Hulu's Bite Size Halloween is an anthology series telling various horror tales as it entered its third season. The season premiere episode in Nian, written and directed by Michelle Krusiec, follows a Chinese American girl, who faces her racist bully with help of the Nian, a mythological creature said to eat misbehaving children. Helping with bringing the creature to life is production designer Angran Li, who previously worked with Hulu's parent company Disney on a short called The Little Prince(ss). She's also worked on Kneeling Sheep, The Way Home, and How to Live Your Life Correctly. Li spoke with Bleeding Cool about the inspiration behind the design of the Nian, her initial music aspirations, and comparing working in the entertainment industries in China and United States.
Bleeding Cool: What was it that excited you about helping to bring the story of 'Nian' to life?
Li: Chinese mythology has a lot of beasts and creatures I was fascinated by. As a Chinese, 'Nian' was one of my favorite beasts of all the creatures. When I was a kid, I was into 'Nian,' and it is related to our Chinese New Year. The story of transforming the 'Nian from a beast to a human is exciting because it's also a horror story going Hulu platform. A lot of Westerners are going to look at it, which is challenging for a designer.
Were there any external inspirations for your design of 'Nian?'
In my culture, it is a pattern that the creature or beast will transform into a human. After thousands of years, they have to be very consistent in practicing daily, and they have to be nice to others, do good things, and then transition into a human where their lives eventually go or dream. So when Michelle [Krusiec] wanted to create Nian, she didn't want to solely represent China, even as it's based on a Chinese creature.
We also have our cast with Dawn [Akemi Saito], a talented Japanese actress, and we also have a very great costume designer [Grace Yum], who's from Korea. So when the key creatives are of mixed Asian culture, we didn't want 'Nian' just to be a Chinese story on visual presentation. Michelle had a lot of references, almost every single beat of the entire story. It references back to all different kind of culture that relates to Asian culture overall. It's not simply Chinese, and I wanted to make sure the design perspective would fall into broader internationally instead of just one single culture.
Did you envision yourself working in the entertainment industry with your background, or was it something just fell into?
Never really thought I would be doing films as a kid, to be honest, because I fell in love with music. I spent years practicing traditional music on the piano. So I practiced a lot, but I always loved music lyrics, motion pictures, and storytelling. Filmmaking is destiny, especially in the art department.
What were your artistic inspirations growing up?
I watched a lot of movies, animations, and TV. When I didn't have to practice music, I would sit in front of my TV. My parents got very annoyed for watching too much, but I don't have a specific genre or story I like. Whatever shows up on TV, I watched it. It turned out I watched too much, and it helped me when I was playing music because, with every piece I play, I had some story going on in my head. When I got involved in filmmaking, I helped the [director of photography] and the director a lot. It turned out that because I'm always surrounding them, I felt the world they were shooting, pointing their camera against, is something I love, and it requires me that learn the skills I need to be studying if I wanted to be a part of the art department.
How do you compare working in Chinese and American entertainment industries?
I would say it is different, but the most different thing is: I speak Chinese over there, but here I have to speak English. It's not just between China and the United States. It's more internationally what I can think about now because even on set, it's not just people and from here [in the States]. It's a variety of people from different cities, countries, and entire camera departments, especially dolly grip, key grip, and the gaffer are from different places. The experienced dolly grip is from Italy. I've collaborated with others who come from various cultures from Mexico, Korea, and Japan. There are those whose parents are from China but don't speak Chinese themselves. It's much more diverse when I'm working here.
People are so experienced. We have our specialist, who is from this effects studio. They are so experienced in the industry it feels like everybody is helping me, and I can learn a lot from them. We had our special makeup inst when we were producing the mask in 'Nian.' It's been touched by many people's hands. The conversations are going in different directions. Sometimes Iand overloaded.
There are communication issues sometimes I run into on set, but we manage somehow. We're all trying to achieve a goal, and I have to be the one because I'm the production designer, and I'm taking care of the visual work. We deliver it to the camera, so it can be difficult. While the learning process is ongoing, collaborating with such a diverse set has become such a positive experience.