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Online Animation School Student’s Graphic Novel in the Running for Prestigious Eisner Award

Erica Eng, an online animation school student at Academy of Art University, has been nominated for an Eisner Award, the comics industry’s Oscar equivalent presented annually at San Diego Comic-Con. Eng’s semi-autobiographical Fried Rice has been nominated for Best Webcomic.

‘Mundanity With a Touch of Grace’

Eng has completed about 40 pages of what she plans as a 200-page comic. Fried Rice is the story of Min, who like Eng is a Malaysian student pursuing a career as an artist. Describing the work as portraying “mundanity with a touch of grace,” Eng has taken a contemplative, almost dreamy approach to the story. But she emphasizes that there is a dramatic arc.

Min definitely changes, says Eng, “because time inevitably brings change, especially to someone as young and teachable as Min. I love stories where things sort of happen and characters are forced to deal with it and make choices, and stories that sort of read like a stream of thought.

“The main challenge for Min is to become an artist. Obviously, that’s a challenge that’s going to be solved over a long period of time. But for her, applying to art school represents that that ambition. In her mind, a lot of things are challenges: her limited experience with art, her surroundings, even the people around her. This story is about Min’s reconciliation with all those things.’

Unlike many comics, in print or online, Fried Rice isn’t about superheroes, nor does it revolve around violence or conflict.

“I was interested in telling a story with as little conflict as possible and [exploring] how that would affect the narrative structure. I know stories aren’t just about taking on challenges and crushing them—because life is more than that.”

Techniques for Storytelling

Eng says watching filmmakers like Krzysztof Kieślowski, Edward Yang, Hirokazu Koreeda and Richard Linklater—and reading modernist literature—attracted her to stories with a less traditional narrative arc.

“My current method is to tell a story first,” she says, “and then sort of build up a structure supporting it after. Story structure to me is more [about] pacing and emotional resolution.”

Although she’s an online animation school student, she consciously chose to pursue Fried Rice in a comics-conventional panel technique.

“I wanted to tell a long-format story with dialogue, and an animated film with this script would take forever to make,” she says. “I enjoy reading graphic novels. It’s a very pleasant experience for the reader when a graphic novelist tells a story artfully. Also, even though I’m an animator, I have an illustrator’s sensibilities when I draw—thinking about design, intent, storytelling value and technique.”

Her visual technique, relatively loose and influenced by watercolor painting, mirrors the story’s contemplative nature.

“It’s the result of a lot of study and soul-searching. I have slowly moved away from my computer to doing more artwork traditionally. I enjoy the process of interacting with paper and materials. There’s also a tactile and warm quality to hand-drawn art that just doesn’t happen on the computer, no matter how hard you try.

“For Fried Rice, half of the drawing process is done on paper. Then I paint color and add dialogue bubbles in Photoshop. I’m learning 3D animation at the Academy, which hasn’t informed my visual style here.”

Influences and Supporters

“I knew I wanted to be an animator from the age of 15,” says Eng. “Before that, I wanted to be an author-illustrator. My childhood idols were writers and illustrators like E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake and Garth Williams. I suppose my love for literature is why I transition so comfortably between comics and animation”

Other comics artists also influenced her approach. “I realized a lot of cartoonists and graphic novelists I like work on paper—Jillian Tamaki, Cyril Pedrosa, Manuele Fior, Taiyo Matsumoto, Andrea Serio, Tillie Walden, Sophie Yanow. They gave me the courage to do the same.”

Eng expects to complete her BFA in the Academy’s School of Animation & Visual Effects in 2022. She submitted her work to the Eisner Awards herself, although she asked her Academy instructor Christopher Braun to help with the cover letter accompanying the submission.

Braun taught a course that ended up having a positive influence on Eng. “I’m very lucky to have taken [Braun’s course] ‘Designing Careers’ last semester,” Eng says. “Since the nomination, I’ve received many emails and visits to my portfolio site. I have to make some business decisions now that were covered in that class.”

Erica Eng, an online student in the Academy’s School of Animation & Visual Effects, doing what she loves to do most—drawing.

Path to the Academy

Eng holds the equivalent of an associated degree from her Malaysian school. “My college, The One Academy, has a connection to Academy of Art University. Many of my fellow students come here to further their studies for a BFA. Of course, there were various universities available to me, but the Academy’s 3D animation program was unmatched. That’s why I chose it.

“I’m a 100 percent online student at the moment, but I’m quite self-motivated, so the remote situation isn’t really a problem to my studies. I was really lucky to be included in the ‘Pixar 1’ class last semester as an online student. I learned so much.”

In terms of building a career, Academy instructors Nickolas Rosario and Kevin Andrus offered insight into life as an animator, she notes. Several fellow students from Malaysia have also been instrumental in her student journey, says Eng.

Looking Long Term

Contemplating the future, Eng claims she’s not planning her career, exactly. “Instead, I aim to create projects with career longevity in mind.” She says she asks herself, “Are my methods sustainable? Will I regret this 10 years down the road? What about 20 years?”

She also says she “steals” advice from the poet Ocean Vuong: “Create alongside and against your idols. It’s ‘death’ to envy achievements and careers, but it’s good to envy the craft.”

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