Interview by Carla Sanchez Taylor
“WindUp” is a 9 minute animated short written and directed by emerging female Chinese filmmaker Yibing Jiang (based on her own childhood experience in Wuhan China). Jason Keane, animation director for “WindUp,” has a long family legacy in animation (“Family Circus” comics originated by his grandfather Bill Keane & now by his uncle Jeff Keane; and his uncle Glenn Keane is best known for his animation character work for the Disney classics “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “Tarzan,” and “Tangled.” Glenn also created the Oscar winning short “Dear Basketball” at Google with Kobe Bryant and has just directed his first animated feature “Over the Moon” this year for Netflix). The film was a collaboration with artists working remotely from around the world, created in real-time with Unity.
Carla: This story is so thoughtful, with such a sweet nostalgic feel. How was the idea for this short film born?
Yibing: It’s inspired by my own personal experiences. As a child, I was often sick. My memory of those days foggy but on the other hand, from my parents perception, the events were way more serious. I didn’t know why there were always so worried, but as I got older, I started to empathize. The roles reversed when I moved to the US. Suddenly I was the one worried about them. Especially recently, since Wuhan City is my hometown. Quickly Covid was discovered, the whole city shut down. I got word that my uncle had to stop his cancer treatments because of the overwhelming amount of patients in the hospitals. Both of my cousins work in hospitals and were around coworkers that had already been infected. I’d talk to them as often as possible, but once the camera shut off, all of the horrible thoughts rushed in. I guess this is a good example of art imitating life, especially at a time when people around the world are feeling isolated and craving connection. Some of us are preoccupied with the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. The story wound up being very relevant.
Carla: The film had universal themes running through out. There were no words uttered, which made it approachable to so many different cultures, and the music was no exception. How did you decide on the music component, being that it was such an important part of the quiet story being told?
Yibing: From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to have music as a main character of our story. We wanted the melody to stick. Our producer has worked on over 50 movie soundtracks. Over the years, he’s worked with a lot of great composers. We had a long demo reel for me to choose from. I think we succeeded in what we wanted to do, because everyone working on the film ended up humming the melody nonstop.
Jason: I feel like the melody can be carried through as being fun and then sad and then almost horrifying at moments.
Carla: That’s a tough task. Jason, how did you come into the collaboration?
Jason: Yibing came to me with a lot of art and design work already in place. Some of the models were already developed and the story spoke to me greatly.
Kiki’s character was inspired by Yibing. She has this kind of spark to her. We wanted Kiki to have this same love of life, of art, music, and playfulness. It gave a nice emotional punch and terrific contrast with many of the heavier hospital scenes. My wife became pregnant with our first child during production. It really helped me empathize with what the father was feeling. As for the animation style: we had be very careful. We were walking a fine line between cartoon and realism. We didn’t want it to be too cartoony because we wanted it to carry emotional weight without relying on realism too much. We still wanted it to be fun and playful. The process reminds me of my uncle Glenn Keane, a famous Disney animator. When I was in art school, I showed him some life drawings and he wrote down this Italian word, on a piece of paper: Sprezzatura, which essentially means art that hides art. He was adamant that subtly is key in art. As an audience member, you don’t realize it’s art. You’re living it, you’re breathing it.
Carla: It’s a whole new type of emotional communication that you’re giving the audience and I think the lack of dialogue aids that.
Yibing: We knew that if we wanted this to work, we had to try new things and invent new features along the way. The team of people working on this film were scattered across 10 different countries. Some had experience in film, some in animation, and others in gaming. Many of us were first time collaborators working from home.We had also taken on the task of using new technology, which ended up being quite challenging. If one computer crashes, it would tank our whole schedule. But it was also really rewarding because we felt like we are changing the future of real time rendering.