Robert Chang is an accomplished digital painter, photographer, comic artist and director, based in Fuzhou, China.Software used:
Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter with graphics tablet.Web: www.ethereality.info
The anime, Macross: Do You Remember Love? was the catalyst for the creative awakening of 13-year-old Robert Chang. “I fell head over heels in love with that film,” he recalls. “I was so taken by the sheer imagination behind the designs, the story, the mood, the music...” The man’s fascination with every aspect of creativity lasts to this day: “I knew after watching that film that I wanted to be a storyteller who combined art, story, music and movement into one cohesive piece of work.” The logical solution was animation.
“Since then, I’ve been doing art, music, writing, photography and film making.” It seems he won’t be happy until he has mastered every art form going, then made up a few and mastered those. At 32 he’s already an accomplished comic book artist, photographer, director and painter.
Straight from high school Robert became a comic book artist. Initially taking freelance contracts for artwork, after four years of graft he got the green light from Sirius Entertainment for Enchanted. Robert created, wrote and illustrated this dark gothic/fantasy epic. He takes the shine off this a little though: “The money was shit, but I was at least telling my own stories.”
For eight long years, times were tough. “Comic books were hard. Unless you were a superstar, you couldn’t make a living,” explains Robert. And whether you make a living or a pittance: “It still takes up all of your time.” Working out other people’s dreams didn’t go down well, either: “I didn’t enjoy drawing other people’s stories because I never intended to be an artist for hire.”
The Enchanted years led to a stint in the games industry, initially on Prince of Persia 3D. Video games were on the whole an unsatisfactory experience for the young artist, but this was an important period of creative development. Writing became more of a focus, as did film.
At the end of 2001, he went to see his mother in China, intending a short visit. But then he met and married Elena, and found the emotional support he wanted: “Elena’s the most loving, nurturing and compassionate person I’ve ever met. She supports me 110 per cent,” he enthuses. There are slightly perverse consequences to this: “I sometimes worry that if I never become successful at any of the creative endeavours I do, I’ll let her down.”
A couple of years into this Chinese sabbatical, Alias’s Maya was becoming second nature and the online CG community was turning out to be a second home. Then an offer came up which brought about another move. In an email chat with long-standing online buddy, Steven Stahlberg, the CG maverick and boss of Optidigit offered Robert a job, with Promise. This is the title of an animated short that the artist has been nurturing in various forms since 1997.
The position as director at Optidigit brought with it an added bonus – it meant that Promise would go into production. The couple moved to Malaysia and Robert upped a gear: “I was writing and drawing a lot of material for original intellectual property for the pitch packages on Promise, Scythe Wolf and Vagrant Star,” he says. He was also directing and producing.
Robert is versatile: comic book artist and writer, screenwriter, 3D artist, director, photographer; the list goes on. His list of locations is pretty cool too: Taiwan, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur and now Fuzhou, China. A native of Taiwan, Robert moved to the US aged 11. “I read a lot of ‘Choose your own Adventure’ books, Fighting Fantasy books, sci-fi/fantasy novels, and comic books,” he remembers. “As a kid or teenager, these things were addictive because they provide escapism and a world of imagination.”
There has always been a balance in Robert’s artistic diet. Even as a teenager, he drew a lot of fine art portraits. He observes: “My fine art works were the ones that gained me recognition, and even now are more popular in online digital art galleries.”
Robert’s digital work has a purity to it, making it hard not to get right up close and examine every detail. “I have no problem drawing with a tablet at all,” says the artist. “I just sketch digitally and go from there.” The images that appear have a very painterly quality, full of loving detail. Robert himself is hard to pin down when it comes to the question of style. “I’m not sure,” he ponders. “I have different sides.” Eventually he settles with, “Maybe sensual and introspective?”
Ever the perfectionist, though, he adds: “I tend to worry about whether I’m painting too clean.” He’s not a fan of this style, so popular with fantasy artists, and he wrestles with this tendency: “I have to consciously force myself to loosen up and not paint too clean,” he admits. Sometimes he gives in to clean results, at other times he goes back and “messes up” the clean areas.
Possibly the most recognisable example of Robert’s trademark clarity is the promotional poster for Promise. Created in Painter and Photoshop, this piece is a real gem for providing the most fully realised example of a window on the worlds that Robert is constantly concocting. It really is full of promise.
“I’ve been drawing all my life,” says Robert, wistfully. “I didn’t get really serious until puberty though.” And as you’d expect of any right-minded youth: “That was because of anime and manga.” Then came sci-fi, fantasy illustration, American and European comics, then 19th century art.
“The characters in my stories all have specific personalities and I try to capture that in the illustration works, as I do with fine art portraits,” explains Robert. A close look at any of his work confirms this. The faces have been thought about before being introduced to Wacom and Photoshop. They aren’t just faces from a magazine. Lending weight to this, Robert explains that he’s intrigued by introspective people: “They have depth and a wealth of powerful emotions and feelings kept just under the calm veneer.” He strives to create this type of individual in his work for us to be fascinated with too.
The influence of manga and anime are clear in the artist’s desire to bring out a deeper sense of meaning from his work: “I’m interested in conveying more than just a pretty picture,” he agrees. It’s about genuine contact between artist and audience: “I want people to be able to look at my pieces and read more into them than just the surface.”
So these are some of the things that are driving Robert onwards, fuelling his need to push his skill horizon ever further. Conveying the kind of emotion he requires with any subtlety demands a mastery of every element of a production – there is no part that doesn’t matter.
Accomplishment and ambition
His goals also help to make sense of his statement: “I don’t think I’ve accomplished much at all.” Drawing that picture into sharp relief, he adds: “I have big dreams and lofty goals, so whatever I’ve done to date pales in comparison to what I’m trying to accomplish.” Although Robert could make a professional living out of any of his accomplished skills, he names a few other ambitions: “To win major film awards as a writer/director, to have my novels published to critical acclaim in the literary circle, to release music albums of my music.”
Not only is this vision on a grand scale, Robert Chang wants to do the whole thing without the influence of being taught: “I’m self-taught in everything I do,” he says. “I get extremely bored of schools and classes, even if they are on subjects I’m really passionate about.” You could say his goal is a bit like climbing Everest with a toothpick. And you’d laugh if he weren’t already half way up the North face.