Take a work of Singaporean musician Charlie Lim, whose work invokes feelings of melancholy, soul stirring rhythms and combine it with the talents of award winning young local filmmakers Jonathan Choo, Rachel Liew and Julie Heather Liew and it becomes cinematic gold.
The music video for Charlie Lim's song Light Breaks In brings to life the issues of mental illness and relationships so vividly in a narrative that only lasts 4 minutes but impacts forever. The story was inspired by the relationship between Charlie's father and grandmother which adds an added layer of emotional complexity to the already charged song and visuals.
We thought to highlight the work and process by grabbing some time with Jonathan, Julie and Rachel - all National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) alumni. It was the same team behind the award winning film Han which took home Best Direction, and DBS Best Picture in 2016.
How did the collaboration with Charlie Lim come about?
Rachel: Charlie Lim has always been our favourite local musician and we really admire his approach to his music in relation to the local industry. Jon and I have always liked discussing his music and I remember out of all the songs on the album how much we’d love to make a music video for Light Breaks In. Right after Time/Space was released, I was interning with Charlie and helping him with promos for the album. Remembering what Jon and I talked about, I realised we now had that connection to actually collaborate with Charlie, and when we talked to Charlie about how interested we were to work with him on something new and he immediately said yes. And that was that.
Jon: Yeah, I always wanted to work with Charlie because I really dig his music. When I listened to his recent album, there were just so many tracks that made me think to myself, “oh, I would kill to make a music video for that.” So Rachel said if we really wanted to work with Charlie, we should take the initiative to connect with him, which we did when we showed him our film Han. He liked it and was convinced, and that’s how we started working together.
And why mental illness? Any history behind the story / collaboration?
Jon: Yeah, the story went through many iterations. I don’t think we set off on the project saying we are tackling mental illness with this music video, for me I always think of characters first so I think what hit me visually from the very start when I listened to Light Breaks In was that I see a struggling mother and a son, and we slowly worked on it from there. While trying to search for the core of the music video, I got inspiration from watching this TV special on compulsive hoarders and when I saw that, I just thought ok that would be an interesting world to set this story in. So we went through many script ideas with Charlie and had a great exchange of ideas. We must have spent a few months just discussing the song and what the ideas behind are really about, instead of rushing it out for an early release.
Julie: Also, Jon pointed out that the last thing we needed was to make it another cheesy romantic love story, and portraying complex parent-and-child relationships seemed to make a beautiful love story. What people don’t realise is that so many of us are affected by mental illness, whether it’s us suffering from it, or our loved ones, and we don’t get to see enough honest portrayals of it in film. There’s one line of lyric from Light Breaks In that struck a chord with us: “Tell me your despair and I’ll show you mine”. Because it can be incredibly isolating to suffer from any mental illness, be it depression or schizophrenia, but the tenderness of the song and the narrative remind us that we don’t have to suffer alone. We wanted to make a music video that reflected how complicated but poignant it is to try to understand (and most importantly, love) someone with mental illness.
What was the approach / process into creating the storyboard?
Rachel: The story development went through a lot of changes but one thing that stuck with us was the idea of having a mother character who was a hoarder. Immediately after we started on the project, we brought Julie and Harng (Wardrobe Head) on board with us. It was a very collaborative process where we constantly tossed around ideas to help develop the mother as a character, as well as building the world of a hoarder for the film. As the cinematographer, this time round I didn’t really look at films for visual references, but I looked more at set design and how I could translate elements like that in our film. We chose to approach it not as a music video, but as a short film, so with the set design as the main character in the film, we built a moodboard that we filled with hoarder house references. Jon and I looked at certain films which we felt were similiar in the approach we wanted to take for the film. We were heavily influenced by Tarkovsky so we tried to incorporate the movement and treatment for Light Breaks In.
Julie: For me, the focus was largely on the authenticity of the location/sets for the film. When Jon and Rachel showed me the first draft of the script and storyboards, something inside me clicked when I pictured the environment that the mother character lived in, and I knew that we needed to film this at my abandoned childhood home. It’s been abandoned for more than 15 years due to family disputes, but the dated architectural elements and level of deterioration added such a visceral, authentic layer to the visual narrative. When we went there for a location recce, all three of us knew it would fit the story so well that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to film there.
Jon: Once we secured the shoot location, that place and environment was immediately stuck in my mind. I was just constantly thinking about the location, and how it would affect the characters on a spatial and psychological level. Regarding the storyboard and the design, I was constantly talking to Rachel and Julie about what needs to be in the frame at each time; what does the light in this scene mean, and what do the objects in this room mean? My biggest struggle was to make sense of the actions of the characters, but I think I took a very instinctual approach to directing the actors, and it worked out beautifully on camera.
How different was this as an experience?
Jon: Working on music videos is very different, I struggled with it a bit because I was so used to the the pattern of shooting a narrative film where you block a scene and the actors move and they talk and you break down dialogue and meaning, but with a music video you have to time the movements and actions to each part of the song which means each “scene” lasts only 15-30 seconds and you have to nail a certain emotion out in the given time. Music videos are a whole different medium and I’m very much still learning how to make them, in that sense. I have a great admiration for music video directors, and people like Emily Kai Bock and Khalil Joseph really know the language of a music video well.
