Looking at the current state of animation in Singapore, in terms of independent animation, a very eclectic yet still Asian style has emerged, simply because Singapore is just so cosmopolitan and that really shows in the work of the students. One could say that nowadays there isn’t a localised style anymore, because everybody on the web could look anywhere they want, but I still firmly believe that your own real lifestyle not only the online world severely influence what you’re doing. – Hannes Rall
Last year in October, I had the privilege of flying over to Singapore for a week to visit the Arts Media and Design department (ADM) at the Nanyang Technological University(NTU), on behalf of the Melbourne International Animation Festival, which was this year’s school of focus for the festival. I also had the privilege to meet with Associate Professor Hannes Rall, notable German independent animator, and one of the founders of the animation department.
The whole week was an intense experience absorbing and experiencing the rich diversity of cultures, religions and languages compacted in this dense cosmopolitan, and literal jungle, that is Singapore.
I was met at the airport by Assistant Professor Bernhard Johannes Schmitt, stop-motion animator from Germany, and together we crossed to the opposite side of the island to NTU. The campus itself is in its’ own town within a humid rain forest and home to between 35,000 – 40,000 students and faculty.
The ADM building was an impressive architectural structure. A popular site for wedding photos, this modern structure appears as though it was carved out of the hill, blending its metal beams and glass walls with a grass roof and the surrounding forest. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well equiped the inside of the building was, especially for an art school, housing a Motion Capture Lab, Stop-motion studio, recording booths, and drawing spaces among other specialty creative rooms within the greater design department.
Through out the week I was also guided by Bernhard, Hannes and Associate Professor Gray Hodgkinson, New Zealander CGI teacher, where I learned more about the history of school and the direction of Singaporean animation. I also had a chance to interact with several students, witness their art practice and review their works. Notably, on the ground floor is a small cubicle village, reminiscent of those at PIXAR. Final year students are allocated a space where they are able to work on their end of year projects. I saw shower curtain doors, pots and pans, mattresses under their desks, and shoes and slippers lined up outside their little corridors. It was funny, yet interesting to see the dedication of the student where their life was in the studio. There they’re able to focus as individuals, yet be close enough for open communication amongst their teams, which certainly shows in the excellent quality of films produced.
One afternoon I had the opportunity to interview Hannes about the evolution of the animation course and the Singaporean animation scene.
You came from a history with graphic design before moving into animation. How did you first get into academia from there?
At the time there was already a kind of pioneering class at the State Academy of the Art Institute in Germany – there I studied under Professor Ade who also founded the Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film. He was teaching in the framework of graphic design with a class already specialising in animation. And so I did the program and then started a career which combined and consisted of independent animation as well as taking commission work in comics, animation, illustration, storyboarding, quite a wide range of things.
At some point towards the late 90s, about a decade of professional experience under my belt after graduation, I felt it would be a good time to venture into part-time teaching. So I did that with two institutions in Germany until 2004. In 2004 I saw an advertisement on Animation Blog Network which was looking for full-time faculty to start a new school within the University, NTU here in Singapore. I thought that sounded pretty cool because I would be able to participate in really building a program. So I thought okay let’s give it a try. I did my first two semesters, really liked it and I think my work was really appreciated here, so I decided to stay.
Since you were starting the school from scratch, who were you teaching with and what were the main focus points that it started off with?
The starting point for the school was to bring for the first time the idea of teaching design and animation and film and so forth, all of these so-called applied Arts to University level, which didn’t really exist before in Singapore. For that reason it was important to create a curriculum which brought together all the aspects of university, so-called well-rounded university education with a specialist approach also in the various disciplines so that the goal was that the students will have a good academic general education but to really be able to later on be hired and employable in the industry. The idea was also to create a school that would focus on the students finding their own artistic voice.
