Artist Interview: Harry and Henry Zhuang (aka Zhuang Brothers)

The Tiger of 142B, a short film by Harry and Henry Zhuang and produced as part of Utter 2015, was selected to compete in the Grand Competition category of the 26th Zagreb Animafest. The film’s narrative, adapted from a short story by Dave Chua, explores the spaces – at once physical and metaphysical, visible and invisible – that surround us and examines our relationships with people we share these spaces with. This National Day, we speak to the filmmakers who flew the Singapore flag high at the esteemed animation festival in Croatia.

The Tiger of 142B_Filmstills - 01.jpgThe Tiger of 142B_Filmstills - 02.jpgThe Tiger of 142B_Filmstills - 03.jpg

Cartoons Underground: Could you share a bit about yourselves, and what got you into animation?

Zhuang Brothers: We can still remember the first animated film our mum brought us to watch at a cinema was Beauty and the Beast. We were mesmerized by the ballroom scene. It left a deep impression. In 2000, we enrolled into NYP – Digital Media Design (now known as School of Interactive & Digital Media) and Srinivas Bhakta was one of our animation lecturers.

After National Service, we were quite clueless about how to get a job, so we did a 3D animated short film with an intention of using it for our job interview. We got into Sparky Animation and worked as 3D animators for around 2 years. At around that time, we started to wonder if there is more to learn in the art of film-making. We talked to a couple of people and concluded that the most affordable option for us was NTU’s Art Design Media (ADM).

Fortunately, we managed to get a scholarship from MDA to pursue our studies. Through MDA’s tea session, we got to know Tan Wei Keong, the director of Pifuskin and he introduced us to the film festival circuit. The lecturers at NTU ADM also played an important role as well. Hans Martin Rall constantly showed us all sort of animated shorts, opening a whole new world for us. Subsequently, we attended our very first film festival, the Singapore International Film Festival. It was an amazing experience and we were very inspired by the films we saw that day, in particular Kirsten Tan’s short film ‘Sink’. It is then we started exploring the possibility of animation and made “Contained” which premiered in the following Singapore International Film Festival.

CU: What are some of your inspirations and influences?

ZB: We try to watch a wide range of animation and films! From popular Japanese animation by Ghibli to quirky ones by Koji Yamamura. European animation have a huge influence on us as well. We are particularly attracted to award-winning animated short films by Igor Kovalyov, David O’Reilly or the National Film Board of Canada. We really enjoy seeing how these artists find new ways to present their narrative. We find it very inspiring!

Screening of Grand Competition short film 6, QnA moderated by Alexis HunotScreening of Grand Competition short film 6, QnA moderated by Alexis Hunot
Photo credits: Nina Đurđević, Julien Duval Photography

CU: Any interesting stories or memories from your time at Zagreb Animation Festival? How did it feel watching your film screened at such an esteemed festival?

ZB: Animafest is a respectable festival and we are very fortunate to have our short film The Tiger of 142B selected in 26th Zagreb Animafest Grand Competition. We feel that the festival focuses a lot on the spirit of animation and it attracts a lot of like-minded artists like ourselves. Most of the animators we met are very devoted to the art form, and would spend years of sweat and hard work on creating their films. They just love what they do. And it is the pureness and sincere attitude that drives their films, each having it own unique voice.

Animafest’s selection ranges from films that are very experimental and avant-garde to touching films that follow a classical narrative. All of them are great in their own ways and watching them allows us as filmmakers to learn and grow. The organisers, the judges – they are very friendly and approachable people. At any time, we can just walk up to them and ask questions about their work. No barriers, no snobbish attitudes. They just love to share. On top of that, the festival provides a carefree platform for animators to chat and talk. We got to know friends from all around the world – filmmakers, sound designers, producers, scholars and festival directors. We are really humbled by the experience.

13391673_10154254157181704_8298017000398828666_o.jpg with peterlordWith Peter Lord, Co-founder of Aardman Animations studio]


CU: I first encountered your work upon watching Contained, and was mesmerized by it, not only by its technical mastery but also the unconventional narrative, harnessing the possibilities of medium to convey story and emotions (eg. the ever-moving textures of the clay as a mode of expression) and trusting the visuals to speak in a space of non-dialogue.

I’m very curious about your pre-production process, which I find very unique. Sometimes pre-production is something students assume follows a certain standard method/structure. But for your films, you have experimented with different approaches – making Contained spontaneously without storyboards, and making The Tiger of 142B by adapting a short story into a script and storyboarding it out. In this respect, could you share about your approaches to film-making?

ZB: In the usual pipeline production for an animated film, you begin production only when the storyboards are ‘locked down’. However, there are some directors that do not adhere to this practice . One notable example would be Hayao Miyazaki. He is known to start animation production even before he even figured out the ending. During an interview for the making of Princess Mononoke, he mentioned that to convey something that one already know, it is just a ‘transmission’. But to convey an ‘expression’, one have to struggle to get a hold of the unknown. His approach in making films has since then played a major influence in how we made films.

