We had an interview with Pi San at his studio Hutoon, located in Beijing, China. He shares his view and creativity behind his influential and successful animation series. He also announces the exclusive news on Miss Puff. This interview was done by Zimeng Liu for Animationweek at his studio (Picture1-4).
Animation director Pi San and his works
Pi San is one of the most influential and successful independent animation artist in China. His rise to fame was phenomenal. One of his animation series Kuang Kuang Kuang first appeared in 2005 and gained huge popularity. It featured a little naughty boy with a bloody nose named Kuang Kuang. The series were reminiscent of days in school in the 1970s and 1980s in China. The web series opened up a new possibility of animation in China with his innovative approach. After producing short films and commercials for multi-national companies, he moves on to the production of Miss Puff. Production of Miss Puff was announced in 2011 and started as an online animation series on Youku, one of the largest online video platforms in China.
Miss Puff was created as a serial to Miss Puff’s Goldfish Bowl, an animated short that premiered in November 2010 as one of the films in Youku’s 11 Degrees New Media Film Project, a partnership between Youku, Chevrolet Cruze, and the China Film Group. This short film was viewed more than five million times and linked in roughly two million tweets, making it the most-tweeted of the 11 Degrees films of that year.
Miss Puff is now on the 7th of its 8 seasons and has been hugely successful with over hundreds of millions of views. Miss Puff explores the social mores of young white-collar professionals through the persona of its title character. It blends animated characters with live-action backgrounds, bringing a level of realism to the animation.
Interview with Pi San (专访皮三)
Pi San: I say being humorous, different and incorrect, and enjoy being creative. For example, I can discover a lot of possibilities among the things that I am part of. It is very painful for me to repeat work.
皮三: 幽默、不一样&不正确的东西、喜欢有创造性的东西。举例: 包括自己的东西，讨论更多可能性。重复一样工作对我来说太痛苦了。
AW: What opportunities made you join the animation industry and kept you working in it since then?
Pi San: I studied oil painting in college and kept painting for another three or four years after my graduation. I’ve done exhibitions, contemporary art and other things, including teaching. I wanted to do something interesting after college. For me, being creative is to express myself and thoughts to the world. Some people express themselves through writing and some do so through music. Personally, I started with painting as a way of my expression and realized later that this is not sufficient and most effective. Fortunately, I did learn to use (animation) software and started making flash animations. It was like opening a new world to me. As I personally like to express myself through a secular and narrative story, I just decided to keep working on it without hesitation.
Miss Puff (泡芙小姐)
AW: What inspired you to make an animation about the life of young people? Where did you get the idea?
Pi San: It is because my last animation Kuang Kuang Kuang is a little bit too political and violent. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to repeat things, but to be curious like a child. This time I want to make a work that cannot be easily recognized as my typical work. I began to ask myself, what would be the most rebellious? Then, I thought, why not create a work about females? When I was young, I used to be very cultured too and so I thought, why not show that side of myself now? As far as I am concerned, there is a rebellious spirit in Miss Puff, just like Kuang Kuang Kuang does. The only difference is their approach of rebelling. Kuang Kuang Kuang is against the social system through violence, while Miss Puff is about female fights against the status quos of values and emotions by her wisdom.
Puff has her own way of seeing things as a female, which I believed is very rare in today’s society and often easily eroded by male centric perspectives and values. Materialism, for example. Males often see the world through materials and often believes that any value can be acquired and invented by the exchange of physical materials and can be replaced by tangible materials. Whereas, women see things differently and are more artistic and emotional. In the past, people were ashamed to put emphasis on the values of physical goods and materials in Chinese societies while now the values in intangible feelings and cultured spirits seems to be a shameful topic here. Yes, physical goods and materials are important but it would be too dangerous if all our values were oriented and replaced by materialism. Today, everyone seems very realistic, everything can be traded as goods, even including love. However, Puff is a unique woman who can stand still against this mainstream view. She confronts difficulties with her everyday-life wisdom and she doesn’t quit nor cries every day.
AW: How do you define the character of Puff?
Pi San: This work is very different from my other works, because our approach this time is relatively rational. First of all, I wanted this female character to be independent, have her own views and judgement, and be sensitive and adventurous to life. This character gradually became more and more like her along the way, which is just like making a sculpture. With those keywords, we began to sculpt Puff little by little. For instance, as a woman with a strong imagination, her eyes should be big. But then how big? How big her eyes should be to make her look smart? She should have thin lips, because thin lips can show her independent personality. Her hair should be short, although I personally like girls with long hair. The short hair style would make her look sharper and more independent. Many people may see that Miss Puff is another version of Sex and the City, but actually I was largely influenced by Amelie when making the animation. Of course, Amelie is too romantic, cultured and alternative for Chinese people, but I really like that image, so I took her as a main reference when shaping Puff.
