Master VFX Artist Zhaoyu Zhou Uses His Skill to Create Visually Striking Experimental Films

Visual Effect Artist and filmmaker Zhaoyu Zhou

Growing up in Qingdao, China, award-winning VFX artist and filmmaker Zhaoyu Zhou had a keen artistic eye that eventually led him to his initial career as a photographer and designer. While he made impressive strides and went onto work as a graphic designer for MGM in Los Angeles, his drive to use VFX in film and across other mediums led his work to evolve far beyond that of simply graphic design.

“VFX had always attracted me. As a visual language and form, I love how VFX can transform the story and idea to the final amazing picture on the big screen, which is driven by the most advanced technologies in the film industry,” explains Zhaoyu Zhou.

“Since childhood, I’ve loved watching movies, especially sci-fi films ranging from the ‘Star Wars’ series to this year’s ‘Blade Runner 2049.’ In 2011, James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was the first film that inspired me.... I was deeply attracted by the tremendous style and look, as well as the innovative concept and idea of the film.”

Since obtaining his M.F.A. in animation & digital arts from USC, Zhou honed his skill in the field of VFX by working and training at acclaimed studios including DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios, pivotal experiences that have undoubtedly helped further his craft as a filmmaker.

Earlier this year Zhou and his film “Karma” earned numerous awards including nine Best Animation Awards at festivals such as the Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival (KLEFF) in Malaysia, the Los Angeles Film Awards, the Mexico International Film Festival, the Hollywood Independent Film Festival, the International Independent Film Awards and others.

Much of Zhou’s work is beautifully experimental. The film “Spherical,” which he created in 2016, is an experimental motion design piece that depicts a spherical egg suspended in air that undergoes a series of unique transformations. The textures and movement Zhou created for “Spherical” are incredibly dynamic, something that wouldn’t have been possible without his experience using VFX software.

He explains, “I wanted to present the abstract design form through CG and VFX, so I opted to use a software called Cinema 4D, an advanced software for motion design, CG and VFX.”

Zhou used Cinema 4D to create the dynamic effects within the film, such as the group of tiny particle spheres that rise up and envelop the egg and turn it into a solid sphere, and the simulation of tree-like branches that ultimately form from the egg, and then sprout a series of beautifully reflective spheres like cherries or water droplets.

“I believe we can create some organic and beautiful designs by using CG,” explains Zhou. “While using Cinema 4D was a challenge, it was just a process of utilizing tools. Especially because I wanted to create organic effects, so I had to become familiar with the MoGraph and dynamic tools within the software. Other than that, it was crucial to transfer the concept to the CG world and create the motion through the structure…. It was fun to make a film like this since it’s an adventure.”

Aside from showcasing his unsurpassed skill on the VFX side, which allowed him to create the incredible graphics within the film, “Spherical” reveals Zhou’s unique artistic vision and his ability to endow a rather abstract storyline with emotional feeling.

He says, “[For ‘Spherical’] I wanted to make it organic and let my viewer think and feel the motion and mood, mostly through the shape, form, structure, texture, lighting, sound and music.”

Zhou worked with composer Hank Lee (“Consumemate,” “Letting Go,” “Final Cassette”) to create the music for “Spherical,” which is crucial to setting the emotional atmosphere of the film and is perfectly in sync with the transformations the spherical egg undergoes over the course of the film. In addition to leading the VFX on “Spherical,” Zhou was also the director, designer and VFX supervisor which, considering the reception of the project, says a lot about his ability to successfully execute multiple roles in order to bring his vision come to fruition.

Chosen as an Official Selection of several prestigious festivals across the globe, “Spherical” screened at the 2016 Adobe Design Achievement Awards, Mexico’s CutOut Fest International Animation and Digital Art Festival, the First Frame Animation Showcase, Ukraine’s Linoleum International Contemporary Animation and Media Art Festival, Spain’s 39th Elche International Independent Film Festival, the Breaking Waves Music and Arts Festival in the US, as well as the 2017 Melbourne International Animation Festival and others.

Chosen as an Official Selection of the 2016 Adobe Design Achievement Awards, “Dancing Blue,” a visual and motion graphic film that includes everything from celluloid animation, computer animation graphic and hand-drawn artwork, is another one of Zhou’s recent projects where he utilized VFX and Cinema 4D to create the film, as well as After Effects.

“I used 3D techniques to create a 2D look using Cinema 4D and After Effects, developing an organic and fluid animation style. Usually, VFX is heavily used to create realistic or sci-fi scenes, or realistic 3D character animation like in my recent film ‘Karma’,” explains Zhou. “But for this project I wanted to try a different style. Furthermore, the animation had to be paired perfectly with the music, so I animated the graphic along with the music imported into Cinema 4D.”

As opposed to the process of matching the music to drive the storyline present in “Spherical,” Zhou developed the visual story for “Dancing Blue” using the upbeat jazz track in the film as the starting point.

“Basically we got the music first and then started to brainstorm and visualize the motion and design based on the sound and music,” explains Zhou. “Cinema 4D was the tool that gave me the most room to play... Similar to ‘Spherical,’ I used dynamic simulation and animated the trails travels that through the space... As a musical piece, it was important to match the imagery and graphic with the sound and music, and I definitely enjoyed that process. The music is exciting which motivated me to think out of the box.”

Aside from directing and designing numerous other award-winning films, Zhou works as a lead animator and designer at Imaginary Forces (IF) in LA, which is known for creating the title sequence of popular series such as the five-time Golden Globe Award winning show “Mad Men,” the main titles for the hit film “Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen,” the Marvel series “Runaways,” which premiered on Hulu earlier this year, and the “Big Hero 6” series, as well as many more.

As a key animator and designer at IF, Zhou has led the advertising animation and technical direction for numerous commercials, main titles, promotional campaigns and graphics for features and shows. One of his most recent works for IF is the Lego Star Wars promo, which is set to drop in January 2018. Zhou served as a lead VFX artist on the commercial for the Lego toy franchise where he handled the creation of assets, animation, texturing, lighting, rendering and compositing.

Zhou marks the Lego Star Wars promo as one of his favorite projects to date, explaining, “It is a project that combines live action and CG, which used a lot of VFX such as modeling, rigging, animation, lighting, rendering, effects, and compositing. I was able to utilize my wide skill set in every step of the process to make this project happen. IF is a famous commercial studio and I was very glad to get involved on their high-end projects.”

With a breadth of experience in VFX and using state of the art software to create powerful images and animated graphics, Zhaoyu Zhou is one of China’s most skilled young filmmakers currently using VFX to bring his unique artistic vision to the screens across the globe.

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