At a quaint Sydney tea shop, Ozanimate met up with illustrator and storyboard artist Ranran Zhou to discuss writing, storytelling, subtlety and life’s ‘beautiful little disappointments’.
“I really enjoy drawing people, characters, little moments. Someone’s life, their relationships…I’m a shamefully sentimental, nostalgic person,” laughs Ranran Zhou, “I’m sure it just all bleeds out into my work!”
“I carry my sketchbook with me at all times. Observing people in cafes, markets – there’s always so much you see from sketching that you wouldn’t otherwise notice.”
Ranran Zhou’s sketchbooks – lavishly painted and brimming with beautifully illustrated character sketches, delicate expressions and astute observations – evoke a soft kind of storybook nostalgia, or a ‘beautiful sadness’, a sensibility Zhou explains is perhaps influenced by her great love of film.
“I watch a lot foreign films. I do have a favourite film of all time – it’s [Krzysztof Kieślowski’s] The Double Life of Veronique. The first time I watched it, I just got chills all down my spine,” said Zhou, “I’ve never felt that way about a movie, ever. It’s just about those feelings you have, just under the surface. It’s all about fate and the little inexplicable moments in life. That’s definitely a reoccurring thing in the works I love – bitter-sweetness and sadness.”
Whilst beginning her studies in graphic and motion design at university early on, it was only after attending a 2012 Pixar Masterclass that Zhou became enamored with storyboarding. Deeply inspired, she decided to pursue a new dream – that of becoming a professional artist.
“That Pixar lecture was such a revelation to me. That’s when I realised that what storyboard artists in animation do is really all about film and storytelling. I don’t know why I didn’t know that before, but that was the revelation. I decided that I wanted to become a storyboard artist,” said Zhou, “After that, I quit my job and went to art school. Because I realised that I really didn’t have any foundation of art skills, and I was lucky enough to pick a school that really focused on technical excellence.”
She ended up taking a year-long intensive art course at Production Art Department.
“It was so concise and I pretty much learned from scratch, anatomy, light and colour and stuff. So it was one year full time of intense training. And I would say that was life-changing for me,” she said, “I would not be here without that one year.”
After throwing together her best work in a portfolio, Zhou was offered a fantastic opportunity – a storyboard revisionist position on the Netflix animated series, Beat Bugs.
“That was such a wonderful experience. I mean, I really didn’t know much about storyboarding for film and animation, and my director, he taught me everything. He was so patient in explaining the stages, positions, acting, all of that for me. I’d love to be able to work with him again in the future. [I think] you need good mentors, as well. Good mentors with experience.”
The Creative Process
Zhou believes that – when it comes to storytelling – you can never do enough research.
“Research is definitely the thing that helps me the most!” she said, on her creative process when coming up with stories, “I write first, with a lot of reference images. So, photos of the time and place, for example, or actors and actresses of films that I’ve seen, just to help me solidify what kind of person they are. So, I’d say a lot of research, and being inspired by the research, and then writing.”
The most exciting part of her creative process?
“For me, it’s the story. And also, drawing expressions. Acting, thinking about a character’s backstory, the roughing out part – that’s definitely the most exciting thing! I always get just a little bit bored in the clean-up stage. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh! But that’s the most relaxing part!’, but me, I get very impatient,” she laughs, “The roughing stage is the best! I don’t have to be bogged down by nice lines. It’s my thoughts, my feelings, coming out directly onto the page.”
She describes her visual style as a little bit ‘classic comic book’, with an ever-so-slight ‘Franco-Belgian’ influence.
“My favourite children’s author is this German guy who drew the first book I ever laid eyes on. My mum, she loved this guy’s work and it’s the first children’s book she ever bought for me,” she said, “My mum’s a cartoonist as well. She’s had a huge influence on me and my life.”
Whilst studying design at UTS, Zhou traditionally hand-drew and animated a short film, The Marvelous Immigration Adventures of Bunny Lee. She also collaborated with her cartoonist mum, Lisa, on her serial web-comic of the same name (The Marvelous Immigration Adventures of Bunny Lee).
“I went to school for graphic design and for my major project, I did a short film about a bunny who immigrates to a land of bears. It’s based on the stories that my mum tells me about her immigration experiences, and that’s what kickstarted the idea for the online comic.”
