Coming to Malaysia – Sebastian Ng (part 2)

374920_10150466309118052_475610028_nLast week, we sat down and had a chat with Sebastian Ng, an independent Malaysian filmmaker, about his experiences in studying filmmaking in the United States of America. In the final of our two-part interview, we now look at his perspective on Malaysian cinema, the difference between Hollywood and…err, Mollywood, and why his listing on the Internet Movie Database is not that complete…

How much of that experience were you able to apply to the working world back here? Since Malaysia and the United States of America aren’t exactly the same, I suspect there must have been some differences here and there…
Big difference. One thing I learnt from Hollywood is that whatever you do, you have to do it to your maximum best, for the simple reason that it’s so competitive over there. How competitive? Interns and runners would work long hours and say yes to ridiculous tasks for no pay, just to prove that they are valuable to the system so that they can get hired for positions that are more permanent. In Hollywood you never ever say “I don’t know”, you can only say, “let me find out, I’ll get back to you”.

This can be tough for newbies. Even how you refer to things on set are obscured by Hollywood’s penchant for jargon, which aren’t indicative of the thing and usually backed by some idiosyncratic anecdote. Famous example: one of the ubiquitous items on set is the humble clothes-peg, used for clipping gels to barn doors on the lights. Except it’s not called a “clothes-peg” on set, it’s referred to as a “C-47”. Beyond that you need to learn what are apple-boxes, C-stands, MOS, etc etc. And then there are all these rules and rituals that you’re just expected to know, even if it’s your first time on set. (Some of these you learn at film school, one of the few tangible benefits of going to film school in LA/NY.)

Yes, Sebastian. We know.

Unlike on Malaysian film sets, where inefficiency is tolerated and expected, where shooting can be delayed for hours while people sit around chit-chatting, in Hollywood film sets, professionalism is the bare minimum expected of you, and there is literally no time for people to fuck around (not to say there isn’t fun to be had). You are expected to go out of your way to achieve your tasks, and if you can predict what people want and deliver it to them before they ask for it, you get their attention. They don’t care that you are new to all this, if you make a silly mistake, and get served that terrible ultimatum “you’ll never work in this town again”, you’re screwed. Hollywood is a small town and people talk to each other about who’s good and who should never be hired.

One very important lesson I learnt over there is that in the film industry, networks and connections are your currency, not money. I brought that ethics back with me; these days I might join a shoot for little to no money if it brings me close to people who might be helpful for my career in the future—as well as allow me to find out the professionalism and conduct of the people I am working with.

In Malaysia, quality doesn’t seem to matter much to a lot of the people here, the so-called “cincailah” or “tidak apa” attitude. Whereas for Hollywood, one of the biggest reasons why their films are so good is that they are very meticulous and put a lot of thought into everything they have to do, from how people and time are organised to the tedious aspects of shooting. And even then they still make bad movies … albeit better-looking ones.

Of course, it’s not like you ignored Malaysian productions completely. I know that you recorded the sound for ‘The Joshua Tapes’, produced by Perantauan Pictures and directed by Lim Benji and Arivind Abraham. How did that opportunity come about?
I had just returned from Los Angeles and was looking at Kakiseni’s webpage listing crew vacancies and their request for a sound recordist popped up. So I emailed them and they called me in for an interview and then I was hired.

What was that experience like? I mean, you appear to have been more formally trained in the field of directing, but here, this is as much technical exertion as it is an artistic one…
Actually when I was in film school I took every class I could squeeze into the hours I had. I majored in Directing and Sound Design, but also took classes in Screenwriting, Producing and Editing. The reason I did that was simple, I just figured it’s important (especially for a director) to know as much as possible about the other disciplines. Now this is just a one-year course, so everything I learnt and experience was by no means at a advanced level, but I knew some. I was alright at sound recording and never possessed an instinctual understanding of sound design and editing.

I very much appreciated the chance to work with the Perantauan Pictures guys. I was wary that I would come back to Malaysia and be forced to work in unprofessional sets, but I have to say that the crew I worked with were pretty committed. Arivind, who was director, actually made it a point to check with me about sound quality, and would do retakes if I indicated to him that sound was unusable. It sounds simple enough but I was impressed. It wasn’t a big crew but people were diligent at what they do, and generally got along well and I must say I had fun.

