Animated Inspiration: TV Artist Jean Kang

Jean Kang is as animated in person as her drawings are on television. But don’t limit her job title to animator. For the project with the cool name Zombie Murder Explosion Die, she was a background painter. She became a prop designer on the animated short Rainbow Brite: Return to Rainbow Land. In television, she worked on MTV’s Popzilla and Good Vibes, where she became a character layout artist and library builder. Canadian TV series The Animated Adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie gave her more titles: storyboard revisionist, effects designer, and, most intriguing, character builder. However,

Kang prefers the term storyteller. Whether her characters heroically make a stand on a television or computer screen or quietly pose in the panels of a comic book, they are always emotionally moving and sometimes even revolutionary.

Although Kang always knew she wanted to pursue art, choosing a specific type was much more difficult. Eventually, she simply decided to focus on telling interesting stories. “I had been pursuing education in live action concept design for a while, but I work better and am a lot happier in media where art and design can be more exaggerated. I’ve wanted to draw comics for a very long time, [because] I grew up reading manga (before manga was mainstream in the States, so I read it translated into Korean). I loved [the fact] that artists could also be writers and storytellers. That’s what I wanted to be. Wanting a career in animation came later… [S]torytelling in animation… can translate to design, so at first I wanted to be a character designer. I’m now pursuing a career in storyboarding for animation since I really love storytelling.” Along this varied career path, her list of employers impressively has grown to include IDW Publishing, Animax Entertainment, and Nickelodeon.

Building Character through Storyboarding

Talk with Kang for a few minutes, as I did during the Gallifrey One fan convention held near her home base in Los Angeles, and one word stands out in the conversation: storyboarding. She brought up the topic during Doctor Who director Toby Haynes’ panel session, and the two gave the audience a mini-lesson in the importance of breaking down a plot into individual shots, or drawings, that provide a visual outline of the story. Kang defines storyboarding as “the most visual experimental stage,” one when she can “try all sorts of crazy ideas and see if things work. It’s sort of the part where you can throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, what makes the most interesting design or composition, or how it affects the story. Once things start working, those boards can be enlarged, cleaned up and drawn on a model.”

Which images should be defined in a storyboard and how much detail provided depend “on what’s going on in the scene.” For example, “an intense or humorous conversation… a fight scene and the hero has to win or lose, or a love scene and what sort of love scene it is” will determine what must be included in the artist’s visualization of the plot, long before a camera rolls or final artwork is designed. An effective storyboard depends on a scene’s “overall mood and intention,” as well as the direction it’s headed, such as a “build up to a reveal or climax.” Even when the story won’t be animated, Kang feels that every storyboard should be “looked at with a film perspective; all those panels have to build up to a moment that hopefully resonates with the audience.”

Every storyboard requires characters, as well as props, and Kang excels in developing both. As a character builder, most often she has “to try to realize [a director’s] vision” for the story. When she is given free rein or is developing her own projects, she starts “by thinking about the characters’ personality and background” and showing their individuality “in the way they stand and what they wear.”

For a browser-based Flash game, Kang literally has “to build the character from pieces, such as arms, legs, hands, heads, etc. Flash animation often uses… ‘symbol animation’ where each [view] of the character (side, front, three-quarter) is built in pieces, sort of like a jointed paper doll. So the character builder usually draws each character’s ‘library’ and also fleshes it out by adding necessary things such as mouth charts (open/closed mouths, speaking mouths, shouting mouths, smiling mouths), eye charts (blinks, tears), and hand (fist, open palm) charts.”

Characters seldom act alone; they interact with each other and a variety of tools or background items that also play important roles in the story. Audiences may think of props only as inanimate objects, but they also might require movement that the artist has to plan and design. Ranging from “a can of soda [to,] say, the giant super computer in the Batcave,” props can be “anything that’s supposed to be within a specific style… Since objects don’t always stay the same when they’re being used (like the liquid being drunk from a glass or if a vase shatters), the prop designer also has to design the different stages of the use of the prop.”

