When Singapore film-maker Anthony Chen hoisted the Camera d'Or trophy at the Cannes Film Festival last month, he could not have given his alma mater a better birthday present.
A graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Film, Sound & Video diploma course, he became the first Singaporean to win the prestigious prize, which is given out to the best debut feature film, with his family drama Ilo Ilo.
His win was more than good publicity for the course, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is planning to hold its anniversary celebrations in December.
The school had also invested $200,000 in Chen's $500,000 film - the first time it has helped bankroll an alumnus' work. Ms Anita Kuan, director of the polytechnic's School of Film & Media Studies which runs the course, says they were "obviously ecstatic" when Chen got the award.
Ilo Ilo's worldwide sales agent Memento Films International has already sold the movie to places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But Ms Kuan says that any returns have "yet to materialise".
She adds: "We're in the business of film education more than investing and profit was not the main motive in this case."
As far as film schools are concerned, Ngee Ann's Film, Sound & Video diploma may not be as instantly recognisable as the American Film Institute, Britain's National Film and Television School or the Beijing Film Academy.
Yet, since the course started life in 1993, it has turned out a number of home-grown film-makers who are beginning to make critics sit up and take notice.
Apart from Chen, 29, who graduated in 2004, Boo Junfeng has also won acclaim with his short films in recent years. His debut dramatic feature, Sandcastle (2010), also premiered at Cannes, under the International Critics' Week banner.
Boo, 29, says being in the class of 2003 gave him a broad-based education in film-making. He learnt to shoot on celluoid film which, he says, gave him "a very deep understanding of the medium" and had a "huge impact on how I practise now as a film-maker".
In two decades, the course has turned out 1,290 graduates. Some have gone on to helm films, set up production companies or work painstakingly on 3-D and other visual effects. Others work as technical crew, such as sound recordist and data wrangler. Industry veteran Daniel Yun, 54, who has given lectures to students of the course, says: "I generally feel a sense of enthusiasm and underlying passion when I come into contact with them."
The course was envisioned as a way to train newcomers to fill the manpower gap in the TV and film production industry, and structured as a three-year programme with modules in cinematography, video camera and sound recording, digital and video editing, and computer-based graphics.
Applicants need at least five O-level passes, including at least a C5 in English. For the direct polytechnic admissions exercise, applicants have to submit a portfolio instead and go for an interview.
Ms Jacqueline Tan-Pereira, 48, who has been a lecturer from the course's inception, says the first batch of students knew they were pretty much "guinea pigs".
She adds: "We didn't have anything to go on because it was such a new thing. A lot of the things we tried were quite experimental." She recalls doing a "multicamera production at Victoria Concert Hall" with students in 1994. She says the video of the Ngee Ann Philharmonic performance turned out well.
Of the 250 who applied in the first year, 40 were accepted into the course, which had four lecturers then.
There was a certain scrappiness to the programme. Even then, however, the course was linked to the local media industry - giving students an insider's view of the scene.
Tan-Pereira herself was an assistant producer for English variety shows at the thenSingapore Broadcasting Corporation from 1987 to 1991. She is now deputy director in charge of academic planning and management at the School of Film & Media Studies.
Among the graduates of the pioneer batch was Steven Ong, 38. Currently taking a break after working as an effects artist at visual effects company Rhythm & Hues, he recalls the course's first heady days: "It was very new and everything was evolving. If I'm not wrong, the syllabus was being written only three months in advance."
Even though his interest was in computer graphics, he "played all the roles, from cameraman to editor to director, and learnt all about film-making". He says that broad approach stood him in good stead in his job today, where he does visual effects for major films such as Life Of Pi (2012) and Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).
Kevin Lau, 33, class of 2002, remembers another aspect of course- work with fondness. He says: "I love the projects as they were a good time to develop interpersonal skills, which are so crucial for a collaborative art such as film-making." He has gone on to do 3-D work in films such as martial arts flick Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate (2011).
The course was, and remains, comprehensive and is no mere walk in the park. The film and media school's director Ms Kuan, 46, a former television show host and radio presenter, points out: "The alumni come back and tell us, 'If you survive this course, you'll survive anything'."
The instructors "push the students hard" and the programme also stretches them through overseas attachments and trips. Ngee Ann's aim is for every student to have at least one such overseas experience.
Course manager Michael Kam says: "Overseas trips are a transformative experience as students learn to be independent and to do things that are out of their comfort zone." Kam, 44, is himself a film-maker whose short film Masala Mama was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.
Boo spent his final semester as an exchange student at the School of Cinema of Catalonia in Barcelona, where he shot his final-year project - A Family Portrait (2005) deals with a sexual secret in a Spanish family and cost ¤8,000 to make. He says: "It was the first time I got to write and direct a short film. I learnt that good things come when I challenge myself and find my way back from the deep end."
The work gave his career a kick-start when it won two awards at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2005.
Ngee Ann also helps its students reach a wider audience and benchmark themselves against international standards by sending their works to various festivals.
Prior to his Cannes triumph, Chen benefited from this practice. His short film G-23 (2005), which looks at the lives of three moviegoers through the eyes of an usher, won awards after it was sent to film festivals in Korea, Belgium and France.
Asked what is the one lesson he always carries with him from the course and he notes: "A lecturer once said, 'The story dictates the style'. It has been in my head since and I can't help but agree with it each time I make a new film."
Ms Kuan says: "A lot of students come in wanting to make their masterpiece. Film has become so glamorous that sometimes, we have to tell students that not everyone gets to be a Steven Spielberg or, now, an Anthony Chen."
