About Millie

My photo
I animate, therefore I am a teacher. I teach, therefore I illustrate. I illustrate, therefore I draw on my environment. In drawing on my environment, I am animated!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Kompin Kemgumnird Interview 25/2/14 (part 4) Kantana and the Blue Elephant

contd from  Kompin Kemgumnird Interview 25/2/14 part 3 Blue Skies and home again!

Around 2002 Kompin returned home to Thailand, his visa had run out and his passport was due to expire and the South East Asian economic crisis of 1997 was still having some effect in the region. He got in touch with a group of people who he had worked with at the Studio Corporation. They had all moved to Katana Animation Studios. They were planning to do an animation series, ‘Zon 100%   -  ซน 100% Which means ‘100% Naughty’, there were 22 minute long episodes and 24 episodes in total. 
    "It’s good for training in animation production. You have to take a story and make it work but you don't have to like be too strict on the story, there is room for experimentation and exploring and learning within each episode, so one episode may be better than another, but if the idea is good enough it can go into production. And if there are problems then you can try to do better in the next episode, a kind of work in progress which allowed the crew to learn and develop their skills on the job. Each episode had a different approach, some were action based, which people really enjoyed working on and some are more drama based where they could play around with ideas of character and story."
     At that time the early concept ideas for Khan Kluay, the Blue Elephant had already been established. The writer original idea was writer Khun Dow, (Aummaraporn Phandintong) who spoke with Khun Jarit (the Kantana Animation boss) who has always liked elephants, and he was looking to do any kind of movie with elephants. They spoke about possible ideas for live action and in her research she came across the most famous elephant in Thai history was in the elephant battle สงครามยุทธหัตถี Songkram Yuddhahatthi with King Naresuan.  In Thailand there are many references of the classical pose depicting the two elephants in battle where the kings on top in battle  of King Naresuan above the other at the moment of conquest. A strong visual reminder of the defeat of the Burmese. This is something that is seen and reinforced in education throughout Thai schools. The iniytial ideas were to take the story from the elephants perspective and 'celebrate' the elephants role in the historic events. Elephants are the National animal for the country and hold strong associations with the national pride. Their part in history is reenacted in spectacular shows with live elephants in Surin, Ayutthaya and Bangkok. 
Elephants from Ayutthaya Elephant Kraal reenact the battle

Khun Jarit thought this was a great idea, to focus on the story of the elephant that served the king in Thai History. So at first they looked into doing the idea as live action. They talked with Khun Somphat, P'Ohm from the Ayutthaya Elephant Kraal about the possibility of filming elephants, but it was agreed that this would be really hard to get the elephants to ‘act’ in live action. So they gradually changed the idea towards being done in animation. Initially it was to be a TV series about Khan Kluay, following the story of how he grew up and was raised in the forest by his mum and exploring the questions he has about his father and his relationships with the other elephants, in a kind of a soap opera family story anthropomorphizing the elephant's experiences for the audience to engage with. Offering a kind of fable like morality where you see the bad ‘kids’ who bully him as the underdog character in the forest (hood) but gradually as the story progresses he becomes stronger and becomes the chosen one by the King. 

Khun Auchura was a producer at Kantana now and knew Kompin from their earlier work at the Studio Corporation she knew that his experience at Blue Sky was coming to an end, so asked him to join in. The last, and only,  animated feature film in Thailand at that time was ‘The Adventures of Sudsakon’ made in 1977. The studio decided to change the story into a feature movie; a move which  was both innovative and a huge risk for Kanatana. Once the Zon series came to an end the studio they started to gear up to making the feature film.  Kompin was given the script and in it he saw both opportunity, but he also saw a lot of trouble too! He knew from his recent experience at Blue Sky that the feature business is tough! He told Khun Auchura it would be really tough to make, partly because at that time he was thinking about a realistic look. Initially he had thought it would have to be realistic because they would need to deal with the King (King Naresuan) and it would be really hard (socially and ideologically) to picture the King as a cartoon, especially in Thailand where the King is worshiped and revered as a God and so the visualizing as cartoon would be deemed inappropriate by many in the community. Thailand has a Lese majeste law which upholds and maintains no criticism or dissent about the monarchy. So this would make the job very hard.
Also he recognised from his work on Ice Age it  had been hard enough to animate just one elephant/mammoth Manny, but in this story there are many elephants and they are really difficult to animate. They have a really big body and head, but a really tiny eyes. So when animators try to add expression into character's they usually use the and hand gesture, but elephants are four legged large bodies and small eyes,  so the hand and body gesture is hard too but they do have a trunk! So sometimes you can use the trunk for the gesture, but if you use the trunk all the time it ends up looking weird. You have to express through the eye and the eyebrow, but because they are so small and far apart from each other it’s difficult to make expression clear. In Ice Age the job of character animation was easier, there were alternatives: there was the sloth and the tiger, the baby, all with so many things you can explore to get the story across through the various characters, but in Khan Kluay there was only elephants – every main character was an elephant, so it would be more than ten times harder! They worked in the first attempt at the character design which went towards a very cartoony look so they can build in the possibility to play more with gesture, like adding bouncing and body gesture and have funny facial expression.

Some foreigners with the expertise were needed to help the studio work on a feature film. So  people were hired, many of whom were also Cal Arts alumini, including Tod Polsen who initally came in to help direct the project and develop the design and Evan Spiliotopoulos who worked on the English version of the script and few other people working on character design and the 2D animation. Although none of them had worked on a full feature film they were highly skilled and helped train and teach the whole Thai team the production process from the developing of ideas through the production pipeline and planning and the scheduling. Being a feature film tthis opened the very necessary financial  possibility to widen the audience into an international appeal. They all needed to work and learn together.  

