Arts·The World Of

See a completely different take on Alice's Wonderland through these Canadian concept artists

Kei Acedera and Bobby Chiu are the Toronto couple who created the concept art for Disney's Alice in Wonderland movies, and they fell down the rabbit hole again this spring.

Toronto's Kei Acedera and Bobby Chiu fell down the rabbit hole again, but this time it's not for a film

Kei Acedera. Bunny Ride, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

They've been falling down the rabbit hole for the better part of a decade as two of the concept artists for Disney's Alice in Wonderland movies, but when Toronto's Kei Acedera and Bobby Chiu were asked to revisit and re-invent Cheshire Cats and Caterpillars all over again — this time for a new gallery show in Paris — the suggestion might have seemed mad. But then, by Wonderland logic, the best things usually are.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is the name of their exhibition of original illustrations, now on display at Galerie Arludik in Paris to July 15, though what you'll see there (and in the pictures below) is a completely different fantasy than the one in theatres. With Disney's sign-off, the couple/collaborators flew to the French capital in May, where they spent a month creating 40 new works based on the original Lewis Carroll stories.

Bobby Chiu. Through the Looking Glass, 2016. (Bobby Chiu)
Kei Acedera. Nostalgia, 2016. (Kei Acedera)
Kei Acedera. Wonders, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

"Characters for a film have to be approved by all sorts of people," says Chiu — who along with Acedera has created concept art for movies including Men In Black III and the upcoming Seth Rogen sci-fi comedy, The Something. But Through the Looking Glass? Through the magic that is the public domain, they were free to make their own version of the tale — "in many different ways, all sorts of different ways."

Kei Acedera. Tears and Dreams, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

"It's no use going back to yesterday?"

Why go back to Wonderland? If you want the real reason, says Chiu with a laugh, it's this: "Because we go to hang out in Paris for a month."

In Toronto, the duo runs Imaginism Studios — a company that develops concept art for TV, film, games and publishing, and which celebrated an Emmy win this year for their new animated adventure series, Niko and the Sword of Light. Spending a month in Wonderland — by way of Paris — was like going on an artist's retreat.

"We love our place, and our employees, but you know, getting away from that and just being us two, it just felt a lot more like [being] artists," says Chiu. "We just paint, and that's it."

"Yeah," adds Acedera, "we got to do traditional work" — hand drawn in pencil, ink and gouache — which was a shift from the digital work they typically do back home at the studio.

Kei Acedera. It's History, 2016. (Kei Acedera)
Bobby Chiu. The Queen of Hearts, 2016. (Bobby Chiu)
Kei Acedera. Easy There, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

"It was recharging for us," says Acedera.

"There's inspiration everywhere," adds Chiu, from the architecture to the food, and deliberate or not, the colours in Acedera's new illustrations especially are as delicious as a box of macarons.

Kei Acedera. Bittersweet, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

Creepy and Cute

"My [work] is more creepy cute or bizarre or funny," Chiu says of his style, and "Kei is much more…"

"Whimsical," she says, chiming in — while Chiu adds a few more appropriate adjectives, "beautiful" and "charming" among them.

And yet, for years, the duo has co-signed their work. What they're able to achieve together is exactly the quality that landed them the Alice project in the first place. When the 2010 film was coming together, Chiu was asked to try out for the job, and sent in his take on the Caterpillar. "Tim Burton didn't like it," says Chiu, but the director gave him a second chance. "I asked, 'Well, can I team up with Kei? We do a lot of film projects together,'" and they landed the job, which they shared with a third artist, Michael Kutsche.

Bobby Chiu. Escaping the Jabberwocky, 2016. (Bobby Chiu)
Kei Acedera. The Nature of Things, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

The way they collaborate is all about finding a balance between their opposite styles, says Chiu. "I'll bring the creepy, Kei will bring the cute and we'll put it together." Who takes the lead on the creative direction of the piece all depends on the tone of the film.

None of their projects, though, have been quite like the Alice movies.

Kei Acedera. Curious, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

There's something about Alice

Returning to the world they helped create for the first film, the duo says they were given a lot more trust while creating new character designs for the sequel.

It's rare that the creature drawn up by a concept artist is perfectly mirrored in the final, cinematic product, Chiu says, but "a lot of the characters you see in the film literally look like our paintings moving," says Chiu.

The Cheshire KItten, before and after. Kei Acedera's original concept art on the left, and the Disney movie poster version on the right. (Instagram (@kei_acedera)/Disney)

Hitting the reset button

When Acedera and Chiu started work on their gallery show, though, it had been a good year and a half since they'd been inventing all sorts of mad things for Disney. Going back to the Lewis Carroll source material, and not a movie script, was like hitting "re-set" on a project they'd lived with for years.

Some characters, which they'd designed for the movie — but who were ultimately cut from the script — have a home in their new Wonderland. The Mock Turtle and the Walrus, for example. "It was nice to see them again and let them have their little bit of light," says Chiu.

Kei Acedera. Mockturtle Problems, 2016. (Kei Acedera)
Bobby Chiu. Walrus, 2016. (Bobby Chiu)

The artists' new Mad Hatters and March Hares undoubtedly share some of the same curious DNA as their Disney precursors, but just looking at them, you can see how these new characters are living in a totally different story.

"The Alice I drew for the gallery show is much younger, I'd say, and just more free spirited than the one in the movie," says Acedera. She's drawn with "more charm," she adds, "and more from a children's storybook perspective."

Kei Acedera. Reach, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

Thinking about the new Wonderland they've created, Chiu says: "It was almost like a return visit."

Bobby Chiu. A Little Walk, 2016. (Bobby Chiu)
Kei Acedera. Chess, 2016. (Kei Acedera)
Bobby Chiu. Absolem 2, 2016.
Kei Acedera. Queens, 2016. (Kei Acedera)

Alice Through the Looking Glass. Kei Acedera, Bobby Chiu. To July 15 at Gallerie Arludik, Paris.