Several years ago, I was encouraged to apply for a Fulbright Specialist grant by an animation teacher, Mila Farfan, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. The university had applied for this grant and were interested in having me come down to Lima to teach workshops based on my stop motion book, “Frame by Frame St op Motion” for 3 weeks. The catch was that I had to apply to be put on the Fulbright Specialist roster in order for this to work. I did apply and was accepted as a member of the Fulbright Specialist roster for 5 years. The trip to Peru was an amazing experience, initiated by a short but intense visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I mostly gave lesson-based workshops on and off during the 3-week period in Lima with the idea that the 40 students could have the non-puppet stop motion photographic techniques as another tool in their animation arsenal.
Fulbright, which is a US government-based agency with the appropriate moniker, World Learning Inc, has rules about its grants. This includes that members on the roster cannot participate in a grant until two years have passed since the completion of a previous grant. After the project in Lima, I just put the idea of another grant out of my head. Then last January 2018 I received a notice from World Learning that I was a finalist as a choice for a grant by the Jilin Animation Institute in Changchun China. Since I teach in the School of Film and Animation at RIT I was more than aware of the constant and intense interest of the Chinese regarding the American animation scene. This includes American animation studios, films, and universities that prepare animators for the animation industry. The School of Film and Animation at RIT has a large application pool of talented Chinese students for our MFA program, which is top-ranked in the US. There are so many exchanges between China and the US, despite the political atmosphere these days, that I felt there might be an opportunity to go to China and experience this booming nation and with its deep history and culture. Here was that opportunity.
The Jilin Animation Institute (JAI) was interested in a 2-D animator and I am known for my stop motion work. Despite this, JAI decided they wanted me to come to Changchun. I began to do my research on JAI, which was interested in me coming to China for 6 weeks to teach 5 days a week in May and make a film with the students. World Learning made the connection to JAI and would pay me a daily stipend along with a roundtrip flight and visa. I had to negotiate lessons plans, my housing and my food, which JAI would cover. Any other costs would come from my own pocket. In my research I learned that JAI was one of a few private universities in China and had over 10,000 students participating in all the arts but primarily animation. Changchun is located in northeastern China, in what is known as the “head of the rooster.” It is only a few hundred miles north of North Korea. Jilin Province was the area that the Japanese annexed in World War 2. Changchun is not a tourist area, is known as the “Detroit of China”, and does not have the wealth of the cities to the south or Beijing. All the cities in China are quite large and Changchun is no exception with over 7 million residents. I found the city to be quite modern and prosperous.
Preparing for the trip and negotiating film ideas and food budgets became all consuming. I had suggested a lesson plan that included exercises in non-puppet stop motion techniques in the mornings for 2 hours and preparation for a film for 3 hours in the afternoon. This was a reduced workload from their original 8 to 5 daily-schedule, but I felt this was a more manageable schedule for learning and production. I sent several general ideas for the students to consider, since the idea was to execute a student-based animated film. My suggestions included environmental concerns, universal human connections and personal visions or observations on life. I received 2 concepts in return that primarily had to do with two very prevalent Chinese themes, family and teamwork. After much discussion by e-mail and Skype with the team from the school which included Luna Liu, my main contact, along with her assistant, “Ramona”, I decided to just follow their ideas and lead for the film. JAI has many dormitories and they offered me a private room with a western style bathroom for accommodations. This seemed fine to me but I also had to work out my food. This took a little longer as the initial offer from JAI seemed too modest. I was negotiating from ignorance so I had to go with my gut. Initially I accepted their offer but then through some local Chinese advice here in Rochester, I realized that it was proper and expected that I negotiate a better situation. My counter suggestion was positively received and I felt better about not losing weight while in Changchun. In the end, the cost of food was so reasonable that my concern was unnecessary.
After getting vaccination shots and putting all my local affairs in order, I boarded a plane for the 16-hour flight from Detroit to Beijing where I caught a local flight connection to Changchun. The overall travel time was about 28 hours and the time difference in China was exactly 12 hours before New York time. I was about to enter a very foreign world as I reflected on the many Chinese students that come to the US to earn their MFA degrees. Those students are required to know English, I only had a few Chinese words under my belt. I was assured that I would have a dedicated translator and there were enough people that spoke English to make this work. When I arrived in Changchun there was an entourage waiting to meet me at the airport with cameras and excited smiles. After the long flight I was able to tap my adrenaline one more time to greet my hosts. About 9 of us piled into a van for the 40-kilometer drive to the city. The ride was mostly dark until we approached the city when the banks of lights appeared everywhere. I was dropped off at my residence where I was escorted past a gate and scores of small food shops to a large 6-story block building. We checked-in, walked up 5 flights and I entered my new home for the next 6 weeks. It was surreal but exciting.
