Liu Bijiao at the 27th St Louis International Film Festival Photo: Courtesy of Liu Bijiao

Everybody has a dream, but not everybody has the courage to realize it. Liu Bijiao, a Beijing girl who now works with DreamWorks Television Animation as a background artist, believes that she is one of the few who does.

DreamWorks TV seldom opens its doors to international artists, and opportunities for Chinese artists are even harder to come by. The keys to those doors for Liu, who just graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), were not only her courage, but her outstanding achievements in animation.

Gluttonous Snake, Liu’s first animation project, brought her numerous awards, including the Best Animated Short at the 9th California International Short Festival, the 9th San Diego Best Shorts Competition and the 67th Columbus International Film and Animation Festival, which were Oscar-accredited. 

Her talent in the field was recognized again through her second work Glitch. The awards flooded in, such as the Best Animated Short of the 27th St. Louis International Film Festival and the 8th Carmarthen Bay Film Festival, the Best Palm Film of the 8th Velcom Smart Film in Belarus, the Best International Short of the 14th Fantaspoa – International Fantastic Film Festival in Brazil.

But Liu said if she had not held on to her dream, she would still be working in a law firm dealing with legal documents, something she has little interest in. 

Liu Bijiao with the famous film director Francis Ford Coppola Photo: Courtesy of Liu Bijiao

Early signs

Although she displayed a talent for drawing way beyond that of her peers from childhood and won awards in many art competitions, her parents never thought art would become her future career. In China, there is a widespread belief that young people who choose art as their major tend to be those with poor academic performances, as art is not a promising career. Being an obedient daughter, Liu went to China University of Political Science and Law, majoring in business and law. 

But Liu’s dream never left her, and she did not enjoy her studies at all. On top of the dogmatic teaching, the prospect of spending her entire life in an office working on legal and business matters made her depressed. 

But soon, she would be given an opportunity to explore her real goal in life. As a member of a young volunteers’ association AIESEC at university, she was chosen to do volunteer work at an art college in Portugal in her second year of university. 

The children at the Portuguese school, regardless of their skill level, were all fearless in portraying their feelings through colors. Every student took it for granted that they had the right to express themselves, which is quite different from China’s concept of education. Liu was stunned, and her dormant dream of pursuing art was reawakened. She made up her mind to study art abroad. 

Fortunately, her open-minded parents were won over by her determination. With their full support, Liu received offers from several art institutions and universities from abroad. The campus of UCLA impressed her deeply when she attended a summer camp at high school. After graduating from university in China, she started studying art in UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, a top film academy in the US. 

Being accepted by UCLA was the first step in her art career. Liu was filled with excitement but also anxious about an unfamiliar environment, new faces and uncertain job prospects.

“Quite frankly, I was full of self-doubt while making the film. I did not major in art during my undergraduate years. My classmates, on the other hand, all seemed to have trained as artists from a young age and possessed solid fundamentals,” said Liu when recalling her early days at UCLA.

“Additionally, they were eager learners highly devoted to perfecting their craft.  As someone with a non-traditional background pivoting into the arts, I often wondered if I could ever catch up with my peers in skill and ability,” she added.

Getting creative

Life itself is the most reliable source of creativity. Gluttonous Snake, her first animation project, is a reflection of this. The inspiration came from her favorite childhood video game – a small snake that consumed all the beans around it and eventually grew to occupy the entire screen. The protagonist boy in her story tumbles into a game world and eliminates monsters to get to the next level. He ultimately reaches the last level, only to discover that everything he has meticulously built in his kingdom has vanished and that he is forever trapped in the abyss.  

Liu felt something of a connection with the boy, who made decisions based on impulse without weighing their consequences, only to be trapped forever in the end.

As Liu drifted aimlessly in self-doubt, she came across the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather and one of the most well-known graduates of UCLA. He came to the school with the aim of collaborating with aspiring artists for an experimental project that explores the possibilities of combining various elements of theater and film. 

Liu and her classmates were amazed at how down-to-earth and approachable Coppola was. Now in his 70s, he was still learning, exploring and furthering his journey like a typical student passionate about the art and creative process of filmmaking.

Motivated by his spirit of perseverance, Liu completed Gluttonous Snake with newfound energy and confidence. Her artistic talent was spotted in worldwide film festivals and she won more chances to meet masters such as Guillermo del Toro, the director of The Shape of Water, Valerie Faris and Jonathon Dayton, the directors of Little Miss Sunshine. 

Liu continues to grow more mature and skillful in her work. Her second animation project Glitch is more original and natural, instead of simply being modeled after the Japanese animation, a genre she is familiar with. The protagonist of Glitch has the courage to choose his own path in life, as Liu does. 

Currently, Liu is working on her next animation short Sleepyhead, which draws from her childhood experiences. She said her bigger dream is to use what she has learned in Hollywood to contribute to the animation industry in her own country, which is in its infancy. 

(The author is a Beijing-based freelancer.)
Newspaper headline: Landing the dream job