Mo-Graph Mentor

{Student Work} Derek Lieu : Visual Essay

This project was completed in our first online course, Introduction to Design & Animation. The project brief is titled : Visual Essay. The challenge was for students to communicate an idea of a story within the constraints of a 30-45 second video. Derek Lieu decided to explain the Chinese word “kung fu.”

We asked him to provide a write-up for the project. Below are his words.


My goals for this project were to explain the Chinese word “kung fu” and to improve my animation skills. The Chinese characters for “kung fu” are actually not related to martial arts. The definition is simply a skill gained through a lot of time, repetition and refinement. I feel like Western culture can be too obsessed with “life hacks,” quick results and tricks. Working efficiently is one thing, but working hard and consistently is usually what yields the best results.

Since kung fu is about gaining proficiency via repetition, I structured the story of my piece to force me to do one thing over and over again. My initial pitch was a ball that starts bouncing very simply, and as the story continues, the bouncing grows in sophistication and expressiveness. This allowed me to start simple, but also challenge myself to think about what to add each step of the way in order to make the next animation even better.

My storyboards helped me plan, but weren’t terribly intricate

That’s another key point I wanted to convey about kung fu: Increase your skill by internalizing previous knowledge to the point that it becomes second nature to you, then learn something more sophisticated, and then repeat.

My storyboards were pretty sparse. The intro was a few visual ideas that I intended to seamlessly transition. For the middle I sketched some ideas for how to increase the complexity. The end section about experimenting and self expression used a bunch of ideas inspired by various video games (which I didn’t end up using)

Notes on how to incrementally increase the quality of the animation

For the animation I wanted a mix of slow and fast movements. My Chinese martial arts experience was something I kept in the back of my head, because when performing “forms” what makes them look good is a mix of slow and fast movements rather than a consistent speed. I even filmed myself throwing a few punches so I could determine how many frames to put in certain animations.

Lots and lots of keyframes

I got a lot of good feedback from my class. The ball was originally a simple radial gradient, but my mentor Colin Hesterly suggested creating a more natural painted texture in Photoshop to avoid looking too clean and artificial. I ended up using the “Watercolor Soft” brush from this amazing set of Photoshop brushes ( to shade the ball.

04-dereklieu-ball-before-afterBall before and after.

I needed some texture so that you can see the ball rotating, and also the gradient looked too “perfect.”

Other suggestions were to change the colors of the background during the middle section to add some more visual interest. Colin showed us a color timeline of his own personal project that was an overview of the colors in his project. In the end I didn’t end up adding color to the middle because I liked the red ball and streaks on the background I had, and also in the time I had I couldn’t nail down colors that I liked or felt added to the piece. In the future I would like to experiment with color more though.

Colin also suggested reducing the scale of my paper textures, making them seamless and using the “Offset” effect in After Effects to create the background movement. The ball was a 3D layer followed by a camera, and somehow without me even trying I ended up with a parallax effect with the floor completely by accident!

In my first draft, the camera moved perfectly in sync with the ball’s movements, but in another round of critique Colin suggested the camera move constantly, and have the ball try to keep up with it. I agreed and realized that it was distracting to have the camera movement stand out so much. The ball trying in parts to keep up with the camera also gave it more personality.

Originally I was only going to add the floor pressure accents during my section talking about nuances, but I realized that without them things started to feel stale so I incorporated them up through the end. I think this also worked because it gets the audience inside the “head” of the ball by showing the subtle differences behind each bounce. The streaks I thought also added some nice visual appeal and connected it with the blue silhouetted ball from the beginning that I now choose to interpret as a shot of a kung fu master.

I also recorded a lot of my own sound effects for this. Originally I had some “canned” sound effects for the swishes and movements, but those sound effects are very recognizable and take me out of the experience whenever I hear them. I recorded swishes using the plastic stick from a cat toy, and also an IKEA plastic shoe horn.


I tried hitting various objects against my anti-fatigue mat, but my palm hitting it gently sounded best. I had my iPad for visual reference and recorded in my bedroom.

For the bounces I experimented with hitting different objects against the anti-fatigue mat I have for my standing desk. I tried hitting it with shoes, my feet and hands and a balled up sock. The best sounding effect was simply me hitting my palm gently against the mat. For parts when the ball peels off the ground I stood on the mat and peeled my feet off. I think the soft sound is appropriate and also gives it a nice organic feel to it.

For my last critique it was suggested that I change some colors in the main section so that it wasn’t just red on red on red. So I tweaked the “pressure” spots to be of a lighter color. I struggled with making the streaks a different color, but realized I liked them as they were so instead I made the ball darker. I think there’s better contrast now and it’s easier to focus just on the ball.


During the last critique I realized the colors were too similar and the “pressure” accent was too intense, like a diagram in a pain reliever medicine commercial

I’m very proud of the animation I managed to put into the project and feel much more confident in my skills than when I started. I still want to go back and do more animated ball projects for fun and continue to work on my design and color.

Some take aways from this project:

I feels like it goes without saying that animation is tedious work, but animation really is tedious work! Tools and scripts help, but it’s still doing something over and over frame by frame. For me it can be really hard to keep pressing forward, but it’s the only way to do it, and it pays off in the end.

Don’t let anyone tell you animation isn’t tedious work

In the future I want to try to rough out animation for an entire piece then go back and refine it. I struggled to do this, because instead I’d opt to animate beginning to end and not move on until I thought something looked great. I know there’s value in roughing something out and then refining it, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to get myself to do it.

I just have to keep on telling myself that no one is going to see the “bad” version unless it’s to show it to people that I’m seeking out for critique and suggestions.

Looking forward, I’d like to keep producing more work to get better and better. I’ve already started a new personal project to force myself to do a lot of design work. Hopefully this inspires you to find the thing that you want to develop your own kung fu for. Whatever it is, start doing it now, and keep on doing it!

Oh and something I didn’t get to cover in this video that I might in a future expanded one is that it’s also VERY important to find a good teacher to help guide you in the right direction ;)


Connect with Derek : Website | Twitter


For more information on our motion graphics courses, contact us today!

Tags: Motion Graphics, Motion Design, Online School for Motion Graphics, Motion Graphics Courses