We were very certain that both Contained and The Tiger Of 142B would adopt such an approach, even though we do not do this for all our films. For ‘Contained’, the idea came from one of Henry’s class assignments. Our intention was to explore the idea of a tsunami consuming an island. As when we progressed, we began to add a character and some props. We had no clear idea how the film would turn out and the only storyboards we did were 2 – 3 thumbnails to communicate our ideas with one another. And as we animated, we were very open to spontaneous ideas. For example, we got the idea of the flower petals dropping because the actual petals of our props just kept dropping! Each time we finish a shot, we would immediately include it into our edit. Some shots was originally planned to be appear earlier, but was subsequently placed at the end. The whole process was very spontaneous and fluid. It is with time that we began to understand what our film is about, and what we wanted to convey.

As for The Tiger of 142B, although it is an adaptation of Dave Chua’s story, the whole process felt like we were making a very personal film. The main reason why we decided on Dave Chua’s story was because we could both empathize with the main character’s struggles. Thanks to Dave Chua who gave us the permission to adapt his story in anyway we wanted. We cherry-picked parts of the story that we felt strongly
for. Our original intention was to not do any storyboards like what we did for Contained. But because we are working on a larger scale and had to show updates to
our producers and the National Art Council (NAC), our approach straddle between the usual pipeline production and the experimental approach. Hence, we storyboarded the whole film and had it presented as an animatic. We were still mindful to not get stuck in the storyboards. Even towards the very end of the production, we were still making changes to the storyboards. There were quite a few portions where we already had them colored but had to remove them because it did not fit. The ending of the film also went through changes along the process.model sheet- gal

142B storyboarding

CU: I noticed that the concept of “transformation” is consistent between your films. There is also a sense of mystery that pervades the film, even as the film ends. Was that a conscious aesthetic decision, and maybe why?

ZB: We usually do not make films with a conscious effort to have any consistent theme or style. Instead, we try to destroy people’s expectations. It could be because we dislike being ‘labelled’ into a certain category? Which is why we keep switching mediums and trying out new things. We believe in pushing boundaries and constantly reinventing ourselves. Maybe that’s why we subconsciously have our characters in the midst of some ‘transformation’?

As for our films’ mysterious endings, to be honest, we did not set out to make films with ‘no proper endings’. Personally, we felt the film ended in a very natural way. We remember when we first screened Contained in Singapore International Film Festival, we could sense that the audience was unsure if the film had ended or not.

 CU: Any upcoming projects that you are currently working on?

ZB: We have a few things going on. Some are at ideation stage, some are short animation workshops for students. At the moment, we are trying to bring ‘Voices for the Myths’, a series of stop-motion animation done by students, to different public libraries. We are also creating some very short animation for Wesley Leon Aroozoo ‘s live-action documentary.

CU: Lastly, what are your hopes and dream for the future of Singapore animation?

In Singapore, we see more and more animators creating films that either aim to mimic big animation studios or recreate animation styles that has already been done before. These works tend to have a highly-polished look but no much originality. The way their stories are told also follow a conventional and safe approach as well. We are guessing that Singaporeans growing up in a pragmatic society could be a factor. Being once young ourselves, we too wanted to create animation that can help secure a job employment. However, moving forward, what Singapore animation really needs are better storytellers and creators.

Which is why what we really hope is to see more animators in Singapore who can ‘step out’ and explore the possibilities of animation. Singaporean animators need to understand that every animated piece is a chance to have his/her own voice. Animation is a malleable medium that gives the artist a chance to control the look and feel of a film. It is a young medium and there are still many ways one can use animation to tell stories. We are already seeing quite a few animators exploring and doing different kinds of animation. We hope there will be more to come!

CU: Thank you for your time! We wish you the best in all your future endeavors, creative or otherwise!

Find more about the Zhuang Brothers’ studio, Weaving Clouds here at http://www.weavingclouds.com/ and keep up with their work at their blog https://zhuangbros.wordpress.com/

The Tigers of 142B
Harry Zhuang, Henry Zhuang
Singapore / 2015 / 11′ 10”

A young unemployed man finds himself having difficulty in communicating with his girlfriend. As he struggles to cope with his fragile state of mind, a series of mysterious killings unsettles the residents of Block 142B. Some claimed to have seen a tiger roaming at the estate. Adapted from Dave Chua’s short story ‘The Tiger of 142B’ from the book ‘The Beating and Other Stories’.

 

Contained
Harry Zhuang, Henry Zhuang
4’13”

A flower, a man and an island. A man sets up his containment in an isolated island with his beloved flower.

https://www.viddsee.com/video/contained/ag27f?locale=en

 

 

interview conducted by Jerrold Chong

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