Lei Lei: A Sketch of the Animator As a Young Man

Lei Lei, a.k.a. Ray Lei, 27, is one of the best-known animators in China. Unlike many other smart kids of his generation who graduated from China’s top universities, he went off the beaten path early in his career and never turned back. In a country where many artists chase the latest trends in the international art market, Lei Lei sets trends of his own. His early animation—made from hand drawings on school notepads, is autobiographical and rooted in his upbringing. He wears chunky glasses and a pork pie hat, talks like a rapper with a high pitched voice, and looks like a character who walked out of one of his animated shorts. His drawings are playful and childlike—qualities that tend to fade the further one progresses through China’s rigid education system. That he has managed to make a name for himself both on the domestic and global stages is proof that his passion is infectious.

Lei Lei’s animated film This is Love won the Best Narrative Short Award at the 2010 Ottawa International Animation Festival, the first Chinese to win a major prize in one of the world’s largest animation festivals. Since then, he has been invited to more and more animation festivals and art exhibitions around the world, inspiring many young artists in China. He even enjoys a certain degree of commercial success—collaborating with domestic media like Southern Weekend and international brands like Nike, for whom he designed custom collector’s item basketball shoes, and Fiat, which rolled out a limited edition sports car adorned with his doodles.

Lei Lei also has a musical career. In 2010, he and his buddies—musician Li Xingyu and rapper Jfever—released an indie record called Hei! In 2011, the same group produced a musical called Whale in Beijing. All this goes a long way toward helping him achieve his stated ideal lifestyle—that of a backpacker artist who travels the world from project to project.

Courtesy of Lei Lei
Portrait of the artist

Tell us about your childhood, in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, in Southeast China and when and why you moved to Beijing.

My father was a graphic designer and worked in a publishing organization. From the time I was little, he taught me to draw both in the style of children’s book illustration as well as traditional ink painting. These styles are fundamentally different from the kind of drawing that can get you into China’s top art academies. And I was determined to get into Tsinghua University or the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I was such a sucker for élite art schools. I moved to Beijing when I was in high school and enrolled in some art school prep classes. And in 2003, I got into the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua and spent the next seven years there.

When I was little, I hand-made sketch books and used them for graphic stories that I made up. But most of them all ended up being confiscated by my schoolteachers. They also loved to berate me for doodling on school desks. I’m sure many Chinese kids had similar experiences. After I got into Tsinghua, I once borrowed a desk from my elementary school in Nanchang for an exhibition in Hong Kong. I shipped the desk to Hong Kong and covered it entirely with my doodling. I wanted to get revenge just once.

Since you weren’t born until 1985, how did you come to favor red and blue ballpoint pens and Rubik’s Cube-like figures in your drawings, which for many evoke a specific time and place belonging to an older generation? As I recall, it was in the 1980s that students in China were reading Zheng Yuanjie’s Rubik’s Cube stories and could find only red or blue pens in stationery stores.

Courtesy of Lei Lei
Red and blue ballpoint sketch, 2009.

Maybe it’s because I was living in Nanchang, which was more backwards when I was growing up. In terms of cultural influences, the city was always five to six years behind when compared with big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. So it was during the 1990s that I used red and blue ballpoint pens and read Zheng Yuanjie’s stories.

More importantly, I was influenced by my father. He did illustrations for newspapers and designed beautiful hand-drawn Chinese typography. Unlike us, designers of his generation did everything with pencils on paper. My dad’s training in drawing and design was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries in the 1960s. The animated films produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio were made by people who had similar training and I watched their work growing up. So I was indirectly influenced by the 1960s animation style of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These 2D low-tech drawings felt warm and comforting.

How would you compare your experience as an artist in residence at many schools around the world with your time at Tsinghua’s Academy of Arts & Design, where you got your Master’s degree in 2009?

To be honest, my advisor at Tsinghua University was really nice to me. The greatest help she gave me was that she left me to my own devices. I hardly spent any time at school during my graduate school years. In 2007, I was working with curator Ou Ning on the Border Project for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism. Afterwards, I worked with architect Li Hu on the Red Line Park project. After that, I was working with Nike on the Be True exhibition in Shanghai. I was basically absent from school because my experience there was very disappointing. Many young faculty members I met in Chinese art schools were quite ridiculous in my opinion. To them, teaching was merely a source of income to pay their mortgage. They couldn’t teach even the foundation classes well, and they had no ambition to be educators.

Whereas the art teachers I met in North America and Europe not only provided a solid foundation in the classes they taught, they also acted as mentors to their students. So, since I was an undergrad, I knew that I had to rely on myself to explore new information and find new opportunities.

