Starting an animated short film at age 12 forced a young director to face his grief while continuing to learn from a father who’d passed away far too soon.
It’s one thing to start reviewing animated feature films at age 9. It’s another thing to animate on a short film at age 10. But it’s a vastly different thing, starting at age 12, to write and direct an animated film about the life of your own father who had just passed away from cancer. Struggling to make sense of a parent’s death at such a young age must have been overwhelming. Trying to somehow work through that grief by producing an animated short just seems like a recipe for all kinds of disaster. But not for Perry Chen.
His film, a 5 ½ minute animated short finished last year, is called Changyou’s Journey. For Chen, embarking on what became a five-year odyssey to make the film was his way of not only honoring his father, Dr. Changyou Chen, but finding within himself the means to overcome feelings of inadequacy, that he had somehow abandoned his father as he lay dying in a San Diego emergency room, the very moment, he kept telling himself, he failed his dad when needed most.
Chen started blogging for AWN back in early 2010. He rated films on a scale of 1-5 starfish. At the time, I didn’t quite know what to make of him, though intuitively, it certainly made sense to have a kid review films for kids. He was just so….young! But, 54 AWN articles (over 100 counting his other published works), numerous awards and scholarships and his own short film later, Chen has journeyed far himself, no longer the smiling 9-year-old I first met at a Royce Hall Annie Awards reception, tightly clasping the hand of his mother, Zhu Shen. Considering the almost relentless persistence he exhibited when writing for AWN all those years ago, knowing the amount of perseverance and effort that must have gone into the film’s production, it’s no surprise he has brought the same drive to such an emotionally charged passion project of his own.
He recently had a chance to talk about the film, the role of parents and mentors in his life and what taking on such a seemingly impossible effort means to him now, at age 18, a freshman at U.C. Irvine, no longer the young kid seen in countless press junket pictures alongside some of the biggest names in our industry. Now, he’s a young man who I’m sure would make his father proud.
Dan Sarto: Your father had a huge impact on your life. You were so young when he passed away. What inspired you to make an animated film about his life?
Perry Chen: For a 5’4 man, to me, my dad was larger than life. He came from an impoverished home in a remote village in China’s Anhui province. Through sheer willpower and perseverance, he became the first person ever to leave the little village behind to go to college. He graduated from one of China’s top research institutes - Peking Union Medical College - where he met my mom, then came to America, earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics, trained at Stanford in cancer research, and eventually co-founded a biotech company in China to develop cancer drugs. I inherited his sense of humor, temperament, humility, culinary experimentation, and love of Mexican food!
In 2010, my dad was diagnosed with metastatic squamous cell skin cancer. He had to give up his research and return home to San Diego for full-time treatment. For two years, my mom cared for him 24/7. In the blink of an eye, chemo and radiation withered him to a husk. Unfortunately, it failed to do the same for the parts that truly deserved withering. In early July 2012, when I learned the oncologist gave my dad two weeks to live, I committed to making an animation film of his life, to bring him a last glimmer of hope for recovery. I called the film Changyou’s Journey. He barely lived to see the one-minute trailer I made that summer after I graduated from elementary school. He smiled and nodded, gave me a thumb-up sign, seeing his childhood come alive on the screen.
Five years later, in the summer of 2017, it was tremendously gratifying to show the finished film to my 90-year-old grandmother and the rest of her family who still lived in my dad’s rural childhood home.
DS: Share with us some of the details of the production. How long did it take? What techniques and tools did you use?
PC: I had quite a journey of my own making Changyou’s Journey. The production lasted five years, starting in the summer of 2012 when I had just graduated from elementary school, ending in the summer of 2017 when I was 17, right before my senior year in high school. My artistic and storytelling style changed dramatically over that period. The story also changed multiple times, as my vision and priorities evolved along with my personal growth through adolescence.
As far as my team, the film was produced by my mom, Dr. Zhu Shen. It’s co-produced by David Arend, who also composed the score, animated by Matthew Fisher, with Kiana Mosser as my background artist. The trailer was edited by Alec Dubow, a senior at San Diego State University's School of Theatre, Television and Film,
In terms of the production team, Matthew shared these thoughts: “A key focus in Changyou’s Journey was getting the right look for the film to ensure authenticity. Collaborating with Perry on this film was special because there was the aspect of learning Changyou’s story, as well as Changyou’s story through Perry’s eyes, and seeing what aspects of the story were important to his vision for the film.”
