In conversation with: Ang Qing Sheng on moulding the next generation of Singapore’s animators


Much like the rest of the local media landscape, Singapore’s animators have quietly yet surely made a noticeable splash on the international stage in recent years. Arguably the first breakthrough achievement for Singapore animation came with animated series Tomato Twins, which was picked up by Nickelodeon Asia in 2005 to become the first homegrown cartoon on a regional network. Since then, Singapore’s animators and animation productions have been mainstay names at both international and regional awards.

Needless to say, these achievements did not come easy. Even without the global pandemic, Singapore’s animators have had to stand out to thrive in the highly competitive Southeast Asia region, where most work is outsourced from companies in the US, Japan and China. In Singapore, animation jobs gravitating towards these global powerhouses such as Lucasfilm has also made it extremely difficult for the country to establish its own identity and produce stand-out intellectual properties to call its own.

The paramount task of moulding the next generation of Singapore’s animators is on the shoulders of educators such as Ang Qing Sheng. An animation lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts Singapore since 2013, Qing Sheng is also an award-winning animator with accolades across Asia under the banner of Aqueous Studio.

A steadfast presence in local animation, Qing Sheng believes that the art form could be headed towards a future where transculturalism, or a deeper intermingling of Singapore’s cultures, take centre stage. He hopes that this direction would lead to local animation “partaking in more meaningful roles in the formation of a transcultural identity in Singapore”.

This idea has been reflected in his works, including the world’s first Hainanese animated short Lak Boh Ki in 2016. The use of dialects continues with Kua Bo. Its title translated to “cannot see”, the charming and humorous short is about a senior citizen’s refusal to get treated for his cataracts and how his pride gets the best of him. It stands out not only for its striking art style, but also for its prominent use of the Hokkien dialect.

Directed by Qing Sheng and produced by Jamin Wu, the short is the winner of the National Youth Film Award 2020’s Best Animation prize in the Open Youth Category. Sharing the spotlight with short films from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Kua Bo will be screened during this year’s Singapore Chinese Film Festival (SCFF) on 10 October as part of its Chinese Shorts programme.

Continuing our series of interviews with Singapore’s media educators, SINEMA reached out to Qing Sheng over email to ask him about the challenges he faces as an educator during the COVID era, his latest short Kua Bo and his hopes for local animation.

How has COVID-19 affected your work as an educator? Have the teaching methods changed?

Before COVID-19, online communication was usually perceived as an alternative by both the College and the students but now it has become a norm. Being a tech-savvy person myself, I would say that the new ways of teaching have not affected me too much.

Learning outcomes have not changed. The only challenge for me is the loss of some non-verbal communication – like having a sense of how students are ‘feeling’ through their expressions and gestures – which is difficult to sense online when looking at a low-resolution video feed.

I also like using ‘aesthetic teaching’, which is to engage students through their multiple senses like in this video of my class opening, but this is proving somewhat challenging.

How have your students responded to these changes?

Students have mixed feelings about the new ways of learning. On one hand, they value the increased efficiency of communicating online where there is less time spent on having to travel to school and the ease of arranging a consultation with the teacher. On the other hand, fast-paced online communication may leave some students (especially the more social and kinesthetic learners) behind.

This is an important point because students spend a lot of time in school learning from one another and with the restrictions on group gatherings, they will have to learn how to ‘learn’ through other channels.

Are there parts of these changes that you feel should be adapted for the post-COVID future?

I believe changes should be seen as opportunities. I’m always very welcoming of new technology so it excites me to experiment with newer methods of teaching. Some of my ideas include utilising augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and game platforms to teach. Imagine teaching students in Minecraft or Animal Crossing!

Qing Sheng at the 2016 edition of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival, where his short Lak Boh Ki had its world premiere

With the pandemic affecting virtually everyone, what are the challenges that this year’s Animation graduands will face and what can be done to help them?

Companies in the industry may be seen tightening their head count and this may affect full-time employment rate of the students. However, from what I see, the media industry continues to thrive due to the lack of physical channels of communication. There is therefore an increasing need for media content. Graduates need to embrace the opportunities presented to them virtually and be ready for more freelance work. LASALLE has put in place its own job portal, as well as leveraging its own tight-knit network with industry, to bridge opportunities for our graduates.

What was the inspiration behind Kua Bo, both stylistically and narrative-wise?

Kua Bo came about several years ago when I was presented with an opportunity to pitch a film for the Silver Films initiative by the National Arts Council. Although the project was not selected back then, I always had the idea of making a film about my Dad’s cataract surgery experience, as well as putting caricatures of strong characters I observed in Singapore on the big screen. Most importantly, I wanted to make a light-hearted film that can be enjoyed by all ages, particularly senior citizens. The characters in the film are a mixture of real people I observed in my family and around my neighbourhood, with a bit of exaggeration (of course) to make them come alive in animation!

Film still of Kua Bo.

