Now based in London, following her post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Art, Chinese animator, illustrator and artist, Qianhui Yu, has the remarkable skill of being able to create candy-coloured fantasy worlds with their roots in deceptively serious subject matter. Using cuddly characters and enchanting creatures to tell stories long past in need of telling, her work tackles topics such as environmental damage, the addictive nature of social media, youth rebellion and discontent with modern life.
Her final post-graduate project, a short film titled Wastopia that was released earlier this year, is the perfect example of this dichotomy, taking viewers on a journey around an adorable fantasy land that might not be as cute as it seems. Content aside, Yu’s artistic style is charming, tantalising and decidedly strange, fusing the surrealism of Salvador Dalí with the humour and cut-out quality of a Monty Python animation. Altogether, the finished effect is one that leaves you in awe of Yu’s boundless imagination, whilst also considering the poignancy of the truths disguised behind the rainbows.
To start with, could you please tell us a bit about yourself for our readers that might not be familiar with your work?
I am Qianhui Yu, an animation director, illustrator and creative visual designer born in Guilin, China, currently living in London. I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2020 with a Master of Art's degree in Animation. I love Cantopop, cute things in life, light, nature, and unnatural energy.
What was it that drew you to animation opposed to other static mediums?
I always loved drawing since I was a child, and then I found that the moving image is a powerful method to express myself to the audience.
“When the real world is disappointing us, I hope my audience can tune in to cinema therapy with me.”
From 2013-2017, you trained at the China Academy of Art, before relocating to London at the end of 2017 to pursue a Master’s degree in animation. How has your creative output changed since the move, if at all?
Actually, I stayed at the China Academy of Art for seven years, including my three years with an affiliated high school over there, beginning with live drawing to contemporary art practice. Then I decided to study New Media Art in my final three years. We had a lot of fun using different mediums and art practices to connect with the local Chinese traditional architecture, and then I found that it was animation that truly appealed to me as it’s an avenue I can use to express my dreams, thoughts – the things I can’t express in words. So I decided to attend the Royal College of Art and study Animation.
RCA is always full of exceptionally talented students and tutors – very inspiring! I also had more freedom to work on the things I like, and it is very exciting to have enough time to direct the whole animation project. Universities in the United Kingdom seem to love research and method before you start your project. I found it annoying before as it seemed very conceptual rather than practical, however, it really is a good way to look into yourself, to think about what you really want to do, which made me discover and continue to develop my own visual language.
It became clearer when I was making my graduate animation project Wastopia, which has a ‘sugar-coated’ visual style, with candy-coloured playful characters, surreal stylisation, highly detailed textures, and the use of sarcasm meant to juxtapose with the crucial topic of environmental issues.
Let’s deepen into that. Earlier this year, you released Wastopia as the final project of your Master’s studies, a fantastical animated short that tackles the themes of environmental waste, pollution and our potential impending doom. What was your goal when you began creating Wastopia?
My goal didn’t change much from my original intention. For the visual language, my first Master’s animated film, 1 Day in Bodyland, is an experimental and surreal dark tale. It impacted my mood sometimes creating it, so I decided to make a ‘delightful’ visual film in the final year. The topic is still serious, but I hoped working with colourful, playful characters would cure me. I call it ‘the cinema therapy’ – when the real world is disappointing us, I hope my audience can tune in to cinema therapy with me.
For the film topic, I always have complicated feelings about food, after watching some 'mukbang' live videos, a weird but very popular video genre on the Internet which is basically live footage of someone eating large amounts of food in front of the camera while interacting with their audience. This whole phenomenon made me realise how little concern I have about food waste. Then I broadened my approach to investigate the nature of the damage caused by the garbage we throw away as a result of hyper-consumerism. I started to think, what if the wasted food and garbage have feelings? Rethink before you throw them away.
Your animations are exhilarating to watch for several reasons; partly due to their fascinating and poignant content matter but also because of your incredible artistic style. Your use of ultra-cute anthropomorphic characters alongside a cotton candy colour palette strongly juxtapose the sincere and not so sugary stories that are told through your work, not only in Wastopia, but also in past projects such as Virus and Strange Story in the Bathroom. Why do you think your pastel fairy tale aesthetic is such an effective vessel for these narratives?
It mainly comes from my personal taste – the ‘pastel fairy tale aesthetic’ cheered me up, which gave me more motivation to draw the whole project. Sometimes decisions you make for almost pragmatic reasons have a disproportionate effect on your work. If this makes the message more accessible to the audience, then that’s a good thing too!
In a year that’s been so full of uncertainty and stress for many artists, you’ve managed to stay extremely busy, creating Wastopia, exhibiting it through various platforms such as Girls in Film, and working on other projects like your ongoing Her Digital Avatar series, an experiment in progress focusing on a virtual avatar of yourself that is updated alongside your real life feelings and inspirations. Have these projects, particularly Her Digital Avatar, been vital as an outlet over the past few months?
Her Digital Avatar series is my unexpected baby; I started it after I finished my grad film. It continues my previous visual style and opened up a new possibility for my career. I created it and it influences me imperceptibly. It is definitely important to my current life.
As an artist with such a unique, signature aesthetic, what inspired your style? I imagine you were fond of fantasy and cartoons as a kid.
Countless! I watched many ‘80s and ‘90s Cantopop music videos, interesting product/fashion design, some childhood Chinese traditional animations like Havoc in Heaven and A Deer of Nine Colours (the culture we have sadly forgotten), sci-fi and cyberpunk films, plus many more! I was also inspired by lots of brilliant artists like Sophie Koko Gate, Ramhan and Lu Yang.
Many comments on your videos mention how your work creates a sense of uncanny uneasiness as a result of the contrast between candy aesthetic and serious subject matter. Do you also strive to deliver a message of hope and motivation, particularly with a film like Wastopia?
I didn’t mean to bring a message of hope with the film. I used the candy aesthetic to present the imagined garbage world, which represents one of the many issues we’ve been ignoring.
Do you plan to continue making work that engenders discourse around important and current topics? What else would you like to use your work to talk about?
After finishing my grad film, I decided to take some time to focus on myself. Currently, I am working on my personal project, Her Digital Avatar, in my free time. I see it as a self-identity project, the look of the avatar changes regularly and is influenced by my personal status, including future materials, natural elements, my film elements and fashion makeup that inspires me. It reflects my current feelings. However, I might still go back and work on environmental issues in the future!
Now that you’ve finished your Master's degree, what do you have planned next? What should we look out for?
I am doing a part-time design job for a company, and work on creative commissions in the meantime. For the future, I’m hoping to continue work as an animation director or freelance artist so I can have more chances to work on interesting projects. I will continue to develop my current visual style and character design, and also try to have more opportunities to continue making work that deals with environmental issues. I have an Augmented Reality facial filter and sci-fi animation that will both be released around the end of this year, so keep your eyes peeled!
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