Leon Tan opens up about how it was like working on "War of the Worlds Goliath".
It was a surreal experience to hear a producer of a film wishing that he had made the worst film of their career. But that is what Leon Tan, who also serves as executive director for Tripod Entertainment, aspires for Malaysia's first stereoscopic 3D animation "War Of The Worlds Goliath", well, in a cheeky manner of speaking of course. This 41-year-old aims to make much better films in the future that this award-winning animation would pale in comparison.
Not only did the feature pick up the "Best 3D Animated Feature Film" award at the Los Angeles 3D Animation Film Festival, beating out international made for 3D films like "Madagascar 3" and "ParaNorman"; "War Of The Worlds Goliath" also boasts a unique mix encompassing talented local and international cast and crew. It is evident that this film, being a Malaysian product of high calibre, is a source of pride to all that were involved, especially Leon.
Cinema Online's interview with Leon Tan conducted recently at Tripod Entertainment Sdn Bhd.
Q: Great to meet you, Leon. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how your interest in filmmaking came about?
Sure! I've always loved animation as a child. I enjoyed making up stories and telling them although my later path in life took me on a more corporate career. I enjoyed my corporate career but eventually I moved into this industry and formed an audio production company called Imaginex Studios with Mike Bloemendal in 2003. Four years later, I met Joe Pearson (who is also the director of "WOTWG") and the three of us formed Tripod Entertainment with Imaginex Studio under its umbrella.
Q: Was the company named Tripod because of the film?
Well, in a way it did. The decision for the name came really quickly. First, there were three founders, myself, Mike and Joe, a tripod of founders, if you like. Secondly, "WOTWG" was our first film and we thought, well, let's remember it. It's like Steven Spielberg's production company – Amblin Entertainment, where you see the logo for it is ET, a nod to one of his favourite films he made. So for us, it's the same thing, where the film brought us all together.
Q: How did you and Joe meet and what eventually lead to "WOTWG" being conceived?
I remember that we were both attending the Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2006 and were the only two people on the last morning shuttle bus from the hotel to the festival and we started talking. It was an interesting moment for me when I discovered not only he was an animation producer but he also produced the Pearl Jam video "Do The Evolution", which in my opinion is one of the best music videos ever made. We became friends and I visited him at his home in LA. While there, he started talking about his work in the past 30 years and showed me a ton of properties and ideas he had. One of those ideas happened to be "WOTWG". It really appealed to me then. I looked at him and said "Wouldn't it be fun to make something like this?" And he said, "I've been trying to make it for years!" And that was it. "WOTWG" was initially conceptualised as a TV series, but when we got involved, we were looking at it like a movie.
Q: Is it possible to reveal to us the budget of the animation? What is your target box office for the film?
We put together a budget of approximately USD 5 million for "WOTWG". That budget involved the pre-production, production, post-production, the stereoscopic and also all the other elements necessary to make a film like this, to be prepared for delivery into the world such as marketing, promotions, business development, legal, finance, and insurance. We want as many people to watch this film legitimately. Not just to make a profit and to repay the budget but also we want to be given the opportunity to make more films. We would to look back and say "WOTWG" was probably the worse film we've ever made because all of the other films we will make after it would be better.
Q: What was the process like to get "WOTWG" to where it is today?
Well, when it comes to animation, pre-production is the key. Unlike live action, where you can just shoot and roll the tape to see if anything interesting pops out, animation takes a more deliberate process where every single detail is planned. Based on Joe's idea, the next step would naturally be to expand it. We managed to get writer David Abramowitz on board to write the screenplay. Kevin Eastman, the co-creator of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" also signed up as executive producer of our film. Of course, it is still essentially very much Malaysian. All the major concept art was done by Studio Climb Sdn. Bhd., where they had to imagine New York 1940s in steampunk style, including the vehicles, props, the human army, martian army, and even the hierarchy of the vehicles. After all that conceptualisation, we moved onto storyboards, figuring how long it took per scene and mapping out the animation. We had a timing director called Graham Morris, who is also based in LA with more than 20 years of experience in animation. He helped us out with the timing because there aren't many timing directors in Malaysia for animation. At the same time, we were already recording voices in LA as well as Malaysia since it is done before the animation stage. It is only after all these preparations are done that we officially went into the production stage. The film initially started out as a DVD movie before we made the decision to make it stereoscopic. But very quickly the market for DVDs went away, so we had to reinvent the film to make it more cinematic. And we decided to do just that by going stereoscopic.
Tripod Entertainment the production company of WOTWG and its Imaginex Studios which worked on the audio of the film.
All of the visuals for the movie was conceptualised at Studio Climb.
Basecamp Films is where the 3D conversion took place.
Q: Balancing creativity and commercial is not an easy feat, especially in Malaysia. What gave you the courage to launch such an ambitious project?