Were your extracurricular activities rewarding?

Extremely so. They liberated me from many of the silly beliefs I was taught. I remember when I first met Ou Ning in 2007, I was still very naive and callow. He was looking for someone to make an animated short film for him and thought I was okay. But I was totally clueless at that time. To my fellow classmates, success meant that you played a small role during the post-production of an animation project and that animation was bought by a local TV station. I was such a dimwit in college that I even wanted to run in an election to be a student propaganda officer. And suddenly I was exposed to the contemporary art world and was expected to make a multi-channel animation for an art installation in a biennale. I told Ou Ning that an animation needed to be produced by a team of people; it was impossible to make it all by myself. Ou Ning said: “Says who?” And he asked me to go see Shanghai based artist Qiu Anxiong’s animation.

Similarly, Hong Kong writer and cartoonist Craig Au-Yeung also opened my eyes by bringing me to an independent animation exhibition in Hong Kong.

Is that why you chose to be an independent artist after graduation instead of joining an animation company or movie studio?

Before I graduated in 2009, I spent two weeks in the Lijiang Studio residency program in Yunnan. I think Ou Ning recommended me. That was the real life changing experience. Tsinghua is a university famous for its science and technology majors but an awful environment for liberal arts students. It feels very suffocating. Before graduation, students are all busy brown-nosing their professors in order to either land a job or get into a Ph.D. program. I think there’s something wrong with this. Everything is so industrialized and commercialized. The country has a mandate to construct a creative industry overnight. China’s art academies just want to mass-produce and supply cheap labor for the industry. But I didn’t try so hard to get into a top art school so that I could work in an animation company. Since high school, all I had done was train myself to be an artist. I never dreamed about a Ph.D. degree or a 9-5 job in a cubicle that was going to pay me 3,000 RMB a month.

So I was really happy when I got this artist residency opportunity. During my two weeks there, I lived with a farmer’s family. Every day I painted mural paintings for farmers, feeling totally relaxed and refreshed. I ate, I painted, I slept. Nothing else occupied my mind. It was such a huge contrast to the atmosphere in Beijing. It completely cleared up my confusion. When I got back to Beijing, I never again considered the option of finding a job. I only wanted to do what I loved. I wanted my animation to be personal. I wanted it to be short, unique, passionate, and capable of being done by one person. I didn’t believe it should need storyboards or scripts. My imagination was my script. This was my reaction to the utilitarian ethos in China.

Then why did you choose to collaborate with the Shenzhen government on an animated film about the Dafen oil painting village, which is notorious for industrialized art-making?

That was a fun experience. The Dafen village government wanted to make a promotional video to represent Shenzhen at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. I was very surprised that they invited me. Our team members also included designers from the Approach Architecture Studio, artist Yang Yong, and playwright Mou Sen. The selection of this team showed that, contrary to my beliefs, the local government could be quite liberal and sophisticated. We were not given any restrictions and the government was happy with what we made. The animation was subsequently collected by a French museum. I visited the village many times for this project. The place was full of surprises. China can turn anything, including art, into a product that comes off an assembly line. To an artist, this place was simultaneously appalling, ironic, and fascinating.

Tell us about your creative process and how it has changed over the years.

I’m always making random drawings. Usually when I have a story idea or a musical idea that can be linked with some drawings, I start putting things together. No plots, storyboards, or scripts are involved. It’s rather spontaneous. I could finish an animation in a month. But lately I’ve been trying to change this working style. It gets a little repetitive, as if I am a factory that is working on a monthly project-based schedule. Now I am more interested in longer-term projects, like the found photo project I worked on with Beijing-based French artist Thomas Sauvin last year.

About four years ago, Thomas started to collect discarded negatives in Beijing. He collected about 500,000 negatives from dumpster diving and scanned them all. He has been exhibiting these photos in small quantities (fewer than 100 at a time) here and there. We have been good friends for years and a year ago he asked me to collaborate. It was a challenge, because this was the first time I had put down my drawing pencil and paper and worked with photographs, 500,000 of them. In the end, I selected 3,000 photos and made a six-minute animation. I just finished it. It has just been selected for competition at the 2013 AniFest in Teplice, Czech Republic and the 2013 Holland Animation Film Festival. You can watch a one minute prototype on The Guardian’s website.

I am also working with my father on a story about my grandfather. I recorded him retelling his experiences of the 1950s. He subsequently had a stroke and lost some language ability. So I’m glad that I was able to preserve some of his memories. My father and I will make an animated documentary based on my grandfather’s narration. This is what I was working on during my residency at La Bande Vidéo in Quebec.