Derek Zheng, a Florida native currently living in Flushing, New York, didn’t start animating until after he finished university, where he mainly studied film production and cinema studies. “For a while, I was only interested in making live-action movies. I was, and am, perpetually in a state of making a short film, short of actually shooting it,” Derek tells It’s Nice That. “But making a movie can be very unsatisfying because from having an idea to having something you can watch takes months and years,” he continues.
It’s not that Derek has let go of filmmaking, he’s currently trying to make two short films: one about a Chinese restaurant and one about a podcast. But it was through illustration and animation that he found a way to spend time between thinking about his films, and a free one at that. “It scratched the itch of being able to finish something in one sitting,” Derek says. “The reality is that I have no specific attachment to illustration and animation, yet I still come back to it.”
Derek’s illustrations often come from capturing the ephemeral. But instead of trying to hold down large conceptual ideas, which are usually more suited for his films, his ideas come in smaller, bite-sized pieces that, once materialized as an illustration or animation, gives the viewer a delectable series of visual treats. He tells us about one such moment of inspiration: “I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos and find myself staring a lot at the lines formed by the neck fat and jowls of the older mob guys. They have such good wrinkled faces and heads. I’ll make an image based around those lines. Just the way a few lines meet can be enough. Sometimes it’s more conceptual, but I wait until I fixate on something naturally.”
He considers this a “purely artistic” endeavour, illustrating when the inspiration comes to him. “I don’t mean to say I don’t take it seriously,” he says, but that he doesn’t have the desire to pursue illustration “in the way that a musician practices scales,” that is, to perfect technical aspects of the medium.
Despite his attentive personality, Derek does not hide in the details. His illustrations are never ostentatious and there is a cool restraint to the way he transmits his ideas. “I typically don’t like to do extra labour for the sake of detail,” he says, “I want to do it in the simplest way possible, in the least number of moves.”
Currently, Derek is finding plenty of work making music videos, working with his frequent collaborator and friend Jackson Crook. “Recorded music to me is kind of timeless, it can live devoid of the context of the actual person who performed it, but can, for a brief moment, communicate something that the performer felt in real life.” As for illustration and animation, he says: “I think I’m trying to stretch them to the scope of a film, or at least allude to a larger narrative structure. They are like moments of a film I’d like to see."
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