Shiyi Li’s work has always been closely related to music. She uses colour to express intuitive feelings around sound, then teases out logical connections through images. She tells us of her animation practice: “I think there is always that kind of passionate, warm, blurry, ambiguous, gleamy colour in my animation.” Born in China, Shiyi recently finished a master’s degree in Communication Design and Animation from Birmingham City University. She still currently resides here, pursuing a career in animation, illustration and live performance.
Her first introduction to the medium was when she was six years old. Like many of us, she grew up with Tom and Jerry, Disney movies as well as animations from the famed Shanghai Animation Film Studio like The Monkey King, Lotus Lantern and Calabash Brothers. In her childhood home, she remembers a corner of the house where shelves were flooded with DVDs and CDs. Shiyi’s dad is a big cinephile and took her to the cinema on weekends where she was first introduced to the likes of Harry Potter, The Lord of The Rings, Alien and Jurassic Park. And for as long as she can remember, she recalls the blurry sound of films playing the background. Even when she was sleeping.
This history shaped Shiyi’s passion for moving image and allowed her to draw a strong connection between image and sound. With a signature ethereal and dreamy style, Shiyi’s poetic narratives have been exhibited internationally from New York to Bangkok and London. This year, she was also nominated for the Best Animation Award at BFI Future Film Festival for her latest film Burn & Soothe, where her blurry and ambitious style caught the eyes of award bodies.
Much of Shiyi’s work rests on communication. She likes to heighten forms of communication, whether it’s through emphasised eye contact or a deep gaze or the eye movement used to denote personality or emotion. “I like to use those elements to communicate with my audience,” the animator adds. Communication is key to Shiyi’s work, even beyond her animation. As a part-time Mandarin teacher, Shiyi works closely with very young students (between the ages of one and three) and sometimes, “feels like [she] becomes part of the family.” She continues, “Watching the kids learn, their curiosity, and how the mother loves her children, this makes me see the small fundamental happinesses of our life.” In turn, Shiyi’s work touches on the intersection of life, culture and family values.
The animator talks us through a recent project Dreamerfly and Other Stories which was particularly significant. Commissioned by the Thirteen Ways of Looking exhibition curated by Dr Sylvia Theuri, the project saw Shiyi create a 45-minute experimental virtual live performance combining animation and contemporary jazz music. Directed and animated by Shiyi, the project also features music composed by a number of British Jazz musicians including British guitarist Daniel Kemshell, American percussionists Lindsey Eastham and Gloria Yehilevsky. The animation centres on the ancient Chinese philosophy known as ‘The Butterfly Dream’. Here, a butterfly and a person discuss reality and fantasy and through five chapters – struggle, loss, loneliness, balance and rebirth – and along the way, a thread of self exploration is borne.
Shiyi and composer James enacted a back and forth collaborative process for the film. Shiyi sent sketches over to James, which he then turned into content and after several iterations, sketches and ideas, the final 45-minute film was put together. The result sees the performance integrated with the animation, uniting the musicians who are dotted all around the world in a uniform backdrop. In a synergy of visual art and music, the two mediums feed off each other to create a spectacle nearly an hour long. As for the future, Shiyi hopes to continue working in film, as well as with artworks which lift people up, and bring warmth and strength.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.