Flash games increase the complexity of the creative process because they involve “a lot more technical aspects… The background, props, and characters all have to be a specific size, made and animated in specific files, and labeled in a certain order for the programmer to be able to make it work. In animation, it’s more important to be able to follow a certain style so that everything looks consistent.”

“My creative process usually starts with a ton of tiny, rough sketches called thumbnails. I draw thumbnails of everything: page layouts, panels, backgrounds, characters, and props. All of them usually take less than a minute to do, and it’s a good way just to get some ideas on the paper and then going through each one to see what works and what doesn’t. After that, I draw larger, cleaner versions until I reach the final size, then ink it and do the color.”

Finding Time for Personal Projects

Kang manages to find time to pursue her own projects around her work for employers and commissions for private clients, because “having a good balance of personal and professional work makes people stronger artists.”

Last year’s Christmas card was a “fantasy-inspired wintery scene with snow since I don’t often see snow because I live in Southern California. [From Fantasia] I pulled in inspiration from… Disney’s frost fairies from the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ sequence (it’s my favorite one),” but the drawing also reveals “a bit of Korean traditional costume/Jedi robes infusion.” As she does in several of her original works, Kang even managed to add her cat, Atom, to this cultural mix.

A more ambitious work is an original comic, Ranunculus: The Monstrous Brigade, written by Kang and best friend/writing partner, Alix Clinkingbeard. The cover art “showcases the two main characters, a vampire (Adiel) and a werewolf (Rowan), as they battle through a zombie-infested Kensington Palace to search for the young Princess Victoria.” Although a royal portrait graces the cover, fangirl Kang is equally proud of the “decaying zombie hands that are clawing towards Adiel and Rowan.” The first issue is for sale on her website, Jean Draws and at comic conventions.

Wonder Woman

Kang knows that “animation has its own charm [but] so do comics.” What is most important, in any medium, is telling a story successfully. For someone who works in the fast-paced realm of television and games, Kang’s favorite project so far is surprisingly old-fashioned: a book.

Womanthology celebrates female storytellers in a male-dominated comic book/graphic novel industry. Kang first heard of the project through Twitter. Renae De Liz, artist of the New York Times best seller The Last Unicorn, solicited other artists who wanted to collaborate on the book, and Kang responded to the tweet. “I sent her an e-mail expressing my interest with a link to my portfolio. Since I had never been published professionally, I had an opportunity to submit a portfolio of my comics [and] to work with a professional writer. I was very fortunate to be selected by writer Gail Simone (author of Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey)! The story we did together is called ‘In Every Heart a Masterwork’, and it’s about a little girl named Suzi who gets into her older brother’s comics, comics that are clearly not meant for her, and she makes them her own.”

Kang enthuses that the anthology “is really hard to top in terms of quality, the impact it had on a very male-dominated industry, and the good it will do in society.” Not only was the creative process innovative because it enabled Kang to work with other women, but the project was personally satisfying because “all the profits of the book are being sent to charity,” the Global Giving Foundation.

The professional collaboration also gave Kang a wider audience for her drawings. At the recent Long Beach Comic Expo, Womanthology had its own discussion panel, as well as a booth where the artists got to meet their fans. IDW is so impressed with the project that it picked up Womanthology as a five-issue series to be collected into a graphic novel.

Another book is on Kang’s horizon, this one returning the artist to a story she read as a child and now has the opportunity to illustrate for the next generation. Kang drew Sadako Sasaki, of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, as part of a client’s art book about the character. Kang’s website previews this publication with a watercolor-and-ink painting of Sadako “as a happy young girl riding on the back of a paper crane, probably going on magnificent adventures.”

Like the animated characters she develops for games or television, Kang seldom slows down. In a career that’s Rainbow Brite, she wants to balance animation and comics—and always tell a good story. During an interview with Fanboy Comics, Kang described Suzi, the character she drew for Womanthology, as someone who makes comics better by “doing it her own way… this is her own small way to take a stand against stereotype.” As an artist with a unique cultural voice, Jean Kang has plenty of stories left to tell.