Alina Chau Interview

Meet Alina Chau, Senior Animator at Technicolor Interactive Services in this exclusive interview. As a kid who believed animation is all about shooting fairies and animals on location she turned to a Student Emmy Winner and later to a skilled filmmaker, animator and artist. Let us hear how adventurous this journey was.

Hi Alina! Welcome to Animation Today. Can you tell us where you are from and how you stepped into this enchanting world of animation and design?   I know that your grandmother was very passionate about arts and an inspiration. 

I grew up in Hong Kong. I stumbled into animation a bit by accident actually.  When I was little, my dream was to become a scientist - a physicist of some sort. HA ! HA !!  But when I was in Secondary School, i.e. High School, the teacher insisted to put me in Humanity class.  She said my artistic talent shouldn't be wasted in science class.  Under the old British education system, once the school decided to put you in certain class, a student of 13 years old really didn't have much choice.  The year I was going to university, there was a new program called Digital Graphic Communication, which offered classes combining computer studies and arts.  It seems like a perfect marriage between arts and science. This path will eventually lead me to animation. 


Yes, my grandma was a very talented artist, excellent cook, and tailor.  She never studied arts, but she is a natural.  Her fashion sensibility is amazing.  She used to make lovely clothing for mom and me.  When she was younger, she made stunning wedding dresses.  Since none of my parents can draw, most likely my artistic talent is inherited from grandma, though unfortunately I never pick up her delicious cooking skill.  Which is too bad ... I can't cook to save my life.  HA! HA!!

You majored in Digital Graphic Communication and later realizing that animation is your destination went on to join UCLA. What was the realization all about? What did you find so much passionate about this medium?

When I studied Digital Graphic Communication in Undergrad, the program covers - graphic design, introduction to animation, interactive media, photography, sociology, communication theory, live action filmmaking etc..  Like many undergraduate program, you learned a bit of everything during the 4 years education.  I realize of all the subjects I learn, I enjoy animation most.  

Well ... plus at the time, I learn enough to find the concept of making drawings come to life very fun, interesting and magical.  But I didn't know enough to realize how much hard work it involves!  I thought there was a magic button, which you could press and everything can come to life magically.  I thought the teacher was keeping that secret button from us in order to force us to learn the hard way.  HA ! HA !!  I was very naive then ... I watch a lot of cartoons growing up, but never know how they were made.  For the longest time as a kid, I thought you made a cartoon the same way you shot a live action film, but you shot a movie at some magical places with fairies and talking animals.  Go figure!! HA ! HA!!

At the time when I graduated from undergrad, Hong Kong had no more advance animation schools, where I can further study animation.  So I decided to study animation in America, because they have some of the best animation schools.  

And you once termed UCLA period as an "enlightenment" period? Can you elaborate it?

UCLA is the best education experience I have ever had.  It's an enlightenment period to me in many aspects, not just animation.  First when you packed up and went to another country to start a new life, that experience alone is amazing and priceless.  I grew up and learned to be very independent very fast; adapted to a new society new country; meet new friends from many different cultures, and speak different languages.  The move itself is an adventure.  The teachers and friends I met there were amazing.  Their constant support and love made UCLA feel like my second home.  It sounds silly, but I often told people - UCLA to me, is like Hogwarts to Harry Potter - a warm and toasty home for a foreign student with no relation nearby.  Almost all my dearest friends are those I met at UCLA.  As for the study experience, I pretty much learn everything about arts, animation, and further explore my passion in physics while I studied there.

And you had the master, Glenn Vilppu to guide you. Can you share the experience?

Glenn is the best drawing teacher I ever had.  He has a great sense of humor too.  I learned drawings and paintings since I was a little kid, but those are not formal arts training.  It's more for hobby.  Glenn is the teacher, who taught me how to draw, appreciate the craft, and think like an artist.  I would never forget the first day of class with Glenn in my second year.  I didn't practice drawing throughout the entire summer holidays.  First drawing class with Glenn after the holidays, I was pretty bad.  Glenn come by and quietly asked me, "Are you in your third or second year?"  I looked up, "Err ... Second year ..."  "Good!! You still have time to practice.  In a studio, if you can't draw well, they want you to be good in 2 weeks.  Otherwise you will get fired.  At least you still have 2 more years..." That statement totally shocked me.  See, Glenn is the gentlest teacher ever.  He never told a student your drawing is bad.  He always patiently showed you how to draw better. A statement like that from Glenn ... is SERIOUS!!  I started practicing my drawings crazy immediately after that.  Two weeks later, Glenn told me, "That's pretty good! You get a lot better in 2 weeks!"  He smiled and walked away.  That's the best compliment I could ask for ... since then I never dare to stop practice drawing.  

