When it comes to the geek cred game, artist Alina Chau has leveled up about as far as any of us could dream. After all, she’s on a first-name basis with George (that’s Lucas to you) after working as a 3D story artist on the popular animated series “Star Wars: The Clones Wars.”
After studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alina won a student Emmy for her thesis film. Her first student film, “Frieden — The Tree of Peace,” plays daily at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City.
This auspicious beginning led to an internship and then a full-time gig with video game maker Electronic Arts and a more than decade-long career in the gaming and animation industries.
Alina’s gorgeous personal watercolor illustrations reflect her lifelong passion for causes including children’s rights and the environment. Her artwork showcases the diversity of her multicultural upbringing, as well as her love of travel.
An adjunct professor with picture books in the works and a graphic novel due for publication next year, Alina took a moment to chat about her love of the films of animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, her pop culture-inspired gallery and exhibition work, fond memories of her time on “The Clone Wars,” and her experience as a woman working in animation and gaming.
You’re an artist who worked in the animation and gaming industries for more than a decade. How did you come to work in those fields?
I was an animation major at UCLA Film School. When I graduated from school, I applied to animation-related jobs. I start working for a couple studios as a PA and intern. Then I interned for Electronic Arts. When the internship ended, they brought me in as a full-time animator. That’s how I got started in the industry … from there, I just kept working for different projects and studios.
Were you artistic as a child? I read that you inherited some of your talent from your grandmother.
I’ve loved drawing since I was very little. That’s kind of the only activity that could keep me out of trouble. Art was a hobby when I was a kid … it didn’t occur to me that art could be a career until I was applying to college.
You earned your master of fine arts at University of California, Los Angeles. What was the most important thing you learned during your studies?
I would say it’s important to develop an independent voice. UCLA education philosophy encourages students to develop their own voice and vision. The longer I stayed in the industry, I discovered having a personal vision is one of the most important factors to maintain a healthy and sustainable career. This is especially important with today’s industry, it develops and evolves much faster than ever. Knowing how to maintain one’s vision and passion helps you grow and evolve along with the trends, as well as really helps to overcome creative blocks and burn-out.
You won a student Emmy for your thesis film, “E=mc2.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was that like?
It was an honor to be selected among many wonderful and super talented candidates. For a student, it was an eye opener. In a short time frame, I got to network and went to some big industry events. It was humbling and a great experience for a kid who’s still in school. At the time, I was busy graduating and looking for a job. It helped to have an Emmy on the resume to find a job.
Another of your films, “Frieden — The Tree of Peace,” shows daily at the United Nation’s New York headquarters. Tell me more about that.
This was my first year student film. When I was younger, I often participated in various humane organizations and activities, such as UNICEF, OXFAM, World Wildlife Fund, etc. I was an activist in children’s human rights. When I finished my first year film, I decided to donate the film to the UN.
Your personal watercolor illustrations have a sweet, dreamlike fairy-tale quality that I love. How would you describe your style?
I never really think of how to describe my artworks. I love storytelling. That’s why I choose to be an animator and story artist. I try to tell a story in my paintings.
What would you consider to be the biggest influences on your art?
It would be my memories … I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from my childhood. I also love a wide range of art forms for inspiration.
Your work is very culturally diverse. Does that have anything to do with your love of travel?
I do love to travel a lot. I also come from a culturally diverse upbringing. My family are Indonesian and Chinese. I was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong during the British colonial era, studied in the UK briefly, and immigrated to the U.S. My personal cultural upbringing is a mixing pot of Indonesian, Mandarine, Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, British, and American. Growing up, I never felt I completely fit in each culture, yet I am also a bit of each. It’s this mixed cultural upbringing that made me extra aware and sensitive about the important of diversity.
I saw a few pieces in your portfolio that were a bit political. (I thought they were excellent!) What was your inspiration for these works?
I do have opinions in certain political subjects. I was always a bit of a sensitive child when it comes to standing up for children’s human rights and environmentalism. Looking back, I think this could be because I was kind of an immigrant all my life, moving from one country to another. I personally experienced that it could be challenging to adapt to a new life in different regions, but there is much beauty to sharing life with a diverse range of people. This experience make me very aware of the importance of appreciating different cultures, races and social interests. To learn how to appreciate differences, it’s important to openly discuss and share the experiences.
Looking through your artwork on your website, I detected many pop cultural influences, especially Disney, with illustrations ranging from Beauty and the Beast, to The Little Mermaid, to Coco, to Aladdin. What is it about Disney characters that inspires you?
I don’t do fan art for myself. All the pop culture influenced paintings I did are created for the official tribute shows with galleries or studios or commissions from collectors.
I also recognized many other unique interpretations of fandoms, including Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” He-Man, “Bob’s Burgers,” Super Mario Bros., “The Simpsons,” Lord of the Rings, Voltron, “Game of Thrones,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
They are all created for specially invited official tribute shows. Although I love pop culture and love all these titles, I personally do not create fan art for myself. This is because when I was working for studios, I always developed titles for the studios. When I get the chance to develop my personal art, I prefer to explore my own potential and find out what I can do, discover my own voice. I also try to be respectful to other’s intellectual property.
