Whether you’re a geek, or a classical poet, or a rock musician, the thing is, don’t stop expressing and don’t stop caring for the artistic narrative format and genre you choose
by AZALEA AZUAR/ pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
THIS year is an important year for pop-culture enthusiasts as they’d experience the end of a few popular sagas.
Earlier in May, “Avengers: Endgame” — which marks the end of the 10-year-old “Infinity Saga” — hit the box-office record for 2019 with a whopping US$858,373,000 (RM3.56 billion).
The hit HBO series “Game of Thrones” (GOT) which is based on George R R Martin’s high fantasy novel “A Song of Ice and Fire” aired its final season in the same month.
While many fans were disappointed with the outcome of the final season, it was not really a surprise when the season finale became HBO’s most watched episode with 13.6 million viewers. This Christmas, Star Wars fans will be bringing their tissues to the cinemas as “The Skywalker Saga” concludes with “The Rise of Skywalker”.
When the film’s final trailer dropped during Monday Night Football on Oct 21, “The Rise of Skywalker” has pre-sold 45% more tickets during its first hour compared to the anticipated “Avengers: Endgame”.
“The Skywalker Saga” spans nine films within the past 42 years. With the hype surrounding film franchises, Netflix series and mobile games, being a geek is totally normal in today’s context.
According to a research conducted by Imgur LLC, 60% of the 83 million millennial respondents consider themselves to be geeks, while the rest of the 38% are Gen X and Baby Boomers. The study also reveals that geeks are actually trendsetters and influencers.
Although the word geek is always used to describe somebody who is enthusiastic about a certain topic (yes, even football fans can be geeks), it mostly denotes those who are interested in books, comics, films and video games which back then wasn’t mainstream.
If you ask film producer Leon Tan, he’d tell you that geeks 30 years ago were lonely people as no one could really understand their passion.
“I remember when I was randomly interviewed by a local newspaper to talk about ‘The Matrix’ when it was out in 1999…My friend, who saw me going on and on for 30 minutes, told me that I was hopeless,” he said.
The struggle was real. Tan found it difficult making friends, especially when among the list of interest include science-fiction and fantasy films such as “Dune”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Wars”.
“Well, the geeks grew up and are now in the driver’s seat telling screen stories to a new generation. Geeks now create devices and games and technology that everyone on this planet uses,” he said.
“Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” creator George Lucas was a film geek himself. He grew up watching “Flash Gordon” and films such as Jordan Belson’s “Allures” and Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress”.
These films later influence Lucas’ “Star Wars” films. Now, Lucas has even created a new generation of geeks and Tan is one of the many who are following the filmmaker’s footsteps.
Adding a Malaysian Legend in a Classic Tale
For the uninitiated, Tan is known for his animated feature film, “War of The Worlds: Goliath” (WOTWG), which was released in 2012.
The inception of WOTWG came from its director Joe Pearson, an animation director-producer from Los Angeles (LA), whom he met on a bus ride in Tokyo in 2006.
“I was in his home in Venice Beach a few months later, and he showed me his seminal animation projects. One of them was a sequel of sorts to the HG Wells’ book ‘War of the Worlds’ which was first published in 1899 — one of the cornerstones of modern English literature,” Tan reminisced.
He liked Pearson’s take on Wells’ classic, which was like an explanation to what would happen if the Martians came back to earth 15 years later. Tan said it was told in anime style with some elements of steampunk and dieselpunk.
The story also offered some alternate history being told, as well as real figures such as scientist Nikola Tesla and the 26th US President Theodore Roosevelt. The project was also infused with steampunk influences, set in early 20th-century New York City.
“So that’s how it started, the creative connection. From there, we developed it further. We got more partners and investors. Joe directed, I produced, and with our team, we moved forward,” Tan said.
Tan’s team also added a Malay legend Raja Iskandar Shah from colonial Malaysia, a Bugis Prince and a cameo appearance of a keris.
“You see, Wells’ story was, in my mind, a metaphor about invasion and colonisation which struck at the heart of Victorian society, during the heyday of the British Empire. “A sort of ‘how would you feel if a superior unearthly invader subjugated England?’” Tan explained.
He confessed that it was irresistible to add Raja Iskandar Shah who would merge forces with an Irishman into the story.
“This was our way to tell a Malaysian story embedded in a universal title. It’s subtle…but then again, we thought a smart audience would pick it up and say ‘hey, I want to find out more about Malaysia!’ That was our approach, for our part,” he said.
Tan, who is the co-founder and ED of DragonSlate Media Sdn Bhd, as well as the co-founder and CEO of Tripod Entertainment Sdn Bhd, has taken the challenge of how a Malaysian company could work with their international partners and tell a universal story while also maintaining the Malaysian elements.
He said the difficult part was how the story could be accepted by international audiences, which is another reason why they used “War of the Worlds” as the basis of the project.
A ‘Highlander’ Reunion
Other than having an opportunity to promote Malaysia to the world, Tan also gets the opportunity to work with talented local voice actors along with international names.
