Production Talk - 'Hush Baby' by Tan Wei Keong

"I briefly chatted with Lee (or Lee Wong) last year after she responded to my review of her short film 'Lim Poh Huat' which I felt something for. This year, she has kindly volunteered her help to interview some of the local short film finalists in leading up to the short film competition at the Singapore International Film Festival. You can check out more on Lee's works in her website. And here is her chat with Tan Wei Keong about his short film, Hush Baby." Jeremy

A curious baby is protected from an environment of temptation. Overturning the popular association of animation with children’s entertainment, Hush Baby depicts a baby’s struggle against confinement and restriction. The many expressive faces of a baby are brought to life with dark humour and wit as the film imaginatively explores a different facet of animation.

Born in 1984 in Singapore, Wei Keong’s first animated short film White was awarded Special Achievement Award at the 20th Singapore International Film Festival. He had previously received a Gold Award at the 34th Singapore Youth Festival for sculpture design. Wei Keong has also freelanced as a cartoonist for the local papers and, being an animation enthusiast, assisted at Animation Nation, Siggraph and Siggraph Asia.

Granted the Media Education Scholarship by the Media Development Authority of Singapore, he is currently in his senior year at Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design and Media, pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Animation. Hush Baby marks his second animated short film effort.

Website: Leew(L) : So, how did you come up with the idea for your short film Hush Baby?
Wei Keong (W) : It was after I finished White, the stop motion animation, that I am very keen in experimental animation, a genre that allows a mixture of varying techniques. The story outline is rather surreal because of the combination of live-action footage interaction with 2D animation. If you're wondering about exact idea formation, the first mental image that drives the entire project is a pair of hands reaching into the frame and interacting with a 2D baby. The rest of the plot is built upon it later. (pause) I am very drawn to ambiguity and more subtle themes. I tend not to be conclusive.

L : Why did you use a baby to overturn "the popular association of animation with children's entertainment"?
W : The character of the baby is more of a hapless one because he is always manipulated by the ‘hands’, which is probably playing the role of GOD. Babies are always good to use in animation. The first impression of babies is usually along the line of 'adorable'.

L : Let's talk about the production process. Your previous short film White seems quite elaborate, with 3D and modelling. Hush Baby seems to be more 2D...?
W : It is not just the baby character that I intend to overturn the convention idea of an animation. It is more of the themes chosen to do an animation in. Instead of a happy animation with wholesome conclusion, Hush Baby touched on issues that probably adults could relate to better, at least to me. (pause) ‘White’ is done in stop-motion, meaning I had real puppet and a design set. It is very 'hands-on'. The only stop-frame element is Hush Baby is the part of the hands. The rest is 2D and 3D.
Stop motion is making use of puppets and sets, frame by frame, and when you run it in sequence, you perceive movement. Like Time Burton's Corpse Bride and Nightmare before Christmas. White was done in that technique. (pause) Pixilation is taking pictures of real life objects, and this technique is used in Michael Tay's Wet Season.

The making of Hush Baby could be seen in three stages, in order: pixilation, 2D & 3D animation and compositing. The baby character was drawn on frame by frame on paper whilst the rattler was created in 3D.

L: A real puppet - did you make it yourself?
W: Yes, it's made by me. L: It must have been time-consuming. How long did it take to make this 3.5min short film?
W : About 4 months, about 8 hours a day, if I count just the production period. It started in 2007, and I did this in between school projects. It only wrapped up this January. And with the help of my friends, of course. They helped a lot by speeding things up.
L : Is Hush Baby a Final Year Project?
W : Ah, this is a complex question. Hush Baby is a personal project. I proposed another story to my school to be done as a FYP. But then, because I spent most of the time working on Hush Baby last year, it ended up being my FYP simply because I'm running out of time for the other one. I have been working on the other project since January, in hopes that I could finish both.
But I see no end yet.
L: Maybe that one can go for next year's SIFF?
W: Probably, fingers crossed.
L: How was it working with fellow classmates?
W: Like in filmmaking, animation is a collaborative effort. I would probably not being able to finish Hush Baby in time if not for the help of my friends in school. (pause) Especially sound design aspect, I would definitely need inputs in that area. L : How did you get into filmmaking, by the way?
W: Oh, ADM (School of Art, Design and Media, NTU) has a filmmaking BFA course, and we could take up modules in that area. I took Introduction of Editing that taught me a lot about the film language. I wouldn't dare say I am into filmmaking because it is a different skill set and art by itself.