"Where did everybody go?"
“Where did everybody go?”

I also noticed you wrote a short film script called ‘Layers’. On the film’s profile page, the director noted that the production of the short film could potentially lead to feature film opportunities. I want to get your opinion on the theme, per se: how much credibility can we attach to short films and their makers? Is it truly an art worthy of consideration in its own right, or are they little more than auditions for future opportunities?
Little more than auditions for future opportunities … interesting way to put it. If I was being politically correct I would say no. But I say yes.

I believe most—but also definitely not all—filmmakers making narrative films ultimately prefer to do feature-length films, or if they’re in a position to do so, produce a television series which allows one to tell a longer story even more completely and immersively. Short films function as exercises to allow one to hone one’s filmmaking skills, and also as stepping stones or calling cards to greater things.

At the same time, the shorter duration immediately imposes a different set of rules and expectations in the storytelling. So just because you’ve directed a bunch of really awesome short films doesn’t mean you can automatically do equally well for feature films; though it is probably true that if you can’t direct short films well then you probably can’t handle feature film directing.

Are short films an art form of their own right? Maybe. To be honest I rarely enjoy short films. I would say, the shorter the better; I rarely enjoy ones more than 15 minutes long. (The Oscar-winning ‘West Bank Story’ was a rare exception.) Especially dramatic stories. Kid dying of cancer in hospital, domestic family arguments—gosh, they can be so boring.

Big tip: shorts tend to work better as comedies. Usually if nothing grabs me in the first 60 seconds I move on. When I say grab me, I don’t mean I need someone to be shot dead or a car accident to happen within those 60 seconds. You can even impress me with something slightly interesting you did with the opening credits. Because then I see potential in being surprised in the rest of the short.

The only short film of yours I managed to track down online is ‘Hashshashin’s Revolt’. I am aware that the film was intended to be produced in time for the BMW Shorties competition in 2010. What was the experience of making that film like?
As with many writers, the tight deadline succeeded in squeezing a story out of me; and it was a story I really, really liked—and I almost never like my stories. The story was rather ambitious, with a plot that was really too complex to fit into the 12-minute duration limit. The cast and crew, barring a couple of actors, were entirely my colleagues. I had two weeks to prep it, two weekends to shoot it, and then two weeks to ram it through post. Shooting is stressful and fun, as always. My cast and crew were mostly quite cooperative and were doing their best to give me what I asked for, despite our collective inexperience (some of them had never been in a production of any kind).

One of the positive aspects of this production was that I got a chance to work with the comedian Kuah Jenhan. He was still establishing his career at the time, and this was one of his earlier acting performances (and not in a genre you normally see him in). If you watch the short now you probably won’t be impressed, and partly that’s down to my inexperience in directing. (Compare him in ‘Cuak’ now. The fellow can act.) However, and I don’t say this lightly, working with him was a really nice experience. He is an absolutely dedicated and professional guy, always suggesting ideas, and doesn’t get offended when they’re not taken. Also, a tip: hiring a comedian keeps your cast and crew in good humour.

The other thing I learnt is that I don’t ever want to shoot a fight scene at a pasar malam again. (Unless I’m in a multi-million ringgit movie and have enough money to pay everyone and gain control of the set.)

The end result was a film that basically matched what I had in my head but, I have to admit, looks rather amateurish. It didn’t get into the final round of BMW Shorties.

Life during Pi.
Life during Pi.

You’ve worked at Rhythm and Hues (R&H). How did that opportunity come about?
Rhythm & Hues’ bosses came to Malaysia in 2008 to explore the idea of setting up a branch studio here. By the end of that year, newspapers started announcing that R&H was setting up in Cyberjaya and my mum happened to catch that headline. I had zero background in visual effects, but having just returned from Hollywood then I was interested in any opportunity to stay connected with the Hollywood film industry, so I applied. After a couple of interviews I got hired as a Production Coordinator, and was in fact one of the first Malaysian employees. R&H Malaysia started with just four of us, so we ended up doing everything, from assisting with the construction of the studio space to recruiting local graduates to join the studio.

