Piece of cake? No, meat! Talking animation with Jerrold Chong and JX Huang

A lamb cutlet works herself to the bone to support herself, supporting her younger brother and her sickly mother in a world where the odds are stacked up against them. Her teenage brother, a durian, is a social outcast with failing grades, while her mother’s health is rapidly deteriorating. Longing for individual liberty, the lamb cutlet is trapped by her socio-economic limitations – a vicious cycle which seems far too difficult to overcome. 

This sums up A Piece of Meat, written by Eric Khoo and, brought to life in the form of animation by Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang (JX). So allegories aside, we are looking at a literal walking piece of meat in this short film. In fact, the idea for this short was the precursor to Eric's Mee Pok Man. We guess Eric had more of an appetite for mee pok than lamb chops in the 90s. But that piece (of meat) was finally served as an entrĂ©e earlier in May at Directors’ Fortnight or Quinzaine des Realisateurs, an independent section held in parallel to the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. This 11-minute short also competed at the 2019 Annecy Animation Festival in June. 

Eric Khoo, Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang

SINdie spoke to the two animators behind A Piece of MeatJerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang, for a tasty scoop behind the scenes. For those who do not know them, Jerrold, a BFA graduate in Animation at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) has had his films screened at numerous international film festivals, including Annecy International Animated Film Festival, Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival and he is currently developing his first feature, “The Art of Charlie Chan”, based on an Eisner awarded Singaporean Graphic Novel by Sonny Liew.  Huang Junxiang has made short films have screened at the Very Short International Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival and he has produced a number of feature films including In The Room, Apprentice, Ramen Teh and Buffalo Boys. 

How did you first get involved with this project?

JX: We were sitting down and talking with Eric and he mentioned this idea he had 30 years and go and asked if we could work on it… so we did!

Jerrold: I still remember the first time Eric shared with me a photocopy of storyboards he did 30 years ago, and I was fully intrigued by the narrative and concept. Eric had originally envisioned it as an animated film, and looking at the storyboard drawings, I proposed executing it in a cutout stop-motion visual approach which he loved and that’s how everything started! 

How was the audience reception in Cannes; was it surprising?

JX: It was heartening to see a foreign audience appreciate a short film that is pretty specifically local, and that also takes a jab at the Cannes audience too!

Jerrold: I saw the film’s screening at Annecy International Animation Festival, and I’m happy that it got quite bit of laughs and the reception to the film was good. A lot of the jokes were quite local in context and it was indeed surprising to see it translates well to a foreign audience.

What was the hardest part of making Piece of Meat?

JX: Time, we both had full time jobs.

Jerrold: For me, the most challenging was experimenting and getting used to the new cutout approach to creating scenes and sets using limitations we set for ourselves (ie. found photographs and images from Google, magazine, etc, use of multi-plane setup, and creating everything “in-camera” without any use of VFX). It was a style that we have not tried before (especially for a narrative-based film), and therefore the first few scenes took much longer time to plan and execute as we were going by trial-and-error, making mistakes and finding new solutions. 
In addition to this, we went into production without a complete animatic, which is atypical of narrative animated films. Therefore, right from the beginning, we did not have the full complete picture of what the film would be. But this gave us more freedom to sculpt and add new scenes as we went along with production and found new ideas and new approaches (ie. music, etc) that we wouldn’t have thought of/planned at the beginning.

How was the experience co-directing the film?

JX: Very smooth, we both like the same ideas and themes in stories.

Jerrold: My partnership with JX has been very fruitful and eye-opening. There is always a constant exchange of ideas and we both sometimes see the film in different ways and I think that really benefited the development of the film. Its also a good blend of sensibilities, as JX is more of a comedy-kind of filmmaker, while I tend to see things in a darker, more serious but a bit surreal side. And that blend has translated itself into the film. Working with someone new also helps me to break out of my usual tendencies and see things from a new perspective, and that has made me a better filmmaker.

Where is the film heading to next?

JX: After Cannes and Annecy, it will be heading to Switzerland, then Portugal. It would be nice to have it screen at a festival in Asia and hopefully at our own SGIFF!

Jerrold, how was the experience co-writing the film with Eric Khoo?

I have obviously been a big fan of Eric Khoo’s films and his role in Singapore cinema, and was very excited to have the chance to collaborate with him on this. When I was passed the original storyboards, he was very open and gave me lots of freedom to see what I can do with it (the story). The central narrative of a Lamb Chop struggling to survive in a world of objects was already such an enticing and strong story, and I tried to adapt it into a more contemporary context and add some new characters and scenes to further explore the themes of oppression and class struggles that I saw in the original storyboards. And throughout this process, Eric has been very supportive and was a great sounding board for these newer ideas.

Jerrold, as someone who has worked with adapting short stories to the screen before, how did you find a balance between your own voice and the source material?

In my (limited) experience, I think the most important seed is the emotions and thoughts that I immediately feel upon reading/coming into contact with the source material. That is something that becomes the compass for what the film will become, as that’s what you want to translate and communicate to the viewers. After a while, I think it’s helpful to put aside and forget the source material, and focus on how to make those same emotions and themes into a stronger, visual form. I also try to make use of my own personal experiences to find a personal connection with the themes of the source material and that helps me to feel more honest and certain in any adaptation or changes made to the original material.

In addition, with animation, one can really push the boundaries of how abstract, whimsical or surreal a story can be told, and I wanted to take advantage of the medium’s unique potential to push the ideas of the source material as far as possible, to be as imaginative and as surprising as it can be.

JX, how was the experience producing this film?

Different, because its so spread out especially for a short film, but it gives you the time to shape the work over an extended period, as opposed to making snap decisions during the shoot period where sometimes you are limited by circumstance.

Interview by Alfonse Chiu

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