China’s Xingpei Shen creates animation masterpiece with ‘Lotus Lantern’

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Xingpei Shen, photo by Rob Chron

Despite loving drawing since he was a child, it took Xingpei Shen much longer to discover he was meant to be in animation. He loved art, but in his late teenage years, he did not know how to turn that passion into a career. However, after attending a presentation from Chinese animator Lei Lei (Ray), he started to become intrigued by the idea of a career in animation. One of Lei Lei’s films, This Is Love, stuck with Shen. It was a candy-colored graphic animation paired with a silly yet sweet poem. It made everyone laugh and reminded him why he wanted to be an artist in the first place. Now, years later, he is an in-demand animator impressing worldwide audiences with his work.

Shen has had an expansive career as an animator, working on solo projects and group endeavors. His first independent film, Good Game, Bad Time, and Killer Sportsmanship, went on to international acclaim at several film festivals. This pattern continued with his work on the Huffington Post project What It Means to be Muslim in America, where Shen was one of only nine animators who were invited to make a short animation based on an audio anecdote provided on the topics of Muslim experience in America. He was also one of seven video artists featured in the traveling show Internet Yami-Ichi on December 9th, 2017at the renowned Tate Museum, where he has two animation pieces in the show.

“As a queer Chinese artist, I find my work often looks at overlooked boundaries of existences, the places of in-between, and the sweet vulnerabilities of outsiders,” said Shen.

This is exemplified by Shen’s latest film, Lotus Lantern. Lotus Lantern is a tribute to late Chinese singer Zhou Xuan, a missing link between filmmaker’s queer identity and Chinese heritage. Shen wrote, directed and animated the film entirely on his own. He had a vision in the very beginning that he wanted to make a lush and dreamy film that talks about his queerness and Chinese heritage, and he worked intensely hard to realize the goal.

“I think Lotus Lantern is important, because for one, it is a personal story about both queer experience and Chinese heritage. In the media nowadays, there is a tendency to homogenize queerness and overlook the intersectionality of different facets of identities. I believe Lotus Lantern is a genuine and vulnerable film that resists that tendency,” said Shen.

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Still from Lotus Lantern

After months of work, Lotus Lantern premiered on July 30th, 2017 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn for the 14th Animation Block Party. It then made its way to dozens more festivals and is still continuing its run with three upcoming festivals in the next few months. It was featured as Vimeo Staff Pick and Shen was also invited to talk about his process on Animation World Network.

“It feels surreal how far Lotus Lantern has gotten after I finished the film not long ago. I am still currently processing and trying not to go over my head with all the good news. I am very proud and happy, because this film is incredibly personal and vulnerable. It gives me a lot of encouragement to carry out future projects,” he said.

Shen had three main inspirations when creating the concept for his film. The first was to create a tribute for Zhou Xuan, whose music was a large part of Shen’s childhood. Growing up queer in China, Shen did not have many icons in the media that he could look up to or relate with, but he was always fascinated by the singer and related her to a goddess. When he looked back on these pivotal years, he realized his sentiments towards Zhou Xuan all tied into his understanding of his own queerness, ultimately shaping his life. He wanted to reflect that through his art.

Second, he took the visual style from his grandmother’s praying shrine. His grandmother has a shrine that she prays to daily. When Shen was a child, he was always fascinated by the strange aesthetic of all the artifacts where a gorgeous antique brass double ear incense bowl paired with a cheap oversized disposable lighter she bought at a drug store and crackling chants pour out from a lotus-shaped electronic Buddhist mantra box. The sensibility extruded from his grandmother’s shrine table inspired the campy aesthetic of this film.

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Still from Lotus Lantern

“Wow, I am mightily impressed by Xingpei’s work on Lotus Lantern. It’s a steadily emerging style of film that I’m seeing more and more of and this one goes close to top of the class in that style. One of its strengths really struck me as being the very restrained and almost understated way he managed its pacing even as it poured in more and more and more visual elements – in lesser hands the temptation to wind up the tempo would have been succumbed to,” said Malcolm Turner, Animator and Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Shen’s last source of inspiration for his film was his friend and former employer Suzan Pitt, an animator who created the 1979 short film Asparagus. A few years ago, Shen emailed the filmmaker and told her what an inspiration she had been to him. She responded and invited Shen for coffee at her home and a screening of Asparagus, where they had a long conversation about the art of animation. Throughout his entire time making Lotus Lantern, Shen kept the idea and style of Asparagus in his mind. He was haunted by the intricate psychedelic interior space of sexuality and desire in the film. He wanted to create something that was as complex and captivating.

“I really enjoyed Xingpei’s film Lotus Lantern. It seemed to be a deliberate homage to Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus, and it was really great to see an animation refer to another (great) animator’s work in a thoughtful and considerate way rather than just ripping off their style or film for effect. The deep underlying reference to Asparagus opens up ideas about identity, beauty and self, the state of reverie, but Xingpei takes them into new and compelling territory. We are made to think about the common ground of each film and the differences too. It was beautifully made and very thought provoking,” said Artist and Animator, Edwin Rostron.

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Still from Lotus Lantern

One of the more outstanding aspects of Lotus Lantern is that Shen made the film with a combination of digital tools (3D software like Maya, and 2D software like Photoshop and AfterEffects) and traditional animation techniques (hand-drawn and rotoscope). It balances two different methods creatively to achieve a lush painterly quality, which is very unique in current animation. The use of these methods exemplifies why Shen is such a formidable animator.

Despite all the critical acclaim and recognition Lotus Lantern has received, the greatest accolade came at the 41st Ottawa International Animation Festival last year. On the last day of the festival, Shen was sitting alone after his film’s second and final screening. A woman from South Africa approached him and told him that Lotus Lantern truly struck her, especially when Shen talked about the influences of women in his family to him as a queer artist. She put her hand on his chest and told him she was touched before tearing up. The women then left in a hurry before Shen could get her name or her story. He calls the experience the highlight of his career.

“It was an incredibly sweet moment. I have never gotten such a genuine and strong response for my work. It reminded me of the reason why I wanted to make films and tell stories in the first place,” he concluded.

Watch Shen’s moving work on Lotus Lantern here.

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