In which I tell you a bit about how I ended up making a short animated film.

 

 

I’ve been writing full time for quite some time now, and I’ve discovered that I like to write all kinds of stories for all age groups. I’ve written short stories, novellas, picture books for younger kids, middle-grade books and even YA books. In any case, it was always books that I wrote but some time last year, I was approached to write scripts for TV series and animated films. I thought, why not? And I had a go. I have to admit, writing for TV didn’t come naturally to me but I enjoyed it and most of all, I liked the process of putting everything together because it’s so different from my usual work process of sitting down and working out the stories in my head. For one thing, it’s an extremely collaborative process. In this post, I want to tell you about my experience of not only writing a script for a short animated film and going on to produce and put that film together. It was an amazing experience.

As with most things in my life, this came about completely by accident. An illustrator friend Emila Yusof, put up a picture of a cheeky looking girl in a green monster suit up on her Facebook page and I was intrigued. She looked a bit like this …

                                   

 

Isn’t she cute? I sent Emila a message, “Let’s do something with this.” And she said yes. At the same time, my partner at Papermoon suggested we pitch our idea at the next  IPCC (that’s the Intellectual Property Creators’ Challenge). The IPCC Award is an annual event where creators from across Malaysia can pitch their stories either as a short animated film or an animated series. The winners get a grant from MDEC to produce the film or series, and a six-month mentorship with the leading figures in the industry. I’m talking about the people behind the likes of Boboboi and Upin & Ipin. Very exciting!

Emila and I being completely newbies in this field had no idea what all this entailed but we decided to have a go and within a week I came up with the idea of a special girl named Grin who lives in a town where everyone is the same. Emila came up with the artwork and we pitched it to the judges with no expectations of getting through to the next round. In fact, we did get through to the next round and I think it was because we came from outside the animation industry. Both of us come from the children’s books industry and so our concept and idea was totally different to what they were used to seeing.

 

At the next round of pitching, we were allowed to sit in on the other pitches and it was clear that everyone else was so much better at this than us. They had actual animation clips to show! We just had my story and Emila’s art – that’s all. In any case, we pitched and had fun doing it and then we waited for the results which was scheduled to be announced at the Kre8tive Conference in Cyberjaya. I decided to attend just for the hell of it.

We won. We were one of around ten or so other companies who got the grant and I was ecstatic. But then I kind of panicked because it dawned on me that I would have to actually make this film. I didn’t have the first clue how to go about doing this. What the heck was I supposed to do now? I mean, I know how to write a good story. I can structure a novel. I can write interesting characters and build in conflict and tension. But err… I don’t know how to make a short animated film …

Thankfully, I got lots of help from friends in the industry like R&D Studios and Tudidut Studios and also our amazing mentors. Between November 2017 – April 2018, we presented our work in progress to these mentors. It was the most nerve-wrecking, gut-wrenching, exhilarating time ever. We had to change our story and our concept a couple of times but the mentors really pushed us to come up with the best film we could. After each mentorship we crawled back into our little caves to make the changes with me attempting to bring everyone together (which is really difficult for me because I normally work alone and I hate telling people what to do). I learned a lot about myself these past six months.

Lucky for me, my team of animators were wonderful and understanding and we eventually came up with a fabulous animated film which we can all be proud of and this is really what we were all aiming for; we wanted to produce the best short animated film from Malaysia to showcase our expertise in storytelling, art, music and animation. I didn’t do this on my own – many, many people were behind the scenes masking and comping (to this day, I don’t know what that means) and putting things together. My 16-year old daughter composed an original score for the film which thrilled me to no end (don’t tell anybody but the music is my favorite part of this film). It wasn’t easy and in fact, damn right stressful but we pulled it off in the end and I’m so proud of my team.

So what’s next? We’re finalising a few admin. issues like copyright and trademark, and polishing the film even more after which I intend to submit Grin for international festivals. Once the film is out, I’ll post it here of course so stay tuned. And now, I’m going to lie down because just thinking about what we did the last six months has made me exhausted all over again. Till next time.

 

In which I tell you a bit about my TEDx experience

So on 17th March I did a TEDx talk at Universiti of Malaya as I mentioned in my previous post. It was fun, nerve-wrecking, mind-blowing and fabulous all rolled into one. I had a great time thanks to the fabulous team at UM (that’s you Harree, Zane and Natasha … you guys are amazing).

 

In the end, I did a talk about something which was really close to my heart – why fairy tales stay with us and why I think these stories are still important today. You might think why the heck is she talking about fairy tales. Well, I didn’t realize till quite recently but fairy tales, specifically the book of fairy tales my father gave to me when I was around seven years old, have shaped how I view the world and how I tell my stories. Like I said in my talk, “Fairy tales are the carriers of plots endlessly reworked as we weave the narratives of our lives.” I truly believe this.

