Colour design of cityscape - image courtesy of LEGO
Production still from 'LEGO Monkie Kid' (image courtesy of LEGO)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 08 Dec 2020

What does a colour designer do? An interview with Jiny He

AnimationArtCraftInterviewReadTelevision
Shu-Ling Chua - headshot

Shu-Ling Chua

Writer & Critic

The Melbourne-based colour designer spoke to Shu-Ling Chua about the ins and outs of visual storytelling for animated TV shows like 'DuckTales' and 'Justice League Action' and offered some handy tips for future animators.

Growing up, Jiny He was always interested in visual storytelling. As a child, she watched a lot of TV and would patiently colour in her friends’ doodles. This attention to detail and interest in colour underpin He’s work as a colour designer on animated TV series. "The story drives what I do," she explains. "Everything we do supports the narrative." Colour not only shapes the audience’s emotions but provides clues to a character’s personality or state of mind.

While background painters develop the scenery, colour designers (also known as colour stylists or colour artists) take care of the elements that move. This includes defining the colours of characters and their outfits, moving props, and how the lighting affects these. Animators then make the painted models move. In addition to considering the line art, background, style of the show and lighting needs, colour designers also define the textural qualities of a show. A woollen sweater, for example, looks different to a satin shirt. "It’s easier to build a realistic texture in 3D animation," He says. With 2D animation, she "cheats" the flatness through the clever use of lighting and shadow.

DuckTales - Donald, Della and Scrooge looking at world map, flashback (c) Disney TV Animation

'DuckTales' (courtesy of Disney TV Animation)

Over the past decade, He has worked at Nickelodeon Animation in the US, as well as studios in Brisbane (Liquid Animation) and Sydney (Flying Bark). One of the biggest challenges, in her view, is how to grow the animation industry locally. "I would love to see more Australian produced content," she says, citing Bluey as a recent success. "Because the industry is so dominated by Hollywood, Australian studios will often act as the assistant studio and do animations for projects for distribution in the US." Since 2016, He has worked remotely from Melbourne on US-based projects DuckTales (Disney) and upcoming adult animated series Inside Job (Netflix), described as "a workplace comedy set in the shadow government, where every conspiracy theory — from the Illuminati to Reptoids — is true, and one woman struggles to keep the chaos under wraps".

"DuckTales is more subdued," He says. "Because we wanted to go with the graphic look of the comic books." It was one of the few shows where she used 100 per cent blacks on shadows and pure whites, giving an ink and line look to the characters. Audience is another important factor. The pre-teen audience for Sanjay & Craig, for example, has "a more vivid, energetic world so you can push that through your colour". When I comment on how tricky it would have been to colour the night scenes in Justice League Action, He adds that it was challenging to distinguish between similar tints and shades. "I had to squint," she laughs. "Batman’s cape is black, but there are tints of blue in it."

He’s interior design and illustration work also serve as a creative outlet. Much of her inspiration for personal art and animation art comes from the everyday, nature, architecture and photography. She admires how art and technology intertwine in Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, and the interaction of colour in Mark Rothko’s and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings. "Going to museums and galleries helps you pay attention to detail," He advises. "Look at masterpieces to study shadow and colour. If you want to animate, learn a bit of physics to see how gravity works, and get your anatomy right."

As with any creative field, animation is often project-based and rarely offers financial stability. "When you put out your portfolio, you feel like you’re putting out a part of you," He says. "When you get rejected, don’t let it be personal. It could be that the timing wasn’t right, or this project was looking for a different style. New projects are always coming up so don’t be discouraged." She recommends keeping an eye out for internships and work experience, and volunteering. In her final year of graduate school, she interned at Nickelodeon Animation, which led to her first job as a production assistant. "Basically, just get involved. And learn how to deal with finances."

He has previously volunteered at ACMI Education workshops, where school students are divided into teams to produce their own animated short. They learn every stage of the animation pipeline, from pre-production (story, design, storyboard) to production (animation) to post-production (editing, sound). “I love seeing the concepts the students create,” she says, “especially when designing their characters, since that’s my department. It’s inspiring to see how uninhibited their imaginations are.” At the end of the workshop, there is a screening for the class and their families. “I think this is the best part for them, to be able to proudly share something they worked hard on and watch it come to life on screen.”

This year, as a final judge for the ATOM Awards, He reviewed the four finalist projects in the Best Primary School Animation category. In addition to appreciating their design, she says, “It was very heart-warming to see what stories the students wanted to tell. I can feel their appreciation for their peers, the environment, and our general well-being through their films.” As a mentor to the next generation of animators, He has come full circle. She says of DuckTales, “I watched it as a kid, so to be able to work on those characters was very gratifying. This is what inspired us [animators] when we were growing up, so now we want to be the inspiration to other people.”

See more of Jiny He's work on her website or follow her on Instagram.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. Her debut essay collection, Echoes, was published by Somekind Press in November 2020.

Revisit our Behind the Screens talks with VFX artist Dave Bleich, on YouTube

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