When it comes to fandoms, you said you “like a bit of everything.” What are some of your favorites?
That’s a tough choice … I would always have a special spot for Star Wars, since I worked on “The Clone Wars,” and had many wonderful memories working with the Lucasfilm animation team and George Lucas.
I grew up with Miyazaki films. Growing up, every summer after finals, it’s a tradition to run to the theater and celebrate the end of the school year with the latest Miyazaki.
Spielberg, Lucas, Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, etc. Frederic Back is another of my all-time favorite animators … too much to list.
You said if you had to choose just one fandom, it would be the films of Miyazaki. How did you discover him and what do you enjoy about his work?
I grew up with Miyazaki and watching tons of anime and manga as a kid. My first Miyazaki was “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” It blew my mind away, it’s epic. She is a princess, but unlike most other animated princesses, she is beautiful, strong, smart and kick-butt! It’s a unique universe with awesome creatures … it was very different from most animated shows I saw at the time. I’ve been hooked on Miyazaki since.
I understand you especially love “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Why?
“Howl’s” one of my favorites, but I wouldn’t say I especially love “Howl’s.” I like each Miyazaki for different reasons. “Totoro” is a very special one, ’cause it captures childhood so beautifully. This movie grew in my heart over the years. I learned to appreciate his mastery of capturing children’s emotions and acting the older I became.
When I was a kid, it was one of my least favorites, because the characters in the film feel so much like me (when I was a child). But as I grew older, when I watched that film, it just brought back all the childhood memories because of the same reason, the children felt so real and believable that we could all relate to them.
“Howl’s” is enchanting and beautiful. I love “Spirited Away” for its perfection. The storytelling is so well done and tight … it’s amazing!
You worked as a 3D story artist on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Wow! For those who don’t know, what does a 3D story artist do?
3D story at Lucasfilm is like storyboard, except George doesn’t believe in storyboard. So instead of going from script to storyboard, we get the script and we go straight to Previsualization in 3D. Think about it as storyboard in 3D with rough animation. So the directors could see the entire episode with rough key frame animation, cinematography, and close to final edit … the end result is the same as an animatic in a traditional animated film.
What was the experience of working on “Clone Wars” like?
It was a lot of fun. The team is awesome. We get notes from George, one learned a lot very fast from the master. The studio is in Big Rock Ranch overseeing a lovely lake, which is next to Skywalker Ranch. It was a beautiful location, which feels more like a Japanese spa retreat than a studio.
Are you a Star Wars fan?
I own a Vader lightsaber and a Clone Trooper helmet (wink).
Tell me about your work in the gaming industry. What was challenging about it and what did you enjoy most?
The turnaround in gaming is very fast, one learns how to animate very fast and good. The workflow of the game animation pipeline is very different from TV or movies. Instead of thinking in shots and sequences, you think in assets. The scheduling in games was rough, there was a lot of crazy overtime. At least this was the case when I was in gaming. It was hard to have a normal life, since we needed to work almost every weekend and tons of late nights.
It was a good learning opportunity. I think the biggest takeaway is understanding the technology and the pipeline, especially with our everyday technology becoming more and more gamified. It’s a good learning experience to understand the thought process of game development.
Are you a gamer?
Not at all. I died in a game in less than five minutes and get motion sickness in almost all first-person games and some RPGs. I could make a game, but not play it. I can never play any game I made.
What was your experience like as a woman in the animation and gaming industries?
When I first got into gaming, I was one of only one or two women in the animation production team. But over the years, there were more women joining the industries. In animation, there are more women in the production team, but last time I worked as a story artist, I was the only girl on the team. I do feel as a woman we have to work harder to have our voice heard or our achievement recognized. I left the industry for a few years now. From what I heard, there are more women in a production team now.
You’re also an adjunct professor at several universities, including Savannah College of Art and Design. Why is teaching important to you?
I felt it’s important to give back to the communities. Being a teacher also keeps one in touch with the latest, you learn a lot from the students as well. Also, sometimes when one works in the industry for years, we get a bit jaded. Sometimes we forgot about the passion and love of the craft. It’s nice to see the students with big dreams and passion. It is a good reminder of why we choose the career path … keep the fire and passion burning.
Your art has been featured in dozens of exhibitions in L.A., New York, Paris, Japan, Spain, and other places. What’s it like to have your work on display like that?
It was an honor as well as a humbling experience.
You’re currently developing a children’s book publication and some art projects. Can you tell us more about what you’re doing?
I am working on three picture books, which I am very excited about, but unfortunately I can’t share the information about those books. The project I could talk about is my graphic novel, “Marshmallow and Jordan,” with First Second. This would be my first graphic novel and will be released in winter 2019. You can learn about the graphic novel from the School Library Journal announcement.
Are there any dream projects you’d like to work on in the future?
I hope to author and illustrate a lot of books.
All artwork by Alina Chau.