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The Lost Thing: Interview With Shaun Tan

First, a word about Shaun Tan. He is an amazing storyteller. His picture books are not only filled with rich, whimsical pictures, but also with stories that stay with you long after you finish reading the last page. Sometimes poignant, sometimes joyful, they are always elegantly pure and simple, yet in that simplicity lies their power. I am not sure if this is an accurate description, but I think his stories are special, because they reach that part of you that still believes in the goodness of other people, of this world, and of yourself.

The Lost Thing is one such story. (Trailer available on youtube, and on the official site). It is about a boy who stumbles upon a bizarre-looking creature, and “…having guessed that it is lost, he tries to find out who owns it or where it belongs, but the problem is met with indifference by everyone else, who barely notices its presence…”. It first came out as a picture book in 2000, and was made into a short animated film at Passion Pictures Australia. Andrew Ruhermann co-directed it with Shaun, and Sophie Byrne is at the helm as executive producer (full credits at the official site).

After touring the world, winning awards at Festivals like Palm Springs and Annecy, it finally became available on DVD late 2010– something which I have been eagerly waiting for. Pre-production began as early as 2001, and the film was finally completed in August 2009.

Myself and fellow author Jon Gorman both love the story, so we decided to catch up with Shaun to find out what took place in such a mammoth undertaking of turning this beloved fable into that award-winning short.

NOTE: A reader has emailed me with a very good question regarding voice talent. We don’t usually do this, but it was very relevant, so we reached out to Sophie and Shaun once more, and the answer to that (by Sophie Byrne), is now added to the interview below, right at the end.

What is The Lost Thing about? What’s at the heart of this story, and why do you think it resonates with so many people out there?

The story is about a fairly introverted boy who discovers a strange creature on the beach, one that nobody else seems to notice. That’s the premise at least; I originally became fascinated by this scenario without really knowing what it meant. I guess the concept of a ‘lost thing’ is quite philosophical, but not in any specific way, and I think this is the thing that others have responded to, as much as I did in the first instance. Is the lost thing metaphor for nature, childhood, art, disability or something political? Or is it simply about finding a lost animal, and the dilemma of being unable to just walk away? Even now, twelve years after writing and illustrating the first draft, I’m still speculating about possible interpretations.

Can you take us through the history of the project: how did the decision to turn The Lost Thing into an animated film come about? When did it happen? We’re aware that there were other companies along the way who expressed interest in the project, so can you tell us briefly how did the partnership with Passion Pictures come about?

The picture book was published to a very positive local reception, but was largely unknown outside Australia until it won an award at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair. There it came to the attention of Andrew Ruhemann of Passion Pictures UK, who then brought it to the attention of Sophie Byrne, who then tracked me down in Perth, Western Australia, and asked ‘would you be interested in teaming up with Andrew to direct a short film adaptation?’. I was actually a bit reluctant at first and required some persuading, mainly because I saw myself as a painter first, a writer second, and a film-director, well, not at all. I’d also seen examples of book-to-animation projects which I found disappointing, had discussed one project previously (an adaptation of another picture book) which fell through, and so was not very optimistic about the prospect.

Sophie then sent me examples of animated work by Passion (at that time on VHS tapes!) and I was very impressed by it’s range and sophistication, and got interested, being able to actually imagine something very good. In spite of my inexperience as a director, I also recognised how my knowledge of illustrated narrative could translate into animation with the collaboration of a good team, especially in the case of ‘The Lost Thing’ which already looks quite cinematic in it’s illustrated form, almost like the condensation of an imaginary movie.

What were some of the most important aspects that you set out to achieve–that you knew were very important right from the start if you were to adapt the book successfully into animation? Or in other words, What are the difficulties in translating a book like The Lost Thing, which has such a specific tone, to animation? Do you feel it carried over, or did the shift in medium in to something else?

Sophie, Andrew and I eventually convened in Melbourne to start nutting out a storyboard, and I guess the first problem that we all recognised was that The Lost Thing is not a very dynamic story, and it’s emotional range is very subdued because it’s set in a quite unemotional world (I’ve even heard it described as an ‘autistic world’). It’ a static and desolate city, much like the paintings of Edward Hopper, steeped in a kind of a post-industrial boredom. This idea really lends itself to still paintings, but it was unclear how that translates to film. Additionally, the main human character does not necessarily have a transforming experience, or a huge expressive range: to what extent can an audience empathise with him? So the big question was how to keep audiences interested, while sustaining this very unusual atmosphere that is essential for the story, and this question of distance versus intimacy continued to be asked about every aspect of the production: design, animation, lighting, sound, voice and music. How to tell a story about apathy, without inspiring actual apathy?

I think in the end we managed to balance this successfully, in part by having very simple shots, and limited editing with minimal camera movements. The animation is fairly restrained, but also amusing as there is a contrast between quiet, expansive backgrounds and the lively oddity of this big, red, tentacled creature trotting about, building sand castles and so on. I also believe that most problems can be solved by good design – if a thing is interesting to look at, it almost doesn’t matter what it’s doing or what’s happening around it – it’s just plain interesting.

How involved were you in Directing/Art Directing the project? Was it a case of having final approval on each shot or were you heavily involved throughout?

