate relationship with animation.
Q. Tell me about the animation world. Where is your place in it?
A. In animation, there are big studios like Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, and smaller independent studios, and then a bunch of people making shorts on their own. Right now I’m trying to work out where I want to be—whether to keep making shorts on my own or transition into the mainstream. On some level, I am interested in having a wider audience. It’s an exciting time for animation in the United States because it’s mostly been a medium for kids, but now it’s opening up to adults.
I recently read that there’s a gap in the animation market for young adults and teens. In fact, I am re-reading the Hunger Games right now since their prequel was just released. Looking back at these as an adult, I think my main problem with them is the romance that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t feel real. When I was a young adult, this was my favorite part, but now I feel more cynical about it. I love these fantasy sci-fi worlds and it’s something I’d love to work on moving forward.
Q. How would you come to describe your work as an artist—all the way back from “Fish Juice” to “Pidge” to “Hold Me (Ca Caw Ca Caw)” and “Reneepoptosis”?
A. My first animation actually goes further back than “Fish Juice.” In my freshman seminar, I made one of a girl with rainbow hair, and then I went to Berlin that summer and started on other projects. I love the materiality that animation can bring. When you see the materials that are used to make it—the paper and the charcoal, the erasing marks, the paint, the smudges, and in stop-motion, materials like wax, plasticine, styrofoam—I love that you can see that it feels handmade. That’s why CG hasn’t really appealed to me so much.
I tend to make films about things that I’m afraid of, as a way to work through them maybe, and things that I’m obsessed with. I realized recently that all my films end with someone being eaten, and I don’t really know why. I haven’t really worked that out. My latest film [“O Black Hole!”] is about a woman who becomes a black hole because she’s afraid of losing everything, and so she keeps it all inside her. At the end, she vomits everything out—the whole universe. I thought if I made this film, I could convince myself that it was okay for things to change, that it’s fine if things don’t last forever, since eventually we’ll all be nothing. So I guess that's a reversal of endings.
Q. What is it like now to look back at those films?
A. I try to avoid looking back. A year ago, I was in Greece at a friend’s wedding. For some reason, we had this nighttime screening where people were showing films. There I rewatched “Hold Me (Ca Caw Ca Caw),” my senior thesis. It was a really personal film about all these intense emotions I was having at the time. Looking back on it, it almost felt like a stranger made it. All the things that my professors had said to change (i.e., to cut it four minutes shorter)—I realized that they were right. For instance, there’s this section where the bird rejects her boyfriend after laying an egg, and the boy is crying out for food because she used to regurgitate worms for him, but she ignores him. In the film, I have her reach out her neck across the room and squawk. Ruth Lingford said this totally makes no sense and it takes away from the moment. I was insistent on keeping it at the time, but she was right. That’s when I realized I needed to work with an editor, so now I do. I was just so close to the film when I was making it that it was hard to see the film clearly.
Maybe I should rewatch my other ones too.
Q. In your website bio, you write that you like to make “ugly films about beautiful things,” and in college, you said you wanted to make films that can “make you laugh and make you cry.” Have these mottos changed over time?
A. I think they’re still true. I was in the Lampoon when I was at Harvard, and it was a formative part of my undergrad. I learned about the fine line between tragedy and comedy. I definitely kept that in my work. I’ve heard before that as filmmakers, we’re always just remaking the same film over and over again, with one or two obsessions that we want to keep exploring. I think that might be true.
I’m now writing a longer independent animated feature, and I wanted to go back to birds. They’ll be ugly birds and hopefully beautiful birds too. Since it’s a bigger project, I’m trying to figure that out for the first time—having to think about my audience. With a short, I can do whatever I want and then see how people react, but this time it feels different because I’ll have to convince people about the film and then make it.
Q. Could you briefly talk about your experiences at Harvard and at NFTS, and how those have shaped your work?
A. I loved my time at Harvard largely because I wasn’t just doing animation, but I was also taking art history classes and partaking in other organizations such as the Lampoon. I loved VES (now AFVS), and I felt that there was so much room to explore and figure out the work I wanted to make. Then I spent a year in Japan on a postgraduate traveling fellowship, where I applied to make my film, “Reneepoptosis.” I had unlimited time to make the animation, so I was carrying the whole film in my backpack while I traveled around Japan on my own.