We always had the idea to bring together the traditional and the digital and create a seamless combination and to enable the students to choose their emphasis or their focus during their studies according to their own interest and strength. In the beginning we were about 5 people in the animation faculty. Through the years some people come and some people go, but overall, I think we always try to keep a balance between the more traditional side of animation – people who are very experienced and good in drawing design production design, character design and so forth and people who are strong on the technical side who are very capable of implementing things in CG and in different technologies.
It was always very clear to us that we wanted to basically offer the knowledge of all major disciplines in animation and techniques to our students, so – including stop motion including drawing animation, but also all the various computer techniques. We have been confirmed by our industry partners that a strong artistic foundation is very important.
We spoke yesterday about how in high school the students have two routes to go down which is the JC and the Polytech routes. Could you explain a bit on that?
Hannes Rall: During what could be the equivalent of High School in the US, there is a split of the students into various schools according to their academic level of achievement and also to their choices in order to go into a more vocational training, which would be the Polytech. The JC route is where normally the academically higher achieving students will go. The major differences between these two types of students who are both coming into ADM is that the Poly students frequently will be familiar particularly with the technological aspect like specific software, for example, Maya for computer animation. The JC student wouldn’t have that technological background. Sometimes the JC students bring in smart new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at concepts. They can be very smart and capable on either side in each way. It cannot really be said that one type of student would outrank or kind of be better than others, so it seems that over time it levels out somewhere. It is very often the case that there is a slight majority of Polytech students that would be going into more technical specialised effects like visual effects for example. For our program a specific challenge because we need to be able to close that gap as much as possible by ideally providing a pedagogic environment where you can challenge the more experienced students a little bit more and also create some interactions there where the more experienced students can help the less experienced ones. I think it’s quite unique to Singapore and university education in these fields in Singapore.
Talking about collaboration, a lot of the students prefer to work in groups for their final-year project, can you talk about the dynamics of that?
Usually they do graduation films, though we also allow the exceptions to do related projects like graphic novels, or concept art related to a specific topic. We don’t force them to do either single or individual or group projects, it’s up to them in the end. In terms of group work; its a very good training experience for something which happens on a macroscale later in the industry. The dynamics are very interesting. Ideally naturally one person evolves as a director of the whole group and in the same way other members of the group would find their respective roles as technical director or like more producer holding the whole thing together. I think that has been a very good rehearsal in many ways for them also to figure out their later possible roles in the industry. We had one person several years ago who was very good at doing the producing of a group. She was not the person who did the major artistic input, but she moved on to become an assistant producer first with Lucasfilm in Singapore and then went on to be very successful with her career as a producer. There’s not a clear inclination of group projects being better than individual projects or vice versa because I think we have seen really extremely good projects over the years as well as very successful individual projects. The big advantage of individual projects is that there is no discussion in that sense. There is a focus there and no artistic vision needs to be discussed, at least not amongst the larger group. The downside is if you’re working on your own and you’re not really in control of what you’re doing and the scope of your project, it’s easily can become overwhelming. We as professors and as mentors try to prevent this as much as possible from happening, by always keeping close watch over the project. We meet on a weekly basis during the semester with the student which allow us to track the progress and also alert the students if their plans are a bit too ambitious.
As far as the working environment, you have really impressive studios here, quite noticeably, the students have their own cubicle village downstairs. How did that kind of community culture start?
In the beginning we had a more conventional environment for our final year project, so the cubicles are exclusively for the final year. That happened around 2010/2011 where we completed a big renovation of the area which also included the addition of the motion capture studio and the motion studio. So we thought of this idea of having all of these cubicles for the student which would be very good to create a friendly atmosphere. I think the final year projects really took off and improved a lot since then, I mean I would not say that’s the only factor; hopefully, but that’s really some parts of it. This particular animation is such a laborious and focused effort, in terms of workload I would say it exceeds in many other disciplines so we thought it would be very good to have an environment for the student which allows them to focus on their work but also as a community which allows communication and collaboration so groups can have their cubicles close to each other which is actually very often the key to the success of group project; because they need to communicate constantly so the artistic vision stays on track and that it doesn’t get lost. The students always get very excited to get their cubicles and it’s something which we’re really happy about to have that environment.