The next day I was in my first class, where I met “teacher Feng” and my dedicated translator, “Jane” Peng. There were 21 students and two of them spoke some broken English. Jane was going to be critical to the success of this class. Jane knew nothing about animation and had been hired as a graduate student from another university. The learning curve was very steep for her but we did eventually settle into a good rhythm. I had already laid out a plan for the 5.5-week workshop and now I had to implement it with confidence, which I did. These were first year soon-to-be second year animation students. Classes were in session but the Institute has cleverly worked out a schedule that allows students to step away from classes for up to two months to attend all day workshops with visiting artists so it is an immersive learning situation. My students arrived at 8am and waited for me to arrive at 9 and give a particular lesson and demonstration. I always arrived with a big American “Good Morning!” and the class would begin. I spoke slowly and intentionally so Jane could translate. If she did not understand something like the term “ease-in / ease-out” the two animation students that spoke some English would try to help fill in the gaps. I had a fair amount of faith that my points were understood. There was a fair amount of activity and demonstration so ideas could be seen and experienced.
The sun rose very early (4am) since all of China is on the same time-zone and Changchun is in the east. Each day I would leave my dormitory room and walk with hundreds of students toward the academic buildings. On the way I would get a cup of coffee from a Chinese “Kentucky Fried Chicken” store. The activity level outside the dormitory was quite vibrant with food vendors calling out and selling interesting assortments of everything. There were people going to work and the sea of students heading for class filling the street. After my morning session I would often go with or without my translator to one of the three story cafeterias for a quick lunch then I might retreat to my room until 1:30, unless there was an activity for me to attend. JAI has developed an amazing program of bringing in and paying “experts” in the animation world from around the globe to teach workshops. This included Barry Plews, a creative producer and screenwriter from Australia, Chen-yi Chang, a character design supervisor on Disney’s “Mulan”, Steve Brown, the Associate Director of the Character Animation Program at Cal Arts, David How, a faculty member and writer from Sheridan College in Ontario and many more including a team of producers and animators from the Se-ma-for Studios in Lodz Poland, where I had trained animators in previous years. Often there would be special lunches served in a room for these guests with an extravaganza of food served on a large glass “lazy-susan.”
My hosts from JAI were very attentive and made sure that everything that I needed was delivered. This included fixing the drain hose from my clothes washer that was in my bathroom that just drained out on to the floor headed for the central drain. There were events, some arranged and some spontaneous, that often filled my open hours. One morning I arrived to class and was asked through my translator if I would address some students, that were soon to graduate, down in the lobby. I was agreeable and proceeded down to the main floor where there was an accomplished display of sculpture work. When I arrived, there was a whole line-up of faculty facing about a hundred students. There was a ceremony that proceeded and I was asked, from my position at the center of the faculty line, to say a brief word to these soon to graduate students. I had nothing prepared, not knowing this was going to happen, so I said something about pursuing their own ideas and dreams and not relying on the market to come to them. I have no idea if this was appropriate or not but everyone clapped and I returned to class.
In the afternoons, the class and I prepared a pixilated and puppet based short film based on one of the students’ ideas. The basic premise was an old woman lives in poor country room with a window that looks across a river to a large city. She misses her city family but pours her love and affection into a flower that is in a pot next to the window. The woman is sick and actually collapses to the floor. The plant has special power, having received the woman’s love and affection, and it shines down on the woman and saves her life. In the end, the family comes to see the recovering grandmother restoring her joy and yearning to reunite the family. The flower has given most of its life to revive the old woman so the final shot is of the grandmother and granddaughter sharing in the caring and revitalization of the flower. This was a very simple idea and a venue for the class and me to produce a complete pixilation animated film in 5.5. weeks. I acted as director, producer, screenwriter and ultimately the lead animator. The class built a full-size set of the room in a very poor country Chinese style. A team made the animatable flower with all its parts and the rest of the class shared various tasks from storyboards to make-up for our professional actor to composite work and final post. We even created sound effects and the music that was used became a little bit of an issue toward the end, as I will mention later. We kept a pretty strict schedule and the students, whose capabilities I was not aware of, did a great job getting everything ready for the final two weeks of animation. Having seen the students’ animation exercises in the non-puppet stop motion techniques that I was teaching, I realized that I needed to be the lead animator. We wanted to produce a technically competent film for JAI so I was able to mentor a few students in the final animation and the rest watched as I manipulated our older actress frame by frame through the room. I set the lights, that were bought for the project, and we proceeded ahead with the tight and arduous task of completing the film before my scheduled departure. Our ultimate goal was to move through this production process as a learning method. We wanted to make an acceptable film but story is always the most important aspect of a film. I had to help the students justify why we were pixilating this actress and so our motivation was that her world was stiff and awkward (like pixilation) until her family arrives. We moved to live action at the end to metaphorically say “life is smooth for the old woman” once her family joined her. The flower was animated in a traditional puppet format frame by frame and so we utilized the technique to help tell our story.