Initially Tod developed a trailer to try to get some European investment.


They spent a year working on and developing the story, story board, and character design, set designs, and with their influences the versions of the story developed from the original historical account and the soap opera structure that  had been developing into a fuller character driven narrative. 

It maintained a sense of the original, but when they had screenings with the producers and backers several times during the work in progress the feedback and comments were very tough from the boss and executive producers and Thai friends. They felt it did not look ‘Thai’, which is a tough comment. There is such a lot of work involved and then from the producers such a huge pressure and president to set on the Thai identity. So this was really a very hard time in the films progression. The big question being what is ‘Thai’?

            Kompin suggests ‘Our culture is mix and match – you only have to look at Thai food the deserts like Thong Yod  - but if you look back in history it originated from the Portuguese, it's not Thai at all, it is an adaptation. The Kwai Tioew noodles are Chinese. So all kinds of Thai traditional foods are all influenced from our neighbours elsewhere. So it makes it hard to pinpoint the Thai identity. So when the comment came that the film was not Thai enough, it was tough for me. I was not involved in the project at that time so it was hard for me to tell what part was Thai what part was not. Or why the Thai-ness is not there.’

The designer, Tod Polsen,  had worked really hard to identify the elements of design to capture Thai culture. Tod is really good at being able to go to another culture and look at the accent of the culture and then simplify it and interpret it into design for animation and reflect the culture. The details of the swords demonstrating the subtle differences between the warring factions of the Burmese and the Thai. But it was something at the heart of the story, that maybe was not there yet in terms of Thainess. 

Tod was fully aware about the Thai cultural deference to the King, and he thus had tried to avoid dwelling on scenes involving the King. He had focused more on the elephants stories and their interactions, especially as it was Khan Kluay’s story. So the part with the war scenes, he had cut shorter and focused more into the elephant’s point of view.  In Thai historical dramas like the King Naresuan  films there seems, from a western perspective, a high content of violence an a focus on the waring action. Which by Western standards may seem inappropriate for children's audiences yet one can usually see a high turn out of families and children viewing the graphic actions. However the cinema ratings and censorship rules in Thailand have less emphasis on violence. It was felt the narrative did not show the Thai perspective enough. The Thai national and cultural relationship with (their version) of the historical past is ingrained into the cultural psyche from very early on, and so the events of the Ayutthaya war, defending (and building) of the kingdom, needs to be depicted in such a way as to be reinforcing the ideology of the events, the loyalty to the King and the understanding of the sacrifices made by past Kings in order to demonstarte it’s strength of Thai people as recognised in the eyes of the people today. In Thailand there are layers and layers of cultural reinforcements of the roles of past historical events, in particular of King Naresuan, seen in amulets worn, posters displayed in homes, street names, statues and in the main stream media, especially Film. The stories depicted never question the roles of the characters who rarley are depicted with the hero's character flaws as seen in the hero's journey narrative favoured in the West, nor are there analysis of the reality of events, but they are reenacted to maintain the enigma of the King, which is accepted in the culture. Unlike the West which appears often to delight in establishing as much dirt on it’s own past as possible. Within the culture there is a seemingly natural understanding of protocol of deference often so subtle that can be missed by outsiders eyes; and usually our clumsy indifference is passed over easily by Thai's who happily accept the complexity of ceremony they live by.
Comparably in Memoirs of a Geisha the story of a Japanese Geisha, the film reads clearly to outsider’s eyes, but to Japanese they can see the main character is Chinese not Japanese. Or in the for Thailand contreversial, Yul Brenor’s depiction of the King of Siam in the ‘King and I’, 

Black and white photo of a man with a shaven head in silky Asian garb; his chest is exposed and his feet are bare; he stands with hands on hips, glowering at the camera
Yul Brenor in the role of King Mongkut

which understandably caused offense and bore no resemblance to the Thai cultural understanding of the King Mongkut or the story. 
King Mongkut with one of his wives and some of his children

King Mongkut and his son Prince Chulalongkorn

Things may look or appear similar, but when you know the protocol codes, signals, body language and gestures of a culture the wrong sequencing, or positioning can stand out. Kompin decided to change some of the emphasis in the story in particular the part where Khan Kluay meets the King for the first time. Previously Khan Kluay and the king had not seen each other until he was grown up and went to the ‘boot camp’ to train and was picked to work with the King. So by bringing them together when they were both younger he was able to establish a through line in the plot that established  the magical presence of the King to the elephant. This reflects the Thai Buddhist concept that all creatures would come to no harm with Buddha and the King, who holds the same enigma of character of God in Thai culture. So in the scene Khan Kluay arrives all frustrated and nervous and he comes to see the young Prince he becomes all calm in his presence. Jai yen yen. 


The scene is quintessentially Thai demonstrating the magical power of the King’s presence to calm the heart of the elephant. A scene where you have to feel it, feel the calm. This scene is then reinforced later when the elephant gets crazy, his mum has been captured, every thing has gone crazy and the King came and touched him, in a link moment which reinforced the earlier moment and sets up their linked destiny together. 

The Thai crew working on the film, when they design a shot, even when following the international design, they were automatically adhering to the Thai-ness. Setting the King above the elephant. They also helped in the setting of the scenery and environment especially with the foliage. They knew intrinsically what plants are from here so they are reflecting the indigenous environment more accurately.

When Khan Kluay was completed the boss wanted to follow on with a sequel, ‘Khan Kluay 2’, but Kompin did not want to continue with that.