The course also has to deal with competition as it is no longer the lone player in town. For example, Temasek Polytechnic now offers a diploma in Digital Film & Television and School of the Arts began offering film as an International Baccalaureate subject last year.
To stay ahead, the school is constantly seeking to be on top of things. There is a major course review every two to three years and the modules are looked at every semester. And given how fast technology moves, the school has overhauled its equipment from analogue-based 16mm film cameras to high-end digital video cameras with high definition. Postproduction is also now done digitally using a range of industry-standard software and hardware.
Student Zoe Fan, 17, says she chose Ngee Ann's School of Film & Media Studies as it is the "most established with regard to media". She is interested in becoming a film-maker or a photographer. Unlike at her "very pro-junior college and very academically based" secondary school, "everyone else wants to do similar things" in the Film, Sound & Video course and she likes that.
Alumnus are also doing their bit to give younger talents a leg-up after they leave school. Production company Oak3 Films was co-founded by Jason Lai and Zaihirat Banu Codelli, both from the pioneer batch. The company, responsible for movies such as Ho Tzu Nyen's Here (2009), takes in up to two interns a year from the programme. It also sponsors an annual $200 book prize for a graduate who tops a particular module.
Former students Chen, Boo and Ong have also returned to campus to give talks. Ong says: "When I was going through the course, they brought in industry personnel and some of them were really inspiring. Hopefully, I can do the same for some of the students."
Alumnus also return to teach: five of the current 15 lecturers went through the course themselves. Mr Lau Chee Meng, 34, who graduated in 1999, has been teaching modules such as advanced cinematography at his alma mater since 2008. The film section head says: "As a former student, you are better able to understand what is going through their minds and what's the gap between where they are now and where they hope to be."
What will the course be like in another 10 years? It is hard to tell.
As Mr Kam puts it: "The media landscape keeps changing and film may not be film as we know it in the future, what with transmedia story-telling and different ways of telling a story. So a key part of our DNA is about creating compelling content and that continues to be what we need to focus on."
Ms Kuan says: "Hopefully, in time to come, our students, like Anthony Chen, will tell the story of Singapore in a unique way that only we are able to."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 6, 2013
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ALUMNI MAKING WAVES
STEVEN ONG, 38
In the adventure flick The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008), a pool of water filled with millions of diamonds sparkles on screen for all of five seconds. It took visual effects artist Steven Ong about a year to work on.
"That's the nature of the business, in a way, and you can be a bit detached from the big picture," Ong says matter- of-factly.
There is no mistaking, though, that he loves what he does. After more than 10 years in the business, he still remembers watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, seeing Robert Patrick's T-1000 robot materialising out of liquid metal and thinking: "Wow, I wish I could do that."
He came across the then-newly launched Film, Sound & Video diploma course in the newspapers one day in 1993 and decided to give it a shot.
At Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he picked up computer animation skills. Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles in 2003, where he worked on his first film, the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, as an effects artist. He recalls: "It was certainly nerve-racking. It was kind of like 'Am I going to screw it up badly?' But everyone was really nice and helpful."
He and his Singaporean wife, who works in the finance industry, are based in Los Angeles. They have no children.
Over the years, he has built up quite a portfolio. In Night At The Museum 2 (2009), his job as visual effects artist was to ensure that an octopus looked wet when it got splashed with water from a painting. For Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), he made The Black Pearl pirate ship sail in a beautiful ocean in a bottle.
He also worked on the drama Life Of Pi (2012), which won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. He says director Lee Ang is "very, very humble and somebody who has a very clear vision of what he wants".
Ong helped to make the scenes in which the tiger Richard Parker swims in the ocean come alive - by adding whitecaps, foam, bubbles and churn to the computer-generated ocean surface.
When you point out that a lot of his effects deal with water, he says with a happy laugh: "You noticed." He adds modestly: "Maybe it is a speciality or maybe it's just the way it is, the project has water and they deem that I'm okay, I'm good enough to deal with it."
KEVIN LAU, 33
Hong Kong film-maker Tsui Hark has a reputation for being serious, demanding and fierce. But when Kevin Lau worked with him on the 3-D martial arts flick Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate (2011), he also discovered a different side to the man.
Says Lau: "He's quite a humorous person but serious in the sense that he doesn't take bull****. If you say you are going to do something, it has to be done."
Lau, together with his Film, Sound & Video course senior Ian Wee, established Widescreen Media in 2006. Lau graduated in 2002 and Wee in 2001. Their company is a 3-D and high-definition production and post-production facility based in Singapore.
Given that Flying Swords was the first big-scale 3-D project to be shot in China, there were challenges aplenty. "The level of quality and precision that we needed was far greater than what the China film industry was used to," says Lau.
For example, even the video cables had to be brought in from the United States as the China-made ones were not up to specification. Otherwise, the team would not even be able to watch 3-D footage of what they had just shot.
Clearly, Tsui was happy with the 3-D work done as he has again worked with Widescreen Media for the upcoming Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon, slated for release later this year.
Lau recalls that it was quite an intensive shoot as the director doubled the number of visual effects shots to more than 2,000.
He says: "Essentially, every other shot is a visual effect shot."
They are currently in talks to make Tsui's third 3-D film.
Not bad for a working partnership that needed some convincing at the start as Tsui wondered if a media company from Singapore would have the necessary skills to make a 3-D film. Lau met Tsui through a work contact.
What helped to tip the project in Widescreen's favour was the fact that Tsui found the 3-D production companies from Japan, Korea and Taiwan too "technically driven and did not understand the language of films", recounts Lau, who is single.
He credits the Ngee Ann diploma programme in this regard as it "strives to strike a balance between the technicality of equipment and the aesthetic aspect of film-making".