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2021-12-07

Writing Stories of Taiwan in a Universal Language, An Interview with Director Po-Chou Chi

紀柏舟

Owner of MangoWork Studio (光之塔動畫) Po-Chou Chi (紀柏舟) is that rare beast: an all-round Taiwanese animator who specializes in both 2D and 3D. Chi’s 2011 work The Lighthouse (光之塔) was highly acclaimed internationally, winning 28 international awards and being nominated or shown at more than 80 international film festivals and competitions. In 2016, Chi was invited to serve as Visual Art Director at the Golden Horse Awards (金馬獎). Chi’s opening animation incorporates fantastical surrealist images to construct a continuously revolving cinematic world, and his whole series of works have elevated the standards of award ceremony aesthetics to all-new heights.

紀柏舟

Anime and manga open the door
Fine art, animation, comics, music… Po-Chou Chi can talk about all of it. But comics were his original inspiration: “My special skill as a kid was being able to draw Goku and Vegeta in thirty seconds.”

紀柏舟

Chi talks proudly of the beginnings of his journey through anime and manga, at elementary school when he was crazy about Dragon Ball. He even wrote his own storyboard and drew fight choreography, which he would rent out to his classmates as “special editions.” Besides earning him an allowance, it was these comics that eventually led to Marvel’s and DreamWorks’ future appreciation of Po-Chou Chi’s work.

Following his passion for drawing, Chi took the art program at his middle school, and even though he enrolled in the regular program in high school, he also founded the school’s Comics Club. On graduating from high school, Chi applied to major in Fine Arts at National Taiwan Normal University. Along the way, he had also discovered a second passion in music.

During his school years, Chi swung back between anime, manga, and other arts, until one day he went to see the films Spirited Away and Monsters, Inc. in a second-run theater and suddenly found his aspiration.

“Spirited Away was the best 2D animation in the East, and Monsters, Inc. was the best 3D in the West,” said Chi. “From then on, I knew I wanted to tell a story with a worldview, not just draw a piece of art.”

紀柏舟

Chi’s creative journey continues
So for his graduate school graduation production, Chi decided to make an animation, The Drawer of Memory (回憶抽屜). Even though it incorporates Chi’s perspectives on art, it only lasts for a few minutes—only sketching the outline of the story, without filling it in.

This made him realize that the core of his animation had to be telling a complete story. So, at 29 years of age, Chi went to study in the U.S. in the hope of reaching an international standard and gaining professional recognition while also drawing momentum from the wider world.

While studying at UCLA, the feeling of being unable to finish telling the story of The Drawer of Memory lingered, and Chi spent four months creating The Lighthouse (光之塔), which eventually became an international sensation. Chi explained that he was experimenting to see “how powerful a story could be if told well.”

But even though he had poured all his energy into this incredible experiment, and even though it was eventually a success, the professional world was a serious, cruel place.

紀柏舟

“I knew how to do 3D, but I wanted to become a director, and story artist was the closest thing. So I sought out the story artist from How to Train Your Dragon and asked him to teach me how to be a story artist.”

Under his teacher’s guidance, Po-Chou Chi spent two months studying, going back to the very beginning and working hard to learn all about the Hollywood story artist profession. His talent and hard work would later be recognized when he was hired by Marvel, DreamWorks, and Disney.

But Chi realized that if he spent 12 hours a day drawing Kungfu Panda or Iron Man, he would just become another industry tool. “Especially when you’re working in that kind of industry, there are so many people who can draw Iron Man better than you. They scare you so bad, you just hide at home and cry.”

So after a long reflection on his abilities, Chi finally understood that ultimately he wanted to create works of his own. Obtaining international recognition was simply the first step. At bottom, Chi still longed to satisfy his desire to create from the heart.

Only the unforgettable is remembered
The Drawer of Memory, The Lighthouse, The Reward (暖冬), InspireQ Animation Trilogy (夢中的家)… Whether original or commercial, all of Po-Chou Chi’s works express genuine emotions that come from his life experiences—family, the social environment, and growing up. For Chi, a true artistic representation of Taiwan cannot be accomplished in symbols: “You don’t have to use superficial ways to show Taiwan to people. Taiwan has to be represented in a universal language.”

Just like Po-Chou Chi’s original creative intent, to “follow his heart”, this idea of a “universal language”
seems simple and easily understood, but it also reflects the fact that people often have stylistic limitations and find it difficult to follow their hearts.

“Making things should move you—you should like what you make. If even you don’t like the things you make, then don’t even mention so-called ‘personal style’.”

紀柏舟

He cites a famous maxim, likely from director Ang Lee: “It’s only people with no style who have to worry about their style.”

Chi cites one of his favorite animators as an example: “Once you’ve seen the works of Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎駿), you remember them forever. But the things they’re making today, there’s little that leaves you with a deep impression.”

Chi’s long-term creative vision is now about creating classic works for this generation and those to come. In the future, he will be launching animated television series and films for children. Chi aspires to use his own point of view to create mesmerizing and lasting works that will become icons for a generation.

Returning to the origin, starting from his gift for drawing and interest in comics, and moving on to the struggles and hardships after wholeheartedly devoting himself to the world of animation: in Po-Chou Chi’s view, it’s all been worthwhile if he can continue to create things he likes. So he will keep telling stories through animation that he hopes to pass on to the next generation.

Text: Lig Lin; Photos: Kuan-Liang Lin (林冠良)
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