E=mc2 was your thesis film which won you student Emmy. Can you remember how you came up with this idea and the challenges you had to complete this project?

I was reading Einstein's and Stephen Hawking's books at that time.  A few of my very good friends in the dorm are science majors.  We often discussed philosophy, religions, and science all night for the fun of it. One evening my friend and I were discussing about the balance between religion and science - we talk about creation myths, evolution, big bang theory etc..  When I went back to my room, I picked up Einstein's Evolution of Physics  and suddenly an idea come to mind, how about a mythology inspired by contemporary physics for an animation film?!  HA ! HA !!  

The challenges of making E=mc2 ; this was my thesis film, so I  wanted to do a good job. The biggest challenge was to push my animation skill, and try my very best.  It took 2 years to complete.  One of the challenges is getting a full orchestra to perform the soundtrack of the film.  That was a lot of planning, but a lot of fun.

And how was it to receive the Emmy? Any memorable moments worth sharing.

Receiving the Emmy was an honor.  The most memorable moment is a bit embarrassing.  At the reception party the day after the award ceremony, an elderly lady representative at the TV Academy told me, I looked like some classic Hollywood movie star in my red dress the night before.  She insisted I have "Hollywood glamour," and introduced me to her friends.  She was a lovely sweet lady.  But trust me, I don't look like a movie star, and definitely can't act. The lighting of the stage, and may be the lady's less then perfect eye sight created the illusion of a "glamor movie star."  HA ! HA!!

As an Emmy winning student do you have any tips for students who are completing their graduation film?

I would say do make a film you love.  Never make a film for an award. You should always make a film with love, passion and sincerity.  After all, a film is a piece of art.   You should always be sincere to your art.  A good piece of artwork or a film will always be appreciated.

Now tell us on your earlier project. "Kite". It had a very painterly feeling. 

Kite is my first Maya film.   I want to see whether I can create a 3D film with a 2D painterly feels, and experiment with mixing 2D and 3D animation together in one piece seamlessly.

Now "Frieden – the Tree of Peace" is a touching short you made. What inspired you to make that film and heard it has been showing daily at the United Nations New York headquarters since 1999. 

Frieden was inspired by the war going on in Bosnia in the 90's.  I was watching a news program, and they interviewed a boy, who lost his Olympic dream due to the war.  I often participate in arts event organized by the United Nations Children Fund and other international children foundation.  After watching the documentary, I wanted to do something to express my opinion towards war, and its impact to children.  Thus, the creation of Frieden.  I am not sure whether it's still showing at UN New York these days.

And how you stepped into this industry? What all were your initial roles?

Humm ... I pretty much apply to as many places as I can, when I graduated from school.  Started from doing Production Assistant for a small production studios working on feature animated films; freelancing for some independent film projects, web game, and work on NeoPets for a short while; then get an internship at EA games as an animator.  The EA internship pretty much start my career as a professional animator in the industry.

Tell us on the projects you are now part of?

At Technicolor, I work mostly on game cinematic and occasionally commercial.  My recent production included: Gear of War II, the Incredible Hulk, Spyro, God of War II, Blitz League II etc.

I would love to know how you prepare yourself once you receive the storyboard before actually animating it?

In a production, after the storyboard process; before a scene hand down to animation, there are pre-visualization (Preiz) and 3D layout.  This process may be slightly different from studios to studios and different type of production (ie. game, TV and Film). Previz is pretty much a 3D animatic.  Some places may call this process rough layout.  The idea is to block out the action, camera and present the story in a movie format.  Very often the elements in a previz file are temporary or rough work in progress models or rigs.  The idea of previz is to design the overall cinematography and story pacing of the show.  Once the rough layout is approved by the director, it will hand down to 3D layout.  A 3D layout file usually contains the actual camera and assets which are going to be used in production.  This file will then given to animator for animation.  At this point, when the animator receives the assignment, usually he/she already see the rough layout of the show, and have a good idea of what the scene is about.  Plus the lead animator or director of the show, usually will give the animator acting description of the scene as well.  