AW: At the end of each episode, there is a concluding remark like “A blank postcard is actually filled with love” (you can watch the episode from the link in the next section). Are these your personal feelings?
动画周: 每一集的最后都会有一句结束语“ 空白明信片其实写满了爱”。这些是您的人生感悟吗？
Pi San: These were quoted from Puff. I think that animation is different and unique from other kinds of work, which can often contain more philosophical and interesting things. As every episode in this animated series is short without a very complicated story, such as separation and death, a short story like this can always give inspiration to its audience as a result. Personally, I think that a mini-series like Miss Puff is closer to British drama rather than a US TV series. For example, Black Mirror and Inside No. 9 which I’ve watched recently (Certainly, I do not attempt to compare Miss Puff with these two dramas (laughs).). Both of them make people think deeply. Popular culture needs to spread with quotations. In this sense, even if I do not have these words at the end of each episode, I am sure that the audience can get it. But Puff has to give a conclusion, so I took the form of quotations.
AW: Why there is a small prop in every episode of Miss Puff, such as coffee, rice noodles, a fish tank, etc.?
Pi San: It is a question about objects. A characteristic of the materialistic era is that people believe they can substitute anything for what they want. In this case, the meaning of objects changes. For example, a mobile phone was just a tool for making calls when it emerged. But now, a mobile phone is not just that simple, because it can be a toy, or a multi-functional thing. In the world today, each of us is pursuing material more or less. For example, experience getting out from a BMW should be a different experience from an Alto, but what does it mean? In terms of comfort, of course, it is surely comfortable to take a BMW. On the other hand, it is just like a prop on the stage, which changes the story of your life. It becomes an obsession or cult to materials, and some people obey to its power since it can change lives. Some girls even trade their bodies for it, which is certainly a very extreme example. As a result, I was wondering what attitude Puff shall take. Firstly, she should neither be a slave to materialism, nor rejecting or ignoring its presence. At the end, I found a new way for Puff, which is for her to discover and reveal a different meaning in ordinary objects. Puff discovers and learns something about her life through these objects. This is why I believe Puff is someone who gives souls to objects. This is why when I choose these objects, I always try to find their alternative meaning.
皮三: 这是关于物的问题，在物质时代的一个特点就是人觉得可以交换。这时物的意义就不一样。打个比方说，手机，刚开始的出现是接打电话用。但现在的手机已经不简单的是个手机了，它可以是个玩具，或者是个综合性的东西。这个时代，我们每个人对物都会有所追求。比如说从宝马和从 奥拓上下来的人体验是不一样的，那说明什么？从舒适度来讲，当然是更舒服。从另一方面讲，它就像是舞台上的一个道具一样，改变了你的人生。这就要说到拜物，有些人觉得既然这个东西能改变人生，那我就屈服于它吧。有些女孩甚至愿意用自己的身体去交换，当然这是很极端的做法。所以我在想泡芙应该什么态度呢，她首先不能拜物，又不能不用所有物，不能视而不见。所以我就换了一个方法，泡芙从普通的物里面发现这个物别的意义。她会从这些物里面发现对生活的理解。所以我觉得泡芙是一个可以赋予物以灵魂的人。所以我在选择这些物的时候，也在想赋予这些物别的意义。
AW: What was the biggest difficulty when you were making Miss Puff?
Pi San: One is repetition and the other is persistence. The question is how we can develop a series with the same characters, but keep attracting people. What should we keep and what should we change? In fact, I don’t think that I did an excellent job. For example, since the first season, we have been making changes and have collected opinions and suggestions from various sides. It is indeed a big challenge of how to create novelty and keeping the freshness of the brand. Miss Puff has now been running for seven seasons. In the Internet age, everyone is in the pursuit of new sensations and it is hard for people to keep interested in old things. Some of Miss Puff’s initial fans started watching it while they were in universities and now probably have children. The most interesting thing for this animation is that it is a good accompaniment to girls in their adolescence and their journeys of emotional development. This is what I did not expect. For me, every season should be fresh but yet very Puff. Miss Puff is an animation series about depicting feelings of females that has not yet been focused by other animation producers. This is why it is a big challenge for us to keep its freshness, and we are still always exploring.
AW: What did you enjoy the most when making Miss Puff?
