China’s most prominent independent animator is both frustrated and inspired by an indifferent and often troubled domestic filmmaking landscape.
Lei Lei is famous, at least by Chinese independent animation standards. Since graduating from Beijing’s Tsinghua University in 2009, he has forged a brand with a steady stream of short films in his distinctive, bold, graphical style. His shrewd appreciation of the importance of traveling, speaking English and networking with his foreign peers, has seen the 28-year old filmmaker give TED talks, gain commercial clients, prominent international fans and 40,000 Weibo (Chinese Twitter) followers. His 2013 film Recycled, a collaboration with artist Thomas Sauvin, blew expectations apart, won accolades at leading festivals and propelled him onto a whole new plane of filmmaking.
And yet, his frustration is clear. He embodies the explosive cultural clashes that he observes in China’s second and third tier cities. He is a Gemini, constantly torn between the pragmatist and the artist within. He is loudly, proudly Chinese, drawing creative energy from the wild domestic filmmaking environment, all the while lamenting the scene’s backward development. He is a rebel against a society that has no interest in, nor understanding of, independent animation, yet he defends the government, recognizes the economic realities and is cautious about change. He wants filmmakers to thrive, but doesn’t want the government to fund their efforts. He laments the dearth of festivals in China, yet grows sick of the conformity that the regimented festival structure encourages.
I caught up with Lei Lei for a long, roller-coaster conversation traversing the indie animation landscape in China.
Note: Lei Lei will be appearing at CAGN China Indie Animation at Dada, Shanghai, on June 3rd, 2015.
Chris Colman: Talk us through your transition from student to independent filmmaker.
Lei Lei: When I was in school doing my Masters, all my classmates were wondering, “How can I find a good job in Beijing? How can I get 3000 RMB per month? How can my professor help me find a better job?” It’s totally not about art.
In the last year of my Masters degree I did an artist residency in Lijiang, Yunnan. A very famous art director called Ou Ning, the director of Dàshēng Zhǎn (Get it Louder), introduced the opportunity. I stayed there for two weeks to help farmers print the wall and it totally changed my ideas. In the countryside, everything is totally different. You sit outside, with the farmers, they ride bicycles up the mountain, you meet an old lady, you talk about the weather, the sheep the cows the bulls. Your education is useless in the countryside. You want to paint a wall, but the farmer says, “Oh, my uncle died last month so you can only use black and white.” I had studied for more than 10 years and I asked myself, “Why do I study art? Is it only for a job?” So after this residency I didn’t get a job, I just did what I liked.
CC: Before you went to Lijiang, what was your ambition? Were you just looking for a good job like your classmates?
LL: With a Masters from a university like Tsinghua the best choice is to become a teacher so I was thinking to do that. I also used to do a lot of skating and graffiti but eventually I found that the young boy versus the world mentality was not my life.
CC: Do you feel that you’re different to animators and artists of the same age? Are you unique?
LL: It depends. On the one hand, yes, mine is a dangerous way to make a living. Independent animation is not a job, there’s no income, no security, it’s nothing. My parents are worried about me. My wife is worried about me. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, like, how can I make money? I have no idea what will happen in the future.
On the other hand, I really enjoy this kind of lifestyle. If you have a normal job, your life is planned, aged 40 or 50 you’ll still be doing the same thing. For me, I don’t know the future but it also means there is hope. I find it exciting.
CC: What’s the day-to-day reality of working as an independent animation artist in China?
LL: Sometimes it can feel empty but mostly it’s crazy. Every day I find new exhibitions on Weibo, new independent animators contact me, people doing new and interesting projects, non-Hollywood animation, 3D, 4D, manga. It’s noisy, it’s busy. Every day is blowing up.
CC: Do you think you’re an inspiration to those artists?
LL: No, no, no! They are the heroes, I am nothing. I think some young people think that what I am doing is interesting, but no one wants to do the same thing. Most young people will choose a normal life. The people doing commercial work think, “This guy is an artist, he doesn’t care about money. Fine, let him be.” Some artists think, “This guy is commercial. He does commercial trailers, so he’s not an artist.” Apart from my good friends, I don’t think people care about me. Maybe at first, I’m happy to have a million followers and think I’m a star. But I can’t use this to tell myself that I’m successful. The truth is, I’m not successful.
CC: There are currently very few animation festivals or events of genuine quality in China. Do you see progress or improvements?
LL: No, this year all the independent film festivals have disappeared. Like Chongqing Independent Film and Video Festival, Beijing Film Festival, and Nanjing and Yunnan Documentary Film Festival. Over these two years, all the Chinese independent film festivals and documentary festivals have disappeared because of government money problems.