For the narrative, I took inspiration from the Chinese value on pride or ‘face’, and this often promises many hilarious situations. For example, in Kua Bo the prideful main character refuses to admit that his eyesight is getting worse and even goes on to pretend that he won the lottery. After the surgery, he then ‘hao lian’ (translates to ‘boast’) about his sharp vision. I find this observation of the archetypal uncles in Singapore quite funny and worthy of a film!

For the style, I was influenced partially by the master of comedy, Stephen Chow. I even organised a screening of Out of the Dark (1995) and Forbidden City Cop (1996) for my team of animators before production began. I must say that the films of Royston Tan and Satoshi Kon also had a subconscious influence on my artistic decisions in the film.

I think the last interesting bit is that I managed to get myself into a real operating theatre to witness a few cataract surgeries live for my research, and this informed the crazy surgery scene in the film.

Your work stands out for the use of Chinese dialects – such as with Lak Boh Ki, the world’s first Hainanese animated short film. For these, did you start out with the intention of incorporating dialects into them or did it spring from the creative process?

I believe my interest in dialect is innate as I grew up hearing my parents and grandparents converse in dialect. When I started paying attention to local films many years ago, I became inspired to tell local stories in the language that is most natural to the characters. Every language has its own special words and intonation, which I find very fascinating to include in my films.

I have also often received feedback from festivals and audiences that these languages add authenticity to the story, which is the reason why I am not shying away from them. My subsequent films are quite likely to have a huge mix of languages as long as they are set in multicultural Singapore.

A lot of your films involve working with the elderly. Are there any difficulties or challenges that have emerged from working with them in terms of directing?

I would say that so far, my films involve elderly and children and both extremes never fail to capture my attention. I am quite lucky to fall in love with the medium of animation – it gives me almost full control over how my characters should look and perform in the film. Of course, the biggest difficulty would be the voice acting. I have thus far directed my own family members and people I know, which is often a process of allowing them to be truly themselves, and to forget that they are in an audio recording suite. This has been a really fun process for me.

I still remember directing Lak Boh Ki, where I spent close to three hours playing with my baby nephew just trying to record for a few words. In Kua Bo, I had the same nephew mixed in with a niece for the scene at the Chinese restaurant. My role is really just to create a situation where the children would argue and scream for real.

Film still of Kua Bo.

In a journal article, you wrote about your prediction that Singapore’s animated cinema would further embrace transculturation. Could you elaborate on this idea?

Transculturation is a big word. In essence, I feel that the much talked about ‘Singaporean identity’ (which a lot of films from Singapore engage as a theme) will take the shape of an amalgam that distinguishes itself from its constituents. If that is hard to understand, just imagine a ‘Rojak’ where you can put what you want, suited for your own taste. The dish itself is still recognisably called ‘Rojak’, but its taste can be different from dish to dish. That is how I think Singapore’s animated cinema will become.

In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages that animation have over live-action films in “partaking in more meaningful roles in the formation of a transcultural identity in Singapore”?

I wouldn’t consider them advantages and disadvantages, but more of how each medium engages with the audience differently. When we watch a live-action film, we often recognise those real settings and casts that perform ‘real’ emotions. We might then go “Ya hor, that is quite Singaporean” or “I’m so glad there is a film on this topic as I’m not alone!”. These continuous negotiations in the readings of the film are essential in identity-formation.

When we look at animation, which may take the form of an out-of-this-world dynamic 2D morphing scene, or an elaborate stop-motion set, the audience know that they are not real, but would choose to believe in the worlds and stories created if they, too, engages the audience thematically or emotionally. They can engage in the “what ifs” of the real world, and those also partake in identity-formation.

Film still of Lak Boh Ki.

I don’t think one medium is superior over the other, but I do think there are technical restrictions imposed by each medium which may then tie a filmmaker’s vision down. For example, you probably can’t shoot an epic car chase scene down Boat Quay any more, but you can produce it in animation with no authorities coming after you. If you’d like the car to not only fall into the Singapore River, but continue driving down into Hades and enter the world of ghosts, I would say animation is more exciting as a medium!

What are your hopes for Singapore animation?

To stand on the international stage and be a big brand! Just look at Estonia, a country with less than half of the population of Singapore, but their animation is very highly regarded at international festivals and film markets. I am hoping to see more distinct and bold animation films from Singapore, with each telling their own unique story. I am also hoping more graduates would try to embark on their own journeys of independent filmmaking.

What is next for you?

I have a number of animation projects bubbling and an endless stream of ideas that are just waiting for the (funding) opportunity! One of my projects is an experimental narrative set on an MRT train in Singapore and will feature Bahasa Melayu and children.

Another of my projects is an environmental film arising from my recent Arctic expedition, which I won at the CDL E-Generation Challenge 2019. My latest project, which will deal with elderly uncles, aunties and children at a traffic light junction, will be announced very soon by the supportive folks from NYFA SCAPE!

I am also a full-time animation lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts, who have been extremely supportive of my professional practice, so I do see myself teaching in the long-term while making more animated films!

Story re-produced and courtesy of SINEMA. Access the original here.