Those of us who view art marvel at the skilled mastery it takes to create such wonders. The actual artists however are more concerned with the emotional impact their work carries. Emotion itself cannot be seen; only the effects of it upon us are evident. The animated film What She Didn’t Know takes an impressive step towards explaining how skill and technical proficiency are transformed into the aspirational point of wielding emotion through art. Created by Zoe Zheng, this production saw her involved as writer, designer, director, and animator. Awards for What She Didn’t Know at the Future of Film Awards and Oakland Film Festival as well as official selection status at the Experimental Music & Dance Film Festival, Palermo International Film Festival, and numerous others found Ms. Zheng receiving a surge of attention and accolades for her animation style and powerful storytelling. 

Desinger director animator Zoe Zheng
Designer director animator Zoe Zheng

 What She Didn’t Know is a story which depicts the “Aha” moment or creative awakening of a young pianist. Inspired by Ms. Zheng’s own experience with an instructor who helped her to push beyond mere technique to comprehend the true power of artistic expression, this film translates this transformative event. The impact of this on her life is something Zoe hopes the film will spark in others. She comments, “This piano teacher opened my eyes to the ‘color’ of musical notes that I couldn’t hear before. When I play now, I can feel the colors on my fingertips. But this particular teacher taught me more, through the silhouette of piano he let me see a fuller picture of life. It was one of the major moments in life where I felt like I was colorblind before it.”

 The film begins with a small girl practicing the piano, somewhat clumsily. She repeats the same parts, experiencing difficulty and frustration. When the sheet music falls from the piano “create color” is written on it. The girl remembers her teacher showing her about finding the color by feeling it rather than hearing it. He plays the notes from his fingers on her fingers. “This is how you create color.” he says to her. She sits back at the piano and begins to play with emotions. She hears her teachers voice describing things…a peach, the sunset, the color in your eyes. She begins to play with deep emotion and the colors accompany the notes. 

  There a symbiotic relationship between what’s so extraordinary about this film and the toll it exacted on its creator. From the onset, Zoe wanted What She Didn’t Know to be a stark contrast to much of her previous work which were heralded for the fact that they were more complicated, visually pleasing, faster paced, and high impact. She divulges, “With the film, I was exploring a design that felt authentic to my voice and the story. I wanted something simple and sincere. I wanted to make a film that’s a little coarse, with a lot of textures, and childlike lines, but one that you’d watch and know that the director poured her heart into it.” She adds, “My process in making the film was, instead of storyboarding the film, to approach it like a series of designs, breaking down the shots into shapes and colors. But what really made it difficult was that I forgot to manage my relationship with the film and eventually it became toxic. Because of how personal and serious the film was to me, I became attached, and in hindsight, honestly obsessive. Anything to do with the film would directly affect me. I love a challenge, there is nothing inherently painful about difficult tasks; it was the mindset and overthinking and fighting with myself over every little detail that made it difficult.”

  The vast majority of accomplished artists agonize over their work, and Zoe is no different. It’s nearly impossible to take the vision in one’s own mind and through some type of creative alchemy, make it accessible to others. Far more demanding is what Ms. Zheng has achieved here, the depiction of how a creative barrier is torn down to cultivate an entirely new awareness of the power of music. This brief production incites personal reflection and the questioning of where greater expressive potential lies within us all. Zoe herself concurs stating, “When I watch it it’s exactly how I want it to be, and I can see the Zoe from 2023 shutting herself in her little room, drawing over and over again trying to fight her way out of her mind, and eventually arrived at this tiny little film that means exactly what it means with every part of it. I realize the challenges have morphed What She Didn’t Know into not just a film but a motif in my life.”

Writer : Calvin Hooney