top of page

clockwork wolf



I met Clockwork Wolf in February 2020 when I was looking for a musician for my animation ethnographic film. Being an illustrator and a graphic designer myself, I believe that sometimes the inner beauty, or the true colours of a person could be hidden, or even contradictory to their physical conditions - just like how Stephen Hawking was bonded to a wheelchair while having an extremely playful and energetic personality. Clockwork Wolf is a musician, also an aspiring photographer - I couldn't really tell from his appearance, but from the moment I entered his flat things became clear. I sketched his flat and his arrangement of his instruments so many times to get myself familiar with his thought process - as someone who is living alone - he has the freedom to arrange his space however he wanted. And that reflected how he sees his daily routines, how he balanced his work and entertainment, and his aesthetic preferences in general.

As I was making the third or the fourth drawing of his room he made a suggestion - how about if I start doing something more imaginative but not straightly sketching something already exists on their own? He later elaborated, as a musician, for so many times he has heard musics that are so complicated or it acquire musical knowledge to understand - so they are not accessible for laymen - despite being so novel and interesting to fellow musicians like him. Clockwork Wolf suggested that 'if only we can put together visual images, especially moving ones, together with the music - so the more abstract parts could be interpreted in more tangible, relatable ways - that way original musics are more accessible for the general public. I see the same problem with ethnographic films that might be deemed boring for they are being too distance, and it acquires anthropological knowledge to understand. However in contrary, when I worked as a graphic designer, visual communication was one of the easiest thing to achieve since we were trained to manipulate with visual codes and to interpret what the audience might think beforehand - the only concern was the accuracy of the message. Uncannily, Clockwork Wolf was having similar frustrations for trends in music - that what is currently trending would be considered valuable and beautiful. Despite that he attended music schools and has been playing music for his whole life, he was facing a musical fatigue because of it.

From his four cameras showcased on the top of his shelf and how he ordered his furniture and commodities according to their shapes and colours - also by the way he criticized the differences between digital camera and film camera, I can tell I am facing an individual who is eager to represent something accurately, true to their own experience and emotions, but is also frustrated because he lacked the visual resources into multimedia creation. 'Wolf Children' was one of Clockwork Wolf's favorite Japanese animation films, in the story the protagonists could transform from human to wolf - which is a symbolic play for adolescence growth and life choices they have to make. According to Clockwork Wolf, the magic of Japanese animation lies in the fact that since the whole cinematography is stylized and minimal, the shift between reality and fantastical elements would not appear as odd as life action films as there will be a stronger unity.

'I don't think still photos will do us any justice,' he said. At the same time I noticed how Clockwork Wolf looked so differently on every photo he displayed in his flat, to a point that he would be hard to recognize if he was a wanted criminal. Surprisingly he agreed 'I have the talent to not to look like myself on all printed media.' He continued with an example, 'For once in a fair or a festival, there was a Japanese caricaturist. Before she started to draw me she asked me questions about myself, not like deeply psychological you know, but what I do, and what I like; then she started to draw.' Clockwork Wolf seemed to be quite satisfied with the drawing however, 'I was thinking, she was interpreting my personality based on my face, my appearance, what about more intrinsic identities of me that are not shown on my face?' he hinted that his appearance, anyone's appearance in general would be an obstacle how they are being interpreted because of a cultural bias.


He then made a pretty bold hypothesis, 'in online rpg games people communicate in a more genuine way, in there they didn't know that I'm a musician, they refer to anyone equally by their roles in the game.' It reminded me of how he mentioned he hated his working environment because his colleagues were ranked and distributed differently to VIPs or usual customers because of their accents. Clockwork Wolf pointed to a tower of empty candy boxes and said, 'you can draw on it, and then we can make an installation or something on the wall,' I found this idea interesting since the material reflected his living habit, and the fact that he didn't need to hire an artist who might be a stranger to him to draw for him - since we're friends in artistic collaboration he just asked me. Me as a factor and the candy boxes both contributed to the ethnographic details if such an installation is made real.

