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 time!”
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 illustration.
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 “pop.”
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.