Pi San: Now there is fewer and fewer that I can enjoy (bursts into laughter). For all animations, the early stage of production is the most enjoyable time, and people will be excited when a new idea comes. And the rest is about the production and improvement. The animation production is becoming a more and more tedious process. The animation industry is hard. It is hard to keep your enthusiasm in the entire animation production process for months and even for years.
(By the way, with some exclusive news, a Miss Puff film is under preparation, and it is expected to be released at the end of this year or next year’s Valentine’s Day. You are welcome to join us then.)
Kuang Kuang Kuang and Miss Puff with English subtitles
Notice: Kuang Kuang Kuang is unsuitable for children under age of 18.
About producing animation (创作方面)
Pi San: In the past few years, I have made my own way of starting a new project. If I have an idea that I want to make an animation with, I would not take any action immediately and I will put it aside for a while, maybe a couple of months or years. If the same idea could come up again in my head, maybe I would think that this idea is valuable enough to take action. If I can think and use words to polish it, then I would write it down and sketch it out from my head. Then, after another period of time, if I still believe it is a valuable idea, I will start preparation to make an animation. Rightly, I put new ideas off first. In many cases, maybe for a team with young people, I think that they should put aside their idea for a while and not do it right away like me. Because I think that they usually come out with ideas that are not their own but inspired by the works of others. In my opinion, we should put those ideas aside for a while, because we can’t think those deeper and are prone to failure.
Besides, there are some ideas that are not very valuable, and are not worth spending time on. I think that an idea is just an idea, and there is a long way from an idea to its realization. So I do have some finished scripts, which are not used in the end, and I wasted a lot of my time for that.
皮三: 我这么多年来，有一套自己的做法。总的来说，我一旦有个想法，一般不会马上行动。我会把它记在脑子里，放一放。过了一段时间，如果这个想法还能再浮现在脑子里，就说明这个东西是有价值的。如果能想起来又能经得住推敲的话，我就会在脑海中勾勒出来然后记录下来。再放一段时间，如果还是觉得他有价值，我就会开始筹备制作。对，我会先放一放。很多时候，尤其是年轻人，脑子里蹦出来的并不是自己的点子，很多时候是受别人作品刺激无意中想出来的。这些点子我认为要稍微放一放，也许它经不起推敲，很容易撞车。还有一些点子价值没有那么高，不值得花很多时间去做。所以说我觉得点子离作品还是很远的。我有些写好的剧本， 甚至最后都没有用，也浪费了我很多时间。
AW: If there is a chance to cooperate with international studios, will you give it a try?
Pi San: Certainly, I would love to, if there is the chance.
AW: Can you share something about your next work?
Pi San: Um….I want to keep it secret. I am working with two or three projects with different themes and topics, but I have not yet decided which one is the best to proceed. I have not launched any new projects for several years so it puts pressure on me to get something out. I think it’s not a good thing. I think my project always pushes me to improve. That’s why it takes a long time for me to show my next project to audiences.
AW: Can you share your opinions about the Chinese animation market?
Pi San: If you asked me this question a few years ago, I would say that the animation market in China is not positive. But recently, many changes are ongoing. Few years ago, I talked about the Chinese animation market with friends and we all thought that it would take about five years for the market to develop and grow. But now I think the progress of the Chinese animation market is not as slow as we thought. There are some changes we can see. Firstly, the Chinese animation industry formed a group of serious business and started making money. It can be said that the Chinese animation market was starting to have a bright future. Secondly, in the past, the Chinese audience thought that animation is just for children, but now animated films, such as Monkey King: Hero Is Back, made the audience aware that there is a lot of animated content that is also suitable for adults. The development of the Internet also promoted animation a lot and made everyone realise many types of animation. So I think that the animation market in China is improving and getting better. But if, for example, there are one or two good animation projects, the capital will rush for those suddenly and quickly. There are many animators who are enthusiastic about that, but a lot of animators will be unhappy as well. The animation market seems very good, but animators will begin to get lost. I worry about situations such as Chinese cabbages: they sound good and then a marketing campaign of selling Chinese cabbages appear and everyone goes out to buy Chinese cabbages. If the next day’s sales were to be bad, everyone would turn to sell and buy gingers. That is the so-called market-oriented economy, which requires people to have their own decisions and then make necessary adjustments. From my point of view, no matter how chaotic the outside world is, we just need to stay calm and be ourselves. Generally speaking, the Chinese animation market is very promising.
Zimeng Liu: Zimeng Liu is a 2D animator and illustrator based in Shanghai. She graduated from Central Saint Martins (MA Character Animation) in 2014. During that period of time, she mainly focuses on character design and making animation by using different materials.
Portfolio web: https://www.behance.net/liuzimeng067b5