‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’

  • While very much an international effort, more of Malaysia and Korea in the movie than the US
  • There were story and character challenges, as well as technical challenges

‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’AT the Nov 8 blogger premiere of War of The Worlds: Goliath (WoTW: Goliath), which opened in Malaysian cinemas a week later, director Joe Pearson, in a short speech that acknowledged all those who had contributed to the movie, said, “There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie.”
 
While the original story may have been his idea, Pearson and writer David Abramowitz – in an earlier interview with Digital News Asia (DNA) – made it pretty clear that the driving force in getting this movie made was producer Leon Tan, the Malaysian chief executive officer of the Tripod Entertainment Group.
 
“Leon is an amazing combination of shrewd businessman and child-like fan boy,” says Abramowitz. “It’s an incredible combination because he’s always excited about a new idea, and he’s always ready to take the lead. There’s a kind of enthusiasm that he has that is … somehow he’s smart, but not cynical.”
 
The two also acknowledged the Malaysian funding from various governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, with Pearson even saying that “without Mavcap, this movie wouldn’t have been made,” referring to Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd, the Government’s venture capital arm.
 
The movie is very much a “what-if” and “what-next” exercise set in an alternate history timeline 15 years after H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction classic The War of the Worlds – the first Martian invasion has failed, but remnants of their technology was left behind.
 
‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’Humans have re-engineered this technology for their own use, creating an international fighting force called ARES (Allied Resistance Earth Squadrons) which is armed with mecha built on a combination of steampunk, dieselpunk and Martian tech. Their mission is to stave off the expected second invasion, which begins just on the eve of what should have been the First World War.
 
The international effort that is ARES is pretty much reflected by the international effort that went into making the movie itself.
 
“It’s very much an international effort, but if anything, weighted towards the Malaysian and Korean side rather than the American side,” says Pearson (pic). “The concept, the script, the direction and production management may have been American, as were parts of the storyboard, but everything else -- from the design to the animation, including post-production supervision – is very much Malaysian.”
 
The list of technical credits include a number of Malaysian companies, such as Studio Climb (production design), Silver Ant Lab (CG modeling), BaseCamp Films (post-production and stereoscopic 3D); while Korea’s Sun Min Image Studios took care of animation production.
 
Adds Abramowitz, “I’ve been doing this 30 years, and I have never worked with a better post-(production) house.”
 
Animation challenges
 
For Abramowitz, the fact that the movie was an animated one made little difference to his writing. “I don’t know of any difference between animation writing and non-animation writing; I just write the script.”
 
“I wanted the characters to be human, and I wanted to them to bounce and live. I pictured each of the characters and I tried to make them as real as possible, to make them passionate in their issues and speak in a different voice, so that it felt like you were watching people be human and real,” he adds.
 
Tan says this was part of the plan. “We didn’t want anyone thinking about writing for animation, just someone who could write a good story, with real characters.”
 
‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’“And every character has an interesting backstory; stuff they have to deal with, conflict. You have one character who saw his parents killed by the Martians, and now he’s in command,” he adds, referring to the main protagonist Eric Wells, voiced by Peter Wingfield, whose genre credits include appearances in Highlander the Series, X-Men 2,- X-Men United and Catwoman.
 
But there are differences in how this all plays out.  “Live-action actors can be more emotive with their facial expressions, and they don’t always need a line. They can act with a look of the eye or with a special moment,” says Abramowitz (pic).
 
“Also, with animation, you can’t go to another angle. You have to work with what you’ve storyboarded. You can’t say, ‘let’s have a look at this scene from another angle’ to see if it plays out better,” he adds.
 
Pearson, who came up with the original idea of War of the Worlds: Goliath in 1998, had from the start envisioned it as an animated movie. Over the years, the only thing that had changed was a more anime-like approach.
 
“The vehicle design concepts were always there, but the execution by Studio Climb and the Malaysian team here have met, and in fact, exceeded my expectations,” he says. “They took it from a slightly whimsical look in the original to a somewhat more steam-diesel look.”
 
“From the beginning, I wrote it thinking of animation, but for me now, when I see it realized on the big screen, and with repeated viewings, I’m kind of shocked at the grand scale of the vision we have achieved here,” he adds. “It is way beyond my expectations.”
 
‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’Technical challenges
 
Pearson says that technology has helped too, especially computer graphics (CG) technology and the “way it allows us to create on bigger and vaster scale has got easier to do since 1998.”
 
“Truthfully, when I started on this project, I didn’t realize how effective after-effects could be. From my work as a layout artist, I knew about how effective layers and pans could be, but combine these with the power of CG, it’s a bigger, grander vision than what I thought I could do,” he says.
 
Pearson notes that Don Bluth’s Titan A.E. came out just two years later, but at a big-budget cost. “Our animation is a lot smoother, our mecha and vehicles integrate better with the characters because we made an effort to get the texture of CG models but with a certain linear quality so that it integrates better with the characters.”
 
Titan A.E. tried to do that, but it looked like two separate worlds; it was the same with Anastasia, where the train stood out like a sore thumb,” he adds, referring to that 1997 movie, also directed by Bluth.
 
The use of stereoscopic 3D, which uses two slightly offset images to create the illusion of depth – in much the same way human, with our binocular vision, see in three dimensions – added its own set of challenges as well.
 
“Without getting too technical here, you have a 2D hand-drawn character sitting in a 3D cockpit, and the camera’s moving, and it all has to integrate smoothly,” says Tan, adding that this took quite a bit of effort.
 