 

I know many of you didn’t get a chance to come to my talk because the tickets were sold out like hot cakes. So for those who are interested to hear my take on fairy tales, here is a transcript of my talk. I might also put up Amin Daud’s artwork which I used in my presentation because these are stunning and made my slides look so pretty. Once the video of my talk is out, I’ll put that up too. Enjoy!

 

MYTHS, FOLKLORE AND LEGENDS: WHY WE STILL NEED OUR FAIRY TALES

Heidi Shamsuddin

 

When I was a little girl, around 7, my father gave me a book of fairy tales. I didn’t know it back then but it was to be the best gift ever. Sadly, we moved around a lot and I lost my book. But even though I no longer have it, I can still remember the stories and the beautiful illustrations.

 

I liked the princess stories of course, but my favourite were the scary ones. Hansel and Gretel. The first time I read this story it shocked me for days. It shocked me because I learned that children could be abandoned on purpose by their own parents and worse, that we could be eaten by hungry people. I looked at myself and thought, I’m just a piece of meat and someone could come by and eat me. It terrified me, but it also fascinated me. It fascinates me till this day.

 

And this really is what I want to talk about today – how something so small like a fairy tale can stay with us throughout our lives. How fairy tales helps us make sense of the world and why we still need these stories today.

 

Before I go on, I just wanted to mention that the beautiful artwork I’ll be showing you today is from Amin Daud, a talented artist, so please enjoy the art as well as my words.

 

Diana Wynne Jones, one of my favourite authors had this to say about fairy tales.

“Each fairy tale has a true, strange hidden fact in it. You can find it if you look for it.”

 

For as long as humans have existed, we have told stories to explain things we don’t understand; natural disaster, birth, the sun to name a few. And as humanity progressed, these stories spread – stories which combined our world and the mythical world with seemingly impossible plots. Elves coming in the night to make shoes for the shoemaker. Dead mothers who turn into magic swings.

 

These fairy tales are a mark of our humanity. There is no other species on this earth that communicates through the telling of stories and this is the main reason why we have survived and thrived. We succeeded because we were able to sit around the fire and collaborate and exchange information through stories. Our ancestors learned that they should stay away from that cave because that’s where the hungry tiger lives. And they learned this through a story. There is true wisdom in these tales.

 

Once upon a time, these stories were not just for children. They were for all of us – both young and old. In fact, the original fairy tales were laden with brutality, sex and cruelty but as time progressed and morality intervened, the tales became diluted and more child-friendly.

However, despite these changes, despite our growing sophistication and the advances in science and technology, we continue to use these fairy tales in our everyday life. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us that compels us to interpret the world through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the ones telling the stories, we are the greedy consumers of such stories.

And this is the wondrous thing about fairy tales – they have survived all these years by adapting across culture and borders. Fairy tales are the carriers of plots endlessly reworked as we weave the narratives of our lives.

 

So this the reason why fairy tales have thrived but why do I love fairy tales? And why do I think we still need them today?

 

The real fairy tales – not the ones adapted and written as a moral lesson- the real fairy tales have very little pure morality. These stories are raw and basic and hit you right here – in your heart and in your gut. Every emotion is dialled up a hundred times – you fall in love truly, madly, deeply. You die in the most brutal way. Yes, there is violence in these tales but the violence is over the top and doesn’t make sense. For example, in the original Cinderella, the stepsisters were punished when birds came and plucked out their eyes. In the story of Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup, the haunted rock swallows up the mother in despair leaving her children motherless.

 

But, because we use the code words “Once upon a time”, all this brutality can be accepted. We can say and do anything in these stories. Once upon a time – these words signal that these stories are not for real, but when we read them we know that there is some truth in it. Once upon a time, allows our imagination to soar but at the same time, it’s a safe place for all of us.

 

There is also the promise of a happily ever which is a great strength in these stories, because there is that hope that the hero will defeat the monster. But at the same time, not all the tales have a happy ending and therein lies the power of a fairy tale. Sometimes things don’t work out and what you have to do is to work through it. Get help and find a solution. Do not ever despair. Do not give up.

 

To me, the real value of a fairy tale is that it gets us talking. It allows us to have a conversation about life. And this conversation can be quite controversial:

Innocence and Seduction (Rapunzel)

Monstrosity and Compassion (Beauty and the Beast)

Depression and Despair (Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup)

Male Domination and Female Empowerment (The Story of Bayagong).

 

Do you know this one? In this story, Bayagong sees a beautiful fairy princess bathing in the river and decides to keep her for himself. He steals her wings so that she can’t fly away and then he tricks her into marrying him. These are serious issues in a bedtime story for children. But we can use these stories as a way to talk about difficult topics. We can use these stories to learn about the world and about our own values.

 

So now you all know how much I love fairy tales. But there came a point when I was around 9 when I noticed something was missing. I realised that all the stories I loved were about people who were different from me. The girls had golden hair and their skin was as white as snow.

