To Draw Better

Interviewed by Melvin Tan • Edited by Samantha Yap • Photography by Sam Chin

 

The processes behind creative work differs across fields of interests, each with its own set of successes and difficulties. We speak to storyboard artist Ziqun AK on how he values a process-oriented approach and navigates the unpredictability of experimentation and exploration.


School
NTU School of Art,
Design & Media

Field of study
Digital Animation

Graduating year
2013

Place of Work
Big 3 Media

Practice
Storyboarding

What was your background prior to coming to ADM?
I came directly from high school in Malaysia before ADM but I’ve been drawing as a hobby for a while. I was pretty deprived of media when I was young, so I was naturally drawn to craft and just drew for fun quite a bit. My first love was Digimon – hit me at the right age, after that, it’s a mix of influences from manga, films and animation.

Tell us what you do as a Storyboard Artist.
It usually consists of assisting directors to visualize shooting boards and pitches for live action videos. Occasionally, I'm also involved in a variety of design work for animation projects. Some pre-production art that I did prior to joining Big 3 Media were for feature films such as Black Out, The Legend of Gurkhas and a 3D animation series, Dream Defenders, and On An Infinite Loop, a short film, which premiered at the 38th Asian American Film Festival in New York City.

At Big 3 Media, I largely visualise live action direction, which necessitates quick and fast sketches. This probably counters the common assumption that my profession only produces polished paintings for games and other animation outputs. On top of that, my work is not always evident in the project’s final outcome. The finished illustrations that I share online are all mostly done as an extension of a hobby.

 

 

How has your journey been since you graduated four years ago?
I’m not originally from Singapore so I had some issues with securing a working pass and had to take some time away from pursuing illustration as a career. It wasn’t easy and I ended up taking a job as a graphic designer at an e-commerce startup. My first priority after graduation was to actually save up and apply to be a Permanent Resident here.

 
I started to prioritize doing basic practices, sourcing for references, storyboard and planning, instead of chasing after the satisfaction of completion. Despite painfully watching the schedule get upset in pursuit of quality, the dry grind really benefited my drawings and the project. In the end, I learnt that the learning process was far more valuable than chasing after a temporary gratification from completion.

You had an ambitious looking comic for your Final Year Project (FYP), Gust. Did you aspire to be a comic artist?
I would see my final year project as a one-off project rather than something aspirational. It provided me with a lot of valuable experience accumulated from lots of drawing and composing mileage from, which benefited me up till this day. I was learning the vocabulary to compose and stage scenes. This is done through drawing a variety of angles from different perspectives.

Gust eventually became a kind of learning process on how to draw better. I was learning the drawing skills – a hardly exciting process – which became helpful for what I do in 2D animation, illustration and comics. Comics also share a lot of affinities with film language. Working on Gust reflected my interest for film, which in turn also helped me to storyboard better.

Film and comics share a lot of affinities in how they communicate narratives. What films were you looking at and what did you draw from these films?
I was drawn to westerns such as the all-time favorite Dollars Trilogy by Sergio Leone and film noir style comic artists like Frank Miller and Mike Mignola. Those genres have a very specific mood and elemental visuals — like using extreme wide shots and long panels to convey space, how light and shadows are designed dramatically, these are all beautiful visuals that can also be translated into comics. It's quite a geeky thing to do!

You collaborated with another ADM animator, Zurianah, who worked with you on writing. Is collaboration common for you?
Halfway into the project, I realised that the story wasn't very strong so I asked Zu (who thankfully was willing) to help me with the story and dialogue. I wished we started a proper collaboration at the beginning. At the juncture of our collaboration, most of the drawings were already planned so reworking the storytelling was probably too late. It was a painful lesson!

Across both live action and animation formats, my current work is collaborative by nature and requires me to to collaborate with different directors, writers and animators. It is really enjoyable to see different disciplines bring their specialisation, complementing each other's strengths.

Gust was also made more succinct after you realised your own capabilities. How do you continue to navigate limitations in your own practice?
Yes! It was very difficult indeed. I started out with a goal of 120 pages which was pretty idealistic. In the end, I only managed to complete 38 pages. Looking back, it is pretty laughable... but for me, it was more important for me to admit that as well, even if there is a lot of enthusiasm to share a story. On hindsight, I didn’t have solid draftsmanship and realistic expectations to produce a quality comic.

It was torturous to shift mindsets from "finish and move on" to "learn to draw better". I started to prioritize doing basic practices, sourcing for references, storyboard and planning, instead of chasing after the satisfaction of completion. Despite painfully watching the schedule get upset in pursuit of quality, the dry grind really benefited my drawings and the project. In the end, I learnt that the learning process was far more valuable than chasing after a temporary gratification from completion.

After graduation, I followed in the same path, continuing the process of planning and seeking references while also learning to work around with 3D blocking and photo bashing to cut down time and get better results.

Could you share with us about any of your long-term illustration projects? What is the process like working on them and how will it come to fruition?
With my work, storyboards are almost always done fast and rough for practical reasons so I'm still learning to do finished illustrations on my own time. I like to start with rough thumbnails on paper to sort out the story and composition. It’s a flexible way to iterate ideas quickly without feeling precious about them.

Sometimes I do studies with references on specific components that I'm not familiar with (mechanical parts, animal anatomy) to help with the process. Then I'll bring it into Photoshop for more precise drawing and lighting. Color and detailing are still huge challenges for me so I often spend more time at this stage. At the moment I mostly do single illustrations and I’m still learning to design and paint.

Izyanti Asaari