If the organization is not government, you’re not allowed to screen independent film. The government, they support CICAF (China International Cartoon and Animation Festival) but they don’t care about animation, they care about marketing, especially manga. Hangzhou invites all the international festival directors to come but the feedback from those directors on Facebook is very clear. When they see all these women dancing at the opening, they think, “What the…?! What is this?!” It’s so over the top, such a waste of money. I remember one of the directors told me that the money spent on the opening of CICAF could fund their festival for three years!
For me, a real animation film should be in a cinema and people buy tickets. In China, if you don’t have the longbiao (the dragon logo stamp) you can’t sell tickets.
A lot of my friends told us that in ‘89 and ‘91, Shanghai had two very good international animation festivals. But now, there’s no money, no encouragement from the government, no place to screen films, no place for filmmakers to meet and exchange ideas. As a result, the quality is going down. If you want to make animation better, it needs events and screenings. Chinese filmmakers have to go abroad.
CC: Many festivals are disappearing but CIAFF (China Independent Animation Film Forum) in Beijing is still going.
LL: I’m very proud and thankful for Pi San for doing this event. It’s very hard to find an event where all the international filmmakers can get together. Everyone should thank him for his work. I hope in future we can have a big international festival and more screenings. CIAFF is good, but it’s not enough.
CC: Why doesn’t the Chinese government support independent animation?
LL: The government is right in some ways. They need to market Hangzhou as a cartoon city with big industrial festivals so more people go there and to develop the industry. If the government helps these companies, there will be more jobs for young people, then companies can generate money, which will make the city and the country better. In fact, the general public doesn’t care about independent animation – it doesn’t matter to them. I think in future China will follow the American way. The US government doesn’t sponsor independent film or animation either.
Actually, I don’t hope for government help. I think the idea of making films to win government money is stupid. You call yourself independent but you always hope for help. And, if the government supported independent animation, it might even kill it. Thousands of new filmmakers just wanting to say they are independent but fighting for the money. I want it to stay pure.
But I’m a Gemini, so I tend to answer questions in two ways. I would ask, why do France, or Canada and Switzerland sponsor independent film? I think it’s because they are filmmaking countries. In France they take it seriously, because they believe they are at the top of the arts and the top of language. France and Zagreb regard experimental animation as the country’s logo. Also, I think Canada sponsors experimental film to save the Canadian culture, to stop it going the same way as American culture.
The film language in China’s industrial films is terrible, because the government doesn’t care about experimental films. Without the experimental film, the language will stop. But you can’t change the government thinking. China is developing and commercial work is more important. Once the country is developed maybe the government will think like these other countries.
CC: Do you think China will eventually produce top quality commercial animation?
LL: Look at Weibo, Renren and Taobao. They started from copies of Twitter, Facebook and eBay and now they are huge and running themselves. I think animation could be the same. Now they copy manga or U.S. films but they have huge budgets and eventually they will find their own way.
CC: What are your feelings towards international animation festivals?
LL: On the one hand, yes, I love Ottawa – I’ve been three times. And I pay 9000RMB for a flight ticket to Annecy – no one supports me. Traveling makes me feel safe.
It’s about finding yourself. In China there is no independent animation, so when I stay here a long time, I don’t know who I am. But when I go out to places like Europe, in Japan, in America, I meet many young people like me. We can talk and exchange ideas. I found a lot of friends like this. When I’m travelling, I don’t stop to think, I just keep moving, following my feelings. That way, when I’m back to China I feel ready to start something new.
The other twin says, maybe festivals aren’t good for filmmakers. At festivals, everything is organized, everything is set, everyone sits in the dark and watches. After a few festivals, you have an idea about what people will like. Too many festivals make you crazy. You only think about the festival. You start to work for the festival. If you do that then I think your animation will be dead. In China, you have no idea what the audience will like – it’s a risk so you just make what you like.
So right now I’m not just going to festivals. I’m going to more and more artist residencies. Some schools have invited me to do film presentations or workshops. I’ve just been to New York to finish my film, to see some exhibitions and museums. The residency wasn’t only focused on animation – I met musicians, writers, fine artists, painters. I have a lot of friends there. We bump into each other in Chinatown like it’s a part of Beijing.
CC: What is the perception overseas about Chinese independent animation?
LL: I hate it when people say the reason that there is no independent animation in China is because the government controls it. When I do interviews, people abroad try to manipulate my answers. I might say, “Animators should be free to express themselves” and the reporter will jump on it – “Oh, you think there is no freedom in China?” In some European minds, China is like North Korea. They hope you answer, “There is no freedom in China…I hope I can move to Europe.”