The decision to go stereoscopic was based on the fact that when "Avatar" came out, a lot of other films came out in 3D as well to capitalise on the hype. There was a new audience waiting with a potential revenue stream. We worked the numbers and we saw the potential of a Malaysian stereoscopic team which is really, in our opinion, world class. The film is a balance of what we want to do creatively and how we want to succeed commercially. On the creative side, it's because all of us want to tell stories, to entertain, to share ideas and we use this medium to do this. We set a goal and then start figuring out how to get there. Some things we wanted to do but couldn't do and some things we thought we couldn't do but we did. Many decisions we made hopefully would turn out well on the commercial side because for one thing, we consider things like we wanted to make a film where everyone in the world will follow as a story. We wanted people to like the film for what it is and not for where it came from which is why we got together a team of people who were really experienced. The decision on the US cast was also a commercial move in a way. We have Adrian Paul ("Highlander: The Series"), Peter Wingfield ("Highlander: The Series"), Mark Sheppard ("Supernatural", "Firefly", "Battlestar Galactica") and Adam Baldwin ("Firefly", "Chuck"), who were famous in the science fiction world. While we don't exactly have Tom Cruise, because of budget reasons, obviously, we had the right kind of people with a big following. When their involvement was announced, there was a crowd made out of their fan bases following the movie for four years because all their favourite actors were in it. So that helped us built a momentum that got us noticed. Even David Abramowitz and Kevin Eastman had a huge following. When all these people came on board, they got the excitement of the film out there.
Q: So why did "WOTWG" took so long to be released on the big screen?
The whole production took close to four years because everyone involved, despite their long history and experience in their careers, has never done something like this before. The challenges were at many levels. First, you have KL, LA and Seoul working remotely. Also, the stereoscopic side, none of us had ever done that either. And in Malaysia, this is the first stereoscopic feature. A lot of experimentation took place to establish what you see on screen.
Q: What was the selection process in getting the team together? Were they approached on purpose or did they fall into the puzzle?
It took four years for this locally produced animation to be released in cinemas in Malaysia.
It's a little bit of both (laughs). Certainly, we put together our production teams and partners for the project because of a shared passion for stuff that we liked. Like Malaysia, Tripod has a company called Imaginex Studios that's done audio post production. Imaginex has worked on "Saladin: The Animated Series", "Seafood" and "Bunohan", and we knew we were capable of creating a strong cinematic audio to the experience. Basecamp Films came aboard because they are one of the top production houses in the region. Soon they will be the top stereoscopic companies because of "WOTWG". Studio Climb was our hands and feet. They made the job of the director and producer so much easier by giving us more than we had asked for. From the US side, they had a deep knowledge of funding, putting together business models and plans. Like Joe, he's a very experienced animation director and producer and he knew how to put animation production together and David knew how to write, of course, and the engine that is Kevin Eastman. We worked with Sun Min Image Pictures in Korea as well because of their affiliation with Cartoon Network. They did the "Ben 10" TV series so they knew how to run a fairly efficient 2D cell animation production.
Q: What were the difficulties faced in putting "WOTWG" together?
We had inadvertently upped the game to do something that's never been done before and we had to rely on our skill sets as a foundation to step up the game and try to make a film like this. Hopefully we've accomplished it and hopefully you like what you see.
Q: While watching the trailer, we noticed that there was a curse word uttered by a character, whom is a child. Wouldn't it be inappropriate to have kids watch an animation with coarse language included?
We actually do have an 'R' version where the language is stronger and there are some scenes where you do not see in Malaysia. There are actually two versions of this film. A PG13 version where you would not hear swear words and an R version because in some countries, this kind of movie works better for an audience that are much older, maybe 17 or 18 years and above. The PG13 version will quite likely be more widespread throughout the world. The R version would be confined to certain markets. The initial target audience for "WOTWG" is 15 to 35 years old.
Q: After working on this animation for so long, what is your absolute favourite scene in "WOTWG"?
I think it's a hard question to ask a producer of a film because the producer is his or her own worst critic. Even now, when I look at the film, I see a lot of things I wish I could have done better. I'm pretty sure that all the James Camerons and all the Steven Spielbergs of the world would say the same thing. But if I put on my hat and try to imagine myself as an audience, I'd say there are two scenes that probably meant the most to me. One is the scene where the human army prepares to move their arsenal and air force out of New York. It's a night scene as the navy gets activated and you see Teddy Roosevelt saying 'Godspeed'. I find that a very moving scene because the music is great, the scene is beautiful, the camera tracks back and you see New York at night. It's one of those moments of calm before the storm and I like that. The second scene I like is the scene between Shah and Patrick, his teammate on board the Goliath. Patrick is a member of the Irish Republican Army and both of them came from British colonies. But they both have different perspectives on how to deal with being colonised.
Q: There is a question that has been playing on our minds for a while. You said this is the first stereoscopic 3D film in Malaysia? Isn't "Seefood" the first?
"WOTWG" is the first stereoscopic 3D animated feature. I believe the first live action 3D feature was "29 Februari". But "Seefood" was not stereoscopic 3D. Stereoscopic is a way to recreate what our natural eyes see for a film. For animations like "Seefood", "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo", what they are essentially saying is that they are making a 3D animated film. When they say 3D animated film, they mean they use CG computer 3D models to make an animated film but it's still delivered in a 2D presentation. Although of course recently, many of these films now have a stereoscopic 3D version. I would like to stress though, that I loved "Seefood". We worked on it at Imaginex Studios and we had a great time doing it!
Q: Thanks for clarifying that with us as well as our readers! We hope the film does well in Malaysia!
No problem! Thanks, Cinema Online.
"War Of The Worlds Goliath" is now showing in Malaysia and is available in 35mm and 3D format.
Cinema Online, 19 November 2012