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Zhaoyu Zhou's film "Karma" carries a message viewers across cultures understand
Film has the power to impact us on multiple levels. One of the interesting things about the medium is the way certain films transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries, and manage to affect viewers even if they don't speak the language-- and we're not talking about those with subtitles. Sometimes these films don't have any dialogue at all, yet their messages comes across crystal clear.

Released earlier this year, the 3D animated film "Karma" from master VFX artist and filmmaker Zhaoyu Zhou is exactly one of those films. With an underlying message centered on the effects of environmental pollution, "Karma" is not only entertaining and visually striking, but the way Zhou approach the film makes it one that viewers from anywhere in the world can watch and understand.

"Karma," which continues to screen at festivals across the globe, has already garnered an incredible international reception taking home more than 20 awards, including nine Best Animation Awards at festivals such as the  Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival (KLEFF) in Malaysia, the Los Angeles Film Awards, Mexico International Film Festival, Hollywood Independent Film Festival, International Independent Film Awards and others, as well as AFMA Young Cinema Film Festival's Film of the Year Award, the Special Jury Award from North American Film Awards and many more.

The success of the film, especially in terms of animation and VFX, says leagues about Zhou's technical skill; but it is also a testament to his unique talent for presenting poignant stories in a way that transcend cultural boundaries.

"I had the initial idea of the story in 2013. At that time I was reading a lot of news articles and most were about serious environmental problems, with 'Smog' being the keyword that year," explains Zhou, who's currently a designer and animator at Imaginary Forces in Los Angeles.

"This air pollution reminded me of the British Industrial Revolution of the 1850s, which led to the first serious environmental pollution in human history. This is the starting point for my story, and based on that I designed the characters and storyboard."

"Karma" revolves around a cute and curious Oliver Twist-esque boy who, lugging a wagon full of junk through the forest, falls down in the dirt and finds a mysterious pond nearby to wash his face. There he encounters the most adorable little goldfish imaginable splashing around in the water with a huge grin, and he decides to feed him. As the boy pries the metal lid off a jar to grab a worm for the fish the lid goes flying into the water. Intrigued by the curious object, the goldfish takes it down with a gulp; and so the boy continues to feed the fish trash from his cart and the fish grows to an astronomical size, eventually eating both the cart and the boy. 

Chosen as an Official Selection of the Montreal International Animation Film Festival, Russia's Euro Fest" European International Film Festival, the Stockholm Independent Film Festival in Sweden, Spain's FICMA BARCELONA International Environmental Film Festival and several others, "Karma" took Zhou a little over a year to make. Clearly the time was well spent as the film is incredibly realistic in terms of sound and movement, but it was by no means an easy feat to accomplish.

Zhou says, 'Karma' is entirely a 3D character animation piece. So as the VFX artist and supervisor, I managed all the aspects from beginning to end, which included modeling, texturing, rigging, layout, animation, effects, lighting, rendering and compositing."

Prior to moving into VFX and filmmaking several years ago, Zhou obtained his bachelor's degree in fine arts and went on to work as a professional photographer, as well as a graphic designer for leading film studio MGM and Icon Union Inc.,. From the seamless precision of his film work, in "Karma" specifically, it's easy to see how Zhou's design background has endowed him with the necessary foundation to develop his unique visual eye and lent itself to his work as a visual effects artist.

Explains Zhou. "I decided I wanted to make some amazing work in the future by using VFX to create a new way of storytelling and create tremendous motion pictures."

Jumping off from there, Zhou furthered his technical skills as a VFX artist at USC where he completed his Master of Fine Arts in Animation and Digital Arts; and in 2016 he was awarded the highly competitive Fox Visual Effects Fellowship Endowment Fund.

While his passion and drive to utilize his creativity to create engaging stories through film have garnered him extensive praise throughout the industry, none of that would be possible without his vast experience using the range of VFX and animation software that's available today. For "Karma" Zhou used Maya as his primary 3D software to model, texture and animate the characters he designed, as well as to build the film's environment and the lighting for each scene. In addition to the intense and time consuming efforts that went into animating the characters, Zhou had quite a hefty task on his hands when it came to creating the myriad of water shots in "Karma" and making them look realistic.

"Because the story happens near a pond in the forest, we needed to create realistic water simulation to enhance the story. There are a lot of interactions between the boy and the fish, as well as the fish and the water," Zhou explains. "For this part we used Houdini... Since simulation is never predictable, we had to cache the animation and import into Houdini to make water. By doing that everything became interactive, it also gave us the best result."

With the refraction, reflection and other elements that make water so challenging to create from scratch, and with the level of realism that Zhou desired for "Karma," each frame in the film that included water took nearly two hours to render!

While "Karma" was an incredibly ambitious project for Zhou, it's one that clearly reveals his extraordinary VFX skill level and his talent as a filmmaker in general.

He says, "My favorite part in making this film is that it helped me build a strong mentality and the attitude of never giving up. To make 3D animation, especially with a lot of vfx work is very difficult; but, rendering was the most challenging part of this project."

Up next for Zhaoyu Zhou is the live-action animated fantasy film "Kintsugi," which he is a lead VFX artist on, and is expected to be released in 2018.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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