Xingpei Shen was the only child in his family; growing up on the outskirts of Nanjing, China, he found himself alone most of the time. To pass the time, he began to draw. He was not raised in an artist family and was not exposed to art at an early age, but it came naturally to him regardless. When he started school, he noticed his classmates were also entertained by his drawings, and as he grew, he began drawing his favorite characters from Japanese manga and giving the pieces to his friends. He was naturally talented and found that people enjoyed his work. However, it was years later when he found his way to animation.
“Animation is the medium that combines many different disciplines. I thought it would give me great freedom to explore my own artistic expression. Now, thinking back on it, although I never came to art school wanting to become an animator, animations have always been a big influence in my work. I grew up loving cartoons and all animated things, and never thought they were made by actual artists. Once I was exposed to that idea, I just could not help but to do it myself,” said Shen.
Shen’s passion for animation translates directly to his work. His film Good Game, Bad Time, and Killer Sportsmanship is a humorous poem contemplating digital identity and culture shock that has been shown in various animation festivals and gallery shows. Back in December 2017, he was one of just seven video artists featured in the traveling show Internet Yami-Ichi at the renowned Tate Museum where he has two animation pieces.
The highlight of Shen’s career came with his most recent individual film, Lotus Lantern. It is a tribute to late Chinese singer Zhou Xuan, a missing link between the filmmaker’s queer identity and Chinese heritage. Completed in May 2017, Lotus Lantern has since been touring internationally in various animation/film festivals and gallery shows and is still doing so. It is featured on Vimeo Staff Pick. Shen was also invited to talk about his process on the film on Animation World Network.
“Xingpei’s film Lotus Lantern is absolutely beautifully drawn and made. The sensitive film feels thought through and complete. It conveys an examination of the self through multiple avenues of technology, and the rich symbolism found in both Eastern and Western cultures. The sexually ambiguous character in this film feels tentative with itself, between the appearance of the outer self and the flowering world within. The sound work sets the emotional tones of the film nicely. I want to know more about the singer and the origins and the nature of the snaking flame. His voice is very much needed in this world,” said Masako Miyazaki, Artist and Photographer.
One of Shen’s most relevant projects right now is the work he did with Huffington Post for their feature What It Means to be Muslim in America. Shen was one of the nine animators invited to make a short animation based on an audio anecdote provided on the topic of the Muslim experience in America. The project is featured in W, and the journal is running on their website as well.
“This project pointed out the overlooked and understated racism directed towards the American Muslim community by giving them a voice. In the age of social media, representation is everything. The project is important because it represents a marginalized community, especially under current political climate. It provided an unfiltered ground for discussion on racism and experiences of minorities,” said Shen.
Despite working on the project over three years ago, What It Means to be Muslim in America is still very pertinent today. When Emily Kassie, a journalist for Huffington Post, was looking for animators with the talent to create pieces of art that would encapsulate the message she was trying to convey, she reached out to Shen. At the time, he had just finished a short horror piece about sleeping paralysis called Incubus. He made the video for fun, and posted it on his Vimeo and Behance accounts. When Kassie saw it, she was instantly intrigued. She really liked the chalky hand-drawn style of the film and wanted to know if Shen would be interested in collaborating on a journal piece on Muslim experiences. Shen was not quite aware of the impact his work could have at the time, but he was ready to learn.
“This project is very dear to me because it talks about Muslim experience in America, and I get to create animations for these marginalized voices. As a queer person of color, I understand the struggle. Especially under the political tension at this time, it’s a very daring and genuine project. I feel very lucky that I could contribute to it, so when I was asked, I did not hesitate,” said Shen.
Making his animation was a challenging yet also informative process for Shen, as hearing the first-hand accounts of American Muslims was difficult and sad, but also enlightening. Emily Kassie had interviews with various Muslim Americans across the country, and she gave Shen one of the audio recordings from the interviews for Shen to create a visual piece for. It was with Sana Muttalib, a lawyer and co-president of Women’s Mosque in Los Angeles. In the clip, she talks about her experience with a racist attack when she was attending a conference on the roles of Muslims in America.
Shen listened to the audio many times before coming up with a storyboard. He bounced ideas back and forth with Kassie on the animation. He decided to make a very simple traditional pencil drawn animation and composite it with vibrant colored paintings in the background for the piece. This echoes both the vulnerability and the strength that was expressed through the interview.
“I really enjoyed listening to all the experiences the interviewees had. It was very touching. Sana, who I worked with, talked about her experience going to the convention center and was told to go back home, because she does not belong in America. She was on the verge of tears when someone showed her kindness and escorted her to the door. I felt her anger and trauma through the audio and was really glad that I got to make this piece for her,” Shen described.
What It Means to be Muslim in America is a multimedia journal. Shen was one of the nine animators invited to make a visual for the interviews. His work truly brought the stories alive in a memorable way that works cohesively with the whole piece. The different style of animations engages readers in an unexpected way that challenges the common notion of journalism, and Shen was proud to be a part of it.
So what’s next for Shen? Audiences can look forward to Shen’s most recent project and his first music video for the band Lucinate’s hit song “Big Noise”. The project was commissioned by Canadian label company King Deluxe and Shen is both the Lead Animator and the Editor.
“Animation is a combination of many disciplines: painting, performance, music and writing etc. There is no right formula in good animations, yet there is a tendency to conform to certain styles or methods of working, especially when you are looking at animations produced by the industry. I would encourage people who are trying to pursue a career in animation to maintain and develop their own voices,” he advised.
Keep an eye out for Shen’s upcoming work.
Photo by Rob Chron