Nick's Motion Corner:
Interview with Freelance Designer/Animator Erica Hu

"At the core of my work is a persistent interest in illustration. Having always drawn from nature, it is only natural that my motion graphic work also embraces the flowing and illustrative qualities that long flourished in my early drawings. It is this continued interest in experimenting with different forms and shapes that allows my work to walk the line between abstraction and realism."
-Erica Hu

It was over a year ago that I stumbled upon a motion graphics piece that really blew me away. That piece was Seasons, by Erica Hu, which was her thesis while attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Seasons has since seen exposure at SIGGRAPH Asia 2011's Animation Festival, as well as being in the running for the 2012 Vimeo Awards in the Motion Graphics category.

Seasons is a surrealistic journey through seasonal transformation, going well beyond what you would expect to see, as Erica presents her artistic take on each of the four seasons in stunningly animated detail. Using tools such as Cinema 4D and After Effects, incorporating colorful imagery, animation, and live footage of smoke and ink bleed, all set to a perfectly fitting musical score, it is a journey that at just under two minutes is something that sticks with the viewer long after.

Having long ago bookmarked Erica's Vimeo page, I felt it was about time I caught up with her to find out more about her work, and what went into her creation of Seasons.


How long have you been creating art? When did you first get your start in digital art?

I started drawing when I was little, and I did some drawing with Photoshop just for fun in high school. But it was in college that I started creating digital art.

Where did you go to school?

I went to Communication University of China in 2008, and later I studied in Computer Art with a concentration in motion graphics from the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 2009 to 2011.

Where did you grow up and what brought you to school in New York City?

I grew up in Wuhan, China. I saw some of the students' work from the School of Visual Arts when I was studying in Beijing, and I liked them a lot. So, I applied to it and got the offer.

"Seasons" remains one of my favorite pieces of motion design. I love how it flows, the colors chosen, and how everything is blended so well. What was your process in making "Seasons"?

Before I started the concept of my animation, I just knew that I wanted to show the seasons through illustration and calligraphy. The piece would be fleeting in a way that would give an impression of lush, intriguing detail you couldn’t catch the first time. I wanted to bring a certain joyful vitality and spirituality into the animation that was almost organic.

Before I started my design, I searched a lot of references for inspiration. Graphics, photos, videos, anything that is about the seasons. And I put all the images in one frame. I did not want my representations of the seasons to be cliche, because, for example, when people think of fall, they think of orange leaves. There should be some imagination and surrealism. When I look at a photo of unharvested wheat, I actually think of a field of unharvested wheat to be feathers blowing in the wind. But that wasn't enough, I still wanted to add something more surrealistic. Something more designed like, then I thought about the peacock feather, which is more decorative and it has a pattern which looks like an eye on it. So, finally I came up with the idea of the blinky peacock eyes.


Still from Seasons Copyright Erica Hu

When I was designing the style frames, I didn't think much about how I would create them technically. I experimented with different forms, shapes, symbolism and composition. I wanted each of my style frames to look like a painting.

The animatic storyboard was used for timing, camera movement and transition, to get an overall feeling of the pacing based on music. I also spent a lot time figuring out the transition of each shot. It would be much easier to figure out all the transitions before I started the production.


Animatic Storyboard Copyright Erica Hu

So up to now, I had already had a clear direction. It was time to start all the production work. I used Cinema 4D to create all the 3D animation, but the goldfish and jellyfish were done by my friend in Maya. So, right before I added details with my animation, I did a 3D layout. It's like a 3D preview of the block of each of the shots. And by this time I also created a priority list. Because once you start production, you might feel like there are so many amazing details that you can add. Maybe I should add more leaves in the foreground and more particles in the background...and it would never end. The priority list would help me to know what are the most important things I need to finish.


Still from Seasons Copyright Erica Hu

How did you initially conceive the idea for "Seasons"?

Seasons evolved from my reflection on nature's beauty, as I saw some nature time-lapse video on Vimeo. I was really moved by the beauty of nature. It can be very still and smooth, then suddenly become frenetic and full of energy. I wanted to create an animation that reflected the rhythm and flow of nature.

What part of your work process do you most enjoy?

I enjoy designing style frames the most. When I was working the design part, everything flowed so naturally with how I felt and what I was thinking. When it came to the animation part, it was more about techniques and problem solving. And sometimes it can be frustrating. I guess that is because I am not a technical person.


Still from Seasons Copyright Erica Hu

What software is in your digital toolset and why?

I use Photoshop, After Effects, Cinema 4D and Final Cut Pro. Cinema 4D is a really good software for designers. Other 3D software, like Maya, might take you a couple of weeks to get used to the interface. Cinema is really easy to get started with. And you can get some amazing looks with just some very simple set up.

For Seasons, I also used Red Giant's Trapcode Particular to create some of the strokes, and I used Magic Bullet Looks to do the color correction.

Are there any current artists or designers you admire? What is some of your favorite work out there currently?

The list is so long. Miyazaki, Yayoi Kusama, to name a few. I just saw Kusama's Fireflies on the Water in the Whitney Museum. It is a stunningly beautiful installation piece that you can immerge yourself within. And you can always find so many talented artists on Vimeo, too. I learn from them all the time.


Still from Seasons Copyright Erica Hu

What advice might you offer to aspiring designers and artists? Do you have any tips you would be willing to share on the work you do?

Once you have your own signature style, it can be very easy to fall into a trap of doing the same style of work over and over. Start doing some small projects, around 5-10 seconds, and try to play around with different styles and techniques.

Where do you find inspiration?

Music, films, illustration and photography. I just watched the Zarkana by ‪Cirque du Soleil. Their stage design is amazing and they use a lot of videos to fake the 3D space. As a visual artist, inspiration is literally everywhere!

Where do you work currently? What is your current position?

I am freelancing in New York as a designer and animator. But, I am more design based.


Style exploration Copyright Erica Hu

Can you tell us about anything you are currently working on?

Right now, most of my work is in commercials and broadcasting. I just finished a couple broadcasting projects in the past months. But, I also want to try some interactive work, and hopefully I can make another short film in the future.


Still from Seasons Copyright Erica Hu

The music for "Seasons" fits so perfectly. How did you come to find Sihan Yuan for the music?

Sihan and I went to the same college when I was in China. He is a great composer and we are good friends. We used to work together on some small projects before, then later he went to Canada to study music. When I was doing my thesis, he was the first person I thought about to do the music.

I noticed SIGGRAPH Asia has a still of "Seasons" up on their site on the intro page. Are you going to the conference this year?

Seasons was selected in the SIGGRAPH Asia Animation Festival last year. I was invited last year but didn't go because of my schedule. I really wish I could have gone there.

Many thanks to Erica, for taking the time out of her schedule to answer my questions. Be sure to have a look at "Seasons" in full-screen HD, and visit Erica's website for more info.

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All supporting images are copyright Erica Hu, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the artist.

Nick C. Sorbin is a digital artist, sculptor, writer, and Managing Editor for Renderosity's CG Industry News. With a keen interest in motion graphics, Nick's weekly Motion Corner column highlights some of the tools and techniques in this vast area, as well as spotlighting current motion designers and software developers.
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