Beginning in the 1990s, a promising new technology kicked off a period of revolutionary change in the film industry. The advent of computer generated imagery made it possible to create worlds and characters that could never have been dreamed of before. From epic superhero blockbusters to beloved animation franchises, filmmakers across every genre rely more and more on visual effects artists like Zhouyu Zhou to bring to the screen what cameras alone can’t.
Years of experience, a background in photography and design, and a mastery of the complex technical aspects of the post-production process are what make Zhou such a powerful force in the field. Seamlessly weaving art and science in equal measures, he sculpts and breathes life into each production using cutting edge technology and the eye of a visionary.
“[Visual effects] consists of CG production such as modeling, rigging, look-development, pre-visualization, post-visualization, animation, lighting, rendering, and compositing in the typical pipeline,” Zhou explained. “All these aspects and elements are crucial to making the tremendous and surprising imagery.”
His skill set has proven to be an invaluable asset, particularly on projects like the ambitious 2016 film “Dancing Blue.” A creative tour de force that lies somewhere between an art exhibition and an extended length music video, “Dancing Blue” is a mesmerizing and at times abstract story told in three parts.
“‘Dancing Blue’… consists of everything from celluloid animation, computer animated graphics, and hand-drawn artwork,” Zhou said, describing the laborious process. “First we got the music, then started brainstorming and visualizing the motion and design based on the sound and music.”
Much of “Dancing Blue” is whimsical and surreal. The film starts in the vacuum of space, shifts focus to the inhabitants of a living painting, and ends with an absolutely hypnotic sequence of abstract animations. Zhou’s painstaking attention to detail is apparent in every frame, an incredible feat given the staggering amount of work he was faced with.
“One challenge was to create a 2D look by using 3D techniques… I used dynamic simulation and animated the smoke trail’s travels through space. However, in order to create the fluid experience I decided to animate the camera along with the strokes,” he said. “It was hard to pair both, so I went into the timeline to match them perfectly.”
Zhou was also the driving force behind “Reunion,” a heartwarming animated film about a young boy looking for his father after the two become separated. The film uses visual cues and a haunting score in place of spoken dialogue, making its stark, expressionist style that much more profound. The most striking thing about the film, however, is the method Zhou chose to use for the animation.
“Unlike most of the films that I’ve worked on, ‘Reunion’ is primarily a sand animation, shot frame-by-frame using a live-action camera. I shot footage on the camera and then ended up compositing CGI into it to create an organic and unique aesthetic to the animation, as well as to the entire film,” Zhou said. “This film has a supremely unique and original feeling.”
In addition to handling the visual effects, Zhou also wrote, directed and animated “Reunion,” giving him complete creative control over the production. The result is a truly one-of-a-kind animated experience and a pure, unadulterated representation of Zhou’s artistic vision. Of course, having control doesn’t mean the undertaking would be easy by any means.
“Shooting frame-by-frame was a big challenge, especially because I had to deal with loose, soft sand,” Zhou said. “In post-production, all the pain from shooting live-action was relieved because I could composite all those frames and added frame-blending and re-timing some shots. Even though it was sand animation, VFX in post definitely enhanced the final look of the film.”
His expertise as an animator and mastery of CGI have made Zhouyu Zhou among the most highly sought-after visual effects artists in the industry today. But it’s his artistic and creative instincts that give him an added edge. As visual effects continue to become more and more prevalent in film, it will be up to artists like Zhou to lead the industry forward.