It’s been an intense two years at NFTS. There’s a good history of people going from Harvard to NFTS, including Timothy Reckart, who made “Head Over Heels,” an Oscar-nominated short, and Kristina Yee. At NFTS, I knew that I would be forced to collaborate with other students, including the producer, sound designer, composer, editor production, designer, and cinematographer. This was initially painful for me, but it was useful. It felt very different from Harvard because it wasn’t an arts school at all. It was all about how to make a successful film with an emotional storyline.
Q. How do you decide on a project? What is your creative process when making animation?
A. Usually it starts with an idea or a feeling or an image. With my latest film, “O Black Hole!” I was just doodling one day, and I drew this woman with a black sort of mass for a head. Then I started thinking about who she could be and how she became this way. Beaconsfield is where NFTS is, and being in Beaconsfield was a bit like being in a black hole. I started working on fleshing out those ideas.
I find writing scripts difficult. Once an idea feels right, then I think about it all the time, drawing and sketching out scenes. NFTS wanted me to be more rigorous about that, writing out a storyboard and planning out the film, which is completely necessary when you’re working with other people. For “Reneepoptosis,” I was in China with my parents in one of those weird trick painting museums. I was in this one room with a bunch of mirrors. I looked into one of those mirrors, and there were three of me. With all my other films, everyone always asked me, “Is that character you?” I found that really annoying to talk about, so in that film I decided to make most of my characters me.
Right now, I’m writing a film with actual dialogue for the first time, and I just don’t know how people talk. When making “Reneepoptosis,” I was so overwhelmed by the endless possibility of it, I decided to make it rhyme in couplets just to limit myself in a way. In “O Black Hole!” we made a musical. I love musicals that aren’t supposed to be musicals, when it makes no sense for them to be musicals, like “Dancer in the Dark.”
Q. Do you have any particular messages that you’re trying to get across with your films?
A. I’m afraid not. For me, at least, filmmaking is kind of self-indulgent in many ways. It’s a way of sharing something about myself. But it's really nice when people connect and take away from it something that they have also experienced. At a screening of “Hold Me (Ca Caw Ca Caw),” a woman came up to me after the screening and thanked me for making that film. I was moved that, for somebody I didn’t know, we understood each other in a way.
Q. Your “O Black Hole!” recently featured stop-motion animation. How do you see yourself experimenting with different styles of film beyond hand-drawn animation?
A. I did stop-motion because I was at a school known for stop-motion. It seemed like a good opportunity, where if I forced myself to try this new medium that’s really scary, I would get more out of it. I can make a 2D film on my own, but working on stop-motion, I was in a team of fifty people, so it was on a bigger proportion. My team included my best friends at school, so we had some really good times. The best thing about it is that you have all these materials, real lights and real shadows. It feels solid to be standing in a set with a puppet that you can hold. All of her hair is made out of wax, so the room I was in had to be kept quite warm so that the wax was bendable enough to move—but it couldn’t be too warm or her hair would start melting off.
I worked with an amazing model-making team. I designed the puppet, and then they sculpted and put in armature in her. It was difficult and everything was new, so much harder than drawing. Gravity was my greatest enemy. The puppet and the set would just fall down—all these things I'd never had to think about before. But it was totally worth it. Doing stop-motion made me want to become a director, not just an animator, not limited by medium. Live-action is something I’d like to try next. I really want to work on making longer-form works such as a TV show or a feature.
Q. What are your favorite and most challenging aspects of your animation work?
A. What is most challenging is the time it takes. Making animated film is really a marathon. Ruth Lingford said it was like having a baby: months and months of hard work, and then you’ve made it. And for some reason, you want to make another one. But the best part of it is showing it to other people. Once the film is done, it’s sort of dead to me. Immediately I want to move to the next one, which is not very good for marketing and stuff. The film becomes real to me again when other people see it, when I hear what they think, and when we talk about it. I also like the beginning, the idea stage, when the film is full of possibility—you think it’s going to be the best film ever, before the realities of making it happen, and then it sucks. But then you’re satisfied with the final product.
Q. What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers or animators?
A. What I’m trying to learn now is how to enjoy the whole process because I love some parts of it, but I find other parts just terrible. We want to make films because we love it—not because it’s a guaranteed money-maker that will set us up for life. Somebody told me that you should always think of each film you make as the very last film you’re ever going to make, and then somebody else told me that you should never think that way. So I’m not sure which one’s right. But try to enjoy filmmaking. That’s my advice to myself.
For more information on Renee Zhan’s work, check out reneezhan.com and vimeo.com/reneezhan