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Raman Hui Talks ‘The Tiger’s Apprentice’

The ‘Monster Hunt’ director’s all-new, original 3DCG animated adventure, based on Laurence Yep’s children’s book of the same name, follows Chinese American teenager Tom Lee, whose life changes forever when he discovers he is part of a long lineage of magical protectors known as the Guardians; now streaming on Paramount+.

He’s come a long way since “That’ll do, donkey!” Raman Hui, who cut his animation teeth as a story artist, character designer, and animation supervisor across the Shrek franchise, as well as co-directing Shrek the Third, brings his storied animation chops to an all-new 3DCG adventure, The Tiger’s Apprentice, now streaming on Paramount+. Let’s not forget, he also directed both live-action/CGI hybrid films Monster Hunt and Monster Hunt 2.

Based on Laurence Yep’s 2003 children’s book of the same name, the film follows Chinese American teenager Tom Lee, whose life changes forever when he discovers he is part of a long lineage of magical protectors known as the Guardians. With guidance from a mythical tiger named Hu, Tom trains to take on Loo, a force that is as powerful as a Guardian but has evil intentions of using magic to destroy humanity. To fight against Loo, Tom must reunite all 12 Zodiac animal warriors and master his own newly discovered powers.

The star-studded cast includes Henry Golding (The Old Guard 2), Brandon Soo Hoo (Mech Cadets), Lucy Liu (Shazam: Fury of the Gods), Golden Globe Winner Sandra Oh (Quiz Lady), and Academy Award Winner Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once).

Alongside Golding, Soo Hoo, Liu, Oh, and Yeoh, the animated adventure features an impressive ensemble voice cast that includes Bowen Yang (Saturday Night Live); Leah Lewis (Elemental); Kheng Hua Tan (Crazy Rich Asians); Sherry Cola (Joy Ride); Deborah S. Craig (Meet Cute); Jo Koy (The Monkey King); Greta Lee (Past Lives); Diana Lee Inosanto (The Mandalorian); Patrick Gallagher (Night at the Museum); and Poppy Liu (The Afterparty).

Enjoy this featurette: Meet the Characters of The Tiger’s Apprentice!

Hui directs alongside co-directors Paul Watling and Yong Duk Jhun, with a screenplay by David Magee and Christopher Yost. Jane Startz produces alongside Sandra Rabins and Bob Persichetti, with Maryann Garger, Kane Lee, and Carlos Baena executive producing.

“Jane Startz and Kane Lee had been developing the book into a movie for a while,” Hui says. “I was approached by Paramount to be on the project in 2019. After I read the working script, I immediately felt connected to the characters. I was drawn to the cultural references and the intriguing story.”

Noting that ancient mythology inspired many of his design choices, Hui explains, “We added a touch of contemporary feel to fit the story. We stayed authentic to the location of San Francisco. We also paid extra attention to the details of creating Chinatown. Our fabulous production designer, Christophe Lautrette, and his team did a lot of research and created a Chinatown so vivid and beautiful. For the characters, we did many drawings and paintings to pick from. Carlos Baena, our executive producer, had great ideas and led us to come up with the style of the characters. Hu the Tiger and Tom were the first two and the toughest because we wanted to make sure those designs could act on multiple levels. Once they were designed and finalized, then we based on them to create the others to make them all fit in the same world.”

The director’s deep experience working across the Shrek franchise as a character designer, storyboard artist, and animation supervisor, as well as being a co-director on Shrek the Third, and directing both Monster Hunt and Monster Hunt 2, helped him tremendously on this film. “The Shrek movies taught me how to manage an animation team, how to storyboard, how to read storyboards, how to work with actors, how to work with the editorial department, lighting, effects, and compositing teams, the list goes on and on,” he says. “Monster Hunt additionally taught me how to be responsible, how to manage a project, and how to handle obstacles. Most importantly, all these films taught me about teamwork. There’s so much work to do in making an animated movie. Having Paul Watling and Yong Duk Jhun as co-directors, we worked great as a team, handling different tasks to complete the movie. And our producers Jane Startz, Sandra Rabins, and Bob Persichetti guided us and supported us wholeheartedly through this process.”

Hui has also worked extensively in TV animation, a much different “Zodiak” animal than features. Asked how his TV work has helped him on animated film projects, he says, “When I was working on TV, we had to produce a higher quantity [of animation] than working on a movie. That helped me develop the skill to handle a larger volume of work within a restricted schedule. It was good training to make quick decisions and proper judgments so the crew could continue to work and produce. When I worked on the first season of How to Train Your Dragon, we had to solve a lot of unpredicted problems. The first episode was the hardest one to finish because we were training the crew and defining the quality of the show. That experience gave me a lot of ideas and solution references that I can always refer to when I run into similar situations in the future.”

He continues, “The most challenging to me is the initial part of the production. Usually, that takes the longest time and is least efficient. During that time, it’s very hard to imagine how the show or the movie can get done. Then suddenly time flies and you realize you’re down to the last few shots to finish. One day you wake up and think about which shots might still need work or could be better, and then it dawns on you that the movie has already been released. Then you go back to sleep. Haha!”

Looking back on The Tiger’s Apprentice production, Hui remembers how his team was able to set the film’s direction and tone very early on, something that doesn’t happen on all projects, which provided an important foundation on which the rest of the movie was built. According to the director, “The Tom (Brandon Soo Hoo) and Hu the Tiger (Henry Golding) mourning scene, storyboarded by Rob Koo, our wonderful Head of Story, was one of the first scenes we animated. That scene was touching and emotional, and it was a great exercise for us to animate the tiger and Tom to reach that level. Then the introduction appearance of Mistral the Dragon (Sandra Oh) was a fun and great fight scene that allowed us to define the action style of the movie and the fun relationship between Hu and Mistral. When we started animating Loo (Michelle Yeoh), we had to explore how her character should move with elegance while being a threatening ghost-like villain. The dream sequence when Tom meets Nu Kua (Lucy Liu) was visually stunning to me. David Dulac, our visual effects supervisor, and his team created a look with brush strokes that made the dream a bit abstract and whimsical. Each frame of that sequence is like a painting.”

Hui also notes that he was lucky to enlist such an amazing cast. “Henry Golding, Brandon Soo Hoo, Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Bowen Yang, Sherry Cola, Leah Lewis, Jo Koy, Kheng Hua Tan, Greta Lee, Deborah S. Craig, Poppy Liu, Diana Lee Inosanto, and Patrick Gallagher gave us fun, engaging, and entertaining performances,” he says. “They inspired and encouraged us to push the best in animation to represent their great work.” 

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.