Master of Ceremonies, Helen Ho with Lilian Soon backstage. Courtesy of Mark Langer. A Man's Tale by Ivan Chua. (Temasek Polytechnic) Courtesy of the Singapore Animation Fiesta.
An island located a 100 miles north of the equator may seem like an unlikely place to hold an animation festival, but when I received an invitation to attend the Animation Fiesta in Singapore on June 15-16, I jumped at the chance. It had snowed in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada as late as May and a tropical escape seemed ideal. My ideas about Singapore were derived from novels set in Britain's colonial Far East by people like Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. Edward Said would undoubtedly disapprove, but I fantasized shooting tigers from my seat in Raffles' Long Bar, or consuming Singapore Slings in a seedy tavern with Burmese-based White Russian traders and Imperial Japanese agents working out an opium-for-arms deal behind beaded curtains. Next to us, a malarial British Vice-Consul in a rumpled white linen suit would be drinking himself to death while upstairs his wife would be committing adultery under mosquito netting with someone wearing a fez. Rain would fall endlessly on Chinese junks docking at the wharf outside. What surprises must lie in store for the traveller to the perfumed port city of Singapore, I thought.
After 36 hours of travel (including an unscheduled stop in Hong Kong due to a missed connection), jet-lagged but happy, I sat at Raffles' Long Bar amid dozens of other naive tourists. The biggest surprise was the $18.50 cost of a Singapore Sling. It has been a few years since someone shot a tiger in the Long Bar and the mosquito netting was taken down long ago. Singapore is a cosmopolitan city of 3 million where restaurants hawking "Clay Pot Live Frog" or "Pig's Organ Soup" stand cheek by jowl with McDonald's and Arby's fast food outlets. Traditional Peranakan architecture is vanishing beneath modern high rises. Standing on the corner of Ganges Road and Zion Street (near the confluence of Synagogue and Church Streets), listening to passersby speaking in Mandarin, Teochew, Malay, Hakka, Hainanese, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, English and the local variant, Singlish, the vibrant multicultural atmosphere of the city impressed me. As one of the economic powerhouses of Asia and a crossroads of the world, with a small but growing animation scene, Singapore is an ideal location for an international animation festival.
A Fringe Event
The Animation Fiesta was a fringe event of the biennial Singapore Arts Festival. The impetus for this first animation festival in Singapore came from Dr. N. Varaprasad, Principal and CEO of Temasek Polytechnic. On learning that Temasek cultural studies lecturer Gigi Hu was planning to attend the 1994 Cardiff International Animation Festival, Varaprasad suggested that one be started locally. The event was organized by Hu and animation instructor Lilian Soon, supported by Temasek, the National Arts Council of Singapore and a variety of embassies, high commissions and private corporations. The challenge of coordinating such an event, and of educating the local public about the nature of animation was formidable, but was well met by the organizers. The result was a lively two day long event held in a charmingly restored Victorian-era theater within the Raffles Hotel complex. Guests of the festival were lodged at the nearby Penninsula Hotel in the colonial heart of the city near such architectural gems as Raffles, St. Andrew's Church, and the National Museum and Art Gallery, and conveniently close to picturesque areas of the city like Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street.
Mornings and afternoon sessions featured guest speakers, while the evenings were given over to screenings. The opening presentation by West Surrey College of Art and Design's Roger Noake examined the interrelationship of art, technology and communication by presenting personal projects and sponsored work of animators from Len Lye and Oscar Fischinger to the present day. The tradition of public service or commercial work sponsoring more experimental animation continues in films by people like the Brothers Quay, Marjut Rimmenen and David Anderson in England, according to Roger.
This was followed by Albert Schafer, a manager at Studio-TV-Film in Berlin, who showed examples of television series and documentaries using animation to educate children in Europe about environmental issues. Focusing on works like The Bamboo Bears or Albert Says Nature Knows Best, Schafer surveyed German animation's "green scene."
Animator Dani Montano from Dimensions in Manila presented an eclectic survey of animation from the Phillipines, Indonesia, India and China, ranging from public service films on the virtues of birth control and dangers of AIDS to children's parables. The tension between expressing local cultures, and the financial lure of filmmaking for international markets was graphically illustrated by the broad variety of films shown.
