Canadian animator Howie Shia dives headfirst into the awkward reality of how we handle our aggressive and often dangerous emotions.
With a nomination for best animated short at this past weekend’s Canadian Screen Awards, as well as being selected for the upcoming VIEWFINDERS International Film Festival for Youth, Howie Shia’s animated short, BAM, an NFB production that premiered last September at TIFF, continues to gather attention and audience through its festival circuit run. The film’s unique perspective on a particularly relevant topic – personal anger and rage – has intrigued me since I first saw the film and talked with Shia back in September of 2015. As someone who makes a living mired in the quagmire of “contemporary media,” I’m constantly reminded of how, and through what means, people express their often unchecked outrage online.
Shia’s film mixes compelling, gritty music, composed by his brothers Tim and Leo, with a unique 2D animation style that includes hand-ground Chinese ink backgrounds. But it’s the film’s unorthodox and unexpected presentation of how people handle their anger, and whether or not you consider there are times when violence is warranted, that make the film so compelling.
During our conversation, Shia talked about how and why he made this film, drawing inspiration from ideas as diverse as classical Greek myths and his own grandfather’s life as artist and policeman. He also shared his thoughts on why, in the end, he chose to let his audience decide how they wished to resolve the moral dilemmas raised by the film.
Dan Sarto: Where did the idea for the film originate? What inspired you to make this particular story into a short film?
Howie Shia: I'd wanted to do something involving boxing for many years, probably since I started animating. Turns out there's only about 15 seconds of boxing in the film in the end [laughs] but just for the physicality, I liked the idea of animating some boxing. That was always sitting there. I had been talking to Michael Fukushima about a new film and he was really enthusiastic about using my brothers [musicians Tim and Leo Shia]. He knew my brothers and I had done several projects together where they composed the music and I created the visuals. He wanted to bring in whatever it was he saw in us, maybe a more urban thing, than what the NFB normally is known for.
That was exciting for me. I started talking to my brothers about the opportunity. My oldest brother, Tim, put forth the idea of this whole funny animation trope of drum solos behind fight scenes, this kind of Hanna-Barbera thing. There's actually an old live-action Western starring John Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, and every time he gets into a fight there's a drum solo. It's always really funny more than it is dramatic.
At the time I started developing the story, thinking about it more, I had been reading a lot of Greek mythology. I have always been drawn to the dualities within Hercules. It often brought to mind my grandfather, who was on one hand a calligrapher and poet of some renown in Taipei, but also was a really high ranking police official who during that time period, was expected to be quite brutal. He embodied the definition of a classical Chinese hero, a man who was witty, intelligent and artistic, but also had this capacity for righteous violence.
Whenever I told people about him, they always felt like that was a strange mix, to be on the one hand a poet and on the other hand kind of a bruiser.
I felt the same way. But it struck me that it's actually quite a modern sentiment, to say that we have lovers versus fighters and you're not supposed to mix the two.
DS: Right, they're not supposed to cross paths.
HS: Yeah, exactly. But if you look at classical heroes from Odysseus all the way up through Batman, they're all sensitive, wounded, artistic and clever people who also embrace this sort of almost divinely inspired righteous violence.
The idea started evolving into thinking about what kind of choices and what kind of life my grandfather would have had if he was growing up today. He had this rage within him, this passion for violence, but it would be so looked down on in comparison to his other talents and interests that he would not be able to explore both aspects of his identity to their full capacity.
That's sort of where the story evolves from, taking these classical archetypes and subjecting them to a modern, urban judgement.
DS: So from the time the NFB greenlit the project, how much time did the film take to complete?
HS: Pre-production, including development of the script, boards, test footage and everything, including starting and stopping, was about maybe four or five months. Then actual production was about eight or nine months.
There was a lot of debate, and a lot of time was spent deciding if we were going to do it in 4K. We did some test animation and had more back and forth discussions. But once that decision was made, the whole production went very quickly.
DS: How big a crew?
HS: I had a few really great animators helping me. Jennifer Krick really helped with clean-up. Lillian Chan, Jonathan Ng, Malcolm Sutherland and Simon Cottee did a lot of work. Simon and Malcolm really focused on helping me develop and animate most of the purple splotches – I call them hydras.
The animation is all done in TV Paint with the standard brushes that come with the software. We composited in After Effects. The backgrounds are all done by hand on a special paper called TerraSkin. It's a like calcium carbonate paper -- there's actually no wood in it whatsoever. It's basically made of stone or stone byproduct.
DS: What’s so special about the paper? Why use it?
HS: From an artistic point of view, what's interesting is that it doesn't buckle at all under water. It stays flat and strong.
DS: OK, so once you start putting paint or ink on it, it doesn't start ruffling up?
HS: Right. The backgrounds are done with Chinese ink. I hand-ground all of the ink on a stone. Then I combined that with ball point pen line work.