During off hours I was able to walk the city of Changchun or at least a section of it since it was so large. I eventually learned how to use the light rail system. I never felt threatened or unsafe anywhere I went and there were always people everywhere and stacks and stacks of 15 to 40 story apartment buildings. The architecture was relatively modern since so much was built in the last 30 years. People liked to walk everywhere but pedestrians were second class citizens when it comes to traffic. It seemed as though a car would run you down if you accidently stepped off the curb prematurely. The food was excellent from the hot-pots to cooked vegetables with spicy sauce. Good meat was expensive but the rest of the food was quite affordable. The Chinese love their shopping malls with their large atriums, free movies and entertainment, often including a whole floor dedicated to children’s activities. You could always find great restaurants in the malls. The grocery stores were often quite modern and well organized. Although the food section of the Walmart in Changchun was loaded with exposed fish, live frogs and turtles. Most Chinese pay for their food and other purchases with the ubiquitous “Wechat” code. Wechat is the Chinese equivalent of “Facetime” but so much more. You have to have a Chinese bank account to use Wechat for charges in the stores. This government-controlled form of communication and commerce can track everyone’s activities and is centralized. This is one of the reasons China does not allow Google into its borders. Google did not want to censor its content and the government did not like that sort of activity. This is an on-going issue with the internet and China. I used a VPN (or virtual private network) from my university when I wanted to use Google or send e-mail. Even with this “protection” everything was very slow and unpredictable. Often, I would write e-mails at night on my computer and hit “send.” Nothing would happen so I would go to bed. In the morning when I checked my computer the mail would finally send. I have no idea if I was being censored, since I was a US employee (Fulbright) or the internet was being overused to account for this slow processing. I did have to check in at the local police station when I arrived but I also had to do this when I worked for months in England. There is a lot of mystery and questions that are not usually worth pursuing. I was also selective about my use of the internet.
Overall my experience in northeastern China was absolutely amazing and eye-opening. To have the opportunity to see another completely different culture that is so powerful, advanced and controlled allowed me to see my own culture in another light. The Chinese were very friendly to me. They love their own families, elders and children, which they seem to worship. This is more of a universal human experience that reminded how we all are fundamentally the same. During my final days in Changchun I was treated to many dinners and events like touring the city. The teacher and class took me out for a farewell dinner where they sang to me and introduced me to interesting dishes all served on the large glass lazy-susan. It was heart-warming. We did complete our 3 minute pixilated / puppet animated film called “Love Returned” but unfortunately, I discovered the day before I flew out, that the music that the students used was copyrighted music from a Japanese television series. We had to have a brief conversation about copyright and I had to leave the film in the hands of JAI to resolve this and then they could use the film in any way they wanted.
I had a chance to have a long weekend in Beijing seeing the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square with a friend. It was hard to grasp the size of that city. The air was quite thick and polluted unlike May and June in Changchun. Usually Changchun has problems with air in the winter when coal is burned for heat. One never drinks the water. There was always bottled water available, which presented problems with plastic containers. Yet there were people who would sift through everything including the garbage to collect these bottles as a revenue source. The Chinese are very industrious and focused on their place in the world and they are fast catching up and even surpassing the western world in technologies and the application of ideas. There is a great regard for the American animation scene and it is a source of inspiration fueling their own growth in this arena. I would return to China and would like to go to the south where industry, technology and architecture lead the world. I believe the Chinese are also trying to address the issue of pollution but with a citizenship that exceeds a billion consumers it will be a challenge and an interesting evolution to watch.
-Tom Gasek (written 3/2/2019)
Tom Gasek has over 30 years of award winning professional stop motion animation experience as an animator and director. He worked with directors Will Vinton, Art Clokey and Henry Selick. At Aardman Animations in Bristol England, he contributed animation to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit short, “The Wrong Trousers” and the Peter Lord / Nick Park Feature, “Chicken Run.” Gasek co-directed and animated the “Inside-Out Boy” for Nickelodeon, which is a part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gasek maintained two small stop motion studios, one in San Francisco called “Sculptoons” in the early 90’s and OOH, Inc. in Massachusetts., Tom contributed animation to Aardman’s “Creature Comforts America”, Sony Bravia’s “Play-Doh”, Laika Studio’s “Coraline”, a series of Amazon Prime spots for Hornet Inc. in 2016 and he continues to direct and animate commercials and independent films. In the past several years, Tom produced, directed and animated two award winning short independent stop motion films, “Off-Line” and “Ain’t No Fish”. He is currently working on a short “pixilated” film called “4 @ 60.” Gasek wrote a book on non-puppet stop motion photographic techniques for Focal Press called “Frame by Frame Stop Motion.” He just completed a second edition. Tom has trained animators at the Se-ma-for Studios in Lodz Poland, given workshops, based on his book, in Lima Peru (2016) and Changchun China (2018) (on two Fulbright Specialist Grants), The New Orleans Children’s Film Festival and The Museum of Play in Rochester, New York and many other venues and universities. Tom teaches Stop Motion Animation, Acting for Animation, the Business of Animation and heads the MFA program in the School of Film & Animation at R.I.T. in Rochester New York. His work can be viewed at www.tdgasek.com as well as on Vimeo.com