'But I would need a topic first,' I told him. 'Why don't you just draw me?' He answered. But I didn't, for the obvious reason stated above, that I didn't know him long enough I could only portray him in a most superficial way. Instead, I stayed for a few days in his flat. During my stay I discovered more about him, either I observed it or he took the initiative to let me know more about himself. He showed me his collection of mechanic watches and cameras. I have little to no knowledge about mechanic watches - so he had to explain to me that these are watches that as long as you keep wearing it, it stays on forever unlike electric watches; that's the biggest charm of them. And he told me wolves has always been his favorite animal and to some extent, he could identify himself as a wolf. Blue was his favorite colour as a kid. You wouldn't see too many flamboyantly blue items in his room but it always appear in a subtle tint. On his belt, on his headphone case, on his jumper. Still, it would be hard to tell his fondness in this darker shade of blue since it is a pretty common colour for men's clothes, and that they didn't appear on larger areas.

I started to draw, in the first drawing it was an androgynous character with nothing like Clockwork Wolf though deep inside, I know he was the main source of inspiration for this piece. Surprisingly, the moment Clockwork Wolf picked up the drawing, 'this is me' he said, 'I want to make an animation using this character.' This is the moment I found that animation might work as an ethnography. What else would be a stronger evidence that the respondent who were being portrayed in a creative expression somehow was able to recognize such a creative persona as himself? I was not intentionally putting references or hints in the drawing so that he could recognize himself, oppositely, an abstract silhouette was formed in my mind after staying in this specific flat for long. In this case, it was also a artistic, subconscious, primal exchange between two forms of arts - audio and visuals. I looked at him and I listen his guitar while I was drawing, while 'music is the universal language' might be a cliche expression that mostly only refers to an one-sided communication as technically it is hard to tell if the audience thinks the same way as the performer. However, during my stay, our non verbal communication using music and visual art had successfully formed a valid dialogue that is shared by the two of us. 

We're making an animation about him, also about me drawing him, yet, not in the most conventional way. In fact, he was not as satisfied with the only realistic bust portray I've done for him in spite of it captured the most facial details of him. 'When you're being overly realistic about things, one single missing detail is going to make the drawing look unrealistic. The drawings he appreciated the most are always either simplistic, or surrealistic, still somehow appeared to be recognizable facets of himself that is not known for other people - or just too mundane to notice. For instance, Clockwork Wolf needs to get his 10km walk per day to keep his body functioning well, if he didn't do so, his health condition deteriorates, and he has a comparatively fast walking pace compared to other people of his body type. 

'Wolves have enormous hearts to keep them running so fast and for so long,' Clockwork Wolf said. We both looked each other in the eyes as if we caught a spark of inspiration together the moment he finished saying. 'what about drawing a wolf with his heart replaced by the mechanism of a mechanic watch, that is me?' he said. I thought of similar ideas but he was the first to articulate it well in words. Not only did such a character design reflected his personal aesthetic senses that is usually hard to depict, it also emerged his fondness of mechanism, wolves, and his daily routine together in one single and neat representation. It is also how Clockwork Wolf got its pseudonym in order to protect him from cultural, sexual, and social biases people might have against him per his experience.

I had never draw a wolf before so I had to spend time studying the anatomy of a wolf before we get to move on. On the other hand, I also never wear a mechanic watch before - he lent me his first mechanic watch he gotten when he was fourteen so I could wear it and experience it as a part of my life. Though I originally planned to do an animation ethnographic film for my university module. It turned out the journey, in seeking for a collaborator for the project and in searching for a more innovative ethnographic expression for my film - becomes the subject of the ethnography itself. Not to mention it also earned me a friend I would never forget for life.



