Thomas Edison Film Festival Essay Series

In Search of a Creative Identify

by Ilene E


Four years ago, I was an 18-year-old art student taking classes at a small studio in South Brunswick township. Photorealism trained my eye; charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, and oil paint steadied my hand. Despite having practiced art my entire life, I wasnt an artist. I lacked direction and artistic purpose. I dreamt of finding my visual style.

Upon graduating high school, I began to realize and articulate the unique position in which I found myself as a Chinese American: heavily connected to and invested in Chinese and American communities, both of which greatly misunderstood each other. My Beijing friends asked curiously about blond-haired and blue-eyed Americans who couldnt add and battled obesity while my New Jersey friends profiled them back as communist nerds. What do they eat for breakfast? How do they pass the time during boring classes? What do they talk about over dinner? Neither side knew.

Meanwhile, my childhood dream to create animated movies like those Id grown up on continued to drive my academics. When I arrived at Princeton University, this dream shaped my undergraduate studies: majoring in computer science and minoring in visual arts and applied math--my own version of a computer graphics degree.

I learned to animate. Tim Szetela, then my professor and now my advisor, showed my classmates and me an immense variety of animated shorts, from abstract to figurative, from fantasy to documentary, from digital to stop motion. I realized the range and potential that animation has as a medium in terms of both storytelling and visual experimentation. I realized it could serve as a common ground between my disparate cultures as well as a platform for me to explore texture, materiality, color, and dimensionality.

In designing my films, I decided that authenticity would be the key to forming this common ground. With guidance from Tim, I learned that a specific, intimate story resonates better than an intentionally generalized one. In retrospect, it feels obvious that a personal, authentic film portrayal can touch a wider audience than one that is vague, pedantic. So I focused on illustrating my own experience.

With this in mind, I started making my very first film. I went back to my childhood home in New Jersey, trying to find in it the most beloved mundane scenes that had shaped my cultural identity: the rice paper paintings hanging in the foyer, the chatter in the kitchen as we cooked dumplings and scallion pancakes, the air vent that served as a whistling backdrop to our dinner conversations. The result, Home | , bears a minimalistic style as I focused on color balance and line drawing for the rotoscoped visuals, paired with a nearly unedited soundscape of my home.

At the end of the semester, our visual arts department hosted a screening. I only invited my mother to the event. The deeply personal nature of the film, paired with the lingering flimsiness I felt toward my identity as an artist, formed a self-consciousness bordering on embarrassment. When my film played, I felt more like an anxious teenager than a filmmaker.

The next fall (my junior year at Princeton), I made numerous collages, digital animations, and drawings to explore the idea of having multiple realities exist within a single object, the way that my seemingly conflicting identities exist within me. These explorations originally stemmed from a pair of 3D glasses: I created pieces that used the contrasting colors of red and cyan to create different appearances when the user wore the glasses in different ways (or didnt wear them).

Over winter break, my mother retold a story that I had loved since I was a baby--a childhood story of my sisters in which she faced a classmates Sinophobic remarks by proudly wearing a qipao to school the next day. I brought my previous visual explorations to this story, using contrasting colors to reflect the dualities of culture, environment, and inclusion at play within it. Like the visual beauty and depth created by combining shades of red and green in the scenes of this film, beauty can arise from embracing and embodying seemingly conflicting cultural identities. Veering in a decidedly different direction from Home | ,  | Jane consists of textures of acrylic paint on Chinese and English newspapers while my mother narrates in the background. The final film was my birthday present to my sister for her thirtieth birthday.

To my surprise, I loved the final result. I was confident in the story, having heard it hundreds of times and loved it for decades; I was excited by the complexity and depth that arose in the collaged visuals; I was touched by the pride that my mother exuded in the audio. For the first time ever, I couldnt wait to share my work: to my sister on her birthday, to my parents, to my closest friends, and finally to my community. The film was the most transparent reflection of myself that I had ever created, yet I felt excitement rather than anxiety to show it to the world.

In August, I attended a screening of  | Jane before the feature film at the Bridge Arts Festival Family Drive-In, thanks to Jane Steuerwald and the NJ Young Filmmakers Festival. Amid a pandemic, I watched my film play on a huge outdoor screen while my mom took pictures of and with me in front of it and a parking lot full of strangers gave time and attention to my artwork--a rare opportunity I would never have imagined, pandemic or not (not to mention the free large popcorn I got with my VIP access and receiving a sea of honks as applause for the first time).

At Jane Steuerwalds recommendation, I received another exceptional opportunity: I was invited by Lynn Tomlinson to participate in a young filmmakers panel at Towson Universitys Department of Electronic Media and Film. Before the event, I searched up and quickly felt intimidated by the other participating filmmaker, Yumeng Guo. Throughout the screening and subsequent discussion, I was slightly bewildered to see these other artists and students ask about my film and my storytelling process, then listen intently to and engage with my answers. I felt honored, and empowered, that people cared about and appreciated what I, a clueless 21-year-old student, had to say about filmmaking.

Looking ahead, it appears that I will yet again be veering off into another direction of artistic exploration for my senior thesis film. But I no longer feel frustration about not having found a consistent or recognizable visual style. In fact, I do not long for one at all. The rapid evolution of my visual experimentation reflects my own growth as a young artist and filmmaker, and I cant wait to see what comes next.

Ilene E is a senior at Princeton University majoring in computer science and minoring in visual arts and applied math. She has interned at Google and conducted computer graphics research with Princeton University and Pixar. At Princeton, she directed the Student Design Agency, and created animated films that have been screened at film festivals across the U.S. She aspires to combine her technical and creative skills into a career in animation, fostering responsible younger generations through socially conscious animated films.


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