On the Internet Movie Database, you’re listed on such films like ‘Chronicle’, ‘Yogi Bear’, the ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ sequels and ‘X-Men: First Class’, amongst others. Are there any other films that should also be on that list?
There are only three movies where you will find my name in the end credits: ‘Marmaduke’, ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-wrecked’ and ‘X-Men: First Class’. But in total I was involved in coordinating for ten feature films. Sometimes I’m only on it for a few short weeks; I remember me and my team were called in to work on ‘Knight & Day’ for just one day.

What does it take to get your name on the credit list? I am aware that not everyone gets their name up there, so can you explain the process a bit (if there is one)?
Just to make it clear, the reason not everyone gets their name up there is because for expensive blockbuster films, end credits could easily run twice as long and exceed ten minutes just by crediting all the visual effects staff who worked on it. At R&H the bosses worked out a system to rotate artists’ turn in getting credits; if you didn’t get credited for a particular project then your name becomes higher priority in the next project.

Let’s take ‘X-Men: First Class’. What did you do, specifically, on that particular film?
As I mentioned I was a production coordinator. During most of my career at R&H I was coordinating for the Camera-tracking and Matchmove department (they track the camera movement and objects within the shot in order to prepare the shot for animators and lighters to add CG elements realistically). So I had a team of a couple of dozen Matchmove TDs under my care, and my job was to ensure that they get everything they need to do their work as smoothly as possible. TD is Technical Director, which is industry jargon referring to visual effects artists. If TDs encounter technical difficulties I get the specific technical support person to aid them. I have discussions with the show leads on who should get what shots. I keep the department manager informed about how the show is going; are we behind or on schedule? We also keep an eye out for team dynamics and people issues. I get dinner for the TDs if we have to work late. That was my role in ‘X-Men: First Class’ and all other projects I was on.

Unfortunately, things didn’t end all that well for Rhythm and Hues. What was your experience like at the company when things started to go south last year?
Actually I missed a lot of it. News about R&H’s financial difficulties emerged over Chinese New Year last year; by the end of February I had left the company. I did stay in constant contact with my former colleagues and was generally privy to what was happening in the company as options became more limited and lifelines were withdrawn. It was definitely an emotional time for all; all of us (and I do mean all, even the tiny minority who had personal grouses against the company) had really come to appreciate how special R&H was and were really sad to see it go this way. You can get a sense of that slow death in this documentary produced by one of my former colleagues in the US, ‘Life After Pi’.

Sebastian didn't convince Jon Landau he can make a better Jake Sully...
Sebastian didn’t convince Jon Landau he can make a better Jake Sully…

Let’s talk about your blog, Cinematic Concerns. Why did you decide to start a film blog?
During final year in university, I created the blog with the intention of writing film reviews, but didn’t really use it. It was only when I went to Los Angeles for my film course that I promised myself that I would begin writing reviews for every single film I watched while I was in the United States. I kept that up pretty well, I think there were like one or two movies out of the hundred plus that I didn’t review.

Having been involved in filmmaking, both as a student, a reviewer and a maker, how have this affected your viewing of films? I mean, are you able to watch as a viewer or do you tend to think, “Ah, the rendering is a bit ‘off’ there…”?
Here’s how I know I’m watching a really good film: when my mind is fully in the story and not analysing and dissecting the various aspects of a film. The worse a film is, the more my mind starts breaking it down: sound editing is sloppy, the ADR (additional dialogue recording, or dubbing) is obvious, this part would work better with no music, this part is clearly the director’s failing, the editing is too choppy, etc. So in a truly terrible movie, my mind is not watching the movie at all, it’s all analysis. Conversely, in movies like ‘The Help’ or ‘Snowpiercer’ (to name a couple of recent examples), I’m so blown away by storytelling skill that I’m inside the movie, in love with the characters, reacting to the plot changes, getting emotional involved.

For visual effects quality, since I never had hands-on involvement in CGI I’m afraid (and lucky, actually) that I can’t tell whether a piece of compositing or animation work is bad, unless it’s really obvious. Like the CG background behind Gary Oldman in the corporate boardroom scene in ‘Robocop’, that was obvious. It wouldn’t surprise you to know that the TDs I worked with are now unable to watch movies without noticing sloppy CGI work, like in, say, the ‘Transformers’ movies.

