Symbols: Ke Ren's chaotic text animation smashes every language barrier

London-based illustrator and animator Ke Ren has transformed the confusion she felt when moving away from Beijing into a glorious short film that brings letters, numbers, and symbols to life in new ways.

Ke Ren has always been moving and relocating. As well as broadening her horizons, as travel famously does, it also led to some confusion in terms of the language barrier. This misunderstanding has been beautifully realised in her short animation, Symbols, which was created during her time at Central Saint Martins.

"The initial inspiration came from my personal reaction to moving to London," she tells Creative Boom. "I often felt confused and afraid to express myself in a different linguistic environment. I realised this was not just a language barrier, but a significant disconnect between myself and my surroundings, making me feel like an outsider."

It's a feeling of alienation that persists, even now, as she gradually overcomes it. This cultural background sparked her interest in language, text and symbols, all of which culminated in a short film that does not need to be "read" or "understood". Check it out below.

As you can see, instead of following a traditional narrative, Symbols allows viewers to interpret the flow of letterforms and symbols for themselves. It was an approach which evolved out of Ke's university research, where she learnt about artificial languages such as emojis and the Martian language.

"These languages don't belong to any specific language but combine cross-linguistic and cross-cultural elements," she explains. "They have no specific definitions, no right or wrong, but can be easily used for communication. Symbols was born from this context. It is an experiment in 'understanding' and 'communication,' and I hope it can bridge cultural gaps."

As well as playing with interesting themes, Symbols is a joy to watch. Its original concept sketches were drawn on paper with a brush and ink, which were then used as references for the art style. It results in a suitably juxtaposing aesthetic that is both traditional and digital. "I developed the storyboard and then proceeded to animate it frame-by-frame in TVPaint," she adds. "The entire film took approximately two months to complete."

Another key component of Symbols is the sound design. Composed by James Ryan, it needed to progress alongside the animation while not overpowering the visuals. "The murmuring whispers are my favourite part, as this intentional chaos draws the audience into a separate realm," Ke adds.

"I had multiple discussions with the sound designer, dividing the animation's rhythm into three segments and synchronising them with the sound effects. This approach provided greater creative freedom for sound design and allowed us to adjust the details at the end to align with the animation."

Despite sounding like a tall order, this wasn't even the biggest challenge Ke encountered while creating Symbols. Instead, what she found most difficult was communicating the necessary information to the audience in less than a minute, and figuring out how all the symbols interacted with one another.

"Although the animation may appear chaotic, everything was intentionally crafted, layer by layer, with a strong sense of rhythm being crucial," she says.

Fortunately, the sound and visuals were crafted perfectly. Even though the film is deliberately left open to interpretation, Symbols has received positive feedback from many viewers, each with their own idea of what it communicates.

"This is precisely the outcome I aimed for," Ke concludes. "Even in different linguistic and cultural contexts, I hope that within this brief minute, everyone has somewhat formed a connection with it."


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