Get To Know Zekai Zhang: New-York Based Animation Director Bringing Chinese Culture To The Forefront Through His Films
Zekai Zhang, who has loved drawing since childhood, has shown his ability as an animation director to lead a team and turn ideas into reality.
In the film “Purple and Blue,” he added the voicemail elf to a real-life story, creating a heartwarming tale for the audience. His involvement in the Chinese animated short film “Thumb Story” has garnered over 33k views on YouTube, bringing joy and laughter to viewers. NILOOP is his bold new endeavor, as this virtual character dreams of becoming a fashion blogger, ready to captivate audiences with her beauty, confidence, and strength.
We interviewed with Zekai about his upbringing, inspiration behind his films, advice for aspiring artists, and more!
Where are you from originally?
I am originally from Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, where I grew up. When I was a child, drawing was often viewed as a distraction from more important subjects like math and physics, and getting good grades on exams was considered the top priority. However, drawing gradually became my most enjoyable and precious activity. Reading manga, painting everywhere, and watching anime and animation filled most of my free time during my teenage years. To this day, I have never stopped drawing.
After years of studying and practicing sketching, I was able to enter college to learn more professional animation skills, as well as the animation pipeline. The seed of creating my own feature began to grow, and eventually, I had a chance to make my first animation in my final year of college. Before that, I had completed a few commercial projects, but none of them were my original stories.
What was the inspiration for your film, Purple and Blue?
The inspiration for “Purple and Blue” came from a real news story I read about a middle-aged man who had lost his beloved wife and wrote letters every day expressing his longing for her. Based on this touching story, the concept of a voicemail elf was born in my mind, and after multiple revisions, I finally created the movie “Purple and Blue.”
“Purple and Blue” tells a touching story about a man who cannot forget his deceased wife. After her passing, the man keeps her voicemail and talks to her every day, trying to convince himself that she is still alive, although he knows deep down that she will never come back. However, he is unaware that his voicemail box is actually an elf who cares about him just like his deceased wife did. When he is about to lose his mind and kill himself because the mailbox has automatically deleted all the messages he saved, the elf comes to his rescue.
After the film Purple and Blue, you’ve been part of the production team of the cartoon “Thumb Story”, how do you recall that experience? Could you introduce your work?
Working on the production of the TV series “Thumb Story” was one of the most valuable experiences I had before starting my own business. The start of the project was quite interesting and wonderful. I still remember the day I was aimlessly searching for clothes in a mall when my phone rang. It was one of my clients, whom I had cooperated with before. He asked me where I was, so I told him the name of the shopping mall. He then shouted excitedly on the phone, “I’m here too! Which floor exactly? Come to me, I have something to tell you!” So I took the stairs and headed to him. He asked me if I would like to lead a team
and produce an animated TV series, and I immediately said yes. And that is how the project began.
After several meetings with my client, we discussed and wrote down the entire season’s script, as well as the length of each episode. Then, I created a sheet for each camera shot and distributed them to my team and crew to draw the storyboard for each episode. At the same time, I worked with our modeler to produce 3D models and rig them. After several brief meetings with the crew and client, we began the animation process. To save time, I started creating lighting systems and textures for each scene after finishing my animation work.
What was the biggest challenge of doing this project?
For me, as a student crew leader and contractor of a project, the biggest challenge was coordinating the relationship between the current progress and expected goals. Due to the lack of experience, we often couldn’t keep up with the schedule we had already made, and at that point, we couldn’t come up with a better solution. It means that when issues came up and slowed down the project, the only thing we could do was stand there doing nothing and watch the progress move further away from the deadline.
Despite these hardships, how long did it take you to find a team that you were comfortable working with within the industry?
I would say it took as long as the project went on. I kept searching for crew members until the “THUMBSTORY” project was completed. Most of the student crew members could not put all their concentration on the project due to homework or thesis, even if they were really good at their professional field. I had to let them focus on their studies. As for others, some of them were worried about the future of the company since they found out that there were only a few crew members working with me, or they doubted my leadership. However, I had to be patient and hope that they would stay. This kind of thing can happen all the time when seeking excellent crew members, similar to seeking a job.
You’ve released the virtual character NILOOP. What was the defining moment when you realized you wanted to enter this field?
After “THUMBSTORY”, I realized that Bitcoin, NFTs, TikTok, and the metaverse are becoming increasingly popular among younger generations. We are now in the era of virtual characters who can hold concerts in real life and where you can own land in the virtual world. I began to wonder, “What will the future of animation be like?” or “What forms will animation characters take in our surroundings?” I believe that animation characters will not only appear in feature films but will also eventually interact and talk with humans in real life, blurring the boundaries between reality and the virtual world.
I came up with the idea for NILOOP, a virtual girl with her own social media account, personality, voice, and aspirations to be a fashion influencer. I believe that virtual characters or virtual idols will be a great starting point for entering the metaverse era. As a nascent animation company, we need a strong representation to gain visibility and establish ourselves in the public eye.
Which is one of the best pieces of advice you have ever received?
Always have a Plan B. This is based on my experiences. We can’t make sure that we can finish the work on time every time. It’s really important to make a Plan B before the whole project goes on. Always ask yourself a question” What can you do if you can’t make it on time?”.That’s the most precious advice for me through so many projects.
The Fox Magazine is all about inspiration, and through past interviews, I discovered that The Lord of the Rings is one movie that has inspired you the most. Can you tell us how one of the greatest and most influential film series has influenced you to become an animation director today?
After watching the first epic movie The Lord of the Rings, stories and ideas flooded my mind. Daydreaming was a normal thing for a kid like me, especially one attracted to science fiction movies and cartoons. Even a peaceful playground could become a battlefield for me against armies of orcs in my mind. I started writing down the stories and drawing concepts in my
notebook every day. The dream of being an animation director dawned on me, and I realized that putting these stories on screen could come true one day.
What is the best part of being an animation director?
To be honest, I haven’t found anything that makes me feel frustrated or regret choosing to be an animation director until now. On the other hand, I consider myself lucky to be able to live a life in the professional field of animation because that is what I love.
Regarding the best part, I think it is the same for most art creators. When you finish one of your works and share it with the public, you can directly see the audience’s reactions. Some will love your work, some will hate it, and others will feel your energy through your work. All of these reactions come together to show that your work is being recognized. This kind of accomplishment cannot be replaced by any other feeling.
What advice do you have for young people who, like you, enjoy drawing and want to turn their sketches into films?
I always believe that if someone wishes to create wonderful artwork then they must enjoy their own life. That is also what my father wants me to remember and I also keep passing that idea to people around me. You can find wonderful,best and magnificent inspiration if you just concentrate on every detail from your life.
What’s next for you? Should we be expecting a new chapter of NILOOP?
Right now, I am focused on developing a business plan for NILOOP in the near future. I am also planning and preparing a short CGI film featuring NILOOP. I hope it won’t take too long!