Meet Our Director: Mai Vu

Meet Mai Vu, our new stop-motion director! Hailing from Vietnam, Mai is an incredibly talented animator and animation director who has made a name for herself in the industry through her passion for stop-motion animation. Mai’s journey started in 2010 when she began creating short films using the stop-motion technique, and from there, she has progressed to writing, animating, and directing in the beloved stop-motion series, Say Hi To Pencil, which ran from 2012 to 2019.

Mai’s talent and dedication to her craft have not gone unnoticed, as she has worked on a range of commercials for high-profile clients such as Vietnam Airline, Perfetti Van Melle, Clé de Peau, Pepsi, Forbes, and more since 2016. Her work has always been well-received, which led her to further her studies and pursue a Master’s degree in Directing Animation at the National Film and Television School in the UK. Through this experience, she honed her skills and gained a fresh perspective on storytelling.

Mai’s latest achievement is the screening of her film ‘Spring Roll Dream’ at the prestigious La CineF, Cannes Film Festival 2022, which is a testament to her talent and hard work. With her extensive experience and unique vision, Mai is set to bring a fresh perspective to our team and help us create exceptional work that stands out from the crowd. We are thrilled to have her on board and cannot wait to see what she brings to the table! In this interview, we will learn more about Mai’s journey, her creative process, and what she has in store for our team.

What inspired you to get into animation, and how did you get started in the industry?

I started making animation in my bedroom with a bit of clay and an old camera. I like how approachable and playful it is to make animation, almost any kids can make films with just few simple tools. But the real kick was when I got the gut to show my works to other people, got it to smaller film festivals, and started seeing like-minded filmmakers and creating together. To me animation is to engage to the soul of the inanimate, finding wonder in still life, and let free of your imagination. As a kid, I made dolls out of paper, wool, match boxes,…the world was full of life around me. It was a beauty that we all had but got buried when we faced the pain of growing up. I started making animation to get in touch with my inner child, to comfort her and said that it was okay to feel lonely and pain. In making animation, I can feel the connection I made with myself starts reaching other people. And It is the most rewarding feeling in the world. Making animation is hard, it is a slow process of realizing an idea, but to see magic come out of it every day will all be worth it.

How do you approach storytelling in your work, and what are some of the key elements that you think make a story successful?

I usually find stories in recognizing the characters. It’s my fascination with people and curiosity over their lives that drive me to look for who they are and tell their stories. But characters aren’t just people, characters can be found in any living things, be it trees or animals, but the most fantastic can be characters that come out of inanimate objects, even a quiet space or a busy street has character of their own. It is the sensitivity of the storyteller that bring out the lives of a seemingly still world, which
is done best in animation. We, as human being, tell stories to understand ourselves and our relation with the world, and we also tell them to understand each other. A good story does just that, a good story resonate with the audience, where they can find a part of themselves and reach understanding for others.

What do you think is the most crucial quality for a director to have, and how do you cultivate that quality in yourself?

The luckiest thing about being a director is that I can work with people who are so talented at what they do. Each of everyone, animators, set designers, cinematographers, editors, producers… they are all great storytellers and to harmonize all that and get people to tell the same story is the job of a director. It’s tricky for animation directors, since most of us started out animating, and it’s hard to let go of control when manipulating every single frame is what we do. The National Film and Television School played a big role in my grown as a director, I was there to work with the best people in the world. By working with others, I learned that I don’t need to have all answers, making film is an act of
exploring ideas with a crew of people who shares the same passion for stories. The key is to listen, to focus on the story needed to be told and let others do their jobs. The best ideas always comes out of a perfect union, and I feel blessed that I get to observe, to contribute, and to guide that process of birthing amazing stories.

What role do you see animation playing in contemporary culture, and how do you hope to contribute to that conversation with your work?

It is such a hard question to answer, because animation has its present in so many aspect of our lives that I don’t question it any more. Animation evolve from dominating children platform into mainstream entertainment. We can find very popular work of animation in much more mature storytelling and it is save to say that it has appeal to all ages. Animation has such a major role in most big budget films that we don’t even realize it. For instance, Avatar is mostly animated. Animation is how we break the boundary of physical reality and venture into the world of imagination. In my opinion, it will continue to grow more dominant in popular culture. Animation has its charm, even when told like a live-action. It is also an art form incorporates with storytelling. As an animation filmmaker, I have the responsibility to push the medium to wider subjects, and exploring its potential in different kind of expression.

