Animator and designer Kim Yuan Xu is based in Brooklyn, New York and was born and raised in Xiamen, China. Her remarkable career has led to work on Office Ladies, Wolfboy And The Everything Factory, SpongeBob 360, SpongeBob Reimagined, Magical Girl Friendship Squad and Clifford The Big Red Dog among many others. Kim talks about her career and advice to those wanting to pursue a career in animation.
Is there a moment you can identify where you thought to yourself, “I’m going to make animated films when I grow up”?
When I was growing up in China, my mom bought a lot of DVDs like Disney princesses, Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry and we played them on TV all the time. That was my first introduction to animation. Later on I watched some classic Chinese animation, Japanese anime, and of course SpongeBob, Power Puff Girls, Kim Possible etc and I love them all, which is probably why my art style is very mixed and flexible. I always knew I was going to do art. But I guess it was when I first heard Joe Hisaishi’s music that really struck me. I was 16 and just started thinking about what major to apply in college. I just randomly saw Hisaishi’s concert on TV. The whole orchestra was playing the original score he wrote for Miyasaki’s animation films and all of a sudden I just teared up because the emotions in his music was too powerful and moving. The music itself tells a beautiful story. So I thought, “Wow, I wanna make films to match with music like this someday…”
“We create things to entertain people, to make them laugh or feel things or to escape from daily lives…”
What part of the process of animation do you find most rewarding?
Definitely when more and more audience watch the animation projects that I worked on and tell me how much they like them. Animation is an important part of the entertainment industry for sure. We create things to entertain people, to make them laugh or feel things or to escape from daily lives, doesn’t matter if it’s two minutes or two hours. If people like what we do, all the hard work pays off. I spent my whole thesis year in college making my short film, The Button. After I was done, I published it online and submitted it to film festivals for more audience to watch. I got a call from our department chair in SVA telling me that they wanted to publish my film poster on The Keyframe magazine from The Animation Guild. I was over the moon because that’s when I first realized that people liked my stuff. The Button received the best animation in Los Angeles Film Awards, New York Film Awards, ONIROS Film Awards in 2019, Best Animated Film and Best Created Environment Finalist in Lonely Wolf London International Film Festival in 2020. But more importantly, when I started working in a professional team, it feels even more rewarding when you see the view numbers blowing up and the audience are leaving positive reviews and comments. SpongeBob 360 got 35 million views so far on YouTube, and SpongeBob Reimagined: Reef Blower got 5.2 million. It’s really overwhelming but in a really good way.
What’s SpongeBob like in real life? Kidding! What was it like to work on SpongeBob, such a beloved character?
As a kid who grew up in the 90s, you can imagine how excited I was when I got the opportunity to actually draw some of my favorite childhood characters for a living. SpongeBob is super popular in China as well. I watched the Mandarin translated version on national kids channel when I was a kid. We are blessed with an amazing team in Cartuna, which is the production company for SpongeBob 360 and SpongeBob Reimagined series. From October 2020 to January 2021, I was the cleanup and color animator for Patrick, Mr Krabs, Plankton in 360 and SpongeBob in Reimagined: Reef Blower. SpongeBob 360 is a 5-minute 2D virtual reality special mashup with a lot of classic clips and hidden easter eggs from the SpongeBob universe. The audience had so much fun looking for the easter eggs. We drew everything in the most traditional way in Adobe Animate and TVpaint, which is hand drawn frame by frame in 2s, which is what they did back in the old days on paper. The main point is to draw everything on the same canvas without any cuts. Because it’s 360° and everything happens at the same time. We needed to “fill in the blanks” between scenes form the original episodes. The background was painted in Photoshop and then “stitched together” to create a 360° view. After everything was done, our compositor did his magic in After Effects and — Voila! You’ve got yourself a super cool 360° Krusty Krab!
The Reef Blower, on the other hand, is a 1920s black and white version of the classic SpongeBob episode. It was really fun to redraw these characters in an old school style. Again, thank you everyone who watched and liked! You are the reason why we keep doing what we do.
“It might sound like a cliche but ‘never stop getting yourself out there’ is literally how you make a living as an artist…”
What was the greatest lesson you learned from a mentor in the industry?
My first year animation professor in SVA, Mario Menjivar, used to work for Disney classics such as The Lion King, Tarzan, Beauty And The Beast etc. He taught us how to animate in the most traditional way: hand drawn on paper. My thesis advisor Bob Camp, who used to be one of the directors of The Ren and Stimpy show and the storyboard artist for SpongeBob Squarepants, helped me improve my scripts and storyboards through out my entire college years. My director from SpongeBob 360, Mari Jaye Blanchard, who’s also a professor in RIT, is one of the most detailed oriented and passionate directors I’ve worked with, and she gave me the nickname “Detector Xu” which I’m incredibly honored! I guess I’m most grateful that these “senpais” in the industry actually believe in and encourage me to keep doing what I do. It might sound like a cliche but “never stop getting yourself out there” is literally how you make a living as an artist. You need to know your abilities and keep pushing them to a newer level, project by project, little by little. Update your social art media constantly and keep in touch with other artists in the community!