Elena Wen

Imagine you’re reading a
funny, dark fairy tale, and the characters suddenly, magically, start
moving on the page. Elena Wen’s animations are like
that—when the pictures come to life, the viewer enters a realm of
the unknown.

Take the music video Wen created, with the New York
studio We Are Resident, for singer-songwriter Meredith Lynn Watson. It
starts with a black-and-white line drawing of a woman curled up in a
blank space. When a room builds around her, and she rises and sits by
the window, we’re prepared for her story to begin. But in the next
frame, she is replaced by a line-drawn man. Throughout the video’s
narrative, Wen uses minimal imagery to create this sense of surprise
again and again.

While many other young animators have their roots in
a love of television, film, or game graphics, Wen’s starting point
was books. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2003, she
worked for about three years creating artist’s books, several of
which are now in the collections at SFMOMA and the Getty Research
Institute. Though she says she still thinks of herself as a bookmaker to
some extent, she recently switched her focus to animation. “Making
books had always been a little too passive for it to be the only thing I
do,” she explains. What kept her from seriously exploring
animation earlier was the hyper-technical side: “I had to learn
all the software. Now that’s what I do in my spare

Indeed, part of her current aesthetic comes from her
original method of animation: scanning still images into Photoshop and
animating them with After Effects. The result is a more restrained
motion that meshes well with Wen’s potent, contained vignettes,
and their thoughtful dissection of human interactions.

Born in Taiwan,
at age 2 Wen moved with her parents to Costa Rica, where her father and
a friend purchased a farm together. While her parents grew coffee and
raised cattle, Wen attended school and drew storybooks. She moved to New
York in 1999 to attend the School of Visual Arts, where she majored in

It was at SVA that Wen first became interested in
animation. She snuck into the computer labs and started “messing
around—scanning drawings and animating them.” The form
appealed to her fascination with producing images and narratives.
“I always liked making pictures because you go from having
nothing, a blank piece of paper, to having something, anything,”
she says. “Animation just ramps that up—from nothing to all
kinds of characters.”

Wen got her first animation job when the
motion graphics company Nailgun approached her to work on a piece for a
gallery exhibit in Toronto. The result: “ZooRoom,” which
shows her hand filling a homey interior with detailed pen-and-ink images
of farm animals. “I like things that are simple, but that are just
a little bit ‘off,’” she says. Her personal work
demonstrates this, too, with wry pieces like
“Fortification,” in which, as a woman fumes on a crowded
street, everyone around her disappears with an explosive

For now, as far as Wen can see, the future will
hold more freelance animation, including a piece to be released this
year as part of the McSweeney’s DVD magazine,
Wholphin. Perhaps later on, she says, she’ll tackle
directing, or fine art. Whatever she chooses, Elena Wen’s career
will be a tale worth reading.