Last year Amanda Nell Eu asked me to do production design for her second short film, ‘Vinegar Baths’. I worked on her first (my first too!) a couple of years ago: ‘Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu’, which I blogged about here. In the process, I developed an appetite for designing sets and characters for film. Compared to my main body of artwork, it’s a much weirder and darker me that comes out to play.
Incidentally, the shooting of ‘Vinegar Baths’ began just as I’d gotten out of a terrifying encounter with the supernatural while on an art exchange programme overseas. It was the darkest experience of my life, from which I count myself fortunate to have returned intact. Maybe it wasn’t the most sensible thing to plunge into making a monster-ghost movie immediately after, but it turned out to be good for my mind and spirit. Film-making is about assembling a story piece by piece. I had to do the same, to survive and heal from my experience. Step-by-step, scene-by-scene.
This is the first drawing I did, of the main character, Chin, a maternity nurse who also happens to be on-call when women and girls don’t want to keep their fetuses. She’s looking kindly down on Vivian, one such woman.
Above is a page from Hantu Hantu: An Account of Ghost Belief in Modern Malaya by J.N. McHugh (Singapore, 1955), with illustration by A.F. Anthony. I was particularly taken with the description of her as ‘a flying rope of fire’.
After reading the script, I texted Amanda this photo of moth balls, saying ‘I already know what the colour palette will be’. Candy-pastel poison. In public toilets in Southeast Asia, you’ll often find these pretty balls in the sink holes, to stop cockroaches from crawling up.
Here are some scene drawings. I was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s painted storyboards. I used Buncho oil pastels to force myself to be less precise in the drawing, to focus on mood and atmosphere.
I would’ve done more full-coloured drawings, but was pressed for time. Art for film is about the film, not the art.
Some stills from the movie (all courtesy of Amanda Nell Eu, don’t reproduce without permission):
I like set design, but I REALLY love costume design. Working on Amanda’s films, I’ll see the overall colour palette first, then I’ll see what the characters are wearing. Everything else comes pretty smooth from there.
Here’s a page from my character deck for Chin. (Btw, I learned how to do decks for film by taking part in ASTRO Shortcuts Workshop in 2016. I was invited by Amanda to be part of her team for ‘Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu’)
Her make-up look was faded, badly-done semi-permanent tattoo make-up. Inspired by these trippy pictures on the internet:
‘Vinegar Baths’ just won the Next New Wave Award and SeaShorts: Best Cinematography Award at SeaShorts Film Festival 2019 in Melaka. Happy to have worked on this pastel-coloured, blood-soaked film. Shout out to the stellar Art Team for bringing the production design to life.
Amanda along with other winners at SeaShorts Film Festival 2019. Photo from SeaShorts Film Festival Facebook page.
About that blood. Here’s a couple of my own production shots: