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Meet Yaou Chen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Yaou Chen.

Yaou, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I was born and raised in a little mountainous town called Ma’anshan in the southeast of China. My first art memory was in kindergarten when I drew with crayons in my hands for hours without noticing the passage of time. I had a great childhood – hiking, chasing butterflies, making kites with friends and etc. I drew my buddies into a comic series called “Goofing Around”. Sailor Moon, SpongeBob and Studio Ghibli have been my biggest inspiration throughout the years – I strongly relate to the characters and cry and laugh with them.

As much as I wanted to get into art at an early age, I ended up going to a non-art university for Russian Literature in Shanghai and worked as a salesperson for a while. But I dedicated all my weekends and nights to drawing comics and observational drawings. Improv was another huge thing for me – it helps me organize the thoughts in my brain, build up my sense of humor and gain confidence talking in front of people. I learned that Pixar and DreamWorks were using improv as an effective tool for storytelling. And boom! There was a voice in my head: I HAVE TO go to the United States!

Long story short – I did my research and found out all my favorite directors graduated from CalArts. I applied and got rejected twice. I remembered crying for a whole month after the second rejection. Then I drew like crazy for a whole year, taking all the classes I could possibly take – and I made it. Now I am a third year student in Character Animation at CalArts. It has been an emotional rollercoaster balancing your creative energy with tons of self doubt. But at the end of the day, I learned to enjoy making art without feeling inadequate all the time. We are unbelievably blessed with a crazy amount of incredible peers and lots of faculty generously helping us out. My favorite part of CalArts is making films. It can be exhausting and rewarding at the same time yet it is indescribably fun! I have made two pairs of shorts and three super-duper short shorts so far and I am excited for my next one!

After my second year at CalArts, I was extremely fortunate to have an Art Internship with Pixar. For those three months, I was just drawing characters for upcoming new films. It seemed scary at first – art interns get to work on actual films in development and present the designs to the directors. Working alongside with all my art heroes and mentors was super helpful and inspiring. I have learned so much about myself, about design, research and pitching ideas. I also learned how to focus my efforts while working under pressure on a tight schedule – it was my dream job at my dream studio and I would not trade the world for it.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It is always a struggle if you compare yourself to other artists and think of yourself as inadequate. That leads to artist block and a lot of anxiety like impostor syndrome. But the charm of creation happens when you focus at the moment and go with the flow! The projects that I was having fun with – are the ones that got me where I am. And I am very grateful for it. It took me a long time to realize that my voice matters and they are fundamental in creating genuine stories.

I came from a family where no one else does art except for me. It is hard to explain to them where my inspiration comes from and how I am going to do with it. I have been trying to learn more about myself by making mistakes along the way. It also took me a while to understand that everyone works differently and I have to find my own way that brings out the best of my potential.

The worst feeling you could have is all the voices in your head telling you that you are not good enough. But those are just insecurities. Don’t let the thoughts in your head affecting the fun you are having at the moment.

We’d love to hear more about your art.
I love creating characters and telling stories in animation. My film “Hungry” is about a baby T-rex starving in the desert who meets other animals that are starving as well. I had lots of fun animating it. The short got me into a bunch of film festivals and I traveled to Japan for a screening and Q&A.

Doodling in a sketchbook and doing life studies help me build up my visual vocabulary. It is super interesting to study how people carry themselves, drink coffee and walk their dogs. When designing characters, I think about a person I know and exaggerate their characteristics.

During my internship at Pixar, I worked on character designs for films that may come out in a few years. I love designing characters that have an emotional impact on people. I have exhibited my art at CTN expo for three years in a row. This year I painted a couple of dozen watercolor cats for people to adopt.

What were you like growing up?
I was a vocal kid and asked millions of questions. As my mom wrote in her parenting journal – when I turned two, I asked for tons of bedtime stories every night that it stressed her out. When I turned six, I started creating my own stories – drawing princess comics on random paper and showing it around. Drawing and the idea of drawing excited me. Whenever I got into the zone, I would spend hours and hours drawing and daydreaming about the world I was creating and the characters that lived inside it. I also invented games for myself – building pillow castles, blowing bubbles inside bubbles and recording myself singing as a one-person choir.

As I get older, I try to keep that child’s way of thinking – that helps me so much.

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Yaou Chen

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