Kiana shared her thoughts: “When choosing the colors for each scene, I wanted to properly symbolize what Changyou and his family were emotionally experiencing throughout the film. A big inspiration for the style of the backgrounds was traditional Chinese landscape painting. One of the reasons I wanted to become an artist was to help people like Perry tell their stories. With everyone’s collaborative efforts, it was exciting to see the film come together as it was being animated and to hear the film with music for the first time. I hope that whoever watches the film will feel as though they are beside Changyou during every step of his journey.”
Through a mutual friend, my mom connected with David, a Juilliard-trained musician and composer, to work on the score for our film. He orchestrated all the musician performances, sound recording, mixing, and mastering. This was David’s first film score, and he created evocative, powerful music with distinctive traditional Chinese musical elements mixed with American Jazz and classical music. His score really embodies the emotional core and bicultural experiences of our characters.
Making this film was by far the most challenging creative project of my life, and an experience through which I learned firsthand the true meaning of being a project leader. Being able to work effectively with people who were all older than me, with far more experience than mine in animation and music, was an important part of my growth as an artist, critic and person
We had a shoestring budget as indie filmmakers, relying primarily on private donations from friends, families, and colleagues of my parents. We used software generously donated by Toon Boom Animation and Wacom Cintiq tablets. I’m also grateful to the more than 400 people, organizations and corporations donated money over the course of our production.
I should also add that this past summer, I redesigned the character of my mom Zhu to make her look more realistic and appealing compared to the old design, which was more cartoony and childlike. I worked with Matthew to incorporate the revised character design into the final cut of our film in time for our Oscar submission. Everyone on our creative team and a few other advisors who saw the final cut liked the revised film better. Hopefully the change will pay off.
DS: Who were some of the people who mentored you during the project?
PC: As far as mentors, there have been a number of important teachers who helped me along the way. I learned a lot from Bill Plympton, whom I met at Comic-Con in 2009. Bill became my first animation mentor and collaborator on Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest, a 6-minute short co-produced by my mom and directed by Bill’s friend Kevin Sean Michaels. After seeing my drawings at Comic-Con, Kevin decided to hire me the following year to animate this young women’s Holocaust survival story. I studied Bill’s character designs and storyboard with 23 pencil sketches, carefully observing how he told the story with economy of visuals and how he conveyed the flow of the story with movements and masterful transition scenes.
For example, the steam of a cooking pot used by Ingrid’s mother in one scene turned into the smoke generated by a plane crash in the next scene. I finished the animation in 2011 while I was in 5th grade. The film was later acquired by Shorts International and went on to qualify for an Oscar in 2011. When I began work on my own film, I used what I learned from Bill in creating the storyboards and character designs.
Another of my animation mentors was Charles Zembillas, founder and president of Animation Academy in Burbank, California, whom my mom and I met at the Women in Animation screening of Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest in late 2011. Charles has been one of the most important people in helping me get started with making this film. He taught me fundamental skills of character design and storyboard and gifted me with a book on the art of storyboard. In 2016, Charles recommended Matthew and Kiana, two of his animation students, to work with my mom and me on animation and background art for our film. Using my character designs and storyboard, along with photographs of my family and dad’s life, Matt and Kiana created the final animation that captured the look and feel of Changyou’s life, from a boy in rural China with mountains of bamboo forests, to his Ph.D. graduation ceremony at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and beyond.
In 2015, I met Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, co-directors of The Dam Keeper, my favorite animation short that year. They started mentoring me remotely, mostly through emails, sending examples of their own animation designs, explaining and enlightening me on the technical and business side of indie animation production. Robert and Dice were art directors at Pixar for years before striking out on their own with Tonko House, making indie animation films, something I truly admired.
David Chai, another animation director whom I became friends with at the 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival, also mentored me on animatics, storyboard, and gave me advice on finding other animators to work with.
I also want to mention that Dean DeBlois, the director of How to Train Your Dragon, has been a wonderful influence in my art and animation. The first interview I ever did was with Dean, his co-director Chris Sanders, and voice talents Jay Baruchel (Hiccup) and others at the 2010 Dragon press junket! I LOVED the film and saw myself in Hiccup, a kid who was so different and seemed wimpy to others, but was the one with true power inside, who learned to embrace and be empowered by his own uniqueness, ultimately taming the dragons and leading the tribe of Vikings in an unconventional way. “Being different empowers you to see what others cannot” was the moral I wrote down in my review, which also served as a guiding philosophy of my own life. My Dragon review was incidentally the first movie review on my Perry’s Previews blog on AWN.