I was quite involved throughout: writing, storyboarding, designing every object in the film from noses to chimney stacks, and hand-painting all the textures which were integrated into 3D artefacts constructed by our key digital artist Tom Bryant. I also produced rough soundtracks and foley (using household objects) as early reference for sound and music, and worked closely with our animator Leo Baker to perfect scene layouts and final animation, as well as solve compositional problems as they appeared, and needless to say, they were many and frequent. I’ve worked most of my life as a freelance illustrator, so I enjoy being very hands-on, and collaborating at the coal-face where possible, even hand-animating a 2D television ad that appears in the film. I’m not very technically trained, but I was able to previsualise as much as possible through pencil and colour pastel sketches, often taking a working screen shot, printing it off and drawing over the top of it to figure out how it might be improved.

Since production took place over the time frame of 3.5 years, was it difficult to maintain the momentum? Are there any specific things that you brought about to help smoothen the pipeline (considering the lengthy production timespan)?

I’m quite used to long projects, being a rather slow and meticulous illustrator. The trick seems to be to break it down into parts and treat them one at a time, while maintaining some grasp of an overarching aesthetic and purpose – which is the hard part. I think one very useful thing was simply having the original picture book to refer to; it acted as a reminder of what the story was actually about, and that it’s really fairly simple. There is always this tendency to stray from a core purpose, inventing lots of unnecessary ornament, so having this 32-page book always on the desk helped keep it it check. I think also having a good producer at the helm to reign it all in, know every aspect of the production, and keep everyone on schedule – no small task. I often refer to Sophie as the ‘conscience’ of the film, the person keeping everything in orbit around a central idea or spirit.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having such a small sized core team (of 4 people)? And what are some of the challenges you experienced with having one of the team members in Edinburgh while the rest of you are here in Melbourne?

Well, the disadvantage of a small team is self-evident, our film taking so long to complete. On the upside, I’m a big fan of small-scale projects – I’m very wary of committees, or too many disparate opinions being thrown into the mix, and fond of the saying ‘no great idea comes from a big room’. What was great about our team is that we were all on the same wavelength, especially after so much pre-production (which happened intermittently from 2001 to 2006). As for Tom being in Edinburgh, I think it helped that I was able to work alongside him early on during a brief period in Australia, so we had some idea of each other’s sensibility. I think both of us are first and foremost visual communicators, and so we made much progress by simply exchanging drawn and digital renderings, successively editing each other’s designs. Tom is also incredibly intuitive (as well as having an excellent eye for detail) which greatly mitigated the problem of working in separate rooms.

Biggest creative challenges/reward? Biggest technical challenges/reward? What are some of the most unexpected stumbling blocks you encountered along the way?

I think the biggest challenge is simply trying to visualise something that doesn’t exist, knowing that a shot will be very costly to change if it doesn’t work! There’s not a great deal of room for trial and error. I think also the problem already mentioned – sheer duration – especially when the final product is meant to flow as if it is seamless and spontaneous. I guess the most rewarding thing is when you actually achieve that goal – a feeling of looking through the window of a screen into something that, just for a moment, seems absolutely real on its own terms, a strange but convincing reality.

Technical challenges: mainly lighting and texture, trying to make something look natural and ‘imperfect’ within a digital medium that tends to resist that, with all its clean edges and smooth gradations of movement. As far as stumbling blocks, there were some very late disagreements about musical score which indicates the vagaries of this aspect of film production. It relates to the problem mentioned earlier, of how one feels an audience becomes engaged, and whether emotional ideas are communicated explicitly or implicitly – always an interesting question. Of course, Sophie would convey that the biggest problem could be summarised in one word: schedule!

Any future plans to produce material/collaborate on future projects?

I’m spending a little more time returning to writing and painting.  Sophie and I are talking to a prominent US Producer about an adaptation of my graphic novel ‘The Arrival’ as a feature film, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out. At least I feel as though I know much more about film-making now; and I also realise of how little I know, which is no bad thing!

Voice talent Question (from our reader): How did you go about casting the voice for the boy?  Was it a difficult task because the way you imagine the character to sound is going to be different to every reader who is already familiar with the book and has their own ‘projection’ about how the boy would sound like…

The casting of the voice was actually quite a challenging task. We went through various lists of who to approach and who was the right fit to the point that  even at some stages throughout  pre-production we toyed with the idea of not having a voice at all.  I (Sophie Byrne) was actually a strong advocate for having a voice, as I consider the words as written by Shaun to be an essential part of the overall tone and subtle humour of the piece.  The VO is a very definite ‘character’ if you like.

We had to balance the need to cast a ‘name’, even an A-lister name, with how the voice needed to sound tonally, to be delivered and performed.  Our ‘Boy” is not an alpha male for instance!  There was never any question that the voice had to be an Australian voice, but we wanted one that had a gentler Australian accent.   We had often referenced a young Noah Taylor (specifically The Year My Voice Broke) in the early days of boarding.

Interestingly Shaun did read for the Boy for boarding and pre-vis stages.  But, great as it was, it was a little too deadpan to carry the film so we needed to cast an actor/performer.  Tim came to mind late in the day as he happened to be touring at the time.  He fitted our criteria perfectly.   By coincidence, he and Shaun had both attended the same university in Perth and Tim shared a respect and understanding of the character and his motivation and dilemma  and subsequently how he was meant to sound and that really was in essence to try NOT to perform!

Thank you Shaun and Sophie, for taking the time to answer our questions, and thank you Sophie for facilitating this interview. Our best wishes for your future projects together!

Posted on 19 January 2011 |

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