Esther Cheung didn’t actually go to Hong Kong, where her parents were born, until she was ten years old, but the trip nonetheless had a lasting impact. “Hong Kong stuck with me as an amazing city,” she says. “My parents don’t often talk about their childhoods, but whenever they did, it fascinated me how different their world was when they were growing up.”
When it came to making a short film in her final year of an animation degree at Toronto’s Sheridan College, Esther saw an opportunity to learn more about her parents’ birthplace. “The whole project seems, for me, to be a process of understanding where my parents come from, and thus my own history and culture.” She interviewed her parents, as well as various aunts and uncles, and then spent five months over the summer before her final year in Hong Kong, which allowed her, she says, to “get a feel for the place”.
In Passing is the culmination of that research trip and all her interviews. A beautiful, atmospheric four-minute animation, it doesn’t just give you as the viewer a “feel” for the place; it propels you instantly back in time and around the world to a noisy, chaotic, hot and humid Hong Kong in 1976.
The simple story follows two children over the course of a single day, on the eve of a powerful typhoon (which is foretold in one scene by a typhoon warning signal being hoisted up a crane). Are the two protagonists supposed to be her parents? “Yeah, pretty much,” says Esther. “My parents grew up in the same apartment complex and didn’t know each other till they were older. I thought that was just too perfect.” That apartment complex (still standing, according to Esther, who visited it that summer) plays a huge part in the short film – it’s not just the home of our two main characters; it also gives the film its close and intimate atmosphere, and provides the perfect setting for that sense of just missing someone, being “in passing”.
As soon as we saw this stunning and nuanced film, we knew Esther had to be one of our Graduates for 2019. Below she discusses In Passing, which she’s currently taking round to festivals, and why she chose to study animation in the first place.
It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study Animation at Sheridan College?
Esther Cheung: I sort of fell into it. I’ve always drawn a lot, ever since I was young, but there’s always the stigma of being the starving artist and so I didn’t want to study art for that reason. I bounced around wanting to study architecture or do an apprenticeship in a trade. Eventually, my sister’s friend told me about animation, and my parents helped push me in that direction.
"I love to pull inspiration from everywhere"Esther Cheung
INT: Where did you get your inspiration for this film? Are there any particular animation directors you always go back to?
EC: I love to pull inspiration from everywhere. I love watching films, documentaries and looking at photography. I am really inspired by the iconic aesthetic of Hong Kong that is embedded into Wong Kar-wai’s films. I am always inspired by the care put into each shot in a Wes Anderson film. I also keep a list of my favourite movies of all time to continue to refer to.
From animation, obviously Miyazaki. One example that immediately comes to mind is in Totoro – there’s one scene where the two girls walked around the house on their knees because they didn’t want to get the floor dirty, as their shoes were still on. I was both shocked and amused, because I do the exact same thing! He captured such an ordinary detail of Asian culture (not wearing shoes in the home), and created a scene that was so relatable. The nuances in the character acting were amazing and I really tried to learn from that, and put character traits that were well observed into my film. I also love Robert Valley’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes, because his film is so strong stylistically and he captured a specific mood so well. Akira and Paprika are my go to’s whenever I need a reminder of how amazing animation can be.
INT: The details in the film are absolutely stunning, particularly the father’s reflection in the TV, which is just perfect. These must have added to your workload massively!
EC: Thanks! I am really glad the time I spent adding the details paid off. My original intent with the film was for Hong Kong to be the focus. I kind of wanted the location to be as important of a character as my actual characters. That is why, even through the story changes, I still knew that I wanted to add as many details as possible so that there seems to be a world outside of just the places the characters are taking you through. It was for this reason that I animated the dad’s reflection, the laundry hanging in the background, etc.
INT: Talk us through your process of making the film. What were the various stages, the techniques and methods you used?
EC: I went from really mild thumbnails straight to a full board, and then revised the story many, many times. I enjoy going straight from super rough to crispy clean. And for this project I could – since I was the only one working on the film, I was the only one who needed to understand my roughs. So that really helped save me a lot of time. Layouts (linework and colour) were done in Photoshop. Most things were animated in Toonboom Harmony. The texture for the fire was animated in Photoshop. Background elements were mostly animated in After Effects. I spent almost two months compositing and polishing in After Effects.
INT: Two things that really stand out are the composition and the lighting. Talk us through how you approach both of these aspects of the film.
EC: I love playing with composition – finding ways to frame the shot that serve the story well and are also aesthetically pleasing. Stylistically I chose to have a still camera for the majority of the film, because I wanted it to reflect the mundanity of the characters’ everyday lives, but also because I love slower-paced shots. Yasujiro Ozu is a master and I really dug through his movies when I was stuck for a composition.
I also made the choice to have the characters move within the shot to change up composition instead of moving the camera. I don’t consider myself to be good at lighting or colours. My strengths tend to lie in my linework. Having a good perspective as a foundation was really important. After that, knowing that I wanted to have the film span a full day, from morning to evening helped me choose where the light source would be at the given shot – and from there, colour scripts and then thumbnails. Having good references really helps a lot. After that, I have my friends and teachers to thank for nitpicking and fixing all my mistakes.
"There is a great opportunity for so many diverse stories to be told"Esther Cheung
INT: For you, what would be the ultimate dream project?
EC: I really want to make an animated documentary. I have a great appreciation for nonfiction and believe that our world and the real people in it have impactful stories waiting to be uncovered. As much as I love the worlds created in the fantasy genre, I want my work to create fascination with the one that we already have. Animation as a documentary medium has the ability to go deeper than what the camera can capture in live action. There is a great opportunity for so many diverse stories to be told, in ways we haven’t yet explored.
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