 

And I thought to myself – where are my fairy tales. Where are the stories about me? And I searched for them. I found some of course and have even retold some of these stories –

the story of the Crocodile King, Ulik Mayang, The Mosquito Queen and the Origin of Mount Kinabalu.

 

So these local fairy tales exist but I want to ask you – how many of you know about these stories? Are you more familiar with Little Red Riding Hood than Bayagong? I think the answer will probably be yes, because that was my experience. I grew up with the fairy tales of the West and of course this is not a bad thing, but I wanted to read our fairy tales too.

 

I want to tell you a fairy tale now. It’s not a very well known story but it shows how an old tale still has an impact today. This story is called ‘The Tale of Hitam Manis.’

 

The Tale of Hitam Manis

Once upon a long time ago, in the land of mountains and green lush jungles, there lived a beautiful maiden named Hitam Manis. Her skin was as dark and smooth as the midnight hour, and her smile as sweet as honey. Hitam Manis worked at the palace and took care of the flowers in the garden but one evening, she was asked to serve dinner to the Sultan and his Prince. As she entered she could see that the Sultan was angry with his son.

“You are going to become Sultan one day, my son. You must take your duties seriously.”

“Yes, father,” said the miserable Prince. Just then, the Prince looked up and saw Hitam Manis and he was struck by a sudden intense love for the girl. Hitam Manis looked into his eyes and in that brief moment everything changed. Unfortunately, the Sultan also noticed the look of love and knew that this nonsense had to be stopped.

The next morning, Hitam Manis danced around the palace garden thinking of her handsome Prince. Soon, all her friends gathered to watch. Unbeknownst to the girls, the royal guards had crept into the garden bearing daggers of steel, for the Sultan had given the order of death to the girl who had stolen the heart of his only son.

Hitam Manis leaped through the air, and in that moment a steel dagger stabbed her heart. The guards did not know what to do with the other girls and so, they too were killed in the same brutal way. After the murder, something peculiar happened. The bodies of the dead girls shimmered and then vanished into a black mist. Shocked, the guards ran away but not before they saw a swarm of bees fly off into the jungle. The young Prince was upset over the disappearance of his love, but the Royal Bomoh cast a forgetting spell and soon, the Prince was back to his usual ways.

Many, many moons later, the Prince found himself in the jungle when he came upon a magnificent tualang tree. Its silvery bark stretched high into the sky, and nestled up in its branches were crescent-shaped beehives, filled with the most delicious rainforest honey. With a wink and a smile to his men, the Prince climbed the tree carrying nothing but a pail tied to a rope, and his steel dagger. He cut off chunks of the honeycomb and after awhile, the men lowered the pail of honey, but when the pail reached the ground they found a grisly sight. The Prince had been killed, his body cut up into pieces and stuffed inside the pail. The men began to tremble and someone spoke. “Oh, what will we tell the Sultan? His Prince is dead.”

When the bees heard this, they swarmed around the Prince and when they finally flew away the men were astonished to find that their Prince was alive and whole again. He opened his eyes and sat up. A voice from the tree spoke. “I am Hitam Manis. I loved you with all my heart, but was killed for that love.”

“Hitam Manis! Please come back to me,” implored the Prince for his memory had returned.

“I can never be as I was, my love. We are the Rainforest Bees and we will always have our honeycombs on the tops of the tualang tree. Our honey is the sweetest in the land but take heed, never, ever use a metal knife to cut my honeycomb for this is how I was murdered.”

The Prince fell to the ground, his heart breaking into a thousand pieces.

*

I found this fairy tale when I was watching a program on the Discovery channel. It was about a family in Perak who owned a tualang tree which had a hive of bees. Now collecting the honey was dangerous because the tualang tree is one of the tallest tree in the rainforest.

 

They chose a moonless night and the appointed man would climb up with a leather pail and a knife made out of buffalo bone. They would never use a metal knife because of the fairy tale I just told you. They also brought up a fire torch to gently tap on the hive and when the embers of the fire fell to the ground the bees would fly down to chase it. And because it’s a moonless night the bees can’t find their way back to the hive. All this while, the Atuk, the grandfather is singing to the bees with this song:

 

Oh Hitam Manis,

Turun dengan lembah lembut

Turun Hitam Manis

Dengan cahaya bintang

 

Come down Dark Sweetness

Come down softly and gently

Come down Dark Sweetness

Come with the Starlight.

So this family knew of this fairy tale and heeded its warning till this day. Isn’t that amazing? I was so inspired by this that wrote a short story called ‘Johan the Honey Hunter’ which won the Eye Level Children’s Literature Award for Malaysia in 2012.