L: Everyone starts somewhere. Will you continue to experiment in storytelling with animation, or try a different medium?
W: I always find animation fascinating, and I would continue using it to tell stories.
L: To go back to the question of how you got into this... How did you decide to enroll in NTU's ADM course?
W: I was a science student in junior college, but I've always knew I like to do graphic art and draw comics. So during national service, I'm already preparing to enroll in NAFA's art programme because at that time it is the next best thing, and closest to what I wanted to do, which is basically illustration. And then ADM came along and making the decision is easy.
L: Interesting. In an earlier post a few days ago, Jeremy wrote about another filmmaker who decided to change course in life at a later stage of his life and ponders the decision… So at least you made this decision much earlier. Plus nowadays there is a lot of emphasis and funding (it seems) geared towards animation and Singapore as a potential animation hub (hate this term, sorry to use it).
W: Nothing is definitive, I believe. I can be in advertising and do animation as well. I do not have to be an animator to an animation director. I would think these related fields always overlap each other. And that includes filmmaking, or even game design. The skill of storytelling is essential in all aspects.

L: How did your family and friends react to Hush Baby? I assume you've shown it selectively…
W: My family has been very supportive in a strange way. As in, they don't oppose my career choice, nor are they interested as well.
L: I guess like most parents, they'll be happy if you're happy!
W: My mother passed away last October and she is most concerned of my studies. My dad just brings back the bacon and as long as I do the right things, he would not interfere. We are a typical Chinese family. L: I'm sorry to hear about your mother. my condolences…
W: :-) I dreamt about her this morning. sad story. Hahaha, Hollywood quality storyline though. My sister is very proud of Hush Baby though, and she's just 12. She's my main inspiration.
A lot of my friends haven’t seen Hush Baby too. Everyone's been running around getting things done for FYP. only close friends have seen it. And the response has been good so far.
L : Were there any strange or interesting incidents during the making of Hush Baby?
W: NTU is located at a very secluded and isolated part of Singapore. I live in Bukit Panjang, and although it sounds near I still have to commute for one hour on 3 buses before I could start work in school. And I need to use the school equipment, like the light box, to work on Hush Baby. A proper light box is very expensive, and one day my friend (Thomas Tan) decided to make me a one from scratch, wood planks, acrylic sheets and light tubes. And the overall cost is less than 30 dollars. Usual price is a little over a hundred.
L: So the DIY lightbox works just fine?
W: Ya the DIY is working great.
L: So with it, you could work from home?
W: Yes!
L: That’s great.
W: Zihan (who assisted in pixilation for Hush Baby) gave quite strange comments about Hush Baby though which I find kind of funny.
L:Haha do share.
W: In Hush Baby, if you could see from the film stills, the paper that the baby is on was gradually cut away until it is just a tiny square. Zihan commented that the piece of square looks like the Singapore island.
L: Haha... Now we'll have to watch the film to find out.
W: I didn't intend that, but the most rewarding part is to talk to viewers what they gather from watching Hush baby. Everyone's life experience is different, and probably would interpret different as well. L: Ok before my last question… Do you have anything else to add?
W: hmm no. I just think Singapore animation still has a long way to go to be competitive in international levels, as compared to our live-action counterpart. It would be interesting to see how Singapore animation evolves over the coming years, seeing the pouring in of multi-national companies. The future is bright!
L: Last question might take some time. It’s something I like to ask local filmmaker friends. What are the top 5 movies you wish you'd made? (This is just a fun question, please feel free to not take it TOO seriously or intensely. And note: it's top 5 movies you WISH YOU MADE, not top 5 fave movies!)
W: tekkon kinkreet, memento, 28 days later, Mind Game, and Tombstone of the fireflies.

Wei Keong’s “Hush Baby” is currently in competition at the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival (14 – 25 April 2009).
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