Director Annie Xing Zhao tells Addison Capper about working with the Korean-American artist on this anime style video
The music video for Yaeji’s ‘Waking Up Down’ tells the story of the Korean-American dance music artist and her dog - an extremely cute fellow called Woofa - as they wake up to the real world after a relaxing period in a particularly beautiful scene of nature. As they navigate the world they meet masters of tasks such as “hydrating”, “waking up” and “listening” - simple lyrics which seem like metaphors for something much bigger.
The director of this brilliantly playful and colourful anime style video is Annie Xing Zhao, a friend of Yaeji with whom she developed the overall concept and style with. Addison Capper chatted with Annie to find out more about what’s happening in the video and how it came together.
LBB> How did this project come about? And what were your thoughts when it came to you?
Annie> I know Yaeji and her team wanted to make an animated video for a while, but there were a few phases of concept development. They would occasionally ask me for advice/input, then I guess it was a natural fit once they decided on the final idea.
LBB> How closely did you work with Yaeji and the concept?
Annie> Yaeji and her creative director, Enayet Kabir, had already established the basic concept, and Yaeji had done some of the storyboards, especially for the first half of the video. I wouldn't say there was a ton of back and forth - it helped a lot that I know Yaeji well and we had obsessed over the same shows/illustrators/etc., so I had a sense of what she would like.
LBB> There are quite explicit lyrics to work with in Waking Up Down - as a director, does that make the creative process easier or more restrictive?
Annie> Good question! I guess it's a bit of both. I've made a lot of videos based on interviews, explainers, etc. I actually enjoy working from a concrete script, but interpreting it in an unexpected way instead of just straightforwardly illustrating the words. That gap also created a nice opportunity to marry the story to the lyrics in the crucial moment, when the two Yaeji's are singing to each other in Korean.
LBB> How did the lyrics inform your approach for the film? What was your starting point when developing the concept?
Annie> The lyrics are pretty self-empowering but playful, so the song naturally lent itself to a story about self-improvement, in a goofy but sincere way. The English and Korean lyrics also have a dichotomy of being declarative and then more introspective, so that led to the idea of the elder Yaeji speaking to herself.
LBB> Summarise the concept for us! What's happening in the narrative? Who is this evil egg man? And the little doggo?
Annie> The story starts with Yaeji and her friend, Woofa (the dog), resting peacefully in a beautiful nature scene, then ‘waking up’ to the real world. They then meet different masters who help them gain essential skills. Once they meet all the masters, everyone journeys back to the beautiful nature scene, but Yaeji still feels there's something empty and amiss. That's when the final, unexpected ‘master’ appears - who is Yaeji herself, older and wiser. When they sing the lyrics to each other in Korean, their energies merge and Yaeji takes her most powerful form and is able to easily accomplish her tasks.
LBB> There are some brilliant characters in the film - the aforementioned egg chef, the business lady in the leather harness, etc. What was the character design process like and what were your main aims with it?
Annie> Yaeji had thought of the basic traits she wanted the characters to have, and did sketches of a lot of them that I used as a jumping off point. I definitely wanted the designs to make you curious about the characters' personalities, even though they only get like 20 seconds of screen time. So I guess a lot of them are combinations of conventional tropes, with some unique element to reflect their inner world.
LBB> How did you find working with the anime style?
Annie> It's funny, I've been drawing since I was five and drew anime for most of my childhood. Then through college and as an adult I was sort of unlearning that way of drawing, because of the demands of the industry. But once I started getting back into it, it was really like riding a bike! However, I was also wary of trapping the style too much in the level of polish of anime - especially because of the insane labour practices that go into the Japanese anime industry to achieve that level of polish.
LBB> What was the production process like? And what were the main challenges and how did you overcome them?
Annie> We worked with Studio Yotta on production, which was really awesome but quite different for me. Everyone works remotely, so Jake Ganz (the animation director) was crucial in helping coordinate. I think one of the biggest challenges was how much is packed into less than three minutes. It's supposed to feel like all these characters come from a full-fledged show that already exists - but they don't. Because of the timeline, I didn't draw turnarounds for every single character, and that meant they might get off model at times. But Jake made sure I had the freedom to note corrections or, in the end, just revise drawings myself if needed. For the most part though, the animators truly went above and beyond - they were just really passionate about animation and often put in little things that made the video so much better.