A large number of the reviewed films were watched at international film festivals. By and large, we’ve not manage to maintain a film festival culture here in Malaysia. Why do you think this is?
I thought about this question when I was in Busan last year. I had a really good time there and was impressed with how even teenagers and middle-aged aunties would come to the film festival to catch all kinds of obscure, experimental, independent or arthouse movies, set in geographical regions that had nothing in common with their lives in Korea. So many of them stay back and actually ask interesting questions during Q&As with the director and cast. I could see that this is extremely beneficial in opening up their worldview, to see how different and yet the same the world could be. It makes the Koreans better people for it.

But when I think about how we might attempt to transfer that experience to Malaysia, I immediately felt a sense of despair. There wouldn’t be an audience for a hypothetical (proper) film festival in Malaysia. Even if the government or a corporation is generous enough to fund a week-long film festival, and we get the right people (read: not bureaucrats who pretend to understand cinema) to attract a decent variety of films from around the world, our local populace just wouldn’t be interested or bothered.

Khairy prepares for a post-politics career.
Khairy prepares for a post-politics career.

Golden Screen Cinema (GSC) has been getting better in organising its various film festivals annually (I was somewhat impressed with their European film fest lineup last year), but the fact is barely anyone attends them. The Malaysian public are just too self-absorbed with their daily concerns and problems, and more importantly they do not feel excited about watching anything beyond the Hollywood blockbusters and local movies they are currently watching. *shakes head in despair* And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Also, both the government and our relatively conservative society don’t seem to react well to being exposed to images and content that are very different from the local worldview and experiences. I’m generalising of course, but I feel Malaysians enjoy laughing at cultural behaviours that they are unfamiliar with, and sometimes take personal offense at scenes showing characters doing things that run contrary to their religious or cultural upbringing. They’re not able to take an objective view, or they make assumptions of entire countries or entire races by the actions of one individual character in a story.

Perhaps I’m doing the same against Malaysians. I’ll be honest, and this is my own view: I am very pessimistic about the Malaysian audience. I keep feeling like they gravitate towards bad movies and shun good movies.

Of course, this is not a small question, but what is your opinion of the Malaysian film industry?
Right now, it’s not going anywhere. Just like our politics, there are two kinds of cinema and there’s a great chasm separating them. On the one hand you have shitty mainstream Malaysian movies (both Malay and Chinese movies) which are made because the people making them can earn a living doing their jobs and average Malaysians apparently enjoy watching them; on the other hand you have independent Malaysian movies, which for the longest time consisted mostly of pretentious arthouse cinema that only the filmmakers and the small circle of people around them appreciate.

Where is the middle ground? Where is the variety? Whenever anyone tries to do anything a bit different, either it never gets made because producers/investors say that audiences don’t want to watch it (even though the same audiences are often recorded lamenting the sad state of our movie industry), or it gets made and promptly falls into the deep hole of box office flops. The late, beloved Yasmin Ahmad came the closest to bridging that chasm and thriving on it. With her passing, that bridge is now nowhere to be found.

So in the meantime, people in the industry just go right on doing what they’ve always done, even as they continue to air their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

The number of Malaysian productions, both from mainstream and more independent origins, is largely increasing year by year. How much of an impact does this have on the quality of Malaysian films?
Probably not the right person to comment, because I really don’t watch a lot of Malaysian movies—whenever I try I just want to poke my eyes and ears out. I wouldn’t say I noticed that there has been an increase in Malaysian productions. I will say though, that if the establishment is dumb enough to try and hold up ‘Tanda Putera’ as a stellar example of filmmaking, even after they’ve seen it themselves, then we have been regressing at an alarming velocity. If you take a longer view of Malaysian cinema, I think most would agree that the P. Ramlee era had pretty high-quality films, and now look where we are now.

By the way, you’re not the only person outside of Hollywood to recognise James Badge Dale. We loved him in ‘24’.
You’re the second person in Malaysia to recognise James Badge Dale then, haha! I think he’s a good actor and hope that ‘The Pacific’ is not the last time we see him in a leading role.

Alright, I think we got what we need. Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed!
Thanks for the privilege.

You can read part one of the interview here. We discuss Malaysian cinema in Episode 7 of the podcast with Ezzah Mahmud.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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