As for how to animation a scene ... I usually would try to understand the character's motive; listen to the soundtrack a few times, try to relate to the emotion of the character; consider the story as a whole and what's the character thinking ... Then I will block out the key pose, pay extra attention to the storytelling pose etc.. After the key poses, then do the in-between pose etc.. To me the thinking and planning process is very very important.  Unfortunately in game production, the animators don't always have as much time as they like to think and plan.  Very often in game, they require animators to complete 8 sec animation in a day.  This is a much quicker turn around then say feature film production. It forces the animators to think and animate very quickly.   The pro is the animator learn a lot of clever short cut of doing things; good at improvise ideas; develop board efficient acting style.  The con is the level of detail usually suffer due to the fast turn around and short deadline.  

As a senior animator how do you finally make sure to that conclusion " yeah..this is the one I need" before passing it to your senior?

(What are the major points that you would look at first place while completing a work before taking it to the lead/director? Also, can you break down the different steps that you make sure is done so as to bring the process to near perfection?)

Very often there is the deadline.  Beside meeting the deadline, usually the animators and the lead/director communicate frequently during the production.  Communication with lead and director is extremely important in a production.  What you think is good and appropriate, may not be the best for the show as a whole.  In a production, it's not so much about what an individual thinks the assignment should be done.  It need to match the rest of the show ... so normally the process is a constant back and fore communication process.  It's hard to pin point, when an animator should or shouldn't show it to the lead/director.  Most studios has daily -  meeting with the team or with the lead/director review their work in progress everyday, so everyone get to see what's other people is doing.  The ultimate goal is try to develop the best product within the time frame and budget. 

Any do's and don'ts you can advice while animating?

Personally I see animation as an art form.  There is no the right or wrong way to do thing.  A method that works for one guy, may not work as well for the other person.  In general though, I would say regardless what's your methodology, the thinking process is very important.  Very often when I teach animation, I realize students often let the computer do the thinking for them.  Instead of coming up with an idea first, then go on the computer to create it.  They often turn on the computer, and play with the rig aimlessly ... hoping may be a random move may somehow turn into a good idea.  This is a very inefficient way to work.  I don't disagreed with improvising, but you need a foundation to improvise idea.  Idea don't come from thin air.  So if I have to say, what's a do's or don't ... I would say "DO" animate with the brain; not the hand.  "DO" think first before animate.  "Don't" let computer to do the thinking for you.  After all computer is a tool, it's not a creative entity. 

So what finally makes a good animator?

A good animator should be a good storyteller, who know how to entertain the audiences and bring life to the characters and the world they create; understand how to make the characters believable; give them emotion, mind, personality and empathy.  Someone always eager to improve their craftsmanship.  Animation is an art form, I do believe it's one of those skills, it grows with a person as one grow older and wiser.  The famous Japanese painter, Katsushika Hokusai articulately define the quality of a good artist.  

"At seventy-three I learned a little about the real structure of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. Consequently when I am eighty I'll have made more progress. At ninety I'll have penetrated the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall have reached something marvellous, but when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, the smallest dot, will be alive."     ~ Katsushika Hokusai ~ 

Although Hokusai is a painter, I believe the same quality apply to an animator as well -  the never ending passion in learning, and love towards the arts form. 

Your personal artworks look considerably different from the western. Do you owe it to your Asian background?

Most of my personal work I do are for fun.  I usually do subject matters and styles, which I normally don't get to, do at work.  So yeah , very often they are personal and strongly influences by my own culture, and whatever inspired me at the time.

Can you tell us as a concept artist how you envision it once you hear the theme or on the character?

When I do concept art, I still think a lot like an animator since animation is my background.  I always envision the theme from storytelling and character development point of view.  What's the story about?  What is the character thinking?  Why does he/she feel that way?  The thinking process is very much like how an animator think before we animate.

What all forms your major inspirations?

My inspirations are everywhere ... from books, musics, everyday observation, travels etc.  I don't really have a specific source of inspiration. This may sound weird, sometimes I get visual stimulation from reading novels ...

Tell us your favorite piece of animations and favorite concept designs?

