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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Ireland’s Jonathon Ridgard talks producing ‘America’s Got Talent’ and working alongside his idols

Hailing from Galway, Ireland, Jonathon Ridgard has come a long way both geographically and figuratively since he received his first camcorder at just eight years old. Even at such a young age, he had a passion that was more than just a childhood hobby. Now, Ridgard is a renowned supervising producer in Hollywood, and is responsible for bringing some of your favorite shows to the small screen.

“My parents recently found old home videos where I am running around interviewing everyone in the family. My brother was sick in the hospital, having his appendix removed and I have the camcorder with me, recording an interview with him – asking him how he feels, and to describe what was happening. With this camcorder, I used to film family parties, birthdays, christenings and cut them together to make short videos for people. I guess I always had a keen interest in telling the stories of what was going on in people’s lives,” said Ridgard.

Ridgard is currently busy getting ready for the highly-anticipated ABC reboot of American Idol, premiering March 11, working alongside such superstars as Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan, and Katy Perry. Ridgard previously produced the show’s 15th and final season on FOX and is glad to be back on such a celebrated program.

American Idol is far from Ridgard’s first taste of international success. This sought-after supervising producer has an esteemed resume, including Simon Cowell’s The X-Factor in the United Kingdom, Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word, and Undercover Boss, during which time the show was awarded an Emmy for “Outstanding Reality Program”.

“It’s hard to pinpoint a single highlight of my career. It would probably be working with Simon Cowell. He is someone I grew up watching on TV. He is an incredibly talented Executive Producer and on-screen talent. Working with Gordon Ramsay is also another career highpoint. I served as Senior Producer for his live show. Overseeing a team of producers and associate producers. I was tasked with creating new, interesting and fun pieces that would feature Gordon. I worked with Gordon on these developed ideas and then we would film them and turn them around in post to feature in the following weeks’ episodes. I am a big fan of Gordon, both as a Chef and a television personality. He is one of the nicest and easiest people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. And of course, being awarded an Emmy for contribution to Undercover Boss is also an incredible highlight. To be recognized for my contribution to such a successful show at an early age was, and still is, a very proud moment,” said Ridgard.

Ridgard is also known for his outstanding work on Simon Cowell’s Got Talent franchise around the world. Beginning with Australia’s Got Talent in 2010 followed by Britain’s Got Talent and contributing greatly to their success, Ridgard received a call from the show’s Executive Producer, Sam Donnelly, asking him to be a part of the U.S. version for its eighth season. Knowing that America’s Got Talent is one of the most iconic shows on American television, Ridgard immediately accepted. The show was about to go through some big changes, from new judges to a shift in the format, and he was ready to lend his talents to making the show an even greater hit than it already was. Ridgard achieved his goal. Since joining the team, the show has continually grown in ratings each year, something that is almost unheard of for a reality competition show that has been around for over a decade.

“I love that the stories we tell on a show like America’s Got Talent could potentially inspire people to get out there and follow their dreams. Maybe someone at home might see an 8-year-old dancer, or an 82-year-old juggler, or a struggling comedian, and these stories might resonate with them and their own story and it might push them to reach their full potential,” he said.

Working on the show was difficult but immensely rewarding for Ridgard. Not only did he enjoy working closely with the judges, Mel B, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Howard Stern, but he travelled the country to find the talent that would be showcased on screen. Every year there are tens of thousands of applicants looking to be on the show, and it is Ridgard and his team that find the ones that will connect with audiences and therefore make the show a success. Going through such a large pool of applicants and narrowing them down can be hard and Ridgard would sometimes feel the pressure, but he let that fuel him. Not only did he understand that it was important to the show to find the right people, he understood the responsibility he had: people’s lives were in his hands. Ultimately, he made every decision based on what he knew from his vast experience would make good television and which contestants could ultimately go on to win the show.

In addition to this, Ridgard also had to decide how to tell the contestants’ stories. Some of the applicants have sad or traumatic backstories, and Ridgard knew that the way these stories were told were almost more important than the actual act; they could affect the viewers lives and needed to be told sensitively and in a way to inspire the contestant and the millions of viewers around the world.

“Telling people’s stories and getting to travel the United States while being one of the first people to see undiscovered talent and knowing that these people had a chance to win $1 million and go on to worldwide fame, well, it was an invaluable experience,” said Ridgard.

With such vital responsibilities, everyone on set recognized the producing team as the core of the show. They were the ones that worked in and were responsible for casting, setting up auditions and auditioning talent, filming back stories and interviews and ultimately being the go-to people for every other aspect of the show. It’s because of this that the show is successful and Ridgard is very proud of that.

“I was lucky enough to work with Jonathon as a producer on America’s Got Talent in 2012 and I was immediately struck by how creative he is. He walked onto a big team and quickly became a standout producer with his fresh approach to problem-solving in the field, his can-do attitude and ability to motivate the team around him. Many producers aren’t able to both supply creative, amazing ideas to take the show from good to great and execute them well, seeing them through to the final product, but Jonathon is skilled at both. He just gets it, the entire process, which I’m sure comes from his long, established career in this industry back in the UK. I love working with Jonathon as he’s extremely gifted at what he does, and I hope I get a chance to work with him again,” said Lindsay Tuggle, Supervising Producer.

After his tremendous success on America’s Got Talent, Ridgard was then asked to help launch the premiere season of Asia’s Got Talent. The spin-off is billed as the biggest talent show in the world with talent stretching across 15 countries from India through to Japan. Asia’s Got Talent delivered ratings ten times higher than its nearest English-speaking rival on its season one premier. Ridgard was contacted by FremantleMedia Asia to oversee the creation the show, based in Singapore. As a consulting producer, he was tasked with getting the show off the ground, imparting his expertise to the Asia team and showcasing how the Got Talent format was produced. He helped to develop the show from nothing, implementing casting plans in every country from India across to Japan. He was instrumental in casting the show, choosing the very best, interesting and diverse talent across all 15 countries. He also cast the two main hosts. Later, he worked with the full production team so they would understand how to produce interviews, b-roll, and stylized reality scenes that would fit in with the franchise. Asia’s Got Talent was one of the most successful show launches for AXN.

“I feel very proud to have worked on a franchise that is known globally. It’s been a career highlight and seeing the show continue to succeed is incredible to see. Being able to make people’s dreams come true is something that we actually do as producers. As cheesy as it sounds, seeing someone go from small town girl/boy achieving their dreams with the world at their feet is a job that not many people get to do, and it never gets old,” Ridgard concluded.