Sunday, May 1, 2011

An interview with Oscar winning writer/director Shaun Tan, on his animated short The Lost Thing

This Q+A is co-presented with the event NUFEC presents: A Short Film Showcase.

The film screened at this short film event, where it was discussed in-depth. I’d like to credit all the attendees for their participation, as many of these questions were inspired by (or straight up stolen from) the discussion.

Attendees included (but are not limited to):
Scott Carpenter, Hayley Dennis, Eric Evje, Emily Fisler, Jonny Glassman, Stephanie Morgan, Marcus Nero, Lauren Penizotto, Sid Phanis, Eliza Rosenberry, Grace Rosinsi, Jessica Sanchez, Robyn S, Kate Vatter, and Andrew Wood.

If you were there and are not on the list, please let me know (my memory is faulty, it was a month ago)!

NUFEC is Northeastern University’s film club, which meets Wednesday nights to watch a short film, a feature film, and discuss both. I’m currently the Vice President of this club and will try and bring many more awesome events like this short film showcase!

The Lost Thing is the 2010 film adaptation of Shaun’s own 2000 book of the same name. Shaun has written and illustrated 5 books, and illustrated an additional 10. One of his more recent books, The Arrival, is being worked into a film, which Shaun will discuss below (**note to NEU students, this book is in the library on display in “The Hub”).

The Lost Thing film is a 15-minute animated short, which is directed by both Shaun and Andrew Ruhemann. It was the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2011 (for the year of 2010), and was nominated for the 2011 Huge Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. You can watch the trailer for The Lost Thing and read more about Shaun Tan on his interactive and visual website, You can also buy the film for just $2 on iTunes… I promise it’s a small purchase well worth it.

First, let’s start with some of your history. How has your life informed this specific story? Did you draw any events or characters straight from experience or is this all fantasy?
That’s a big question, as I imagine that so much of my life does go into this story, in both a conscious and subconscious way. To pick out some specific examples: as a child I was very much into collecting and labeling things, and from my teens to my twenties I was very introverted. In fact, I spent far too much of my youth in a room, drawing and writing! I also had bad posture (still do a bit), and many other features that you see in the main character of the film and original book. Part of the idea behind ‘The Lost Thing’ has to do with overcoming introversion, but it’s also based on memories of our family’s first cat, a stray that nobody wanted. We didn’t necessarily want a kid (well, secretly us kids did), but there really were no other options for this animal. The ‘feeding scene’ in the back shed reminds me of how we got this cat to like us, enough to not want to run away.

What was your involvement on Pixar’s Wall-E and will you be working with Pixar again? Do you have any future with American cinema animation (as you also worked on Horton Hearts a Who)?
I worked as a concept artist in the very early stages of WALL-E, so early in fact that I don’t think you see much of my work making it to the screen. I never heard from Pixar after that, really, although I believe they appreciated my contribution. It’s nice to be able to now meet other Pixar artists and acknowledge some affiliation. Do I have a future in this industry? Perhaps, although I’m not actively pursuing it (too many personal projects to contend with) I’m open-minded about it.

How was the relationship between you and Andrew Ruhemann on this film? How did he get involved and how did you work together?
It was Andrew’s idea to develop the film, after spotting my picture book at an international book fair, and the task of realizing that development went to our producer, Sophie Byrne, with whom I subsequently spent the majority of time discussing creative decisions (in fact, she is an uncredited third director, with other team members also having overlapping roles). Andrew’s input was still very significant, establishing creative foundations and overseeing each development; geography was a slight problem, as we are in Melbourne and he is based in London. Later his role became largely editorial rather than creative, but just as important. On the whole it was a good working relationship, although there were key disagreements, often relating to tone and emotional communication. I favored less, Andrew favored more, neither being a superior position. In the end we have a kind of compromise – film is definitely a medium that requires it. It did highlight for me a difference in how people approach fiction, how one identifies with story and engages emotionally with images, sound and music.

Why did you decide to make a short film and why did you choose this book?
A short film, because the story is basically a short fable, not an adventure. We experimented with storyboarding longer versions, but it just did not work so well. As for the reasons behind this particular book, it’s to do with the simplicity of the narrative, the limited characterization and aesthetic. All the elements relate to each other very nicely, as a contained universe – perfect for a short animated film.

