July 5, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Jiedi Chen '16
By Claire Wong
With the advancement of technology in our society today, we have become quick to digitize. TV shows, films, games and most work in the entertainment industry can now be completed with the click of a button. The art of traditional hand-created work is fading.
During her short time in the industry, Jiedi Chen '16 has kept the art of traditional animation alive with her unique passion for stop-motion animation and belief in its unparalleled capabilities. Jiedi is applying this passion in her current work for Marvel's M.O.D.O.K. and Robot Chicken. She joins us to share her story of entering the industry and how the SCA community has helped shape her career.
What led you to pursue animation at USC?
It all started…when I was in the womb. That’s actually the truth – my mom and dad met in one of those Chinese animation companies that does outsourced animation for overseas, and my mother was doing keyframes even when she was pregnant with me. I grew up around pencils, papers with peg holes in them, and animated films. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and movies, and I always knew I wanted to become some kind of artist, but not necessarily work in animation – yet. This is where USC comes in. I learned about USC both on a university-tour trip with my high school and from admission officers that came to my high school in China, and I really liked everything I’ve heard and thought it would be a great fit with me. I knew I wanted to go to a comprehensive university instead of an art school, because I wanted to keep my options open and learn about all kinds of different subjects. I was lucky enough to be admitted by USC into the major I applied to – the Roski School of Art and Design. With USC’s great resources and encouragement to take a double major or a minor in another subject, I started taking classes offered as minor electives in the School of Cinematic Arts, specifically CTAN 448 (Introduction to Film Graphics – Animation). Not only did I learn about technical skills, but also how much I loved animation and working with people who love it too. In the meantime, I learned about the application process of transfer students for SCA and wanted to give it a try, so I applied with my work including some projects I did in the CTAN 448 class, and was again lucky enough to be admitted into the sophomore class of 2016. So – apologies for the long story – that was how I ended up in SCA Animation!
What are some of the skills that you’ve gained through SCA that have translated well into your career in the industry?
I mainly work in storyboards now, with the occasional character/concept designs. Firstly, obviously the storyboard class and animation production classes that included storyboarding added to my skills and experiences, in addition to adding some early portfolio pieces when I had no work experience. The same with character design work and character design classes – I still have some pieces I did in school up on my website! Secondly, storyboarding is such an all-encompassing skill that needs the knowledge of a little bit of directing, acting, composition and reference, so classes that study films, film history, and directing are also incredibly useful. For example, Peter Chung’s master class on directing taught me so much about what makes a good scene and why; the assignments are mostly in the form of storyboards, so that’s great too. Lastly, with the wide selection of elective classes on all different types of animation, industry connections come from unexpected places. I took two stop motion classes under Musa Brooker because I was interested in the subject themselves and Musa is a great teacher for them, with no thoughts of work in stop motion animation as a career. As it turns out, sometime after my graduation, Musa was a director at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios at the time, and one day he contacted me about a storyboard job that started my work at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios. (I don’t recall doing storyboards in my stop motion classes, so I’m forever confused why Musa contacted me for storyboards other than anything else. But hey, it worked out in the end!)
What have you learned or encountered during your time in the entertainment industry that you didn’t expect?
Before I graduated, when I thought about what types of media I might work on later, my thoughts were basically only on film and TV. I didn’t expect to work on such a wide array of different media, and the experiences taught me to think about how there is always a team of people working behind just about every piece of media we consume. I’ve worked on interactive VR projects, video games, comic books, commercials, and in one case, a NBA team introduction video to be played on the screens of the stadium before the players come out. I’ve made it back on the path of working for film and TV now, but whenever I see those 15 second YouTube ads I still think about the storyboards required behind them.
Using stop motion visuals are an unusual art form in our world of growing technology. What got you interested in this style of animation?
Stop motion is the only type of animation that’s basically shot with the setup of live action, and I love combinations of media like this. It’s also incredibly accessible – as a kid I've shot what I didn’t know was called “stop motion animation” at the time with action figures and a photo camera on my desk. As smooth and perfect CG animation could be, stop motion will always have its quirky charm with its miniature objects and the jitter of dust and fur with each frame shot. I also think it’s the perfect medium for horror animation, and I hope to see more people utilize that.
You’re a storyboard artist for the upcoming Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. on Hulu. How has that experience differed from your previous work on Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, another stop motion animated show?
The experiences were actually quite similar – being from the same studio, I was even working with some of the same directors and coworkers under a similar production pipeline. However, MODOK had a much larger storyboard team – three storyboard teams with three people each (for each episode), two storyboard revisionists, and a storyboard supervisor. Robot Chicken had no storyboard supervisors and revisionists, and the storyboard artists (around four at most) would get an episode each. Since MODOK has recurring main characters, we could get familiar with the characters and develop shorthands towards the end; Robot Chicken has numerous different properties – therefore different characters – in EACH episode. However, I did enjoy working on Robot Chicken immensely too – you don’t get to draw Batman, Thanos, and Pikachu all in the same episode for anything else!
You have worked on projects with large teams of many diverse backgrounds and experiences. What advantages are there to having a diverse workforce when working in animation?
I think diversity is important when working in both animation and live action. It’s getting better gradually, but sometimes I still see or hear about instances in media where a mistake could easily be fixed if the filmmakers had just asked a person from that particular background to check. For example, I’m Chinese, and I speak, read and write Mandarin; whenever a project needs to ask about the placement or content of Chinese characters I become useful. The more diverse the background of the crew is, the more well-versed and solid a project would be if the leaders are also attentive and open to suggestions.
As an artist that has been a part of many projects surrounding Asian culture and stories, what does representing Asian-American voices look like to you?
I think it’s incorporating Asian-American lives and people into mainstream media, without it being too forced. Sure, I also enjoy the occasional Kung Fu movie, but it’s good to see well-written and realistic characters that happen to be Asian in media, instead of seeing something trying to force an “Asian character” into it just because it needs to fill its diversity quota. Just having an Asian character or setting that looks Asian is not enough anymore; they need to be believably written with true Asian spirit and habits, instead of still being White underneath the “Asian” facade.
How do you think technology will impact the future of animation?
With the fast advances of computer software and hardware, computer-generated animation is sure to look better and become easier to create by the day. The core skill of creating animation is still very human so far, so the progress in technology will only aid us in creating better-looking animation faster. Animation will definitely also be used in new media that comes with new technology, for example, better VR and AR games and experiences. Overall, I think it’s a bright future. People who love making animation a certain traditional way will continue to do so, with more creative possibilities opened up for people who wish to explore.
What advice do you have for current students looking to pursue animation or other careers in the entertainment industry?
Experience and connections are extremely important, so start looking for freelance, internships, or work in the vacation early. Be a good student in class and be nice to your professors and peers; you never know where a new job opportunity is going to come from. On that note, animation is a very small industry, so try not to make enemies ever. On the bright side, most of the people working in animation are absolutely the nicest, so even if you think someone is an unapproachable talented veteran in the industry, you’d be surprised by how helping and friendly most professionals are if you just take a step and reach out.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working at Dreamworks as a storyboard artist on an unannounced show! It’s a pretty long and steady project that runs until next year, and I haven’t planned for anything after that yet. Hopefully I can get transferred onto another Dreamworks project, but I’m also open to different opportunities that present themselves too……