Animated about work, a film director creates screen classics

As part of the Shanghai Standouts series, we meet Zhang Zhenhui, 43, an acclaimed director at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio.
Animated about work, a film director creates screen classics
Ti Gong

Zhang Zhenhui, 43, went from a young fan of animation movies to one of the top directors at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in a career already spanning 25 years.

It wasn’t what he expected when he enrolled at the age of 17 in a training program at the studio, with only a love of doodling and sketching as his starting talents.

“Through the program, I learned how to make still images move and the essentials of making animation films,” he says.

The Shanghai studio has been the birthplace of many animation classics, such as "Lotus Lantern," “Havoc in Heaven” and “Where Is Mama,” which have delighted generations of young audiences. 

It’s been said that every great animation artist remains a child inside. Zhang even looks the part, with an appearance that belies his age.

After becoming an outstanding graduate of the training program, Zhang was offered an entry-level position at the film studio. His job was to paint pictures to connect the key movements of characters. The result had to be smooth. Every second in animation requires talent like Zhang to paint dozens of pictures to make the movie come alive.

Three years later, Zhang was invited to join with some of the studio’s more famous artists in a production of “Lotus Lantern,” or “Bao Lian Deng.” It was the studio’s last hand-painted animated film and the first to adopt Hollywood-style marketing and use famous actors as voiceovers.

Zhang slowly evolved into working as an animated designer.

“For me, the studio was like a big school where you always learned new things at different stages,” he says. “I’m not only talking about technique, but also the concepts of animation making.”

China’s animation industry at the time was rapidly developing in southern China, with small studios and joint ventures set up in Guangzhou and other cities to do animation processing for foreign film companies. Wages in those companies were often 10 times higher than in Shanghai.

“At first, my friends in the training program and I thought we would stay at the Shanghai studio just for one year,” Zhang says. “At the time, we didn’t have big ambitions, such as doing original animation. Many people were going south to make big money. But I later learned that work down there was like an assembly line. At the Shanghai studio, we were still given freedom of expression.”

After “Lotus Lantern,” tablets gradually replaced paper and e-pens replaced old sketching pens. With technology, Zhang moved into more comprehensive roles as well.

Animated about work, a film director creates screen classics
Ti Gong

“A Jewish Girl in Shanghai: The Mystery of the Necklace”

In 2015, he worked as both associate director and character designer for the film “A Jewish Girl in Shanghai: The Mystery of the Necklace.”

There was a tight schedule because the film was to be screened in 2016 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of fascism in World War II. Zhang and his team worked long hours every day for nearly six months to meet the deadline.

To ensure that characters and settings were true to history, Zhang spent hours doing research in museums and online. He made hundreds of sketches and took pages and pages of copious notes. He was often up until 2am, reviewing the day’s work.
The film collected several awards, including the Special Committee Award of China Animation and the Comic Competition Golden Dragon Award.

In more recent years, Shanghai Animation Film Studio has found itself under pressures from new competition as China’s silver screens were filled by a wave of original animated films from private firms or individuals, such as “Monkey King: The Hero Is Back” and “Big Fish and Begonia.”

“Many old artists say the history of the Shanghai studio is the history of China’s animation industry,” Zhang says. “Before 2000, only the studio was doing original animation.”

Zhang says he reckons new players will provide healthy competition and lift the whole industry to new heights.

“China has a lot of good art schools, and many young people have dreams about becoming involved in animation film,” he says. “That’s promising for the future.”
At the 60th anniversary of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, a new playbill of upcoming animated films was announced. Some old classics will be revived. Some brand-new stories using the latest technologies will also be produced.

“Animation is a collective work,” Zhang says in a documentary "Shanghai Standouts" produced by the city’s Federation of Trade Unions. “Every team member should be turning out work they can be proud of. Audiences will see and appreciate their efforts. Even if you are assigned to the smallest detail in a film, doing that job well really matters. The whole is the sum of its parts.”

Currently, Zhang is working on two new projects, a television animation about Chinese characters and a short animated film about Chinese mythology.

Animated about work, a film director creates screen classics
Ti Gong
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