Deb Yan: Master of Puppets

ADC Member includes stop-motion animation among her many talents

We’ll admit it: August is a slow month. And so, with the lazy, hazy, dwindling days of summer upon us, we’ve decided to extend  Motion and Animation Month past July, all the way to Labor Day. But just because this time of year tends to be quiet doesn’t mean that the incredibly talented motion artists within the ADC community are. From traditional cel animation to 3D animation, from TV interstitials to web series, our featured ADC Members run the creative gamut in an industry whose output is as challenging and time consuming as it is rewarding.

Our latest featured ADC Member is a New York-based designer with a passion for paper and puppetry that she brings to the table in a most whimsical manner.


New York, NY



Of course most people were first exposed to animation from after school and Saturday morning cartoons, but what’s your earliest memory of being interested in motion and animation as something that people actually made?

I very vaguely remember asking my father what each title in the credits meant after we watched a Disney feature film. He wasn’t quite sure at the time so he responded in the fashion of true Singaporean humor: “The Producer produces the movie! The Art Director directs the art! The Writer writes everything!” It wasn’t all that helpful but it did clue me in on the idea of a team of people bringing the movie to life. It still tickles me to this day! And then, I got a lot more interested in the process from watching behind-the-scenes production documentaries on both American and Japanese animated series.

Did you study formally, or were you consider yourself more self-taught?

I had the privilege of having the chance to study fine arts formally since I was 13, but my training in animation only happened in college. One of the earliest lessons I learned about the medium of animation was almost discouraging in that it wasn’t even seen as an art form in different parts of the world at the time. While others did painting and drawing pieces for their year-end project in high school, I elected to create my own Flash animated game. I was subsequently advised to only pursue art as a hobby!


How would you best describe your style? Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

Whimsical and delightful with a life of its own. I work with so many different animation media (and I’m still trying to learn more!) that I don’t have a specific style. I enjoy the challenge of adapting to different audiences so I tend to fight against having one.

What was your first big break, where this truly went from being an interest or pursuit to being an actual job?

This was definitely when I got the chance to work with the studio team at Hornet Animation. For the first time in my life I got to actively contribute to the sets and characters of their stop-motion commercial productions, as well as that of their upcoming short film Hardboiled. I also got to know some of the animators working on the 2D animation side of Hornet, and everything really motivated me to continue to find opportunities where I could combine animation with other fields like graphic design and illustration.

Do you remember some of your early work? Comparing it to your latest work, the kind of projects you do now, what is the biggest change you’ve noticed? What about your work or your process has remained the same?

I do! My early work as a designer and illustrator was a lot more static and uninteresting. I stuck to rules a lot. Now my work includes many elements that carry over from my animated work, which has really helped in terms of the digital marketing and icon design that I take charge of at Bridg-it. I push for a lot more animated content now than I used to!

Sell yourself and your style by completing the following sentence: “Clients and collaborators should come to me when they’re looking for…”

…A designer who will push the bounds of each project in order to get the message across in the best and freshest way possible. I enjoy having dialogues with clients or collaborators who look at projects without being restricted to a single form or medium.


Are you a freelancer or are you part of a regular team? What do you consider to be the biggest pros and cons of your situation?

I am part of a regular team full-time. The biggest pro is that I get to work directly with the other departments such as Sales, Content and Tech which allows for easy and open conversations about planning and strategies. The biggest con is that my roles take up so much energy that I have very little left over for personal work. But when it gets down to it, there’s always coffee!

Secret weapon: what’s your favorite tool in your arsenal (pen and paper? Program? Plug-in?) and why do you love it so much?

Yes, I have pen and paper always at the ready for ideas that flash by in my head. But I recently also got myself a tablet which I love because I can now sketch and animate on the go!

Snapshot! Take a photo of your desk/work set-up.


My desk has my work laptop on it, with lots of notepads for me to scribble notes on. I built a shelf for me to rig some of my figures and puppets to so I can still have them around! On the same wall are some inspirational images, as well as images of my own work for me to remember my college days by. The small dog is named Sherlock (I don’t own him!) and is positioned as such because he enjoys the view from this vantage point.

Do you experiment with software/tools/techniques, or do you tend to stick with what you know?

I’m always trying to learn new techniques, but am also constantly pushing myself to further refine the skill sets that I currently have. So it’s a bit of both. When I discover new artists, I always want to know what they use to do the work that they do. Then it’s all research and trial downloads from there on out!

Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which one are you most proud of? Tell us about the project, and why it holds such a special place in your heart.

I have to say that I am the most proud of my puppet and set fabrication project titled “The Nest”. It was an project that I embarked on in order to tell the story of my great-grandfather’s family before the second World War. It was really nice to be able to interview my mother and grandmother to learn more about what life was like back then in Malaysia, and I had the honor of translating some of their memories into character designs, storyboards and a stop-motion set. I still hope to be able to animate it one day.


Motion and animation is often accompanied by sound or music. How do you approach working with audio elements? Do they help form your visuals? Are you listening to them throughout? How involved are you in this part of the process?

So far, I have not been on a project where I have been significantly involved in the audio process, besides coordinating voice recordings and sourcing for royalty-free sound files online. I was, however, lucky enough to have worked hand-in-hand with music producer Allan Adams for the short film titled GOMMI ARCADE: “Introducing S.T.A.R. Academy”. His attention to detail in the sound design taught me to work with audio cues, which helped me tremendously in the music video project that I subsequently worked on for Amselcom, a Berlin-based record label.


Where do you go to get a much needed creative jolt, whether online or in the real world?

I subscribe to magazines like Computer Arts for design and illustration inspiration and also find myself always looking for art books (of feature films, TV series and/or video games). I have also found many new artists to follow on Tumblr and other social media outlets!

What’s the biggest misconception people have about what you do?

That it’s all just about making things pretty and, even worse, that it’s a profession women can only have if they have an existing source of financial support..


What’s the last project you did for yourself, as opposed to for a client or a job? What do personal projects mean to you and your craft?

I recently worked on a mixed media paper cutout and paper clay project about the New York subway system. I would say that personal projects allow to me to continue to expand my horizons in terms of the types of media that I use outside of work. It’s definitely also important because I’m still in the process of realizing a lot of stories and ideas that I’ve had on the back-burner!

Which of your peers, the people in your orbit, are making work that you are digging right now? What about them do you like?

There are so many! But I’ll focus on the rockstars that I had the pleasure of going to school with or speaking to on a regular basis. There’s Esther Lui, who’s been doing amazing editorial work for The New York Times. Lynn Kim is a close friend of mine who has produced and is still producing short films that have been featured in multiple film festivals. A lot of my current work is very vector-based, and Mark Usmiani‘s vector illustrations have been giving me more insight into what Adobe Illustrator can do. Fellow ADC member Jackie Ferrentino has always been creating great characters in her illustration work that I’ve always loved, and André Wee has been, as always, continuing to create beautiful 3D concept work as well as urban sketches from life. It’s always been the sheer tenacity and skill with which these people carry out their craft that inspired and continues to inspire me!

What’s your favorite part of the entire creative process of motion and animation?

Seeing the illusion of movement and life click into place when the set and characters come to life. And seeing how people react to the finished piece!


Motion & Animation Month takes place from July through Labor Day, and is open exclusively to ADC Members. Not yet a Member? Join today!

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