“The Korean studio handled the compositing really well too,” adds Pearson, saying that animation is a more collaborative process.
 
“We had more than 400 people working on this film, and all of them should get the credit – the writers, the other producers, the designers, the actors, the storyboard artists, the model builders, the animators, the layout artists, the assistant animators and the clean-up artists,” he says.
 
“When I was in Korea, I used to watch this girl sit at her desk day after day, and rework the line art with her pencil – and to do that for the entire film which had over 1,600 scenes and hundred of thousands of drawings,” he adds. “It’s very much her film too, because she gave it its look – as did the post-production team here in Malaysia.”
 
‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’Characters and voice actors
 
Malaysia does not just figure in the production of the movie, but is also neatly represented in the movie itself via the character of Raja Iskandar Shah, a Bugis prince from Malaya, voiced by local stage veteran and showbiz personality Tony Eusoff.
 
To more cynical Malaysians, the character may seem like just a sop to local audiences. Pearson admits Shah wasn’t in the original roll call of characters he developed in 1998. “But he turns out be one of the most interesting characters, thanks to David and Leon,” he says.
 
Abramowitz can’t keep the glow of pride out of his voice when he speaks about the character. “Shah is a smart and interesting character,” he says, adding that his first foray into writing involved five films in eight different languages to help teach refugees and immigrants survival skills in the Western world.
 
“I had to do research for that, and so I had a certain sensitivity to other cultures,” he adds. “It was very important for me that Shah be a character of quiet nobility; very smart, with a dry sense of humor. He’s kind of the equivalent of Spock, but he feels more emotion, and he’s given up a lot to join this group.
 
“One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when he approaches another character who may or may not be guilty of treason. He has a conversation with him where he tells him that he trusts him, and the other character is touched that he trusts him. But as Shah walks away, he says, ‘Of course, I checked the inventory.’  Just to be sure.
 
‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’“So he’s nobody’s fool. In hindsight, to be honest, I wish there was more of him in the movie, because he was a really good character. If there is a sequel, I would like to see him have his own command,” adds Abramowitz.
 
As the Malaysian member of the production team, Tan (pic) played a major role in helping conceptualize Shah. “I went back to our history books, reading about the time when we were a crown colony and how all the royals used to send their children to schools like Eaton so that they could join the colonial administration.
 
“I liked the idea of him being a Bugis, the whole swashbuckling pirate thing. And we discovered something in Bugis culture, where a young man must take a journey to discover himself, and when he returns, only then does he become a man.
 
“So this is kind of like Shah’s story; he goes to Eaton and discovers it’s not what he expected, with its prejudices and all,” says Tan. “When he tells his father that he’s joining this army (ARES) to fight the Martians, his family doesn’t understand him and he’s kind of disowned,”
 
“So this story is about Shah‘s journey, and hopefully we will be able to tell more of his story, and everyone else’s, through sequels and extensions,” he adds.
 
And while Abramowitz says one of his favorite scenes is Shah’s interaction with the could-have-been-traitor, director Pearson says his favorite is one in which Shah defeats a Martian in single combat armed only with his keris (a wavy short sword from Malay culture).
 
“With all these machines and mecha fighting against each other, this is one scene that brings the conflict to an up-close and personal level,” adds Pearson.
 
That particular scene also passed the acid test at the Sitges Film Festival (Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya), the ‘mecca’ of fantasy and horror movies.
 
“The biggest reception we got at the Sitges festival was during this scene,” says Tan. “The Spanish crowd went nuts; there was a lusty Catalan roar and cheers!”
 
Eusoff wasn’t the only Malaysian acting talent in the movie – Capitol FM deejay and former model Asha Gill and writer-director-actor Gavin Yap also have roles in the movie.
 
“I can’t think of any animated movie in Malaysia with such an international voice cast, where you have the Highlander alumni like Adrian Paul and Peter Wingfield, Elizabeth Gracen, Adam Baldwin (Firefly and Serenity), Mark Sheppard (Battlestar Galatica and Supernatural) and James Arnold Taylor (the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series) -- you know, a real geek-fest,” says Tan.
 
Yap was also the voice director. “He’s an amazing voice actor,” says Tan. “He got the teams working together – we actually flew Gavin and the team here to Los Angeles (LA) to record them.
 
“I’d like to believe that the audience, especially the Malaysian audience, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the LA cast and the Malaysian cast,” he adds. “It all just sounds like one big movie.”
 
Says Pearson, “A film like this, on such a modest budget, can only work if everyone’s giving their 110%. The director, whether the film is successful or not, gets a major part of the glory or the blame, but the people who should get the credit if it succeeds is the crew.”
 
“As the director, I feel like I hacked away at a sculpture until we got to a certain level, and even at the end you don’t know what you have until you see it,” he adds.
 
“It’s probably the most terrifying part about being a director – you think you know what you’re doing, but until watch the finished product, and see the audience reaction, you don’t know what you have. Even great directors make turkeys.”
 
Abramowitz quips: “I am so glad it wasn’t bad.”
 
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve been in movies where all the parts seemed to work, but when you see the finished product …,” he says, adding that he watched the movie with his wife, who hates animated movies and has been known to fall asleep at such screenings.
 
“She turned to me at the end of it, and said, ‘I really liked it’,” he says. “I was just so thrilled – it was the greatest compliment in the world.”
 
Editor's Note: Leon Tan is one of the panelists in the upcoming DNA-TeAM Disrupt session on the creative content industry

Previous installment: Technopreneur Leon Tan gets his dream geek-fest
 
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