An Interview with Jasmin Lai

Award-winning art director Jasmin Lai tells the Lounge about staying fresh in the animation industry, her creative process, and the therapeutic potential of personal projects

An Interview with Jasmin Lai

Straight after graduating from CalArts in 2012, Jasmin Lai got a job as an animator at Cartoon Network. Just two years later, she transitioned into a new role, working as an art director on Steven Universe.

In 2016, she joined design and animation studio, Chromosphere. There she has worked on a wide range of projects including Dove Self-esteem Project, Sprint Vector, Sonaria and Lyft: June. Her recent work on Age of Sail earned her an Annie Award and a second Primetime Emmy Award.

We spoke with Lai about her career so far.

Illustrators’ Lounge: What was your path into animation?

Jasmin Lai: Since childhood, I enjoyed drawing and painting, but I didn’t really think I would pursue an animation career until I discovered CalArts. Driven to go, I was lucky enough to make it in. While in school, I learned and gained insight into the various career paths in television and feature productions, along with the steps necessary in making a film.

I was incredibly lucky that my first job in animation was working as a design apprentice for Kevin Dart on a neat Powerpuff Girls Special called “Dance Pantsed.” Through Kevin’s mentorship, I was able to learn the ropes of the different aspects of my job like layouts, background painting, prop and effect design, and so on. I have the honour of working with Kevin today at Chromosphere Studios where he serves as Creative Director.

Powerpuff Girls

IL: You attended two very prestigious art schools, Rhode Island School of Design and California Institute of the Arts – how important was that experience for you?

JL: I must admit that at the time, my focus as a young, aspiring student was to chase the prestige. Of course, the curriculum was important, but it wouldn’t be the most unfair thing to say that while school helped show me the many paths of animation, it really wasn’t the most vital or important aspect of my career. In fact, I credit most of my “success” to my early years in the industry, learning the most fundamental skills that ultimately flourish into expertise. To me, the process of contributing to a project, whether yours or someone else’s, will surely define your craft in time. 

IL: While working at CN, you went from background painter to art director – can you tell us what that transition was like?

JL: When I landed the background painter position on Steven Universe, I was fortunate to receive training from the core artists developing the style of the show – initially from Kevin Dart, who had been the first art director, and later on from Elle Michalka, who took on after him. As a background painter, the job can be a little bit repetitive, so the transition to Art Director, with a broader range of responsibilities to tend to, such as managing and supervising teams and making reference lists, was quite a big adjustment. On top of that, I had begun working more directly with the show creator Rebecca [Sugar], the crew, along with attending a few meetings a week for breakdowns and reviewing workprints. It took me some time, but ultimately, time-management became the leading virtue of the position.

Steven Universe

IL: What unexpected challenges have you faced as an art director?

JL: The immediate challenge was managing my time, having to constantly make priorities on my list of tasks. Managing my resources was a major challenge as it’s so vital to use your team members in a way that they can best work and best agree. Also, making sure to follow-up consistently. I found that as an Art Director, being on top of what’s getting done and the progress of the other work is key to knowing where to focus your efforts.

IL: What project has been your favourite and why?

JL: It’s a tough choice, but I’d have to say my favourite project would be ‘Age of Sail’, a virtual reality animation piece we did for Google. It was the first time in which I had to find my inner ‘impressionist’ and learn to be confident with my brush strokes. I’ve always been particularly picky with digital brushes, but I never delved deeply into them because so much of my previous work had been more about using strong graphic shapes and flat colours with overlay textures.

This was also just one of those projects where you were constantly in awe of your coworkers’ skills, design and work. There were so many talented people on our team who cared deeply about doing great, and I’d like to think the end result really showed how much fun we all had working together on that film. Currently, at Chromosphere Studios, my involvement in projects is often at the beginning of production, by which I’m always left in awe by the end result. Designs that look so much more alive and vibrant than my initial concepts. It’s all thanks to the creative team with their genuine care and attention to detail. Their desire to make high-quality art. It really is a joy to work with them.

Age of Sail
Age of Sail

IL: Do you worry about staying fresh within your industry?

JL: I still feel l have a lot to learn. It’s whenever I learn something new, that I get that fresh feeling. Working at Chromosphere Studios is a blast and very challenging at the same time. It’s quite often that I run into a situation where I have to learn how to do something new and do so very quickly. Another thing I find exciting about my job is that I get to explore a variety of different styles, getting to work on a variety of projects. At Chromosphere, we’re always eager to take on new visual puzzles and pathways, developing a style language that’s tailored to the story and to the director’s vision. It’s especially fun to do and I have the privilege of doing so every day at work.

IL: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process – from initial concept to the tools you use?

JL: My creative process is always easier when I have a specific feeling or vision that I’m trying to carry out. I mainly work in Photoshop but I oftentimes like to sketch with pencil and paper first. Especially when it requires learning about something I’m not familiar with.

I’ll usually start by drawing a rough layout for myself, gather a few references, block everything out in colour, and then finalize. I would say the rough layout stage is usually the most vital part. When I block out the rough colour, I heavily rely on the Photoshop hue/saturation tool to change colours around until I’m happy with the overall harmony. If I’m blindly going at something and I don’t know what to make, I tend to retrace my steps until I have a better idea of what I’m aiming for.

IL: Do you have a particular method for developing colour palettes?

JL: I don’t have a specific way of making colour palettes, but I usually try to focus on the mood and lighting of the scene. It’s a big help for me to have a file open in Photoshop of all my references in one place, using the eyedrop tool to pick any colour I want. I’m a big fan of using deep, dark colours to create high contrasts, in hopes of drawing out more depth and feeling.

IL: What personal projects are you working on?

JL: For the last few years I’ve been painting my favourite places to visit around Los Angeles, which I got to debut at Q Pop Shop in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. The show is called “After Hours.” The project has been so therapeutic for me – I have found a lot of joy in creating peaceful sceneries, meant to make the viewer feel calm, at ease and maybe a little introspective. I’d love to do more.

73 North, OC Metro View
North Hollywood Suburb

IL: What advice would you share with others wanting to follow a similar path as you?

JL:  Not to sound cliche, but I think it’s important to enjoy life for what it is. Sort of like our own little painting. Go spend time with your loved ones, hang out outside, explore new places, and discover what you’re able to bring back to the canvas. I also want to say that it is healthy to take a step back from your work and your “identity” as an artist every once in a while to keep your creativity levels up.

IL: Finally, one of our goals here is to widen people’s pool of inspiration – who are the artist/illustrators that inspire you?

JL: I always think of the artists around me – my Creative Director Kevin, and every one of my coworkers at Chromosphere, and many other friends in the industry – they are all so inspirational to me.

Some other artists who have deeply influenced me: Illustrators – Chiho Aoshima, Richard Scarry, Maurice Sendak, Charlie Harper, Mary Blair, Shel Silverstein. Painters – Rockwell Kent, Logan Maxwell Hagege, Charles Wysocki, Salvador Dali Photographers – Maya Beano, Neil Kryszak, Thomas Jordan

You can find more of Jasmin Lai’s work on Twitter and Instagram.

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