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[InC-terview] Utter 2017 animation filmmakers, Harry and Henry Zhuang!

By Say Peng  /  29 Sep 2017 (Friday)

Harry and Henry Zhuang are animation filmmakers. Their first short film Contained received the Best Animation Award andSpecial Mention for Best Sound at the 2nd Singapore Short Film Awards in 2011. Their most recent work, The Tiger of 142B, an adaptation of Dave Chua’s short story, travelled to numerous international film festivals such as Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and the prestigious Animafest Zagreb. It also won Best Film at the SEAShort Film and Rising Talent Award at Beijing's China Independent Animation Film Forum. They founded Weaving Clouds in 2013 and continue to produce animations that explore creative storytelling.

InCinemas speaks with animation filmmakers Henry and Harry Zhuang about their short animation adaptation of Tan Swie Hian’s poem The Giant for the Singapore Writers Festival film initiative Utter 2017: SingLit Unearthed.

InCinemas: Why did you choose to adapt this particular story?
Zhuang Brothers: Our interests for Chinese literature started when we were taught the different chinese painting art styles in NTU’s Asian Art History classes. We were fascinated by the different philosophies behind each art style and thought about the possibility of further exploring these art styles if we were to create an animated short film based on a chinese poem. These interests got reignited again when we attended World Festival of Animated Film Zagreb in 2016. During our stay in the animation festival, we saw several animated short films that explore the possibilities of visual poetry. Short films such as ‘Datum Point’ by Ryo Orikasa, ‘The Poem’ by Xi Chen and Xu An and ‘Monkey’ by Shen Jie are films that inspire us. So when we were approached by Filmic Eye’s David Lee and Eternality Tan, we decided that we wanted to do an adaptation based on a chinese poem.
There are a couple of poems collected in Tan Swie Hian’s book 巨人 [The Giant]. But the three poems titled 巨人 [The Giant] stood out to us the most. They were written in a way that evokes a lot of imagination and can be interpreted in many ways. On our first reading , we both felt that the giant that Tan Swie Hian was referring to was a benevolent fatherly figure who sacrifice for his love ones. However on our second reading, we felt that the giant could be referring to god. Feeling that it can be a good material to adapt, we decided to take that leap of faith to adapt it.

InCinemas: What were some of the challenges you faced in adapting the story?

Zhuang Brothers: One of the most difficult challenges was to come up with a visual representation that can best express Tan Swee Swie Hian’s 巨人 [The Giant]. As mentioned earlier, the poem 巨人 [The Giant] is written in a way that is can be interpret in many ways. Should our interpretation revolve around a father’s sacrifice for his son? Or should it revolve around the subject on spirituality? And because we did not want to create a film that ‘chases’ after his words, we needed to come up with a story idea that can express the very essence that the poem is conveying. We came up with all sort of story ideas; From a giant following a man tracking in the forest, to an island transforming into a giant. After many round of changes, we decided to use a fish as the story protagonist.

InCinemas: What do you think is unique about animation as compared to live action film when it comes to adaptation?

Zhuang Brothers: In our opinion, a filmmaker will face the same set of difficulties when doing an adaptation in either live action film or in animation. Both medium will require the filmmaker to reconstruct the story, give a face, a voice and create a world where the characters live in. The most difficult task in adapting the story is to retain the essence of the original story. However, animation as a medium has its advantage of manipulating the overall graphic element presented in the film. In an animation, the creator get to bend the rules of the real world, control the visual element and not get constraint by real world properties. The characters in the animation can look and move in a unique way and not look weird. For example, Fishes can be made of newspaper and still look natural.
The other aspect that animation differs from live action film is that the filmmaker might be overwhelmed by the wide variety of animation styles the film can adopt. For example, we once contemplated if we should made the film using a chinese painting calligraphy approach. But after diving deep into the text, we felt the use of newspaper as a medium was much needed to convey effectively.

InCinemas: What is your favourite film adaption and why?

Zhuang Brothers: Sadly, we are not reading enough to be able to give a proper reply. We have read a couple of novels before but the film adaptations of the novels we read usually turns out to be disappointing. For example, Kite Runner and Time Traveller's Wife were very enjoyable to read but the film adaptation did not meet our expectation.
In our opinion, it is always difficult to replicate a mood of a novel in film. Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby were interesting to watch and we can see how the directors brought something new to make it suitable for film. However, we still feel the novel version is better. Nevertheless, some of our favourite films are actually adaptations. This includes The Wind Rises, Howl Moving Castle, Fantastic Mr Fox, Fight Club, Life of Pi, No Country for Old Man. But because we have not read the original story, we will not be able to tell if their adaptation did justice to the original story.
To us, film and novel have its own strength, and the success of a film is very much dependent on the director.

InCinemas: Do you have further plans to adapt other Singapore literary stories?
Zhuang Brothers: Singapore literature offers a wide range of stories. In the past, we have adapted The Tiger of 142B’ by Dave Chua, and, as Weaving Clouds, an animation studio we run, we too had the opportunity to create the opening animation for OKTO’s Whoopie’s World, a TV series based on Adeline Foo’s Whoopie Lee.
Currently, we are very fortunate to be working with Shogakukan Asia to create a series of very short animation based on Johnny Lau’s Mr Kiasu. Growing up reading Mr. Kiasu, we are excited to be able to animate Mr. Kiasu. Hopefully, we can do justice to him and bring out Mr Kiasu’s strong and unique personality. As for future plans, we hope that we can have more opportunities to create animation based on works created by Singapore authors, and work with artists like Sonny Liew or Haresh Sharma too.

Screening Dates:

Friday 29 September, 7.30pm @ Golden Village, Suntec City
*Post-screening dialogue with K Rajagopal, Lee Thean-jeen, Henry & Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong

Saturday 30 September, 7.30pm @ Golden Village, Suntec City
*Post-screening dialogue with K Rajagopal, Henry & Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong

Saturday 4 November, 730pm @ National Gallery Singapore (Auditorium)
*Post-screening dialogue with JM Sali, Lee Thean-jeen, K Rajagopal, Richard Angus Whitehead, David Lee                 
Moderator: Li Lin Wee
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