I saw Dean many times over the following years at industry events, and he kindly invited me to screen Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest at DreamWorks, warmly introducing me to his colleagues. Dean encouraged me to continue making art and animation, gave me advice, even offered to hire me to work at DreamWorks when I grew up! He was among one of the first donors to my film’s production, when he learned about my dad’s passing, sharing that he too lost his own father at a young age. Mom and I were deeply touched by his honestly, generosity, and support.
DS: Now that the film is complete, what are your thoughts on the project? Did you ever imagine you’d finish? Is this the tribute to your father you had hoped to make?
PC: After my father passed away in 2012, I struggled making the film while dealing with my grief over his loss and at the same time entering adolescence. I grew to loathe the film. I hated it for not fulfilling its purpose of keeping dad alive. I hated myself for being cowardly, for not sticking with dad to the end. I felt inadequate. I was ready to abandon the film many times during the production. There were times my mom thought our film was doomed.
Through a friend’s referral, mom found a wonderful personal development coach, Walker Clark, who has worked with many young professionals in the entertainment industry. In time, Walker became more than just my coach -- he became my mentor, role model, confidante, and most importantly, a father-figure whose unwavering support, compassion, insight, and commitment to my personal development was instrumental to my growth into a young man and to my eventually finishing the film. He significantly influenced my feelings about the film and my working relationship with my mom.
I realized that Changyou’s Journey was a commitment, not only to myself, but to my father. When he died, I could not bring myself to watch him take his last breath at the emergency room. The idea of sticking with this film until the end, something I hadn’t been able to do with him when he died, gave me the motivation to finish the project. It gave me the motivation to forgive myself and forgive fate. This film is the ultimate gift that took me five years to give to my dad, and an homage to all who’ve experienced the loss of a loved and the dark times that follow. I hope it becomes part of my Dad’s enduring legacy.
The final film is very different from what the 12-year-old me imagined when I started out. We had to make a number of heart-wrenching compromises during the production due to restrictions on the amount of animation detail we could create. That included cutting the film’s length by half to its final 5’30” running time, and cutting a particularly moving excerpt of the Chinese pipa music that our composer David Arend was most fond of, due to cost, time, and other logistical constraints. I learned the importance of knowing when to foster creative freedom among my partners, and when to be absolutely decisive about maintaining my artistic integrity and vision.
After my dad passed, mom gave up her successful career in biotech, one she had trained for much of her life, in order to support me in my creative pursuits and personal growth. In producing Changyou’s Journey, she has found new joy and fulfillment in pursuing her own creativity. Mom and I are especially close. We were all each other had after my dad passed, as the rest of our extended families are all in China. Mom taught me how to make connections with people, how to take initiative in creating and seizing opportunities in life, how to be tenacious, fearless and resourceful. She is quite the “Zen Mom” who raised me with mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, and gratitude.
One of the biggest challenges in directing Changyou’s Journey was figuring out how to condense my father’s entire life and rich experiences into 5 ½ minutes of animation, how to convey such a rich life with concise, effective, and emotional visual storytelling, with no dialog, so that audiences from all over the world could understand the story intuitively and emotionally without any language barrier. I hope after all this that I was able to convey what I have learned from watching animation master’s works in the film’s final cut.
The film has now been screened at 16 film festivals, winning several awards. Winning the 2018 Scholastic Art & Writing National Gold Medal and New York Life Award the same day we were returning from our film’s international premiere at TIFF Kids this past March in Toronto in March was truly special. I’ve been fortunate enough to also win several scholarships including a 4-year Regents Scholarship to U.C. Irvine. It’s been particularly rewarding to speak to parents, and kids, after they’ve watched my film, sharing with my mom and I their own stories of loss and how the film moved them. Grief is universal, something every person experiences multiple times in their lifetime, sometimes when they are very young. What endures, and what I tried to capture this film, is the undying hope for a better future, our memories of our lost loved ones and their legacy, and how that will continue to shape our lives in the future.
Perry and Zhu have begun work on A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES, a documentary film chronicling the making of Changyou’s Journey. A fundraiser for the film, to support their ongoing work and vision as filmmakers, is being held November 18th, in Poway, California. Ticket information and details can be found here. You can read more about Perry, Changyou’s Journey and future screenings by visiting the film’s website.
You can read all Perry’s work on AWN in his blog, Perry’s Previews – Insights from a Child Film Critic.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.