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An Interview with Yani Sun, Director of 'Sea ya'

Please tell us, first, how you became interested in cinema and animation and how did you start your career as a fan of this art?

When I was in middle school, I was a big fan of pop music, and I loved to watch music videos during my spare time. It left a lasting impression on me and opened my eyes to a new world. It inspired me to be part of the music video team then. I tried to learn more about this field during my Bachelor's degree by gaining a mixed knowledge of digital media. During my education, I developed a passion for motion graphics and animation, so I came to New York and pursued my MFA degree at the School of Visual Arts. I enjoy it because It's another language for me to express myself. Every time the viewer empathizes with my animation, I feel the achievement and get the motivation to create more works.

As a visual designer, do you think academic education is a requirement for working in this field?

Academic education may not be mandatory for learning skills because you can find inspiration from many sources and tutorials on the Internet can help you develop the skills you need. However, my academic education not only taught me design methods, but also allowed me to meet people who were also passionate about the visual arts and learn from other directors and designers in this field. When I was studying at the School of Visual Arts, my professors and advisors were experienced artists and educators, and I was frequently inspired by the people around me.

Tell us about the steps of making Sea Ya. How did you come up with the idea of this work and how long did it take you to execute it?

I was inspired by an article, “The plastic in our bodies”, which is part of a series on “plastics and the body” from Politico. It talks about the current state of our environment and explains the fact that it's likely most people have plastic inside their bodies, which was discovered by two Austrian scientists in 2019. Before this experiment, plastic fibers were found in drinking water, beer, fish, mussels, pigs, chicken, Crabs, oysters, plankton, and air. Although the essay mentions that plastic pollution has never been blamed for a single death, the effects on the environment are markedly negative. According to this article, air pollution contributes to 7 million deaths annually, and climate change-related diseases could each year claim a quarter of a million lives. This helped me realize the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and that it is time to call for a global solution, so I decided to visualize the current situation in my own way.

Currently we are overwhelmed with terrible images when we talk about plastic pollution, and we become desensitized or numb. But if we see the facts presented appealingly, maybe it will have a more significant impact and a better chance of leading to the kind of action we need. I wanted to show this severe and heavy topic with a slow musical rhythm and a clean visual style. The use of plastic products can be seen everywhere, and this habit that has been integrated into our lives, is quietly hurting each of us and our planet. My goal is to show this feeling of silence and, through this project, make people conscious that it is time to change their collective consumption habits.

I spent almost two months researching, polishing the script, creating the storyboard and animatic, then spent three months building up the 2D and 3D scenes and finishing the animation and composition of this film.

From the very beginning, your emphasis on the educational aspects of the subject can be seen. How effective do you think short animations or short films can be in changing people's thinking in terms of education?

From my perspective, short animations or short films are a good way for artists to share their ideas. As a viewer, I also find resonance in the works of other artists, which cause me to think deeply and inspire me to create new work.I believe people can be impacted or changed through short animations, and I hope that viewers of Sea ya will be inspired to try their best to avoid using plastic products in their life. Although we can't completely eliminate the harm caused by this substance, we can at least make a more conscious effort to try to change and slow down the damage our use is creating.

You made the Sea Ya animation with a budget of two thousand dollars. How much do you think the financial possibilities can affect the quality and final result of a short animation?

The most essential thing is the idea (script/story) not the budget. There are many brilliant works of art that have had low budgets. As long as the price is affordable for the artist, a higher budget can help them improve their efficiency or give them the freedom to try different possibilities when showing their ideas.

I spent most of my budget to buy a new PC desktop and software because I was planning to combine 2D and 3D techniques in this film. Therefore, it required a computer powerful enough to quickly produce 3D renderings. Without this, it would have taken much longer to finish this film.

Another essential part of this budget was used to pay for the composer, who created the music and all of the sound effects for Sea ya. It was a great pleasure to work with my composer, Aaron. His music sets the right tone for the film, makes the visual more lively, and helps the viewer to be more invested in the story.

What subjects engage your mind the most?

My works are mainly inspired by the fragmented records of my life, which include culture, lifestyle, and music. Usually, I draw from simple ideas that everyone can relate to or emotions that I most want to convey to the audience at the moment. Each animated film I have made reflects my thinking on different topics—they address various subject matters, which determine the styles and forms of these works.

How do you evaluate the role of film festivals in getting independent works recognized and seen?

Film festivals build a community for creators and support the artists by showing their works on a bigger platform in a way that I truly appreciate! In that way, the different voices of the artists around the world can get society's attention. It's also a massive encouragement for filmmakers when they get selected and awarded. However, I also want to see film festivals become more accessible to less privileged artists in the future.

Tell us about the experience you gained while creating this work and the lesson that can be given to young filmmakers. What are the advantages and difficulties of working in independent cinema?

I suggest that, when you are creating something, never be afraid to try new things. Please keep experimenting with styles and exploring how to tell the story until you find the best way to express yourself. For example, when I was creating Sea ya, I had to learn new 3D software like Substance 3D designer and Houdini that I’d never used before. It was a challenge, but that’s how I learned and grew in this project.

I think the advantage of working independently is that you have freedom and are more willing to take a risk when experimenting with styles. Also, you'll feel more achievement when you get credit, especially if your work is selected by a film festival or gets an award, because you’re responsible for the entire production process (including design, storyboard, animatic, modeling, animation, and composition, etc). But the difficulty is that you need good time management and you have to find ways to keep yourself motivated. To solve this problem, I created a detailed schedule at the beginning of the project and stuck to it. I also shared my progress with friends around me and listened to their thoughts to motivate myself to stay on track.

Please tell us about your favorite filmmakers and animators and the influence they had on your work.

I would love to share one of my favorite filmmakers, DeeKay Kwon. He is a famous animator from South Korea, living in the bay area now. His illustration has a strong personal style, and his animation is a bit goofy but super smooth. People enjoy his work because he is excellent at observing and catching the details in everyone's daily life, and makes the viewer smile while watching the animation. Every time I see his work, it reminds me of my own experiences. That’s why he inspires me so much and his work encourages me to create more and share it with people.

What was the attitude or reaction of the audience towards Sea ya?

Most viewers were shocked that the plastic products we have used over the past several decades are already infiltrating bodies in the form of microplastics. As we all now know, plastic accounts for the most significant proportion of environmental and marine pollution. This ecological crisis has already had profound effects on plant and animal populations, leading to endangerment and, in some cases, even extinction. Many believed that the harm of plastic pollution had not yet reached humans. However, single-use plastic products already infiltrate human bodies and threaten human health. The viewers thought Sea ya was very meaningful work to help people understand how the bad habits we have accepted as part of our daily life will eventually be experienced as part of our daily intake, literally what we eat is going to be what we become and that is plastic!

What is your next project and what are you currently working on?

My upcoming animation is a story that talks about work-life balance. I hope to share the idea that even if life is dull or stressful, let's not forget to pursue what we truly love and enjoy our life! Hopefully I can share this film with everyone soon.


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