Peter Chanthanakone is a Canadian-born Lao American, and an award-winning animation director specializing in the 3D animated short film format. Many of our readers had a chance to meet him in Minnesota this year during the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit. Currently living in Iowa City, Iowa, he’s the founder of Pixade, as well as an associate professor at the University of Iowa. His newest animated film, Parking Gods (2015) is an official selection of the Hamilton International Film Festival. He’s traveled widely, including Iceland, South Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and across the US. We caught up with him recently to discuss his journey and what keeps him inspired.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, and your family? Where do you consider your roots in Laos, and what’s a story of your family’s journey to the US that sticks with you?
My parents were sponsored by Mennonites in Canada and worked on the farms and then in food processing and kitchen production companies. They were all bunched together with other Laotians so it’s interesting how people perceived them. But they were from Vientiane, in Dalat Lang and See Hom.
Sacrifice is the biggest take away from my parents journey to Canada. They had my sister, who at the time was 8 months and to keep her from crying during the night time escape, she was sucking on my mom’s nipple. My dad couldn’t swim so during the boat crossing, the boat had only a couple of inches of water clearance before it would capsize so he was paddling the water out with his hands. But I think the strongest message what the fact that they couldn’t tell anyone that they were going to escape, so the idea of not saying goodbye to their family must have been to hardest. My father never saw his grandmother again, and could you imagine the feelings you’d have to wake up the next day and your kids are gone? That’s an amazing sacrifice for their future and for both my sister and I.
What inspired you to get into computers, and particularly animation?
My dad was always a techie so he’d buy computers for my sister and I to work on for our ‘school assignments,’ which eventually turned to me using the computer to play video games. From there, I started hacking and building computers and since I had a natural skill in art, I found my way to computer animation, right when it was starting to get big. But I think the real defining moment was when I saw Jurassic Park. That was such an ‘ah ha’ moment for me.
How did it feel when you completed your first animated short?
It was back in 2006 and it was a very tiring and exhausting process, I couldn’t imagine working on another one. It took me about 3 years before I was able to complete another one. It was just a lot of reworking of the story, and fixing errors. Wow! Imagine this, you’re spending months checking on the computers every day to see if the images rendered correctly. Luckily, I have a render farm now so the computers are all linked and can spit out the film in under 24 hours.
What’s your favorite style of Lao cooking, and what dish do you like to share with people first who’ve never tried Lao cooking before? Sticky rice is my favorite so I have to share that with people, along with an egg omelette with onions and lao sausage! Oh, and Maggi soy sauce!
What do you consider one of the most difficult aspects of animation for the Lao community these days?
I taught a 2 day workshop in Laos a couple Summers ago through the Lao Government of Censorship and Vientanale, the Film Festival group in Vientiene and when I arrived, only a couple of students showed up with laptops. The rest of the students had only a pencil and paper. I think from that experience, you can gather that there’s a lot of have nots in Laos but what was more startling what what happened the next day. From 12 students the first day, there was only 8 the following, so I believe maybe some were discouraged or maybe just didn’t like me (Hahaha). But animation is very time consuming and I think a lot of people decide later, that’s it not for them.
Who inspires you as a role-model?
Growing up, I would say it was my teachers and professors. They’d tell a story about an exciting opportunity and I’d say, ‘that can be me!’ And more later in life, I’d say my parents because they’re so fun and relaxed. I know that sounds strange for some Lao people but my parents are like my buddies and I like to party and travel with them too!
They worked so hard during their lives so taking them out of their element to explore and create our own adventures is so cool. So for example, I dragged my mom all around Singapore one summer and took my dad on a 6000 mile roadtrip to Alaska. Hahaha.
What keeps you motivated as an artist?
As an artist, you’re a product of today’s world. You get inspiration from your surroundings so for me, the best way to be motivated is to travel and see people and things. In some ways, it keeps my eyes fresh and I can meet people from different cultures who have their own perspective on life and can share their stories with me. So when I travel around the world, I’m brewing up new ideas and stories for my future films, so I never run out of ideas, just time 🙂
What’s the best encouragement someone’s given you?
A former professor of mine said, ‘Keep going!’ Sounds cheesy but don’t ever give up. He passed away a few years ago and I never got to say thank you for the words of wisdom. But also do something you love, b/c you’ll always keep going and won’t give up.
What’s a tradition you hope Lao preserve in the next century What’s something you’d like to change?
Love and hospitality. Coming from Canada, I’ve experienced so much love from Lao Americans that I feel like they’re family, even though we may have only met for 5 minutes. I feel so blessed to have ‘lao parents’ here since I often say I’m an orphan (my parents are in Canada).
But I’d like to see more Lao people seek knowledge and respect time. I don’t see many Lao people in the University system, as students, scholars or administrators. So it would be amazing if Lao people valued education more than just working with their hands.
I know it’ll take a while and we may lose some of our culture along the way. The other thing that bothers me is the lack of punctuality we have. Going to the Lao Conference in MN in 2015, I was surprised that it started on time! Amazing! But isn’t it common to attend a Lao wedding reception and people start arriving 2 hours after the start time? That’s funny to me.
What’s your starting advice for anyone who wants to get into animation?
Animation is a balance between art, creativity and technical production so you’ll need stories so be friendly, talk to people and go travel and see the world. Drawing classes will help you with your art and the way you see things, and animation is about seeing things differently too. I also love photography because you can freeze a frame and examine it more closely.
If there’s a person it in, what are they thinking and feeling can be expressed through their body language and facial expressions? It also helps if you have good body control, so playing sports and taking dance classes helps you understand how your body moves and that transfers well to animation.
The last thing I tell my students is that you should be a techie. I built computers when I was young and that helps you stay current with animation and all the new technologies that come along with it. It gives you an excuse to buy all the latest toys too. Hahaha. But anyway, all those things are super fun to do.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been working on 6 new short films for the coming years. There’s two that are really exciting, one with RiFF Animation Studio in Bangkok which we’ll try to sell as a feature film and a mockumentary commercial about the 80 million UXO bombs still in Laos.
I have plans to return to Laos in January 2016 to teach an animation workshop through Vientienale and The Lao Government Department of Censorship. And another around the world trip from May till August to South America and Africa!
–Bryan Thao Worra,
Little Laos on the Prairie