According to Vaage, fictional storyboards are more likely to provoke a higher empathic engagement from audience, for they traced very nakedly the thought process of the protagonists and how they reason inside their brains (Vaage 2010). These invisible internal activities posed the most significant intimacy that non-fictional films couldn’t achieve, for very few respondents would be willing to share so nakedly; even if they did, they might not find it comfortable that their vulnerability were translated to a visual journey so explicit to strangers or people they are close to. As a graphic designer and an avid animation film watcher, it inspired me that if I could create an animation, with all of the factual details of my respondent hidden while all of their stories would be recreated with a creative expression – the effectiveness of visual communication in visual ethnography could be improved while not doing any harm to the protagonists of the film.


In the beginning I was quite worried if an animation film could be meet the purposes of a visual ethnographic film or not for a few reasons. Firstly, ethnographic film traditionally stressed on physical details of it subjects as almost all events are first initiated by physical contacts; by recreating all stories in the form of stop motion puppets or hand drawn animations, accurate details that would induce future researches might be missing. Secondly, it might create a biased image of the depicted subject since animations are always stylized. Thirdly, though I believe that it is possible that an animation film could be a good alternative in protecting the privacy of a respondent, the over usage of metaphor and surrealistic symbolism might result in an un-creditable impression for the viewers.


Though it is inevitable that an animation would not be as detailed as a real photo unless it was a direct trace, according to anthropologist Gell, artistic technique could be deemed a door to enchantment for viewers (Gell 1999). During my stay in my respondent’s flat, for a few times he has requested to look at my drawing process; instead of just looking at the finished product. In the end, he set up a time-lapse camera on my working desk that would take one photo per a second so he would know ‘how the magic happens’. This is especially true with reference to Gell’s example of how the painter Harnett’s painting series of letter racks are still one of people’s favorite despite the topic was mundane. In this series of painting Harnett paid so much attention to letter racks, in order to recreate its textures that people may not always consciously notice because it is just an ordinary, everyday item. But when it was being recreated intentionally, it reminded people what details they had overlooked , but also how these details are bought up again not by the wooden textual and envelopes clipped on a letter rack itself, but just by oil painting on a smooth canvas itself.


The magic appears when the viewers tried to empathize with the creator of the artwork just as when I was doing the drawing in front of my respondent. As he looked at the strokes on the paper his eyes traced the movements of my hand, and by analyzing the sequences of the brushes he understood the trial and error I have been through, also how I observed the object I was drawing. In this sense, though an animation film may not be as effective to record all physical details as its real live counterpart – it encompasses the whole environment with all participants including the ethnographer themselves. For example, all sketches and drawings I have put on this website are all extractions from my fieldnote, though fieldnotes are generally deemed as a private record for anthropologists and ethnographers, that not all of them could make into their papers, let alone the field sketches. Still, when executing an ethnography as a hand drawn animation, a fuller experience could be introduced to the audience as the ethnographer had utilized their perspective in the field.


The second problem was being solved gradually as my respondent was being more and more involved in the project. As argued by Condry, many Japanese animation creators focused more on the character designs over the actual story plots (Condry 2013) because it is the interaction between characters that shapes the story, thus it should matter more when it comes to the developmental process of an animation. Following the standard procedural, I first created the characters having in mind the life history and aesthetic preferences of my respondent. Thus, before proceeding to the storyboard that might distort the genuineness the most, the character has to be approved, and amended by the respondent it reflects. So even if an animation involves stylization that would sacrifice physical accuracy in live action films, it in turns contributed to the thick description of conveying a more intimate self in a respondent – for example what colours they like, or what overlooked features of themselves they secretly wanted to exaggerated.


While my respondent is generally confident with his physical appearance, he is objectively unphotogenic so most of his photographic representation might need alteration in order to make him more recognizable. Besides, there are people who are going to look tense on camera while more natural without the presence of a camera. Hence, it would be difficult to depict these people from the front. According to Gombrich, sometimes a client might ask an artist to put non-existing details on a painting because the portrayed subject was not in its best state the moment it was captured (Gombrich 1960). From my own experience, my respondent had also requested me to ‘make his eyes a little bit bigger’ in a portray I’ve done for him, and the reason was ‘it is true that my eyes look like that when I’m looking at my computer, but when I’m looking at other people, my eyes are bigger, and now it looks like I’m half asleep’ – these are the details that I might omit, while still thinking that I captured the truth correctly without the intense involvement of my respondent.


