Skip to main content
Back to top

In September of 2023, DigiPen MFA in Digital Arts graduate Mingyuan Li awoke one morning to a huge surprise. Her 2022 graduating thesis project, the 3D short film Nobody, had won the prestigious 2023 Catalina Film Festival’s “Best Animation” award. “It was my first time ever winning something, I felt so lucky!” Li says. “Getting an award for my work in school was totally beyond my expectations.” The film that earned her such high accolades at the festival, held on scenic Santa Catalina island off the coast of Los Angeles, actually has its roots in an experience Li had in France years prior.

Originally from China, Li traveled to Paris to get her college degree in fashion design. “Self-expression is really important to me, and at the time I thought fashion design was my dream way to do that,” says Li, who learned French to study in the fashion capital of the world. During her schooling and brief stint as a menswear designer there, Li read a newspaper article that stuck with her ever since. The story told of a Chinese woman who had been robbed and murdered in a dangerous district of Paris doing sex work, but the article didn’t include her name. “She was just listed as ‘one Chinese woman,’” Li says. “When I read that, I thought, ‘This is a human life!’ She is probably related to kids, a husband, a family, and people who love her. But in the newspaper, she ended up anonymous. That’s unfair to me.”

Li’s fashion design experience in Paris led to an unexpected opportunity upon her return to China as a costume designer at Ubisoft Shanghai, working on the popular Just Dance rhythm game series. “Before that, I knew nothing about video games,” Li says. “When you play the game, the dancers you see onscreen are real dancers we filmed wearing actual costumes.” With the help of a choreographer and video artist, Li designed the dancers’ outfits for each song and hired people to create them in real life. The job had a profound effect on Li, who had never considered video games as a mode of expression. “It made me realize that games are a much more complete way to express myself, and that I had stories I wanted to tell that I couldn’t tell through clothes,” Li says. That newfound interest led Li to DigiPen, where the college’s game-focused curriculum and high post-graduate salaries attracted her to the MFA program.

As a complete newcomer to 3D software, Li says she was incredibly nervous at first. “When I look back, DigiPen was a wonderful journey, but when I started, I was full of uncertainty,” Li says. “What if I’m not talented enough? What if I can’t figure out this software? What if I never land a job?” As her time at DigiPen went on, Li says she realized all those initial worries were simply “problems I could work through one by one.” Li’s skills in 3D modeling and animation grew into a passion for environment art, which her faculty advisor Christopher Poplin suggested she should focus on for her thesis film, Nobody.

  • This film contains references to sex work and scenes of implied violence. Viewer discretion is advised.

When thinking of inspiration for the project, Li immediately remembered the article she read in Paris. For her film, Li decided to tell a story, solely using 3D environments, that gave context to the life of the unnamed Chinese woman she read about. Using deft camera work that closely surveys the unnamed woman’s apartment, belongings, and the streets of Paris, Li dedicated the film to “those nameless who are forced into sex-trafficking” and the 75% of sex workers who have experienced physical violence on the job.

Telling a cohesive story without using any characters or dialogue was a big initial challenge. “Professor Poplin suggested that I make lots of rough previews at first and show them to strangers and friends who had nothing to do with games, art, or film to check if they could understand the story,” Li says. “That really helped me discover which parts were confusing to people so I could fix them early on.” Produced completely in Unreal Engine, Nobody also challenged Li to deepen her understanding of the tool’s capabilities and functionality. “I encountered a lot of problems I didn’t even know the name of at first!” Li says. “I’d just have to describe them instead, like, ‘Why is my screen turning grey?’”

Li’s persistence paid off in unexpected ways, including a new career path. Impressed by her lighting work on the film, it was one of her DigiPen instructors, Bungie art lead Matthew Dudley, who first recommended 3D lighting as a profession.

Mingyuan Li holds her clear, pointed trophy for “Best Animation” for her short film Nobody, awarded by the Catalina Film Festival.

“His suggestion set off a lightbulb in my mind,” Li laughs. “I’d never thought about becoming a lighting artist. I was focusing on environment art. But he reminded me it was a possibility based on what he saw in my thesis.” Not long after graduating, Li applied for and landed a job as a lighting artist at Rockstar Games, where she’s currently working on the highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto VI.

“I thought 3D lighting was really difficult at first, since you need not just strong technical skills but artistic skills to do it,” she says. “My biggest takeaway from DigiPen was understanding that a foundation in traditional art and storytelling plays the most important role, no matter what job in the industry you want. DigiPen really focused on those two aspects, and it totally informs the work I do now.”

The other unexpected payoff for Li’s persistence? A trophy from the Catalina Film Festival, now proudly displayed in her home. “When you open the door to my house, the first thing you see is the trophy, front and center!” she says.