HS: That aspect was really important to me. When you choose the right materials, they really sort of take care of most of the work for you, especially in 4K. The nice part of it is that regardless of whether or not I like the film, I can enjoy the texture because I'm in some ways not quite responsible for…it’s the different ingredients at work.
DS: So you’re scanning the backgrounds and drawing on tablets directly into the computer for the animation itself?
HS: Yeah, the backgrounds are all scanned, the animation was all done on a Cintiq.
DS: Now that we know a bit about how you made it, let’s discuss what it means. We have a boxer, a violent character, a brutal character actually, though we assume he learns to control himself to some degree as he gets older and gets married. His aggression often seems warranted, but his actions are marred by taking things too far. However, your film leaves off without any obvious judgment, or resolution, that we might expect. Where are you trying to take your audience? What are you trying to say about humanity and the propensity for violence?
HS: I don't know if there is a lesson, but there's a question I certainly want to pose, or an emotion I want to explore. In the end, I want to talk about and explore the emotion. Part of it is just the question of rage and violence -- what function do they serve in our lives and in our communities? At a certain time [in our past] I have a sense that it was actually the right thing to do, to react violently in a certain situation. Not even that long ago.
I'm certainly a very non-violent person. I think there's a question of, with the Internet, the media and people in general, what many call this kind of outrage industry. There's this sort of industry of getting people angry for the sake of being angry.
It’s going on right now. It's very easy to do. The Internet's a very angry place.
DS: It’s certainly not hard to get people fired up online at a moment’s notice.
HS: Right. So part of my thinking is just the question of, “OK, we have that in us, what are we actually supposed to do with it?”
My instinct is to judge and say, “You're being ridiculous, you're being a jerk, just cool it.” At the same time, I have clearly been angry at times, certainly when I was younger, and I remember how confusing it was having a point you're trying to make, knowing that it's worth getting worked up about, but then crossing this line where you start doing things that are antithetical to your purpose.
When I was developing the story, the scene where I kind of understood what the movie was about, what the character was about, was the scene after the first subway fight. He's sitting on the subway and you realize he's taken the bully's coat. You lose the sense of he’s done the right thing because at the end of the fight, he still feels the vice when he takes the spoils of war. Suddenly, he’s made it a questionable act. The motivation, his honor, is questioned. To me, that felt like the most honest thing a kid would do in that situation.
Classical heroes have wars to fight, they have dragons to slay -- a functional, important use of that energy -- for their community and for the world they live in. We don't have any of that, especially for kids living rather basic, urban lives. We don't have those outlets for that emotion. But we have that emotion.
That's the thing I wanted to explore. What do you do with all that anger and rage? Where does it come from and what do you do with all that power when you have no outlet for it, when you don't have a dragon to slay?
DS: So how did you finally decide on an ending for the film?
HS: It was a big challenge shifting the film away from being a morality lesson that said, “Don't fight.” All the major plot points that seemed obvious to the story pointed towards the message that violence is bad, you shouldn’t lose your temper.
I tried to find small scenes that would show it's not a morality play about what is the “right” thing to do. It's a question about being in that space where the right thing and the wrong thing are sometimes the same thing, where you struggle to deal with your judgments of yourself and other people's judgments of you. Hopefully, I achieved that, trying to hold it back from becoming a fairy tale. It's possible I didn't.
Finding the exact right version of the ending was difficult. I spoke with Tim and Leo and Maral [Mohammadian] my producer and Michael also. We all spent a lot of time just talking it through. They're great -- they left it up to me in the end. But I really just wanted to hear what people thought the ending “should” be and what it wasn't.
In the end, I don't have a clear answer to your question. But I’m comfortable with the idea that I left the film at a point where it's up to the character to decide what he's experiencing at that moment. It's no longer any of my business. I poked around in this guy's life long enough -- he's now at a point that is even more personal than I have a right to define.
The other thing actually is that, especially working in shorts, I feel less inclined to do a 3-act narrative. Even in longer pieces too. When you have a song, the thing that everybody accepts, that they don't often accept in film or writing, is that you can love a song, it can be the most powerful thing in your life, and yet you don’t understand it at all at the same time. But we're trained for whatever reason to think that a story has to make cognitive, logical sense, that we have to be able to say specifically where the points of tension and release are and where this theme was resolved and this character did that.
There's this Chekhov [author Anton Chekhov] quote [to the effect that], “If a gun appears in the first act, it has to go off in the third act.” With music, you have a much more abstract understanding of how a theme is resolved. To that end, I'm more drawn to films and more inclined, especially in short form, to create work that feels honest, that is emotionally, texturally and aesthetically rich. Those are the most important things to me. If it happens to have a tight plot and a 3-act arc, that's fine. I worked for Disney and did it for them and in my own stuff too. I have nothing against it. But especially in short form, the pleasure is to do more of a poem than a story.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.