Toronto-based animator Howie Shia explores the nature of rage and violence in his latest NFB short, BAM, premiering at TIFF on Sept. 16th and 20th. Inspired in part by his grandfather, a high-ranking police official as well as a poet and calligrapher, the short riffs on Hercules: a young boxer struggles with his shy, bookish nature and a divinely violent temper.
Bill Desowitz: Talk about the theme of rage and what prompted you to explore it as a retelling of Hercules and how it relates to you personally and the culture of today.
Howie Shia: I think the film breaks down basically into two questions for the protagonist (let’s call him Harry). The first is, Where does his rage come from? Is it an innate animal reflex (a survival instinct people are born with)? A learned behavior (a product of the outrage industry)? Or is it something altogether more primordial: a divine right?
The other question for Harry is about the function of his rage. He has a profound instinct and talent for violence, but he can’t really figure out anything meaningful to do with it. The myths he reads are filled with these classical heroes who, by definition, have great intellectual and artistic wit as well as (and not “and yet also”) an incredible capacity for righteous violence. Harry identifies with these heroes, but he doesn’t have the same outlets as them.
My grandfather was both a high-ranking police official in Taiwan and a revered calligrapher and poet. Today, that combination of thoughtfulness and physical power might seem unlikely, even contradictory, but at that time, in that place, I don’t think it was. I think BAM comes largely out of a question about who my grandfather would be if he was growing up today. Would he have to choose between his physicality and his intellect, and what do you do with all of that power if you have no wars to fight and no hydras to slay?
As for the Heracles part of the whole thing, I’m very drawn to the dualities within Heracles—his divinity versus his humanity; his heroism (the 12 labors) versus his shame (accidentally murdering his wife and children in a fit of divinely induced madness). I wanted to see what happens to those dualities when expressed in a contemporary vernacular. That said, BAM isn’t actually meant to be a retelling of the Heracles myth so much as it is a story that uses similar building blocks to explore the broader cultural and literary context of Harry’s condition.
BD: The boxer struggles with his two sides and the rage appears predestined as a test from the gods to see if he can overcome his violent nature.
HS: It’s actually a question mark to me, whether or not Harry is meant to overcome his violent nature or embrace it. Today’s partisan politics of lovers vs. fighters doesn’t actually exist in the classical literature that the Gods come from. Odysseus, Beowulf, Zatoichi, Batman — all of them are brilliant and sensitive; all of them are bruisers. So by mythological standards, Harry is really quite normal and doing exactly what he should be doing. The problem is that he doesn’t live in that world. He’s a classical archetype being subjected to modern judgments.
BD: Let’s discuss the graphic, comic-book-style look and spare use of color for emotional impact (the primordial particles are very effective).
HS: My wife and I were living in Brooklyn when I first started working on BAM, and I found that most of the artists I met there had become frighteningly good at combining really simple shapes with rich color combinations to make these amazing, quirky little pictures and movies that instantly grabbed your attention. ZAP! They were like shooters of art. I was fascinated by it but also felt a bit outside of it so, probably out of a sense of self-preservation, I started pushing my work further in the opposite direction: more texture, more detail, more involved contours, composition that was deliberately bland — things that require the viewer to slow down a little and actually go through the image with the artist’s hand in mind. I wanted to treat the screen more like a theater stage and see if I could tell a dramatic story through performance and pacing and blocking; and to avoid the use of the extreme foreshortening and crazy angles that seemed very popular at the moment (including my own previous work). As for the palette, I stretch out a little more in my illustration work, but for animation, this is just my default: a positive, a negative, and a half-tone. Again, I like the theater of it: the challenge of trying to convey a full range of emotions and textures using very limited props.
BD: What was the production process like? What tools did you use?
HS: Production was quite straightforward. I boarded it out roughly, then animated in TV Paint and composited in AfterEffects. I usually do much tighter boards when working for Disney or Freemantle or any of the bigger studios, but with my personal projects, the boards and the final picture are often very different. With short personal projects, I’m discovering a lot of the character and arc of the story as I animate, so the framing really changes as I go from scene to scene (I try to animate in chronological order as much as possible). That said, I was lucky to have some of my favorite animators working with me on some of the harder scenes (Lillian Chan, Jonathan Ng, Malcolm Sutherland and Simon Cottee, Jennifer Krick) so I had to nail down those scenes well in advance so that I wasn’t wasting their time. I did all of the backgrounds in Chinese ink wash (I grind the ink out by hand) and ballpoint pen. They were drawn on a really interesting type of paper called TerraSkin, which is made mostly of calcium carbonate and has the amazing feature of not buckling under water — like, at all.
Developing the sound for the film was a bit more of a back-and-forth between [my brothers] Tim, Leo and I. We all had different influences we wanted to bring into the film, and there was a lot of very patient trial and error that Tim and Leo had to tolerate from me so that we could figure out which ideas to keep, which ideas to evolve and which ideas to jettison.
BD: Talk about the use of jazz and hip hop and collaborating with your brothers.
HS: I don’t know that there was a conscious decision to specifically use jazz and hip hop as influences per se (or orchestral music, for that matter). We just went with whatever felt most honest to the film. The difficult part was finding the balance from scene to scene, because certain melodies and textures that work well for one scene didn’t make sense for others. That’s not quite as big a deal when you’re working on longer pieces; you have time to establish and embellish on a given motif and/or instrumentation, and then move on or mutate for the next scene or for three scenes down the road. But with a short film that covers as much territory as this film does, Tim and Leo worked really hard to make sure each of the scenes was a fully realized moment but still connected enough that the overall score didn’t sound like someone channel surfing. In the end, the score is a collage of all of the different things we were listening to at the time: Donny McCaslin, George Benjamin, Ennio Morricone, Benny Hill, Miles Davis, D’Angelo, and Kendrick Lamar.
The one thing we did consciously decide to do, right from the get-go, was to look for interesting ways to coordinate the drums with the fighting. Tim had this great idea of taking that old Hanna-Barbera trope of drum solos during a fight scene and turning it into something that was actually emotionally resonant.
As for collaborating with my brothers, we’ve made art and music together all our lives, so it’s hard to clearly delineate where hanging out ends and work begins. More often than not, our meetings are a 15-minute conversation squeezed in after dinner and before wrestling matches with our nieces (we destroy those girls). When I was in Brooklyn and Leo was in Taipei, we did most of our stuff over e-mail and Google Hangouts — usually wearing funny hats.
I want to mention that working with the NFB sound crew (sound recorder Geoffrey Mitchell, mixer Jean Paul Vialard, and foley artist Karla Baumgardner) was also an incredibly important part of raising up the work that Tim and Leo did and giving the film a unique sonic identity.
BD: What were the biggest challenges?
HS: I think the hardest thing was actually logistical: it was figuring out how to do a personal film that still evolved organically while maintaining some semblance of a pipeline for the other animators to plug into. Like I said, on bigger commercial projects, it makes sense to work everything out ahead of time in the boards and animatic before handing it off to production (although, to be honest, I’d rather not do that either), but for these smaller pieces, you want to keep that energy of a constantly evolving and reactive thing, so it took some doing to keep ahead of the animators.
BD: What are your favorite moments?
HS: I don’t know how to pick a specific scene, but I’m really happy with how the overall sound turned out. It was a real team effort and the 7.1 mix especially is a really rich experience. I really hope people get the chance to see this in the theatre, because the audio experience is full of surprisingly little nuances of texture and space that really elevate and change the storytelling. Also, the 4K picture presentation is a treat. Again, if you get a chance to catch a festival screening, the subtlety in the dynamic range and detail in the washes and lines is really very satisfying to see.