The film’s other producer, David Abramowitz, suggested that the film should use the cast from the “Highlander” series whom Abramowitz previously produced.
The cast members include Adrian Paul, Peter Wingfield, Elizabeth Gracen and Jim Byrnes. “David was once the showrunner of the series, and they leapt to the chance for a “Highlander reunion”. This was great, because apart from me geeking out as a ‘Highlander’ fan, we’d get support from Highlander fans worldwide,” Tan said.
Later, the team managed to have more fun as they worked alongside LA-based actors who worked on popular science-fiction shows including Adam Balwin (“Serenity”), Beau Billingslea (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Cowboy Bebop”), Mark Sheppard (“Battlestar Galactica”) and James Arnold Taylor (“Star Wars Clone Wars series”).
Sarawak’s very own Tony Eusoff got to voice Raja Iskandar Shah. Other local cast members include notable celebrities UK-born Asha Gill, “Polis Evo 2” co-writer Chi-Ren Choong, GOAsean’s host Amelia Henderson and filmmaker Khairil Bahar.
“I think the key experience, especially in LA, was how professional, friendly and helpful the LA voice cast were. They had no problems working for hours to get their performances right,” Tan said. The LA voice cast were also comfortable taking instructions from a bunch of Malaysian first-timers.
“I remember working with Adam Baldwin and he said, ‘So you want me somewhere between Jayne (from “Serenity”) and Animal Mother (from “Full Metal Jacket”)?’ And we melted!” he explained.
“The LA sessions gave us a taste of great professional discipline and delivery, something to aspire here in Malaysia. Every session — turn up, do your best,” he said.
Tan hoped that the audience would be able to tell the difference between the Malaysian and foreign cast when they watch WOTWG.
The Challenges that Paid Off
Working at three locations, Kuala Lumpur (KL), LA and Seoul was a difficult task for the team.
They had to manage huge differences between time zones and distances, a problem that involved everyone from the creative team to the technical department.
“Along the way, we were posed with things we never anticipated — legal protection, distribution demands and even types of insurance we never heard before (then).
“The film was planned as an international release, and therefore, there wasn’t much of a blueprint for us here in Malaysia with a world-class (hate that word!) discipline and approach,” Tan said.
He also advised that if one is not prepared or serious enough to cover all the bases required for an international production and release, one might just fail in getting the support and partnerships that they require.
“Even promoting WOTWG at the San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) for four years running was something we knew we had to get right, even if we didn’t have the experience at the time. But we went ahead and tried, anyway,” Tan said.
Despite all the challenges they faced, Tan and his team’s efforts finally paid off when they finally won the Best 3D Animated Film in the LA 3D Film Festival in 2012.
The victory got them an invitation to screen WOTWG at James Cameron’s 3D film studio in LA. Combining 2D and CG WOTWG utilises a two-dimensional (2D) traditional cel animation, a form of animation that is hand drawn on the sheets of transparent plastic called “cels”.
Each cel contains one drawing with an outline on one side of the plastic whereas the other side is filled with colour. Then, they are placed over a background and photographed in a sequence.
An illusion of movement is created when this sequence is played back at the speed of 12 or 24 frames.
“I’ve been a fan of 2D traditional cel animation since I was a kid. Especially Japanese-style anime. Being a fan of the anime genre wasn’t the only reason why WOTWG was done that way,” Tan said. The team felt that using anime style would have a timeless look as opposed to using computer graphics (CG). However, the team managed to blend the two in WOTWG. The characters were 2D, but the vehicles were CG built and rendered. So, a mix of hand-drawn and computer,” he added.
From Finance to Film
Although Tan was a film and filmcraft aficionado when he was a boy, he started off working in corporate finance as film school was regarded as a “fantasy” back in the 1980s.
He later pursued his dreams as an entrepreneur in the film industry when he co-founded Imaginex Studios with Mike Bloemendal.
“I co-founded Imaginex Studios Sdn Bhd with Mike Bloemendal because not only was he the best audio post engineer in the country, I thought the post was a good start to experience the length and breadth of the industry…And we did, from television commercials to games to finally live-action/ animated series and features,” Tan said.
After a few years, Tan and his other partners and investors branched out into film-making. He also holds a position in post-production at Supernova Media Sdn Bhd.
In fact, post-production seems to be his focus and Tan would like to have an opportunity to work on more international projects.
“Right now, I am developing a few features and series projects with some great partners. I hope to be able to announce them sometime soon,” he added.
“Whether you’re a geek, or a classical poet, or a rock musician, or a romance novelist, or an artist, the thing is, don’t stop expressing and don’t stop caring for the artistic narrative format and genre you choose.” WOTWG will be landing in the REXKL main hall on Nov 20 from 7.30pm to 9pm during Tayangan BMW Shorties.
The film festival will be held during Urbanscapes 2019, Malaysia’s longest-running creative arts festival, which runs from Nov 16 to Nov 24 across KL.