My all time favorite piece of animations or animator is Frederic Back.  His films has inspired me profoundly on a philosophical level beyond arts.  Animation could be a powerful voice to communicate social consciousness to the audiences,  and make the world a more beautiful place.  Frederic is a humble down-to-earth animator with masterful artistry.  I am very luck get to talk to him at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening event, and see his original paintings and animation arts.  When I ask Frederic about his paintings, the gentle quite man becomes very lively and talkative.  He starts telling me stories - when he was younger, he love to ride bicycle around his home town, stop at places which inspired his imagination or capture the characters of the local culture.  He would paint the scenery on spot.  He did all the beautiful elaborate painting in his sketchbook.  It seems to me that his intension isn't merely create a perfect painting, but to capture everyday life in its sincerity and true form.  Don't get me wrong though, each of his sketchbook painting is easily a museum piece.  Growing up seeing the urbanization of his beloved home town, he becomes very environmental conscious.  His works often reflects his love and care towards the beauty of nature, traditional culture, hope and care towards humanity.  Anyone interested to learn more about Frederic's works, you can visit his site:

There are many other animations which I can watch a millions time over - Michaël Dudok de Wit's Father and Daughter - a beautiful and touching animated short; Alexander Petrov's oil on glass animation, simpily stunning!!  Miyazaki, Pixar, Disney etc ... 

My favorite Miyazaki is Howls' moving castle.  He is an animator grow very close to my heart as I get older.  Growing up in Hong Kong, part of the summer fun is to watch the new and latest Miyazaki.  So beside associating Miyazaki with happy childhood memory.  I think he has a uncanny talent capture the innocent and complexity of a child's mind and emotion.  As a kid watching his movie - Totoro for example, I tend to take that quality in his film for granted.  It's like what's the big deal ... the characters are so easy to relate to, they pretty much think and act like me - a kid.  But when I become an adult, I realise it's actually very challenging to capture the spirit of a child.  Adult think and feel very differently from a kid.  Say a kid may cry over lossing a favourite pencil, to an adult ... lossing a pencial is not big deal.  Experiences adults see it as an everyday routine; to a kid, it could be a big deal.  For example, to a kid, a train ride could be the highlight of fun and excitment ... but to an adult, we may enjoy the ride, but wouldn't get giddy over it.  

Favourite concept designs ... all these animators are great artists themselves.  Let's see, my inspiration sources are usually all over the place ... on top of my head ... illustrators ... Lisbeth Zwerger, David Wiesner, Oga Kazuo, Tekkon Kinkreet, Craig Thompson, David Shannon, Alexandra Boiger etc.. And there are many amazing artists in the industry ... like Hans Bacher, Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Marcelo Vignali, Armand Serrano ... the name can go on and on and on ... 

Now you were selected for the Totoro Forest Project. Can you share with us the experience you had?

It's an honor to be part of the Totoro Forest Project.  The show is for good cause to protect the Sayama Forest in Japan.  All the artists participate in the show are amazing and the best in their field. It's an inspiring and humbling experience to meet and talk to the other artists and appreciate their work in person.  It is also my first time visit Pixar, it's wonderful to see the production artworks of Wall-E and some of their earlier films as well.  It's definitely a night to remember! 

You are also a part time teacher at Woodbury University? What would be the ideal education system that can bring the best out of the animation students?

I teach undergraduate animation student Maya classes.  I don't believe in a one size fit all educational system.  I don't think an ideal educational system could exist.  It's almost like Utopia, which doesn't exist.  Students have different strengths and weaknesses; computer technology evolved; new theories get discovers, while old theories get altered.   I think a good teacher should be flexible - adapt different teaching method accordingly to each student's ability, and be open minded with students' responds.  A teacher learns as much from a student as a student from the teacher.  A teacher's knowledge is limited; information in books are limited and not always time lasting.  The best present a teacher can give to the students is to inspire them to become a life time scholar

How do you love yourself to be known in this industry?

HA! HA!!  Good question ... I don't know.  Would be nice to be famous ...!!  Hum ... I would say, an artist who love and live life to its fullness; and hopefully someone who bring a bit of beauty and laughter to the world.  

Other interests apart from animation and drawing?

I love eating ice-cream, traveling, reading, sleeping, trying cuisines of different cultures, hang out with friends, go to the beach, party, concert, movie, theme parks, writing books ... pretty much anything fun!

Any message for our readers who aspires to make it big in this industry?

The industry is fun, adventurous and very challenging.  On a bad day, you may feel rejected, burnt out, and feel dishearten ...  However, if you love animation, and feel passionate about it.  Don't give up no matter what. Also very very important - value your friends and family.  This may sound corny ... success and happiness is not fun, when there is no one to share with.

Thanks Alina. It was a pleasure. Wishing you the best.

Thanks Ranjith. My pleasure.