Music is such a key component to maintaining the rhythm of this film, and Michael Yezerski did a phenomenal job doing so. How did you work with Michael Yezerski on the music? Did this come before/after/during? Did he work interactively with the team or just write music on his own?
It came very late in the production, as you really need to have well developed visual imagery to know the final atmosphere, at least Michael felt that way and I agree with that.  I also had a set of written briefs, and visited Michael a few times in his studio in Sydney. We had been involved on a previous project, where Michael composed a classical orchestral score relating to another picture book of mine, The Red Tree, and he knew The Lost Thing long before he was approached to work with us, so it helped a great deal that he was already familiar with my sensibility, and that he felt empathy toward it, as well as being immensely versatile and a genuinely nice guy to work with. The final score is a collaboration between myself, Andrew, Sophie and Michael, but essentially Michael was given a lot of freedom to interpret imagery based on finished shots and a fairly general conceptual brief that I supplied. I’ve been a freelancer for so many years under the direction of others, and I appreciate being given a creative license where possible. I wanted to pass on the same opportunity to co-creators; it was important that everyone found it to be a professionally fulfilling project.

In the film, humans have very dull features, while the “lost things” had very specific detailed features. What can you tell me about the relationship between the way people were presented and the way “lost things” were presented?
Yes, it’s a kind of duality that runs through the whole film. The people are “found things” in a sense – known, familiar and quantifiable, but lifeless, and puppet-like. The tendency of CG animation to be a bit wooden is used to good effect here, we wanted very little dynamic or expressive action. A similar rule applied to model design – the human world is essentially an emotionless place, obsessed with mechanical action, or else doing very little at all. Faces were kept fairly simple, and body shapes not very diverse, the same kind of slouched, shoulder-less forms with hanging limbs. Clothing generally drab and institutional.
            The creatures on the other hand, are playful, diverse and colorful, not only in appearance but range of implicit personality. Even though many of them only appear on screen for a few seconds, we had quite long conversations about their individual traits and behavior, their “interests”. They represent everything interesting and unknown, while the humans are everything known and uninteresting.

You do such an excellent job keeping all the frames of the film very closed and almost claustrophobic, until of course we hit the climactic scene. How important was this to you and what can you tell me about what this portrays thematically?
Yes, this was pretty important for the narrative to work. It’s all about drawing as much contrast as possible between the two worlds of course, and there is a feeling that the human industrial world is “tapering” into a kind of silence and darkness before opening up again, as the two characters venture into an alleyway after a long journey through apparently deserted architecture (I always imagined these places to be like the “subconscious” industrial belts we see in our real world – we all know they are there, but never really visit them).
            Of course, a lot of the contrast comes from color, landscape form and camera movement. Throughout much of the film, we decided to keep the framing as static as possible, with a minimum of purposeful cuts, and nothing at all superfluous. When we enter “Utopia”, the land of lost things, we have a much more fluid motion (largely thanks to a clever layout by Leo Baker, our animator) and less sense of specific purpose to each shot. I think an audience registers this unconsciously as simply playful and liberated looking, which is the intended effect. It’s like running around outside to a playground after leaving a classroom. The colors here are bright and arbitrary (though still convincing in their own way) and we have a lot of rounded, soft shapes, away from the angularity of the city. We also see blue for the very first time. It was always important to me that blue, a color of freedom and release, is not present outside of the Utopia scene. Almost all the final textural design was by Tom Bryant, which really brought the necessary magic to both Utopia and the human world, often working to a very demanding brief.

Throughout the film there’s an abundant use of conflicting signs. There are also signs that are jarringly honest, like instead of “train stop” there’s a sign that says, “Wait here only.” What was your intention with the use of signs in the film?
Essentially to show a world that has given up on imagination, like giving up on any notion of ambiguity in perception, and lost its way as a result. That is, if everything is clearly labeled and meaningful, there is no room for any improvised thought, no need for creative action. There is a subtext (a little more obvious in the book) that the whole universe is run by strange bureaucratic departments, the arbiters of all meaning and order – but that this never amounts to anything truly meaningful. The boy’s bottle-top collection (a minor detail at the beginning of the film) is a microcosm of this, a neatly organized system that ultimately makes no sense. And the reason it makes no sense is that, like all the street signs, the organization of parts has lost memory of any initial purpose. Where the city might have once been built to improve the quality of life for people, everyone is instead tediously sustaining a pointless system, as if the system itself is the ultimate purpose. I think it’s an idea that many of us can identify with! I know for a fact that a lot of people who work in bureaucratic jobs enjoy the film for this satirical aspect more than anything else!

