Interview on 21st August 2015 at what friends refer to as "the cockroach restaurant" in Guomao/Jianguomen
JF: Have you been interviewed many times before?
Lei Lei: No, not many.
JF: Do you like to be interviewed?
LL: Actually, I do like to be interviewed because, as a lonely young man, you don't have that much chance to tell people what you think. As time passes, you have some updates in mind and you just want to have an interview to tell people what you think.
JF: Do you have a website where you, for instance, write, instead of talking to someone?
LL: A few years ago we had a blog, but then we stopped after two years, because Weibo and WeChat appeared, so we started using those to share some photos and ideas. But these media are too brief, the message is too short, I don't think it's enough for us to talk about ourselves. Sometimes I write something if I come up with a new work, I write something about it if public or a festival needs a statement or a project introduction but that's it.
JF: You used words "us" instead of "me" or "I", who do you mean exactly?
LL: "Us" means "the Chinese" perhaps, young Chinese people.
JF: For a moment I thought you mean Thomas Sauvin with whom you collaborate a lot or some other friends you used to cooperate with.
LL: I probably mean a group, such as young Chinese artists as a collective.
JF: When was your last interview you had?
LL: I remember the last interview was by an art student, who interviewed me through WeChat and it was about our project with TS called Recycled. I think now she works as an assistant at TS's studio. It was part of her study for her dissertation.
JF: Please elaborate a bit about the project Recycled.
LL: I think it's changed the way I do my animations. Before I used to use a lot of colour and I used to know what result I was aiming at while making the film, but with Recycled we just set up some rules and we followed them without knowing exactly what we were looking for. It's totally different than how I usually work. Also, my animation would usually have a story I wanted to tell but this time it was more about asking myself some questions, like what is the relationship between me and the photos. While movie-making I try to find the answers.
JF: You think it influences the way you approach your own, individual work now?
LL: I can't say it changed things, I think it just opened another door. I don't think I will do my work in the future much differently. I still like the story-telling, but it may be more different than it used to be and also different from Recycled, it really just opened a second or a third door. The film's logic is more important to me now, not how the film looks. Same for Recycled, the most important for me was the logic behind the film, and I feel I can't really control what the film looks like. So I think the biggest change (in me) is not about the aesthetics but about my trail of thoughts, the logic I am using.
JF: Do you think you used to pay more attention to the aesthetics?
LL: I studied graphic design, so when I started doing animations I wanted to make every film beautiful and tried to make the story line clear. Right now, I think more about what the purpose of the document/work is, what is it for, and what my aim and rules are to make it happen. The rules may be tight, although I try to give it space for them to grow. We just finished a new film, it's called Hand-coloured and we set up some rules before we started, but obviously something can happen during the process and it can change the rules. For example you are colouring and your hand slips and the rules are automatically "broken" by accident. But I love the change, too, the accident, the exception. It's beautiful. More interesting than knowing what is going to be the outcome.
It's not only about the rules, though. For example, for Hand-coloured we hand-coloured 1200 photos. It was mostly about using your body and its memory repeating the same thing each time. If you do something once, for instance pass a place only one time, maybe nothing will happen, but after a thousand times, there will probably be some feedback. Just like monks in the temple, who are very focused on walking or meditating, the thing you're doing becomes your flesh. I used my body to make that animation.
JF: When will we be able to see the result?
LL: First we will have a talk about it and show the film at Minsheng Art Museum, in Shanghai next month (took place 13th September - JF). In Beijing, I'm not sure, because perhaps together with Thomas we will try to submit the film to some film festivals abroad. I hope it can be selected by some oversees festival, because then people will know it there and eventually they will notice it here and screen it in China, too. It happened with Recycled, which was selected by the Holland Animation Film Festival and the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and then it was screened in China.
JF: How long did you work on it?
LL: One and half years. Hand-coloured - almost two years. It's very hard work. Within one afternoon we were able to finish 10 or maximum 15 hand-coloured photos, and we used 1168 photos in total, huge work.
JF: Where did you find the photos?
LL: There's a website called kongfuzi.cn, where Thomas bought many pictures, they mostly come from some second hand markets. A lot of second hand photos. What we did was we would chose 50 photos from different person, from different times, some maybe even a hundred years ago, but we connected them into one story, all of the photos, as if it was one person's story. One guy we see first as a kid, who's growing up, practicing kung-fu, he then fights in a war during Mao's reign times and after he meets a girl and falls in love, it’s a very romantic story.
JF: It's a story that could happen pretty much to anyone.
