Multitalented San Francisco filmmaker King Yaw Soon envisions world through animation

Illustration of Michelle, an Asian-American pharmacist, in bright, animated colors
Genesis Cruz/Staff

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King Yaw Soon, a filmmaker originally from Malaysia and currently based in San Francisco, has always been an imaginative creator. As an alumnus of San Francisco State University, Soon studied cinema, but before that, Soon trained as a watercolor painter and participated in the Chinese orchestra during high school. His most recent short films, “All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello” and “My Mother, Myself & I,” highlight his attentive, dedicated approach to filmmaking. 

For much of his creative life, the Bay Area artist experimented with a plethora of mediums before settling on filmmaking and animation. According to Soon, the decision to focus on filmmaking was extremely intuitive.

“It felt like a natural transition to the medium where I could combine all my skills in different art and make something beautiful out of it,” Soon stated in an email interview with The Daily Californian. “The creative expression in making a film is much more powerful and satisfying to me personally.” 

In that sense, filmmaking was a holistic culmination of Soon’s talents, allowing him to combine his love of illustration, music and storytelling. Thematically, his short films delve into a variety of subject matter, from acceptance and belonging to familial ties. 

“Deep and personal stories inspire me,” Soon said of his work. “I believe that there is tremendous strength in vulnerability. And I want my art to be a vessel of that.” 

For Soon, short films are the perfect medium to observe and analyze the world around him. Utilizing a mixture of influences such as the 1950s United Productions of America animation stills and Pixar color palettes, the filmmaker has patented his own whimsical, yet lifelike style. Inspired by the work of artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Abbas Kiarostami, his films progress gradually and bloom slowly, utilizing mindful pauses to create room for reflection. 

“These films help to detach myself from the conventional Hollywood narrative style and appreciate the beauty of storytelling through a slower, quieter and more self-contemplative lens. ‘My Mother, Myself & I,’ my undergraduate thesis film … (is) an eight-minute film with only four long takes and it’s still a style I’m trying to hone and develop,” Soon explained.

As for his artistic process, Soon often allows ideas to sit in his head and develop over time before officially starting a project. Giving himself extra time means that he can ponder over the themes of the idea more thoughtfully and prioritize which project he would like to work on most. 

Of this process, Soon said: “I usually let certain ideas brew in my mind for a long time, sometimes a few months, or years until I decide to explore it. Most of the time, it’s when the idea knocks on the door of my soul, telling me to let it out. That’s when I know it’s worthy to be made into a film.”

When it comes to the conception of a storyline itself, Soon engages both imaginatively and visually with his ideas, drawing them out and letting them expand into larger concepts. “When I begin a new project, aside from writing, I like to doodle a lot, mostly story frames. It’s an animator’s habit I guess. In the meantime, I spend a lot of time researching and finding references ranging from classical paintings to a modern pop song.”

Soon describes himself as an avid planner, already thinking about editing a piece while he is still completing the first steps. Nevertheless, he understands the importance of allowing a project to breathe on its own. 

“I have to remind myself to give space for the narrative to take on its own form because stories are rewritten during the production phase and at the editing stage,” Soon noted.

“All I Did Was Smile and Say Hello,” the opening film at the KQED Homemade Film Festival, takes on a range of relevant themes and brings awareness to the increased discrimination of the Asian American community during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an Asian American artist, Soon feels it is crucial for his work to reflect his lived experiences and spread messages of solidarity.

“I was alarmed by the amount of hate and violence one can inflict on others based on the color of the skin when the real enemy is the invisible virus,” Soon revealed. “As an artist, I try to process the pain by making art, so something beautiful can grow out of the experience.”

As an up-and-coming filmmaker, Soon has much more to look forward to. His next project, “When I See the Wind,” is a collaboration with Andrés Gallegos, another Bay Area cinematographer. In addition to this project, Soon will be working on a Chinese-language project that centers around his father’s childhood experience. 

Above all, Soon aims to be authentic in his work and use his own experiences, as well as those of his friends, to tell a story that anyone can understand. 

“My job as a documentarian is to tell the story I’ve collected in the best way it could be told,” Soon expressed. “I believe that authentic vulnerability leads to transformation.”

Contact Luna Khalil at [email protected].