Where do you see the future of Singaporean animation within the Asian context of the animation scene?
I think actually what has emerged since we started the school here and also our other major government initiatives and other schools here in Singapore is that the skill level is continuously increasing because people are educated better. They’re learning more things, they’re more open to all kinds of influences. I think it would be safe to say that ADM has played quite a crucial role in forming and building the foundation for thriving independent animation seen in Singapore. I think it is quite natural that this very open worldview has kind of wrapped up in a positive way the works that are being done. When I came here for my own research and with my artistic background I took a huge interest to learn about the different cultures here, the difference Asian cultures which are existing peacefully in Singapore and to see what other artistic traditions there are, and how could the students integrate that into their own work.
On the commercial side of things or industry-related side of things. Some animators are fillers for the industry while doing their own independent films, whereas others go full-time into the industry. Since I came here in 2005 two things have happened; I think there’s a wider range of international and local companies that are being present in Singapore. There are also a lot of our alumni who are working in these companies, which is a very good development because a lot of our graduates are now in positions where they could also introduce our current graduates ways to find work.
After our interview, I asked some of the students and alumni about their experiences studying at NTU. These are their responses:
- Current student Jasper Liu specialises in preproduction. He loves the medium of animation and chose to study at NTU for its variety of subjects such as storytelling, character design, motion and drawing, its’s also a great environment to meet like minded people.
- Giang Do is an exchange student from Vietnam specialising in 2D hand drawn animation. Giang chose to study at NTU for its great facilities and notable teaching staff, and sees animation as a medium that is able to blend illustration and Fine Arts with narration.
- Graduate, Darren Lim, said that a decade ago there wasn’t any other opportunities to study animation at a university level and is really grateful to have had the chance to study at NTU. He favours a “2.5D aesthetic” and works as a creative designer at Finch Company GoBear making digital graphics and animated ads.
- Ronald Fong was so amazed by the CG effects in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man that he chose to study at NTU as a 3D artist. He has since gone on to work as an animation lead, storyboard artist and director at various companies and has since co-founded his own animation company, Masonry Studios.
Within the week, I had further opportunities to meet the students and discuss their work. I presented a few talks about the animation climate in Australia plus notable highlights and films from the Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF) 2017. The rest of my time was spent going through the archives of student films from the past 10 years in order to curate this year’s School of Focus program. Though intense, I was very satisfied with things that I’ve learnt, and the warm hospitality that I received.
For the last 2 days of my trip, I left the self contained town of the university campus, and went to the city centre to explore and see more of Singapore. The area that I stayed in was called Little India. During the day I ventured out exploring the streets. The narrow and crowded sidewalks somehow managed to squeeze in kiosks and booths ranging from electronics to dried flowers. In an arcade I met some locals who recommended me their favourite food stalls (Indian, Thai, Sri Lankan and Chinese), though the thing that stood out the most to me was being able to buy coconuts bigger than the size of a child’s head for the equivalent of 2 dollars.
On the other side of town, I visited a Cat Cafe, China Town and the harbour where I saw Singapore’s iconic Lion fountain and Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The luxury of that area was overwhelming, where I accidentally found myself in a high name brand shopping centre with a river running though it like Venice. What really stood out for me was visiting the Gardens By The Bay, especially the 2 massive green houses in a shape of a bra. The rainforest dome houses a man made mountain with different climate controlled areas for different types of plants. It was an amazing contrast to the metropolis outside.
As I reflect on this trip, I think back to Hannes’ words in the opening paragraph, that the Singaporean experience is a unique eclectic collection of cultures mixed and coexisting on tiny island. Though situated in Asia, it takes many western influences as well that are as much a part of its evolving culture. After seeing the excellence of the work produced by the students of NTU, and speaking with Hannes and the faculty, I look forward to seeing the continuing growth of the Singaporean style within the world of animation.