Renee Zhan’s 2018 2D animated short film Reneepoptosis is inspired by Chinese ink wash painting and follows a trio of her alter ego Renees who embark on a treacherous journey of self-exploration while seeking out God—the animator herself. The trio, which represents Renee from youth to old age, encounters other human-like creatures and insects that mimic and swarm them when crossing the forest and rivers. As the figures traverse along with the landscapes of Renee’s body, their quest comes to an end with an auto-cannibalistic feast when they discover their God is the mounds of flesh herself. This post shows how Reneepoptosis demonstrates how undergoing a heinous period of introspectiveness allows individuals to assess their character and encompass personal growth openly.
Reneepoptosis highlights a lucid and thought-provoking depiction of the wide range of emotions humans embody as the Renees trudge down memory lane. During Zhan’s postgraduate fellowship in Japan, her time alone spent hiking and engrossing herself in nature allowed her to ponder her emotions seriously (Rosenbaum). The film’s sequences reflect Zhan’s journey as the Renees discover a variety of feelings that their God encountered throughout their lifetime and elicit a strong sense of nostalgia. Her emotions are symbolized by the other outwardly creatures and the land: the figures hanging by a thread in the forest represent vulnerability as they unanimously whisper out desperate cries seeking affection and comfort. If the creatures fall from the thread, they cannot survive in her world, indicating that her weaker sides will be trampled over and taken advantage of if she cannot protect herself. Another example is when the Renees fall into the river, they ask Renee (God) to consider how much she cried as the water ran deep and long. Their simple request stipulates that the trio acknowledges her tears but hopes that she weeps less in the future to reduce their laborious adventure.
Halfway through the short, the trio trudges along the barren ground while gasping for breath as sweat falls from their bodies. They question what situation could have resulted in such an arid and sterile environment. Compared to the other land they traveled over, this area lacked color and life; plants were nowhere to be seen–the only forms of life were the Renees and small beetles that crawled over the cracked ground. Uncovering these sorts of mysteries on their journey reveals more about the troubles that Renee (God) endured. However, these obstacles are relevant to their exploration. They lead them to a more fruitful and bright area (of Renee’s body), allowing the Renees to accept her problems mindfully and appreciate other positive aspects of their God.
The visual style and form in Reneepoptosis help amplify the subtle eeriness of Renees’ journey. This 2D animated short celebrates Zhan’s cultural roots with its Chinese-inspired ink wash painting and recalls traditional Asian artwork. Zhan decided to diversify her work and embrace her culture after spending years pushing away her roots (Munday). Adding Chinese elements to the animation accentuates the director’s culture while serving to display her acceptance found on a journey of self-exploration.
Throughout the short, images of Zhan’s fellowship are emulated in the imaginative reworking of the characters. Although the background of the animation was hand-painted, the figures were digitally placed (Sarto). As described by Zhan in an interview, her hike consisted of “grubs, leeches, rain and mold,” which adds perspective to the way the Renees and other insect-like figures are painted (Munday). The Renees are distinguished by peculiar, round shapes that fluidly move around—almost parasitical in the way they disturb the land. Despite a variety of creatures shown in the film, Zhan remains consistent with the aesthetics by creating insect-like figures with their distinctive appearances: bulbous bodies with short black hair and grim facial expressions. The invariable designs of the figures contribute to the objective that the land, including the elements that make up the environment, is a representation of the director herself.
With the uncanny ambiance of the film, the sounds of the flesh are emitted through a squishy-like noise. The squishy-like sounds used to resemble flesh are perpetuated throughout the entire animation and set an uncomfortable tone for the viewers. In contrast, a soft voice delivers the narration in rhyming verse that whispers biting self-deprecating words about Renee—the same voice is used to vocalize Renees’ thoughts during their journey. Without any audible dialogue other than Zhan’s narration and background audio, this setup makes sense of the creator’s animation style and its exploration of the ways that emphasize the portrayal of Zhan’s emotions. The choice to participate in the narration suggests that Zhan aims to characterize her fears and anxieties through the Renees themselves.
Towards the end of the short, the Renees are seen consuming one another, ignoring the figure from the beginning of the short who tried to heed a warning about falling into the sweet temptations of the flesh. As the trio realized the God they spent so long looking for was nothing more than mounds of flesh like themselves and makes up the entire land they walked upon, they swiftly dug into the grounds and began chewing away, succumbing to the temptations of Renee’s flesh. Examining the relationship between the trios and Renee (God), they aid in personifying the notion of self-deprecation and self-worship. Since all the figures that portray Renee are consuming Renee (God) and each other, the action can be viewed as piercing negativity and loathing for oneself. Regardless of how the audience interprets this sequence, the actual intentions are not to spark a conversation about how a journey of self-exploration leads to destruction but rather to sympathize with the objective that self-discovery is a series of events that encompasses all forms of an individual’s character.
The title, Reneepoptosis, ties in with apoptosis–a normal process of cellular death that is significant in an organism’s development (Elmore). The act of the monstrous characters eating one another alludes to the idea that encountering adversity and feelings of hatred is necessary for one’s growth. By consuming Renee and others, it allows for more, and possibly better, Renees to be produced—it is a natural cause that is inevitable, but it does not imply that their actions are ruining her.
To conclude, Reneepoptosis resembles personal poetry that treads over themes of memory and self-exploration through the usage of its compelling visuals and graphic narrative. The 2D animated short comments on the director’s ideas of loneliness and self-discovery but powerfully highlights how toilsome the pursuit can get when reaching for growth. Zhan’s visionary reworking of her self-discovery was showcased horrifyingly with glimpses of auto cannibalism but is far from insular. By transforming herself into the small, monstrous creatures, she allows the audience to resonate more with her intentions and how she speaks on her journey.
Elmore, Susan. “Apoptosis: A Review of Programmed Cell Death.” Toxicologic Pathology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2117903/.
Munday, Rob. “Reneepoptosis by Renee Zhan: Animation: Short Film.” Short of the Week, www.shortoftheweek.com/2021/07/09/reneepoptosis.
Rosenbaum, S.I. “‘Kind of Dark and Scary.’” Harvard Magazine, 16 Aug. 2019, www.harvardmagazine.com/2019/09/renee-zhan-animation.
Sarto, Dan. “Blinkink Signs Director Renee Zhan.” Animation World Network, 30 Aug. 2021, www.awn.com/news/blinkink-signs-director-renee-zhan.
Thaovy Nguyen is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas pursuing a BA in Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communications (ATEC) with a concentration in Design and Production. She is an aspiring UX/UI designer with a love for classic animation films.