Will Zhou be continuing work on Bunny Lee?
“Well, we have been [working on it], but right now it’s on a bit of a hiatus. Just because, well, it’s mostly Mum’s story, so I just help out with some of the stuff, but she’s been writing it at the moment. We’ve got more stories in the bag, but it’s hard to find time to work on it. And we have other stories planned as well.”
So, can we expect more collaborations with Lisa in the near future?
“Yes! We have to, we must – but there’s so many ideas! Because I’m also planning to start my own projects sometime, as well. It’s exciting to plan!”
Thoughts on Animation in Australia
“This is the time. I think it’s awesome! There are so many jobs,” said Zhou, “Especially with platforms like Netflix, they’re always looking for new content. There’s so many exciting projects going on in Sydney at the moment.”
“I don’t even know about all the other parts of Australia, but all the places I’ve worked at, there’s been other very, very exciting projects being planned as well.”
What would Zhou like to see more of in the Australian animation scene?
“This is a cliche thing to say, but I’d love to see more stories about girls, women,” said Zhou, “‘Cause you want to see stories that you can relate to. But I feel like that’s just a matter of having more female creators.”
“And, you know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be stories about women, but with female creators you can tell stories with a different sensibility because you have different life experiences,” she said, “So, just more diverse storytelling. I mean, I think there’s a lot of interesting short films around, but for tv shows and stuff… we don’t see as much of that.”
Zhou describes her art as ‘whimsical, more on the lovely side’, but loves stories and worlds tinged with a bitter-sweetness. So is it the especially appreciate heart-wrenching stories that get to her most?
“Yes! But not too dramatic. More kind of [an] understated [bittersweet-ness]. I like a lot of Yasujiro Ozu‘s films. So like, Tokyo Story. Again, it’s very bitter-sweet. Very sad. But I love that it focuses on the quiet moments in people’s lives. Quiet little disappointments!”
“Miyazaki and Takahata – especially Takahata – do ‘quiet little moments‘ really well. I love Takahata, his films completely embody all of that stuff that I love. It’s very, very Japanese. But I know a lot of people that really don’t like him, because of how sad and disappointing, how depressing, that side of life [is]… but that’s what I really, really love,” Zhou smiles, warmly.
“Recently, I’ve also been really into this French couple, Kerascoet. I love them so much. Their stuff is just so free, the way they do their lines and colour. I love [their comic] Miss Don’t Touch Me, that’s pretty much perfect in terms of the storytelling and visuals in my mind. The story was really sad. Like, ‘life is just disappointing’,” (at another mention of bitter-sweetness, Zhou laughs goodnaturedly), “But again – I really like sad things!”
Stylistically, one series that has had a major influence over Zhou’s work is Akira Toriyama‘s manga, Dr Slump.
“It’s just a perfectly cute design, with amazing draughtsmanship. I haven’t looked at that manga for years and years, but I was really into it when I was a little kid,” said Zhou, “More like… a childish sort of look? And when I look at Dr Slump now… like, it’s definitely had an influence on my style”.
Advice to Emerging Storytellers
“Look at how people cut, how people edit,” said Zhou, “If you want to learn about storyboarding, everything is actually already in films! So you study it, and you learn so much more than studying from a book.”
After beginning work as a storyboard revisionist job on Beat Bugs, Zhou found herself wanting to further strengthen her drawing and storyboard abilities, and so placed her focus on self-studying film.
“So what I did was, every day I went home and did film studies. I’d look at the 3D features from Dreamworks or Pixar, pause on each shot and then quickly sketch it, focusing on the acting, composition, the background perspective as well,” advised Zhou, “After doing that for a year, I drastically improved. You just learn so much about filmmaking.”
Does she have any sage advice to pass on to aspiring board artists?
“First thing is to work on your draughtsmanship. If you get that up to a good level, then you can just watch films and focus on the storytelling side. I feel like there’s kind of a shortage of film storyboard artists in Australia, and that’s probably because of a lack of draughtsmanship. Just because until recently, we didn’t really have schools that focused on technical drawing skills.”
But for Ranran Zhou, in the end it’s all about dedication to one’s craft.
“If you’re passionate about storytelling – if you practice your drawing all the time – you’ll be able to make it.”