Can you speak to any specific themes or motifs that you frequently explore in your work, and what draws you to those ideas?

When I moved to the UK, I became more aware of my differences and I felt more as a Vietnamese than I ever were in Vietnam. Being immersed in an inclusive culture in the UK encouraged me to embrace my heritage and use it to express myself. In the process of exploring my film making, there is a father figure that keep appearing ,and a longing for family connection became a strong impulse in almost all of my works. We all have love for our family, but not all love can be expressed. Love can also become pressure, and burden of expectation can hurt us. So often we find ourselves unable to connect with our family. By making film, I want to find that connection again. Therefore, there is always a layer of eastern culture and generational struggles in my works.
I want to tell stories that feel honest and personal, and by telling them I realised that my differences were not that different after all. No matter where we are from, we all are very similar in the way we love, the way we care for each others and find connection. Love is a universal language and filmmaking is a tool for me to voice it.

"The most wonderful thing working in film is that you don’t do it alone. There are always pressure and setbacks, but with a supportive team, anything can be done."

How do you balance the desire to create something new and innovative with the need to appeal to a wider audience?

As a filmmaker, my artistic drive is not in creating something unheard of, rather the opposite, I want to work with things that are familiar, a feeling, a place, a chair… that provokes something within people, and gives them a fresh, interesting view on them. I don’t think art need to be something new, art is a drive from within to express ourselves, and it need to be genuine. Feelings are universal, and we all have strong desire to share them. Although animation also allows very new, exciting expression, therefore it is playful to experiment. As long as we can have fun creating and we are willing to express ourselves to be understood by others, I think the audience will feel it, and always connect to it.

How do you balance the demands of a commercial project with your own artistic integrity and vision?

I don’t think my approach to a commercial project is that different from a non-commercial one. They are all storytelling. The difference is, in a commercial project, you tell the story of a product, and the product becomes your character. You need to be curious about their characteristic, you need to understand them, and then give them a story that reflects theirs and their effect on other people’s lives.
Practically, all clients want the best for their product, and of course it needs to be demanding. As director, my job is to help clients to tell the best story for their product, and provide for it the highest quality possible. This quality comes from a professional production, highly qualified talents working on it, a strong suitable artistic vision for the project, and sprinkles in the element of charm and surprise that only the artist can offers. Working in a commercial project is a high demand relationship with clients and the product, and the key to a working relationship is communication, always.

Can you speak to any particular challenges or opportunities that arise when working with animation as opposed to other media, such as live-action film?

One of the questions I faced with the most when I studied at the NFTS is “why do we make animation?”. The idea is if you can make it in live-action, why would you make it in animation? Animation is time-consuming, production can go on longer and it takes meticulous planning for every frames per second. And in this era, fast production seems to trump over slow process. Therefore, the focus shifts to what animation does better than live-action, and it is the realm of imagination, visualizing the
impossible. There is no deny in what animation can do, but I struggled with the idea that if it was not out of this world, it was not worth it to be done in animation.
I have seen masterpieces realistically done in animation, such as ‘Grave of fireflies’ by Isao Takahata, or ‘Waltz with Bashir’ by Ari Folman. They are animation that are different from the usual whimsical, fantastical use of animation in pop culture. They are done to understand reality. In my graduation project, I decided to make it as a drama, and told realistically with elements of magical realism. It was a challenge to convey the complexity of human emotions with limited facial expressions allowed by
the puppets. But the love put in the design of the puppets really paid off. The puppets, done with meticulous sculpting, careful use of paper texture, were so expressive that you looked at them and you reflected your own emotions onto them. Therefore, I think animation in itself created an artistic lens that help you see world through the eyes of the artist, and it does not need to be different from live-action, it has its own value that is not comparable.

How do you stay connected to your own creative impulses and maintain your passion for your work, even in the face of external pressures or setbacks?

It is hard to always stay connected to your creative sense and passion. Like any line of work, creating can wear you down. I have struggled with creative block, I have had burnt-outs on using all of my energy onto my works. It is a tough lesson learnt for an artist that creativeness also exist in seasons.
There are times when you feel abundant with creative energy, and times when you need to slow down to regenerate. The best way I found is to keep in touch with life, to go out and enjoy sunshine, to meet with friends and laugh and cry with them, to stay close to family and let them know you love them, but most importantly is to listen to your inner voice and create from the heart. The most wonderful thing working in film is that you don’t do it alone. There are always pressure and setbacks, but with a supportive team, anything can be done.


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View Mai's Work