I only want to talk about the real situation. Yes, there aren’t so many good animation screenings but, for me, Shen Jie, Chen Xi or other artists, we are free to do as we like. For Recycled, I shot thousands of photos of Tiananmen. Policemen passed by, they were very interested in what I was doing, but didn’t try to stop it. Even with no screenings and not so much money, it doesn’t mean you can’t make good films.
CC: Which areas of China are the most interesting creatively?
LL: Second tier cities are most interesting. Fast-growing cities, like Changzhou, Wuhan, Xi’An and my hometown in Jiangxi, Nanchang, cities in Xinjiang and Shanxi province. There they have lots of the most important artists, the exciting changes and many crazy things happening. People there are 20 years behind, whereas Shanghai and Beijing are developed like New York or Tokyo. Some people are poor and some people are very, very rich. There are so many conflicts and clashes – local culture and western culture clashing inside the young people. They welcome the Western influence, but are also against it. They ask, “Who am I? If I am supposed to be like someone who lives in Paris or New York, why am I living in Wuhan, or Xi’An? Why can’t I do the same things in my hometown as in New York?” This conflict creates great power and energy. If you have a normal, comfortable life, you won’t feel that.
It’s not just about Beijing or Shanghai. I hate it when people only think of these two cities. They are like China’s logos. They are just there to show China is a modern country, that China is developed – whereas actually it’s not true. 90% of China is second or third tier cities and villages.
CC: Do you follow social media?
LL: Not really. I don’t post videos – other people do that without my permission. For me, I’m more classical, I don’t believe in the Internet because of the copyright problem. Sometimes a company will test a film using social media. If it’s on the front page of Youku or Tudou, they’ll get thousands or millions of comments. But I’m not a company. I don’t need to make my animation famous. My animation is to explain myself, and answer my own questions. Yes, I put it on Vimeo, but it’s not social media and I don’t make my films for Vimeo. It’s only after maybe two years that I put my films on there.
CC: Do you have a favourite among your own films?
LL: Actually, I don’t think like that. All I think is, “I hope I can keep doing this." If I don’t make my next film, my last film means nothing. If after I graduated, I didn’t make Is This Not Love? or Big Hands, my graduate film would have been just a student film. It wouldn’t be an independent film. There are thousands and millions of students that make better films than me, but after graduation they do nothing so their student film is lost. I hope in the future people will see my films and wonder what I did as a student. When Shen Jie graduated he made Run! Now that his films are being selected by big festivals, people look back and ask about his student film.
CC: You recently said that you enjoy the boring side of animation. What did you mean by that?
LL: Well, one part of me feels that the pure idea is interesting. I’m young, I should do fresh projects. That’s why I do rap music, freestyle. I jump on the stage, full of energy, just get it out there. You think it’s shit? I just throw it in your face.
On the other hand, when you have a fresh idea it’s crazy at first, but after one night you might think it’s bullshit. But if you do the boring stuff for a hundred, a thousand days, you will think about it again and again. It’s not just your eyes or your heart, you use your whole body to think about it. I don’t know if this has some relationship with Buddha but for me it’s helped me a lot. You don’t even think about anything specific. Your body gives your mind feedback. That’s a powerful idea.
Recycled is a good example. At first I thought the photos were funny, people in strange poses – I was laughing at it. But after maybe ten days I was bored with it. I had no ideas, I didn’t know what to do with it, so I did some boring work. I printed 1000s photos and took it back to where those photos were taken. It took maybe one and a half years to do this. I’m not being humble – when I did this I really thought I was being stupid. A lot of fine artists and photographers did this before and did it better than me. After half a year, the reason for doing it emerged. I found that I was in the photo. I was a part of it. Animation is a way to answer my own questions.
CC: What kept you going while making Recycled?
LL: It’s like magic. I can’t explain it. That’s the most beautiful thing in life. If you know what will happen, that’s industrial animation – you do every part because you want it to look like that. But with Recycled, I was doing it for seemingly no reason at the time, but finally, one day, something happened. That’s happened several times and always after doing something boring.
For this film, I got my answer – I’m Chinese. It sounds stupid and simple, but it means something to me. Maybe it can move someone else in a different way.
Chris Colman is a writer and animator based in Shanghai, China, primarily focusing on Asian animation for AWN.com. He is founder of the China Animation & Game Network (c-agn.com), a nationwide community of industry professionals.
Chris is a writer & producer based in Shanghai. He’s the founder of the China Animation & Game Network, encouraging communication in the industry via live creative networking events.