To dodge the third problem, originally I wanted to make myself the protagonist of the animation film so that I could credit my true identity after the pseudonym, to make it more creditable for viewers. However, it defied the initial advantage of animation film that they could prevent further traumatic response or social stigmatization might be faced by respondents. Supported by the social stigmatization that troubled my respondent’s life so much, for example racial discrimination, I decided that though it may not going to work perfectly – but I could see this experience as a start for discussion for similar topics especially in audience studies. Accordingly, even though something might seem difficult, I would like to see it tried out and have the situation improved.


All in all, I found it an eye-opening experience to be engaged in this project. Though I do not have sufficient time and materials to finish the animation before the deadline, by field recording the developmental process itself; it nevertheless formed a solid ethnographic framework that will be valuable for my field researches in the future.



Condry I., (2013), ‘The Soul of Anime’, Duke University Press

Gell A., (1999), The Art of Anthropology, Essays and Diagrams, The Athlone Press, London

Gombrich E. H., (1960), Art & Illusion, A study in the psychology of pictorial representation, Phaidon Press Limited

Vaage M., (2010), ‘Fiction Film and the Varieties of Empathic Engagement’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy

My Books


In the process of experimenting with an appropriate representation for Clockwork Wolf, it resulted in me as a visual ethnographer contributing and somehow becoming part of his self expression. Based on his oral life history, I am able to piece together some visuals that created aesthetic values compatible to Clockwork Wolf's aesthetic sense, especially for his fondness in Japanese animation. As I described to Clockwork Wolf what exactly is an ethnography, he agreed that artistic or creative expressions could transcend distraction of physical appearance, and reflect the deepest, subconscious thoughts of a person.

You don't have to be an artist or a professional curator to look or to experience the following visual experiments created for, created with, and created inspired by Clockwork Wolf. Pay attention to the colours, strokes, feel how your vision moves - that way you can empathize with what Clockwork Wolf has experienced and valued.

During my stay in Clockwork Wolf's flat there were countless moments where I was inspired by his activities so I drew a lot. In contrary to what I might expect, I rarely actually sketch Clockwork Wolf himself, but I mainly focused on imaginative, creative drawings.


Still, Clockwork Wolf was able to tell that I was drawing him, and which aspect of him I was subtly, metaphorically referring to. As someone who deeply interested in cinematic (realistic or fantastical) representation, working together on a semi-surreal storyboard - that involved human turning into a wolf - while still depicting realistic elements (e.g. what actually happened in the flat) as the plot anchor, Clockwork Wolf - the protagonist of the ethnography, would be more likely to consider this a legitimate representation of himself.



To me a camera is like a butterfly with the objects it captured as the flowers the bug lands. A butterfly flies freely around the field and focuses on the tiniest, yet the most crucial details based on its own 'personal selection', like a human cameraman would do with their cinematic choice on field, that is based on their personal history.

A butterfly never ends here, it flies to other flower fields to initiate exchanges between communities that might potentially communicate. As if they were camera with filmed films, waiting to be spread and shared to the general public. Oppositely, is it unfulfilling for a butterfly with pollen on its leg not to land on another flower, just like a footage that was never shared with anyone other than the filmmaker himself, would never be so powerful?


In Cantonese we have a saying 'the shape is alike, but the spirit is not' referring to how it is somehow easy to capture superficial details, observable facts; but is it so hard to capture something intrinsic and fluid. 

It is hard to keep a butterfly alive - it is short-lived and fragile, just like any subtle moments happening around us that we would like to capture.

bottom of page