An interview with animator Xin Li
Mosaic director Laurie Harris spoke to animator Xin Li about his paint on glass animation style following their collaboration on The Big Push.
The Big Push was produced in collaboration with the Poetry Society and the Fleming Collection. The film is an evocative paint on glass animation in response to the Herbert James Gunn painting – ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’. The animation also visualises renowned Scottish poet John Glenday’s verse interpretation of the painting – ‘The Big Push’. The film will be displayed at the Fleming Collection Gallery in London, film festivals and across the Internet.
Laurie Harris: How old were you when you first started to think about animation as a potential career? Why did you think about going into animation?
Xin Li: Back in 2007 I graduated from my Bachelor’s degree for oil paintings and fine art and I started thinking about doing something new. I kept watching a lot of short films and then I came across animated short films so I decided to go to Australia to study animation. In 2008 I started my Bachelor’s degree in animation.
LH: Why did you choose oil painting animation? What was it about that that drew you in?
XL: I’d been training in painting and Chinese-themed painting and classic oil paintings for many years. I never wanted to give all that up, but animation is just something I have to solely put all my attention and concentration on. There was a class on animation where you could do any experimention with animation, so I started trying to mix painting and oil painting together. And since that time, the second year of university, I started doing oil painting animation.
And also I’ve been inspired by a Russian animator called Aleksandr Petrov. I watched his films and found a way to combine classic oil painting and animation.
LH: Didn’t you do some training in Russia?
XL: Yeah, that was back in 2012. I went to Russia to study animation for one month and then I worked under Aleksandr Petrov, a really good oil painting animator painter. I went to his studio and did a masterclass with him. And then we completed a one-minute short film during the school, and then my film won an award at the end.
LH: What attracted you to the Big Push as a project? Why were you interested in doing it?
XL: I always wanted to do something poetic, so I thought about when people read a book they can imagine something in their mind. I think reading a book gives an audience more space to think about the stories, it gives them more space to use their own creativity and imagination. To picture the world.
And I thought film can do the same thing, with some narration and also a moving image. But at the same time don’t give too much information to the audience, do something more poetic.
So when I heard about this project, I thought that’s perfect because it combines poem and oil painting, and also uses animation. I like to try poetic animation, rather than fictional animation.
I had to do some research, mostly on costumes, and also the background on the Battle of the Somme.
LH: How did you find the collaborative process? I know it’s difficult to be 100% honest because you’re speaking to me right now! But how did you find that?
XL: I loved it! At the beginning we were trying to understand each other’s visuals, but after several attempts we could see more clearly what the other’s picturing in their mind.
LH: How do you feel at the very start of a project? Are there any nerves before you start animating?
XL: I do feel a little bit nervous because every new painting or project has some new element for me. A new challenge. For example, this one there were some water ripples and some transitions from one scene to another, and at the beginning I had no clear visual idea of what was going to happen and how long it was going to take. But after the first tests, it gradually gets more clear.
LH: So on average, I know it changes depending on what you’re animating, but on average how long does it take you to do ten seconds of animation for this film?
XL: Ten seconds? It still depends on how much detail there is, but maybe two to three days. Sometimes I have to go straight for long hours, before the paint dries.
LH: Could you explain the process of painting animation?
XL: I create each frame on a piece of glass with backlighting. I then use a camera mounted on top of the glass and capture each frame and make an animation out of it. This kind of animation is called Straight Ahead animation, which is different from digital animation. So that means that from the first frame, there’s no way to come back to the previous frame to change it or delete it.
There will be a lot of pre-production. At the beginning I will do a lot of sketches of the movement of the object. And secondly I have to do the preview of visualization, so I use real paint to paint on top, and see some keyframes and what are the key points of the action. And after that I will go straight ahead… animate.
LH: So how many frames were you painting per second in The Big Push?
XL: For The Big Push there were eight frames per second. But I don’t need to repaint the whole thing. I manipulate the paints each frame, so I change it bit by bit. It saves a lot of money.
The hardest part of the process is if the paint dries. The next day I would have to repaint everything in exactly the same position. That takes a lot of time and it’s really hard to come back exactly to the same frame.
LH: How big is the thing you paint on and what’s it made of?
XL: It’s A3 size piece of glass. Sometimes I find if I want to keep the painting of the last frame, I use a piece of acrylic sheet, so it has a transparency feel. I paint on top of that so I can save the painting as an individual artwork, instead of everything being gone, cleaned up – a painful process. Sometimes I feel like I want to keep this painting, but because I only have one piece of glass, I still have to clean up.
LH.: It’s like you’re painting individual works of art every day.
XL: And you have to destroy them! The feeling is very interesting. The feeling is good. Changing all the time.
LH: What happens if you make a mistake, if it doesn’t look right, and did that happen at all with the Big Push?
XL: That’s one of the most exciting parts of painting animation. Sometimes the animation will go in another direction to the one I’d expected; I can just follow the animation itself to change the perspective or change the character a little bit. So sometimes I just follow the animation instead of deciding where the animation goes. Sometimes that ends up better than what I’d thought of!
LH: What’s your favourite bit, the bit that you’re most proud of?
XL: I think still the football part, the football part shocked me every time, I think it’s very powerful.