Local Production Local production was presented through an exhibition of work from Animata Productions, Garman Animation Studios and Temasek Polytechnic. The student films were imaginative, demonstrating that the limited resources of a newly-established animation program at Temasek are not barriers to creativity. K. Subramaniam of Animata spoke about how he and his associates have tried to develop their skills by increasingly ambitious projects. Subra showed his short animated study of an old man's loneliness, The Cage, which won the Special Jury Award in the Singapore Short Film Competition, and an excerpt from Singapore's first animated feature-length film Life of Buddha, which has become a strong seller in Asian video markets. The session closed with an enjoyably quirky lecture by Garman Herigstad, who discussed his experiences animating in Asian countries, displayed a showreel of his computer animation, and ended with an exhibition of his guitar collection!
Saturday evening consisted of programs devoted to Japan and Canada. The Japanese program presented Isao Takahata's classic Tombstone for Fireflies (Grave of the Fireflies), a tale of the fate of teenaged Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko in the last months of World War II in Kobe, Japan, and one of the few films that invariably cause me to weep. The Canadian program featured recent National Film Board productions, including Cordell Barker's The Cat Came Back, Paul Driessen's The End of the World in Four Seasons and Caroline Leaf's Two Sisters. Singapore has fairly rigid censorship standards. While the films shown in the Fiesta received an educational exemption, movies depicting nudity were pushing the envelope as far as local norms go. This became apparent during the screening of Snowden and Fine's Bob's Birthday. When the morose Bob appeared naked from the waist down, the audience first gasped and then came out with the longest sustained laughter (continuing through Bob's "Elephant Dance") that I have ever heard.The final day began with a survey of Japanese animation by Sayoko Kinoshita, director of the International Animation Festival in Hiroshima. Sayoko presented a demo reel of the 5th Hiroshima Festival along with some of her and her husband Renzo Kinoshita's own work, including Made in Japan, and the more recent Hiroshima, which deals with the nuclear bombing. Speaking in Singapore, a country that suffered terribly under Japanese occupation, Sayoko reflected on Japan's responsibility for the war in a moving moment for the speaker and the audience.
Martin McNamara, producer for Colossal Pictures, Saga City Media, Nickelodeon and other companies, discussed the use of computer animation techniques by Bay Area animation studios in a talk called "Behind the Scenes." Through the presentation of element footage, Marty documented the stages of production of advertisements, music videos, title sequences, etc., which employ art media ranging from traditional cel and miniatures to computer-generated imagery. This fascinating survey unfortunately was cut short by lack of time.
Red Rocket, Animata, etc.
A segment on Animation and Advertising featuring examples of work by Southeast Asian producers and agencies, such as Inside Design, IDimaging, Garman Animation Studios, Red Rocket Indonesia, Animata, O & M, VHQ, Dentsu, Young Rubicam, and Cowboy Water Design was presented by Brian Harrison, Managing Director of Dentsu, Young and Rubicam, Jonathan Ang, an animator at VHQ Singapore, and James Speck, owner of Cowboy Water Design. Then came my turn at bat. In a discussion of Animation and Satire, I had to grapple with the problem of making the Canadian obsession with hockey, as seen in Sheldon Cohen's The Sweater, intelligible to an audience from the tropics. Films by Norman McLaren (Neighbours and A Chairy Tale) and John Weldon (Special Delivery, Real Inside and The Lump) seemed somewhat more easily appreciated by those attending.
The Fiesta ended with a sneak Singapore preview of James and the Giant Peach, followed by an MTV showreel featuring various MTV logos, Aeon Flux, Stick Figure Theater, and the inevitable Beavis and Butt-Head, whose charms were relatively new to a Singapore audience. This was followed by final retreat of invited guests to the Long Bar for a final goodbye get-together.
The atmosphere at the Animation Fiesta was relaxed and casual with uncommonly good attention being paid to invited guests. Being a noncompetitive and relatively unknown festival, the aisles of the theater weren't haunted by exhausted jurors, overstressed competitors, or recruitment agents from major studios and their prey. The scale of the event was intimate enough for everyone to get to know one another. Sessions were interspersed with frequent breaks in Raffles' Empire Room for schmoozing by guests and locals over tea accompanied by cucumber sandwiches and incendiary curries. Late nights were spent roistering over Tiger beer, steamboats and nasi padang. Expeditions to local open-air markets resulted in memorable sights and experiences, among which was my first (and final) taste of durian--a local fruit that looks like an armored cocoanut from the planet Klingon, with a subtle flavor but an overpowering odor reminiscent of decaying road kill. As a fringe benefit of Singapore's location near Malaysia and Indonesia, several guests of the festival took trips to Bali, or, as I did, to Malacca. It was with a real sense of regret that I packed my bags for home. The Animation Fiesta promises to be the first of a series of biennial events. I'm starting to save my pennies for travel to the next one.
Mark Langer teaches film at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and a programmer of animation retrospectives.