Yibing Jiang’s animated short, “Wind-Up,” is a wordless story of a father and daughter, connected by love and by a tune that he plays to her as he sits by her bed in a hospital, where she lies unconscious. Somehow he hopes it will bring her back to him the way he used to hum it when they were playing hide and seek to help her find him.
The touching film is available on YouTube.
Writer/director Yibing Jiang and animation director Jason Keene talked to me about creating the film in a pandemic, bringing together artists from around the world and a variety of different disciplines, with the aid of Unity, new technology that makes instant rendering possible.
Yibing, I know you’ve made films before, but you say this is the first time you’ve been a “real director.” Why is that?
Yibing Jiang: I was born and raised in China, and at that time, there was no animation industry. My parents only want me to be either lawyer, doctor, or engineer. So, in engineering school, I have to use my spare time to making animations. At that time, I needed to persuade my parents, you know, I need the computer can run [the animation program] Maya, and they said, “Your computer, good enough.” So, at night, I had to stay in the bathroom until the security guy’s gone and I sneak out and use the computer in the lab to create animation. Even now I sleep really late. So, I spend a lot of time to do short films without proper education. But then when I got in US, I got in SVA in New York City and got proper education of animation. And I made a thesis, a short film, directing myself. This is the first time we actually have a budget and have a producer and have many people working on this. So, that’s why I say I am a real director this time.
How does a director work with artists?
Yibing Jiang: The animators are like actors, even more with Unity. In traditional animation, you probably need to draw the storyboard and you have to have the color key. So, the animator can imagine what’s the mood and tone and what the environment looks like at that time. But because here we used areal-time engine, the animators can actually see the environment and see the lighting and can tell the tone of the movie.
Jason Keane: Yibing was able to easily show us, so we can all be on board and we understood the story that much better. We had a clear picture right away. Yibing did an amazing job because she was wrangling in people from games and from film who never collaborated with each other. But she did such a great job in letting people shine when they needed to because they knew that part of that kind of skill, and then bringing it all together, whether it’s lighting or a drawing or the animation.
I’m a big fan of the Keane family, Jason, including your grandfather, Bil Keane, creator of the comic strip Family Circus and your uncle Glen Keane, Oscar-winning animator. What is it like in your family? Do they start everybody drawing very young?
Jason Keane: Right when you’re born. [laughs] It’s a strange or it’s interesting because growing up you think it’s very normal. I feel like as a kid for myself, I drew like any kid draws and we all love it. Until like, Yibing saying the reality of “Are you going to be a lawyer?” In my family it’s okay. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, draw, explore that area of film, or of expertise.”
For me, I actually just wanted to do live-action films. And that’s what I did when I was in high school. Putting in a computer and editing. Before that, I was using two VCRs and going back and forth and recording. But I wanted to get into USC and got rejected, and I saw my uncle. “Oh, he’s an animator, he’s working on films, well, I’ll just become an animator.”
But obviously, t it’s not as easy as that. But from there, I learned so much more. I understood what my uncle had achieved and how hard it is to draw. And the beauty that actually comes from animation as an art form and everything.
Do you still use a pencil or a paint brush or is everything done on a computer?
Jason Keane: Everything is done on computer, but drawing is still the fastest way we can get what’s in our imaginations, in our hearts, onto a medium. I think, it’s just instantaneous. Computer, there’s a little lag time, right? A little bit of more clicking involved. So, definitely, I did draw. The first scene of Kiki going sliding down the slide and then hopscotching. I drew that first. I did a rough drawing pass, just to get those kinds of key images out there.
Yibing Jiang: He drew over all the animation too.
Jason Keane: I do. It’s just the fastest way to communicate sometimes. That’s the beauty of also real-time rendering in Unity. Because of how fast we can see this final image.
How many different people were working on the artwork of the movie? And how many different locations were they in?
Yibing Jiang: That’s a good question because we actually have people from 10 different countries. And in total, I think we have around like 20 artists. As Jason mentioned, like half of the group were from games and half of the group from feature films. And this is our first time collaborating with each other and trying to achieve something new. To make it even harder a lot of us are at home using our personal computers and we communicated with the internet. So, we need to make sure the software can run on people’s personal computers. If it crashes on one person’s computer nobody can work.
Jason Keane: We were a bit ahead of the game because we were working right before the pandemic and where everyone’s working at home and we were already kind of making this with a proven model that worked out pretty well. For me, the biggest challenge was the time zones. We’re meeting in the middle of the night.
Yibing Jiang: It’s quite magical, in a way. Because it’s quite different than the traditional film where you have a linear process with many steps. You model first, and then character, and then animation and then lighting. For us, everyone started at same time, collaborating and working in parallel. Everybody can see it immediately and change things. If the environment, for example, is too colorful and overpowering the color of light, we can turn it down. And the lighters can talk to environmental artists because everyone’s working together and see what it looks like together.
Music is central to the film. What makes it so important?
Jason Keane: The music was animportant character in the film. It’s a universal language that can reach anyone. It is even more relevant now. Around the world, everyone’s facing this illness, the COVID situation. It’s a nice connecting factor, a universal language of music and the idea of bringing hope.