Rachel: We’ve always talked about wanting to make a music video together and I was interested to see how different it would be, as compared to shooting a narrative film, but we decided in the end it would be more interesting to lean into the narrative aspect of the music video. However, I would say this was the most exciting set that I’ve worked on because it really felt like a collaborative effort, and everyone was invested in the story which I think was partly because we had such a ‘strong’ set.
Julie: I completely agree with Rachel. Having worked on several set designs, this is still the most exciting and challenging one to date, simply because of how authentic the set needed to look in terms of the production design. I worked closely with Jon, Rachel and Harng to incorporate elements that would really reflect the severity of the mother’s condition, and the effect it had on her son. I used a lot of my own childhood drawings to display on the walls of the child’s bedroom, and used artwork I made as adult in the mother’s “Room of Items”. Harng designed and handmade two beautiful headpieces for the mother character to reflect her “good days” and “bad days” which visually captured her essence as a sufferer of mental illness.
What was it like working with a musician’s personal story? A sense of responsibility?
Jon: I don’t think there was any pressure to tell a personal story at all, all the while we were just very focused on making the story better and constantly asking ourselves if the images we designed were an union with the song.
Julie: With all of us being huge fans of Charlie’s music, one would think that it would be daunting to tackle a musician’s personal story and do it justice, but Charlie was really open to our ideas and over time we shared that ‘responsibility’ with him to address a topic as complex as dealing with mental illness, but more importantly to make a music video that did justice to a beautiful song. One thing that became clear over the course of the collaboration was that mental illness rarely affects just one person, and it’s something that all of us could relate to in one way or another. The pain of complicated relationships and great music often go hand in hand, and our main priority to do the song and narrative justice was shared by everyone who worked on the film.
Was it a conscious effort to collaborate together? Especially after the successful short Han?
Rachel: We’ve worked together since our first year in NTU and Han is a great example of how important it is to work with like-minded people. Film is a collaborative process and after 4 years of working together, we knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses and quirks. Jon and I are always looking out for opportunities to make short films together after Han and long before we were sure we were going to make the Light Breaks In music video, we asked Julie to be our Art Director, which she readily agreed to. We knew that no matter what the story needed, Julie could bring our ideas to life. At the same time, we asked Harng, who also worked with us on Han, to help us create the mother’s iconic look. It wasn’t an easy task because her wardrobe had to reflect her character.
Jonathan: Without Rachel and Julie, I couldn’t have made this music video, They help me tell stories better in every project we’ve worked on. I come in with an idea and they give their take on it and I love it that they have strong views on what certain parts of the story should feel like. It brings the best out of a project, and us as filmmakers. Working together so many times, you build chemistry and certain things are just automatic.
Julie: I think working together has become second-nature to us, long before we knew Han would be so well received. Jon, Rachel and I have seen each other through some tough times in university, and we have a great friendship on top of our working relationship. And it’s not just the three of us who love working together; we have the rest of our crew and friends to thank for the amazing chemistry on set, especially on such a meaningful project like Light Breaks In. When passion projects like this come along, it’s so easy to put a crew together that you know will get the job done and also create something beautiful.
Since sweeping the awards for Han, how has your work journey been?
Julie: It’s great that Han is doing so well locally and abroad, but it hasn’t affected my work all that much. Not directly, anyway. If anything, seeing Han so well-received just gives me the confidence to keep trying new things and hone my skills as a freelance production designer, and I’m constantly challenged to design and execute elaborate sets and props.
Jon: I am currently in the UK doing my Masters in Directing Fiction at the National Film Television School (NFTS). So I’m very much still honing my craft as a director and learning about myself as well.
Rachel: I’ve been working in the industry as a camera assistant for quite a while now and since graduation I have been trying to get more jobs as a DP but it hasn’t been easy to break into the industry. But with the little projects that I’ve worked on despite that, it is exciting and refreshing to see how I adapt myself to the circumstance. I still feel that there is much for me to learn as an image-maker and I have applied to two schools overseas for a masters degree in Cinematography, so we shall see!
What’s next on the table for all of you?
Julie: Right now, it’s a little difficult to collaborate what with Jon furthering his education overseas, but we’re all just gaining more industry experience in our own ways and soon enough we’ll be ready to work on something cool together again. We have many friends who are local musicians as well, so perhaps we have more music videos to look forward to, this year.
Jon: We get to make a few shorts in the NFTS, so I am working and developing a short film right now, and will probably shoot it in October or November.
Rachel: With Jon currently overseas it is a little hard for us to work on collaborations and just like Julie said, we are all expanding our knowledge in film in different ways right now so who knows what might happen in the near future!
Han also recently qualified for the Short Shorts Film Festival Asia 2017 (Japan) in June. More details can be found here: http://www.shortshorts.org/
Nominees for the National Youth Film Awards 2017 will also be announced in June 2017, with the Awards Ceremony taking place on
Images courtesy of Jonathan Choo, Julie Heather Liew and Rachel Liew
Music Video stills, Behind the Scenes images courtesy of Vivien Tan
View the music video here:
Written by Ivan