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Interview with ‘Tough’ director Jennifer Zheng

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Tough by Jennifer Zheng has been sweeping through animation festivals big and small this summer, notably the Encounters Film Festival in September and the Student Films category of the Manchester Animation Festival this week. Recently graduating from Kingston University she’s already a D&AD Newblood yellow pencil winner, It’s Nice That 2016 Graduate, winner of Best Animated Documentary at KLIK! Amsterdam Film Festival and landed herself a job at Moth Collective. Skwigly contributor Hannah Stolp-Joseph recently met up with Jennifer to find out more.

If the film took 6-7 months to make, how long have you had this idea? It’s quite a personal film about identity, were you thinking about this since you were say, 13, or only thought about as an adult?

I had always thought about who I was, but until recently it was more of a lingering feeling of unease that I brushed to the side when I thought too hard about it.
Last summer, a storm of things converged into a mini identity crisis for me: I was researching race and stereotypes for my dissertation, This American Life released this amazing piece on an Asian American guy called Larry who couldn’t communicate with his father because he couldn’t speak Mandarin and my tutor Martina Bramkamp always talked about making films as a sort of therapy and using them to explore feelings. So I decided I wanted to dig into these ‘new’ feelings.
I didn’t think about interviewing my mum until later: I was in counselling for stress, my mum came up and we talked about how we never seemed to get along, especially during my childhood. I realised I had never actually asked her how she felt about it, and that I knew hardly anything about her childhood. So I decided to pluck up the courage and ask her about it!

I think I loved your film so much because it was such a personal story but it was also something I hadn’t thought about as a subject, as you mother said in your film ‘White = British’ and that’s something that is really explored and is an increasing discussion in the UK right now. Did you make the film thinking that this was only just your story?

I definitely don’t think it’s only just me, I was inspired by Larry’s story on TAL after all! I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people relate to the themes in the film, Lots of people who aren’t even Chinese have told me that it reminded them of themselves or their children. I’m really glad that people are connecting with the film and to be honest, I’m glad I’m not the only one!

Do you think the fact that this is such a big issue for some young people in Britain right now shaped how you made the film in any way or was it completely personal?

I know it’s horribly self-obsessed but I made the film for myself and my mum. But I was always aware that the film would be seen by an audience and was very careful in how I portrayed race in the film. I didn’t want it to be one sided or preachy nor did I want it to give a definite answer because, I actually still don’t really know who I am. Though I do think I got closer. The film definitely gave me a huge amount of catharsis and my mum and I are much closer now.

Tough (©2016 Jennifer Zheng)

Tough (©2016 Jennifer Zheng)

Looking back at your showreel and some of your previous work you’ve used some 3D modelling and experimental work, was the style for Tough you discovering a new favourite or a leap of faith?

I don’t really see myself as having one style I feel like for this film, that was the right style. When I was designing the film I started with the main character, I really like carving rubber stamps so I carved my main character, printed that on some paper and then I started drawing over it with pencil and I just fell in love with that aesthetic, it gives the digital drawings this buttery handmade texture and I think that really suits the tone of the film. I don’t really see myself sticking to just 2D even though I do really like it.

Yeah, you can never really just stick to one thing in animation, you’re always changing, it’s a good thing.

I don’t feel like I can say I’m only going to draw this way for the rest of my life, I don’t know who I’m going to be in 5 years. Though I really like that aesthetic, I don’t know if I’ll make another film the way I did for Tough because it took so long. But I think it was worth it.

What was the most challenging part of making the film?

Well the easiest part was getting the audio, it was easy in the sense that all I had to do was ask my mum difficult questions, but it was actually really easy to talk to her and I was really surprised by how honest she was with me. I think it was something to do with my having matured to a certain age and actually asking what she actually thought for once. As a child you don’t really ask your mum ‘hey, what did you do when you were younger?’ At least I didn’t, maybe she thought I was ready for it or perhaps it was because I was asking in a mature non-accusatory way and she felt comfortable enough to be honest with me, so the audio was pretty easy to get. The rest of it…all of it was really hard.

©2016 Jennifer Zheng

©2016 Jennifer Zheng

How long did it take for you to hash out the final animatic or storyboard?

That’s a really difficult question because before Christmas we were just making a treatment for the film. Animatic development went all the way through until maybe the last two months, in other schools they storyboard the whole thing, make the whole thing into an animatic and then go into production but we don’t have time to do that, we just do it all at the same time which I prefer because things always seem to change so much anyway, it gives you perhaps more flexibility, but it is a juggling act. I did also have an amazing composer, I found a guy on Reddit called K.Preston Merkley, he’s Canadian and he’s lovely, I found him on r/composer because I’m a nerd, I put a post up asking for a composer for a student animated film, and Ken messaged me!

How was it working with someone across the globe?

It was really good! We just sent back and forth like a million emails. I’d send him my overall feeling of what I wanted to convey at various points of the film and he sent me back a rough and we’d go back and forth with revisions. It was actually pretty easy because he was very professional.

Making Tough (©2016 Jennifer Zheng)

©2016 Jennifer Zheng

How did you get yourself a job at Moth Collective?

Last summer I did a 2 week internship with them, we kept in contact and when I released the trailer for my grad film Margaux asked me for the link and then they offered me a job!

Do you think studios similar to Moth are ideally where you’d like to be working?

Working at Moth Collective is basically my dream job, I’m learning so much from them, AND they are the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Lovely lovely talented people and because it’s quite a small studio, I get to animate stuff from start to finish whereas in big productions you might just get to do in-betweens or colouring. They do such a variety of work so I get to animate lots of different things, plus their designs and stories are always beautiful!

What does your mother think of the film?

She likes it. Although she thinks it’s a bit short haha.

What about your brother and family? Your brother grew up with you so should be able to relate the most to your film.

I actually don’t know how he feels about it, I think he’s pretty psyched and proud of me. He’s in the credits of the film because he basically scanned in 70% of the film, he was a trooper, it took hours of him standing at a photocopier, THANKS JONATHAN!!! I don’t know how my dad feels either, he says he likes it and he didn’t fall asleep during it: he falls asleep during every other film he watches so I think that’s a good sign.

Tough (©2016 Jennifer Zheng)

Tough (©2016 Jennifer Zheng)

In the end scene of Tough you’re cupping an origami bird, which I think is a lovely gesture, do you think that represents how you feel now, more at peace with your identity?

Definitely more than before yeah, but I didn’t really come to an answer, I do feel a little bit more at ease with myself because I’ve acknowledged those feelings but if somebody asks me ‘are you Asian or you British?’ I still have no idea. I would say I don’t know, probably somewhere in-between.

Do you think the crane is a symbol of culture or symbolises a connection between you and your mum?

Well what do you think it means?

I think it was a symbol of your Chinese heritage, your mum was associated with the crane at the beginning and as her clothes fall the crane emerges, representing the end of this part of her life and at the end you’re not holding an actual crane, just small origami version, a small part of your own heritage.

Well I’m not going to say you’re right or wrong, because ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think, the only thing that matters is the audience’s interpretation and what they take away from it!

Thank you so much for your time Jennifer and I can’t wait to see what you’ll be making next!

You can catch Tough at MAF in the Student Films 1 category on Tuesday 15th (12pm), Wednesday 16th (10:10am) and Thursday 17th (4:15pm). See more work by Jennifer Zheng at

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