Incorporating these old fairy tales into new stories is something I do as a way to spread our stories. I do it short stories like in Johan, and right now I’m working on a novel which is influenced by two fairy tales – the Tale of Bayagong and The Tale of the Crocodile King which is about a were-crocodile. My previous novel incorporated the myths surrounding Mount Kinabalu and my next one will be a mixture between the legend of Ulik Mayang and Timun Mas.

Right now, I’m also involved in an exciting project to to re-write some of our fairy tales. I want to collect at least 50 of our fairy tales and my plan is to write these stories in the clearest possible way, the truest possible way, the most delightful way I can. So there will be no moral lessons to be learned from my stories. In fact, my stories will be a little bit brutal, slightly naughty but also very, very true. And it’s my hope that I will be able to spread our fairy tales to a whole new generation and who knows what the effect of that would be?

 

‘A storm can begin with a flap of a wing.’

 

Something as small as a fairy tale, a bed time story could start a whole new revolution in the way we think and imagine.

 

There’s a famous quote or misquote, from Albert Einstein. He was asked by a mother about what books her child should be reading to become more intelligent. You know, the typical kiasu mother. Einstein said this:“If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.”

 

And she replied okay, what else? What other kind of books? And Einstein replied:“If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

 

Just think about that, he did not tell the mother to send her kid to tuition and read textbooks. No, he told her to read fairy tales to her child. What did he mean? I think he was talking about the power of imagination. You see, there is something special about the structure of fairy tales. Fairy tales are very simple and flat. There are very few descriptions are hardly any names – you are either the Princess, the King, Witch. And in fairy tales, things happen very quickly. And this is why fairy tales are so great for our imagination. These stories force us to fill in the gaps.  They force us to build images of the stories in our minds.

 

I would add another thing to Einstein’s quote – read our fairy tales. Read the stories that have come out of this beautiful country. Read them and use the stories as a way to discuss, to collaborate, to debate difficult issues. Read these stories to be inspired, to find meaning and a way in which we can all learn from one another.

 

I have one wish and it is this. That my stories can plant a tiny seed in the mind of a child or even in someone like yourself. And for that seed to be nurtured and to grow into something beautiful and useful and true. If I can do that for just one person, that would be my happily ever after.

 

Thank you.

I’m giving A TEDx talk guys!

We’re coming to the end of February already? Where did all that time go? Seriously, I want to know.

Some news first. I finished the first draft of my Kayangan novel in a record 25 days! But it is a first draft and looking at it now there are so many holes in it that you could *insert suitable metaphor here. So I’m entering into the hard part of the process which is the second draft. In this part, I pretend to know what I was writing about in my first draft and try to bring everything together. It’s a slower process but deeply satisfying because it reveals a lot about what I was thinking and I find that without actually planning it, some things just kind of flow into each other seamlessly. When this happens, I and very happy. However, the opposite can happen too and I end up scratching my head wondering what possessed me to write this rubbish. Such is life.

Anyway. Revision has been delayed slightly due other work like Grin, my short animated film project which is plodding along nicely. I like talking to my animation team because they use technical terms like ‘comp.’ and ‘masking’ and it’s all very mysterious to me. I have no idea how they manage to translate what I’ve written and what Emila Yusof has drawn onto a screen. It really is like magic and I love it.

In other news. I’ve been asked by Universiti Malaya to give a TEDx talk next month. On 17th March at Universiti Malaya to be precise so if you want to catch me, go to the Universiti Malaya TEDx website and buy your tickets there. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I want to talk about. I knew I wanted to talk about fairy tales of course but what about them? After tossing and turning the thing in my mind, I think I’ve got a topic that will be informative, entertaining and will hopefully inspire you all. Haven’t got a snazzy title yet but once I do, I’ll post it here in the journal.

And that’s me for this month. Have a great March.

Happy New Year!

Happy new year to my friends, family and readers. After a hectic December filled with school holiday shenanigans, work and travel, I am so relieved that January is finally here. This is because the kids are safely ensconced in school and I have my eight hours to write again. In fact, I hit my keyboard with a vengeance this week (on the first day of school and the day after we got off a 13-hour flight). It felt so good to have a huge chunk of time to myself to write again and after a month and a half, I was ready for it.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’ve started a new MG (which means Middle Grade aimed at children between 9- 12) novel set in a mythical place called Kayangan. I don’t like talking about my current work in progress simply because I discovery write and sometimes I change things along the way, but I’m really excited about this project and glad that it’s coming together.

In other matters, we have finally locked down our script for Grin (my short animated film project) and now she is in the capable hands of my illustrator, the talented Emila Yusof and my animators, Tudidut who are working on putting the film together. I have to admit I was a bit anxious about this project since hey, I have zero experience in making an animated film, but I’ve got a good team and everything’s coming together like magic.

So the year has started off well and I’m feeling positive it will get even better. This year is going to be all about writing more great stories. I hope that it will be a great year for you too.