How was your experience at the Oscars? Did you have fun? Did you have any notable interactions?
The overall experience of the Oscars was one of strangeness - I for one felt like such a fish out of water, and even now I’m still trying to process the whole thing, including the incredible luck of it. It did feel a little like winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, getting a glimpse of the inner sanctum. At times the week leading up was quite stressful too, as there was a lot to do and organize, and many of our team were able to go and we all needed to be coordinated (Sophie going far beyond the call of duty here – a producer has to wear a thousand hats). Actually winning was frankly a bit baffling at the time, almost hard to understand, behind so quickly ushered in from of shouting photographers and asked to make coherent remarks. The after parties were a lot of fun, mainly just hanging out with the other nominated animators (we all had a lot in common). I had a chance to chat briefly with Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich of Pixar, and we enjoyed much of the evening just celebrity spotting at close range. Earlier that week, a group of us animation nominees bumped into Matt Groening in a studio car park, and were surprised at his generosity in stopping to chat with us, he seemed like such a down-to-earth guy. I did come away with the impression that people were far less pretentious that I’d expected. They were all like us: they just really like their craft and work very hard at it.

What’d you think of the other nominees? Have a favorite?
They were all excellent, and any of them could have won the Oscar. I think the competition in this category over the years has really ramped up, the level of artistry and dedication is hard to fault in each case. My own favorite in the competition was “Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage” by a very young French artist, Bastien Dubois (a really nice guy too). It was a real eye opener in terms of style, confidence and original use of animation to create a kind of travel diary. There is a real pureness of spirit running through the whole thing, and a genuine pleasure and seriousness in the medium of drawing and animation.

At the Oscars you joked, “Our film is about a creature that nobody pays any attention to, so this is wonderfully ironic.” Did you find that winning the Oscar and even your invitation to the Oscars informed the themes of the film? Does this occurrence perhaps suggest that while many lost things are lost, some really are found and appreciated every once in awhile?
Yes, that moral was not lost on me (pardon the pun!) I did think that the whole Oscar story tied in very nicely with the narrative of our film, especially when I recall that The Lost Thing was conceived in a place as far away from Hollywood as you can imagine: on the kitchen table of a share-house in suburban Western Australia. And at that time, I really did see it as a kind of amusing distraction between low-end illustration jobs, which I expected would slip below the radar of publishing as an obscure, off beat little picture book. The full original title was actually “The Lost Thing: a tale for those with more important things to pay attention to.” How strange then to see that premise lead to a film, which has crept up the ranks to Oscar territory no less? As I joked at another event here in Melbourne: “as a film for people who don’t care, if our film is too successful, we’ll lose our target audience!” Seriously, though, I have to say it was very pleasing to see that a big institution such as the Academy really felt that our film had something noteworthy to say. Perhaps many of those voting may have recognized a quiet lament for the way in which small artistic acts can become lost in an industrialized system?

What does the future hold for Shaun Tan? Are you working on any other book to film adaptations, or perhaps even an original? Or are you sticking to books for the indefinite future?
I will likely continue to divide my time between books and film. The next likely project, which I am developing in partnership with Sophie, is a feature-length adaptation of my graphic novel “The Arrival”. Whether this is animated, live-action or a combination of both remains to be considered – it’s in a very early, speculative stage at the moment. I’m also working on another picture book, which has a playful structure, making the most of discontinuity between illustrations, almost in opposition to the dictates of film and other story-telling media, and therefore a nice change. I’ve never been terribly ambitious about having a direction in my career, but instead I’ve lurched from one interesting project to the next, and just focused on each intensively, one at a time. Where it all ends up is anyone’s guess, which is perhaps the most appealing aspect of this kind of work.

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