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Award-winning teen animator Perry Chen’s short: Changyou’s Journey

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Just over five years ago, 12-year-old Perry Chen started a short animation to inspire hope in his terminally ill father, Changyou. While his dad unfortunately passed away not long after the first one-minute trailer was created, Chen and his mother, producer Zhu Shen, have endeavoured to bring “Changyou’s Journey” to life. The film is set for the festival circuit in 2018 and it all began with Storyboard Pro.

Changyou’s Journey” is an homage to and an honouring of Chen’s eponymous late father, following his story from humble beginnings in rural China, to academic and professional achievement, to emigrating to America and becoming a parent, to the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. Perseverance is a consistent element throughout the short film — a theme that would play out both onscreen and behind the camera, so to speak.

“For a while, I lost all motivation to keep working on the film. I started ‘Changyou’s Journey’ because I wanted to bring my father hope, but when he passed, I felt it had failed its purpose,” says Chen. “Following months of reflection, I came to realize it wasn’t just about his journey ending in death, but my own continuation of his legacy through the preservation of his memory. The journey continues through my own personal growth, aspiring to one day become as great a man as he was.”

Chen has already earned a name for himself in the industry. At nine years old, he impressed Bill Plympton at Comic-Con in 2009 and was invited by the famed animator to animate for the Holocaust-based short, “Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest”. The film, which Chen created entirely in Toon Boom Studio 5.0, would have a run in over 30 festivals globally, win three awards in the U.S. and qualify for the Oscars in 2011.

With previous animation experience under his belt, Chen knew he needed to start “Changyou’s Journey” with an exceptional storyboarding software. Naturally, he turned to Toon Boom, a sponsor of his animation work since 2010. He began the process with hand-drawn concept art that he then recreated in Storyboard Pro 4.1, which was invaluable in helping the young artist develop the film into its final form.

ChangyousJourney_StoryboardPro.pngSource: Zhu Shen.

“The original vision had fantastical elements, yet the film ultimately turned out to be a more true-to-life telling. Through Storyboard Pro, I increased my productivity as I was able to edit and add scenes much more easily than if I was just doing it on paper. Though I reworked the script from scratch multiple times, the software always stuck with me through it all,” explains Chen.

"In particular, the onion skin feature helped greatly with my productivity because it allows for easy tweening, making for efficient transition between key frames,” Chen continues. “Toon Boom also has excellent tutorials on its Learn Portal that I often went to when I got stuck, and needed quick solutions. I find the interface to be very user-friendly and easy to navigate."

Now 17 years old and in his senior year at Canyon Crest Academy, where he has taken numerous cinema classes, Chen has enlisted the artistic skills of animator Matthew Fisher and digital painter Kiana Mosser, cofounders of 3rd Wall Studios, to bring the animation in “Changyou’s Journey" to life. To round out the team, Juilliard-trained composer and musician David Arend was also brought on to create the film’s emotionally evocative soundtrack. A prolific film critic since 2008, “Changyou’s Journey” is the first animated movie that Chen has written, directed and edited.

ChangyousJourney_ToonBoom2.jpgSource: Zhu Shen.

Throughout his animation journey, Chen’s mother Zhu Shen has served as his greatest support — both personally and professionally. The two are exceptionally close and she has translated her experience in biotech and business, and a lifelong love of movies, into her role as producer on the film. Shen is currently in the process of finalizing the narrated version of “Changyou’s Journey”, and is reaching out to animation festivals, plus partners and sponsors like Toon Boom. 

“To be able to work with your child creatively is a blessing; I am in awe of Perry’s talent. He comes up with great ideas to express the story in a visually fluid way. It is a humbling experience for me to watch the evolution of this film from initial ideas to its final form as Perry grew personally and professionally as an artist,” says Shen.

In addition, Shen is creating a documentary called "A Journey of a Thousand Miles" about the behind-the-scenes story of making "Changyou's Journey", which she will direct and produce. She hopes to complete it in 2018 before Perry goes to college.

ChangyousJourney_StoryboardPro2.pngSource: Zhu Shen.

Chen was recently announced as one of 10 finalists and winners for the cinematic arts category of the prestigious National YoungArts Foundation’s annual competition — selected from 366 applicants. During the associated National YoungArts Week (January 07 to 14, 2018) in Miami, “Changyou’s Journey” will have its first public screening on January 10 in front of a live audience.

If Chen’s success with “Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest” serves as precedence, this is undoubtedly the beginning of another incredible journey — one where the perseverance of both a father and a son will connect with audiences around the world.

“I didn’t set out to inspire or touch lives with this film. It was a story I wanted to do as much for myself as for the enjoyment of viewers,” says Chen. “What I hope the audience can take away from it all is a profound appreciation for life and hope for the future.”

Readers can following “Changyou’s Journey” on the film’s official website and Facebook page.

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