LL: Yes, we're not trying to piece together or make it resemble China's history, we made the story up. It could be one person's story or it could be all Chinese people's story.
JF: I'd say that Recycled could be a tool for analyzing China's recent history. There are places shown in the film which repeat throughout history and stories of thousands of people - they all took pictures on Tiananmen square in the exact same place or they all had the same brand of bike and photographed themselves in certain positions. Maybe even you yourself found the same or similar photos in your family albums.
LL: Yes, my grandfather also took photos in Tiananmen Square. In my opinion Recycled isn't about finding similar photos but about restoring the memory.
JF: Because it was thrown away onto a dumpster [literally, TS went to a rubbish dump to look for films - JF].
LL: In Recycled there's also a plot you could say, there's let's say one person who lives in nature, by the sea and in the mountains, and then he walks into the city. He sets up a family and there's interaction with and pressure from society etc. and at the end of the film you see Tiananmen square, which is in a way the centre of China, a place with a lot of political weight. So I think we also feel this pressure and the story-telling and imagining is the way to release it. In this sense Recycled is similar to Hand-coloured, where we use other people's photos and some kind of narration to find something common in different people's lives.
JF: When did you start making animations?
LL: About 2007. It was my graduation piece. After that it became more and more absorbing, telling a story, many things incorporated into one medium/piece, an interesting language.
JF: What was your motivation to start doing it?
LL: At first I was doing book design, and at the same time I was interested in photography, skateboarding, and hip-hop music so I realized design isn't enough for me to express myself. Animation is more interesting.
JF: When I saw your work presentation in UCCA a year ago, I really liked the way you interacted with people, very laid back and open for ideas exchange and 'know-how' sharing. Do you like to give lectures?
LL: I can't say I like teaching or lecturing, but this is really the only way to show my films and meet people. I don't do commercial films, so there's only a few people who can see what I do, and that's during an event such as lecture or a seminar etc. Then the people can tell me what they think of my films. Right now I think more about the logic, so the film is really only one part of what I'm really thinking. When we have a meeting with people I can introduce another part of the same project/thinking. For instance with Recycled I can perhaps hold a performance or an exhibition or more. Lecture is a good way to share thoughts and get in touch with people.
JF: You have been invited to a few animation festivals to serve as a jury member (Croatia and Holland? Do you like to judge other people's work?
LL: I like it because I can travel for free [laughs], and judging itself is not that important. I think most of the works which are shown in festivals are already pretty good, so for me being a jury member has a different benefit: I can understand how jury members work together. Which doesn't mean I will be then creating things that a jury might like, but I get to learn how a festival happens. Usually only animators and filmmakers are part of the jury, no musicians or architects are invited, and, although it might be good, I sometimes find it too narrow. Just because a film wasn’t selected into an animation festival doesn't mean it's not a good piece of work, it probably belongs to somewhere else, such as an exhibiting space or a different kind of festival (music, architecture) whatsoever. So I think, participating in a festival as a jury member [in contrast to participating as an artist] will eventually lead me to more independence and freedom in creating.
JF: Can you talk a little bit about residencies you've participated in? There have been quite a few of them. What do you like or dislike about them?
LL: Last year I got an ACC [Asian Cultural Council] grant and I stayed in NYC for three months this year. It was an artists' residence project, and it was not limited to animators or filmmakers. In New York I met artists from different art backgrounds. What’s more, there were so many events happening in the city: I went to music performances, film screenings, theatre plays and exhibitions during my residency, and it pretty much kept me busy every day. After experiencing New York, now, when I am back in China, I think I should have more time to think about who I am, and not just copy what I have seen in New York, I should do things myself. I believe that my experience in New York will expand my animation language.
It’s good to have a residence project. It’s opened my eyes, but on the other hand, since I’m back in my city, I still need to worry about my income, about my life… it’s like coming back from a dream to the reality.
Lei Lei (雷磊 léi lěi), a.k.a. Ray Lei, is an artist born in the eighties in China. This jovial boy - rarely without a hat atop his cheerful face - drew my attention at a talk organized by UCCA Beijing’s auditorium during w/s season of 2014. The division between him as an artist and the young crowd, curious about his artwork, was rather invisible, no more than that of his standing and talking in the “stage area” and the listeners sitting in their comfy chairs. Lei Lei works mostly with 2D cut outs and collage techniques, and has undertaken the tedious work of colouring thousands of pictures in together with frenchman, Thomas Sauvin, his friend, colleague and collaborator in Beijing.