Karen X Cheng

On exploring new ideas through new technologies


Talent: Karen X Cheng @karenxcheng

From her Donut Selfie concept to her fake drone series, it’s clear that director Karen X. Cheng does not shy away from experimenting with new ideas. And with the former being used on a Beats By Dre campaign and her series on PUMA’s #SheMovesUs campaign becoming their most viral TikTok of the year, Cheng has proven her knack for introducing her distinctive style and creativity to her collaborations with well-established brands.

In the past year, Cheng has turned her focus to new technologies, particularly artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR), the third of which she incorporated when she partnered with McDonald’s on their Lunar New Year campaign. For this team-up, Cheng conceptualized an AR filter with a tiger that would transform into a rabbit at a different angle, representing the transition from the year of the tiger to the year of the rabbit.

Through her conversation with Timid, Cheng discusses her creative process and her personal connection to this campaign.

TM: What are some of your favorite memories of Lunar New Year?

KXC: My favorite memory of Lunar New Year is definitely getting the red envelopes. As a kid, that's what I cared about. My parents would always give me the dollar amount of my age. So when I was eight years old, I would get $8 And when I was nine years old, I would get $9. And so every year I would get a raise, and I was always looking forward to my annual raise. At the time, I thought it was so much money. So honestly, that was my favorite part of Lunar New Year.

And then of course, [now that I’m older], getting together with family and eating a huge meal. Having hot pot with them. Those are always highlights. And every time this time of year, I order some pineapple cakes.

TM: Are there any McDonald's anecdotes from your childhood? How excited were you to work with them for this?

Yeah. Growing up, I would always get McDonald's. There was one near my house. And my parents knew that whenever I was in a bad mood, they could cheer me up by going to the drive-thru and getting me a double cheeseburger. It's been my comfort food since I was a kid. And so having that emotional association with it, and then now being the face of a giant campaign for McDonald's, it’s very, very surreal.

TM: Tell us about this collaboration with McDonald’s and your creative process for this piece.

So McDonald's reached out to me and they said, “Hey, we want to do something like an AR filter for Lunar New Year.” And at first, I didn't really have any ideas. I was like, “Okay, what do I do here?” I came up with a few ideas that I didn't like as much. I had an idea of scanning [a QR code] and then all the zodiac animals would come out of your phone—I didn't really like it that much. And then I had some ideas that use a McDonald's Happy Meal Box. I went and bought a Happy Meal and I was looking at it and trying to pick something out with it. And I couldn't figure anything out that I liked that much.

And then I was thinking about this other idea that I was doing with illusions, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I could do something with that.” We are currently in the year of the tiger and about to go into the year of the rabbit, so I wanted to do a transition from tiger to rabbit. And that way, the moment of the rabbit reveal would be something special. I was like, “Okay, I'm going to pitch this one to McDonald's and see if they go for it.” And so they did.

The problem was, I did not know how to do that illusion. I've never done an illusion like that before. So once I accepted it, I was like, “Okay, well, I better figure out how to do it.” I worked with this 3D artist, Victoria Kamala, who is also AAPI, and we found a YouTube tutorial that [showed us] how to do these illusions. And basically, it works like stencils—I actually have a behind-the-scenes video that shows how the process works. From this tutorial, we figured out how to do it, and then Victoria modeled all the 3D pieces. Then we brought it into an AR filter to actually try it. We started over three or four times. At first the pole sculpture was lopsided and did not look good, so we had to redo it. And then when we brought it into the AR filter, all the textures got really compressed because Instagram has certain limitations. So then we had to redo it again from scratch. We started over several times and finally got it looking like the way that we liked it. So that was the process.

TM: What do you hope your audience will take away from this campaign?

I guess, you know, when I was a kid, there were no examples of Asian people in the media. There were very, very, very few. So few. And I just took that as given. I didn't question it, I didn't challenge it. I didn't think, “Why is that?” I just thought, ”Well, I'm just gonna go be really good at math. Just what my parents want me to do.” And so now, whenever I speak at a conference, the first people to come up to me afterwards are oftentimes younger Asian women who want to have a career in the arts or in creative work. And, you know, I want Asians to see that there are different paths to success, not just math and science.

For the longest time, I never would call myself an artist. Because in Chinese culture, at least what I was taught, was that “artist equals failure”. And so why would I call myself a failure, right? I just had that really clear association in my head. And then people started calling me an artist and I was like, “No, no, no, I'm not an artist.” And only more recently, did I sort of reprogram my brain and be like, “No, you can be an artist and be successful.” So l would love for younger Asian people to just see—whether they want to be an artist or not—just to see that there are unconventional paths and that they don't have to do the thing that their parents told them to do.

With my parents, they are not as traditional as some parents, but they still are somewhat traditional. So for them, as long as I'm supporting myself, it is fine. But when I first quit my job at Microsoft, they were like, “What are you doing?” They were very, very, very against it. But then once I eventually found my own way again, they became just so, so supportive. And the drawing in the commercial—the rabbit—the reason why it looks kind of weird and wonky is because it's actually my childhood drawing. If a director were to select a drawing, I think they wouldn't have chosen that one. But it was actually my childhood drawing, and that was something that my parents had kept all of these years. So it was so special that when McDonald's reached out to me about this campaign, I actually messaged my parents, and I was like, “Hey, do you have any childhood drawings of mine?” And that they pulled up a tiger and a rabbit. I was like, “This is so perfect.” And my parents kept that for like, over 20 years, you know?

TM: Where do you draw inspiration from in your work?

KXC: You know, I really just try to observe much of what's around me. And notice, like, “Oh, what do I like? What do I not like?” And then for the things that I like, oftentimes I'll see something and be like, “There's something really cool about this idea, or this piece of art or something.” And I'll try to tease it out like, “What about it do I like?” And then I'll challenge myself and be like, “Okay, if I were to do this, but change one thing, how might I do it?” And so that sort of like is oftentimes a starting point for me. And then I end up making so many changes that by the time I have a finished product, it might look nothing like the original or it might look similar. And you know, I think as artists, we all take inspiration from somewhere, and I always I always try to credit where I get the idea from, too.

TM: What inspired you to explore new technology in your work?

I think, for me, what's interesting is, you know, at the beginning of last year, I actually sort of felt like I was running out of ideas. There were so many super talented people doing similar stuff, and I just felt I was running out of good and fresh ideas. And so I was like, “Okay, if I am going to come up with new ideas, I actually have to try these new technologies.”

There were three that I was really interested in, which were AI, augmented reality, and VR, and I spent last year exploring all three of them. Now, I don’t worry about running out of ideas. When you get exposed to new technologies, you have so many advantages. It's much easier to come up with an idea that hasn't been done before. I mean, sure, a lot of the ideas draw inspiration from other things like older film techniques, but implemented in the way that they are, that combination is fresh. So for me, I think, the ability to continue to explore new technology really helps you keep your work and your mind fresh.

TM: What’s next for you? Anything new you’re looking forward to exploring?

I think this year, I'm really interested in trying to figure out the more human angle to AI. Because, you know, there is a lot of concern, and rightfully so, about the uses of AI. I'm really interested in figuring out, like, “What are ethical ways we can use it? What are ways that we can use it that make humans feel empowered rather than freaked out and scared of it?” For example, I think like with NeRF [neural radiance field], there's a really good way that people feel empowered using them, versus some other types of AI where artists might start to feel like maybe they are stolen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.