A robot dystopia in Singapore

(From left) Mark Wee, Yanyun Chen, Jerrold Chong and Lee Jiaying are behind the short film, Automatonomy.
(From left) Mark Wee, Yanyun Chen, Jerrold Chong and Lee Jiaying are behind the short film, Automatonomy. PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Mark Wee, Yanyun Chen, Jerrold Chong and Lee Jiaying are behind the short film, Automatonomy (above).
Mark Wee, Yanyun Chen, Jerrold Chong and Lee Jiaying are behind the short film, Automatonomy (above). PHOTO: FINDING PICTURES

Automatonomy, a short film rendered in puppet stop-motion animation, was one of the winners at this year's National Youth Film Awards

A boy walks through a wasteland filled with discarded metal parts. Except for green railings that appear briefly, there is hardly any clue that this film is set in Singapore.

But it is, though in a dystopian future where there is conflict between humans and robots, also called automatons in the film.

Automatonomy, a short film rendered in puppet stop-motion animation, was one of the winners at this year's National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) announced last Saturday.

The film may be only seven minutes long, but eight months of physical labour went into it - constructing sets with hot glue guns and hammers, crafting puppets and moving them around for every scene.

Directors Jerrold Chong, 28, and Mark Wee, 31, say they chose stop-motion animation, which is captured frame by frame with physical objects moved between each frame, because of its "tactile, textural quality".

The decision has paid off - the film bagged Best Animation and Best Art Direction at this year's NYFA in the open youth category.

Says Dr Yanyun Chen, 32, the project's art director: "Previously, the categories at NYFA were such that the animated films competed with one another only.

"This year, it's different and animated films have been included and seen alongside live-action films for its technical qualities. That's a really good change."

While local stop-motion animation works are rare, the team from independent animation studio Finding Pictures hopes its win can put the spotlight on the medium.

The film's editor Lee Jiaying, 28, says: "Stop-motion is interesting in that it's both animation and live action. There's a camera, unlike 2D animation, so there's room to play with angles and lights."

Finding Pictures is behind animated film Piece Of Meat, which was chosen for the Cannes Directors' Fortnight and the Annecy International Animation Film Festival this year.

NYFA, which began in 2015, is open to local film-makers aged 15 to 35. This year, 15 films across genres such as documentaries, horror, science fiction and comedies won awards.

Organisers received a record 446 submissions, a 20 per cent increase from the previous year.

Short film Adam - winner of four awards including Best Director and Best Screenplay in the media student category - is another local film to gain international attention. It was selected for the Cinefondation programme at Cannes film festival earlier this year.

Its director and screenwriter is Junxian Shoki Lin, 25, who graduated from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) School of Art, Design and Media this year. The film is his final-year project.

The first film from NTU to be selected for Cannes, Adam is about a mixed-race boy of Chinese and Malay descent caught between two families and identities.

"A lot of the crew that helped to produce the film were of diverse, mixed-race backgrounds, so perhaps that was a point of inspiration," says Lin, whose father is Singaporean Chinese and mother is Japanese.

Similarly, Leon Cheo, who won best director and best live-action film in the open youth category for SIN-SFO, also incorporated real-life experiences.

The film is about a Singaporean couple who decide to renounce their citizenship, and is inspired by a couple he knows through a friend.

The self-financed film took around $15,000 to make.

Cheo paid a lot of attention to detail: "I went to the Singapore consulate in San Francisco to study its shape and found an empty office to recreate how it looks like, down to the portraits of our former president Tony Tan and his wife."

The 34-year-old, who is based in Los Angeles, says of the film: "It is a love letter to Singapore that may not always be loving. But my characters in the film struggle with their decision because there is so much emotion attached to where they are from, and that is something in my psyche as well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2019, with the headline 'A robot dystopia in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe