A still from the new animated film, The Violinist. (Image: Robot Playground Media)
Image: Robot Playground Media
By April Zara Chua
Call it a well-deserved encore.
Robot Playground Media’s award-winning animated short film The Violin is still racking up awards for its spellbinding animation – two years after its release.
The 16-minute film recently bagged the Best 2D Animated Programme award at the Asian Television Awards (ATA) 2017. When it was released in 2015, The Violin received the Singapore Gold Award at the Digicon6 Asia, an annual short-film competition organised by Tokyo Broadcasting System Television. The film went on to win eight more awards.
It follows the adventures of a violin seen through the eyes of different owners over the span of 80 years in Singapore. The nostalgic film captures the growth of Singapore from the 1930s all the way to present day.
Robot Playground Media is also the creator of Heartland Hubby, the first local animated sitcom which ran on Mediacorp TV's Channel 5 in early 2015.
We caught up with Mr Ervin Han, the company's managing director and co-founder, to find out more about their inspirations, upcoming projects, and their take on Singapore’s animation industry.
What was the inspiration for The Violin?
The Violin was one of many stories I had written years ago when I was developing an anthology of animated shorts. It was a collection of stories set in the Singapore of the past, present and future that speaks to our collective hopes, dreams and memories.
When the opportunity came to make a film to commemorate SG50, I thought it was the most fitting story idea for an animated short. Thanks to the support of the Singapore Memory Project, we were able to do it.
Robot Playground Media is known for creating content that revolves around Singapore. Why the affinity for local stories?
I think a storyteller’s instinct is always to tell a story to the person next to you, or closest to you – be it a friend, family member, neighbour or fellow Singaporean. If the story is good, it should resonate with someone from America, or France. I like telling stories about who we are and where we come from; I feel that’s a truer voice for us right now.
Why did the team decide on making a short film that has no dialogue?
For me, there’s something pure about the cinematic experience of watching a silent film that requires the audience to supply so much of their imagination. It feels more personal to me, and I think it also gives the film a certain timelessness.
What are the challenges of making a silent film?
The story has to unfold and characters have to express themselves purely through action without any dialogue, although in the case of The Violin, that felt natural and spoken words really weren’t needed. Once you decide that it’s going to be a silent film, you just try to make use of every other language of cinema to help tell the story.
It’s been more than two years since its release. How does it feel to still be getting recognition for it?
Very gratifying and grateful. We honestly don’t make these films to win awards. It’s much more important that people see them, although, I suppose awards and festival appearances help with that, too. We did not expect the ATA win as we were up against several full TV series. For an international panel of judges to give the win to a short silent film about Singapore’s history, it’s very humbling.
(From left) Creative Director Bernard Toh, Producer Rachel Phang and Managing Director Ervin Han. (Photo: Robot Playground Media)
What’s the secret origin of Robot Playground Media?
My co-founder, Bernard Toh, and I have been in animation for close to 13 years when we started our studio. We were mostly working on TV series for international broadcasters – animations that are ostensibly Western. With Robot Playground, we wanted to create more animations based on ideas and stories closer to home, whether it’s Singapore, Southeast Asia or Asia. The name "Robot Playground" refers to a sandbox where characters play.
We love playgrounds, and robots are cool!
What can you share about the Robot Playground Media team?
We have a core team of eight, consisting of myself, Bernard, a producer, artists and animators. We often scale up the team based on project requirements. At our peak, we had over 20 people across various departments handling multiple projects.
Heartland Hubby was Singapore’s first animated sitcom. What were some of the important lessons from that production?
At that time I thought it was a strong statement from Mediacorp that it was looking for something fresh and unconventional that had franchise potential. Prior to Heartland Hubby it was unheard of for local animated sitcoms to be on prime-time TV, unlike the US where they've been a staple for decades.
I think local audiences responded to the show because it was something different from the kind of local sitcoms they've been getting for years, and the way Singaporean humour and satire can be played out in a cartoon meant we could really push the boundaries of reality, which in itself was absurdly fun.
My takeaway from this is that audiences are looking for something different, yet relatable.
Image: Robot Playground Media
Where do you see Singapore’s animation industry heading in the coming years?
It’s quite different from a decade ago, when there were at least a dozen or so animation companies trying to develop their own intellectual property. Sometimes, I feel we’re still stuck there, except there are only a handful of local studios today.
Overall, it’s less ambitious now in terms of original development – because that takes up a lot of resources with a slim chance of success, and companies need to survive first.
From a local perspective, animation is disadvantaged because the commissioning structure and budgets of broadcasters generally do not allow for much animation.
That won’t change soon, and unless streaming services really come in in a big way, or broadcasters are mandated to carry certain hours of local animation, studios will have to continue to take in service work from overseas or commercial clients.
We were fortunate to be able to work on Heartland Hubby and another local commission Timescapes, but that’s more the exception than the norm.
When can audiences expect the full-length movie that's inspired by The Violin?
It’s titled The Violinist.
We’re a long way off in terms of financing and we’re only just starting to shop this around. If we do get to make this film, I think it will be a very unique Southeast Asian film that speaks to our history and heritage – not just Singapore but Malaya and the region. It’s a sweeping war story of valour and sacrifice, love and music, and the search for purpose and identity.
And it’ll be beautifully animated of course (laughs).
What’s next for Robot Playground Media?
Aside from The Violinist feature film, we’re also prepping a new animation/live action kids' series for okto that should start production in March. It's an art and animation-centric show about forging new friendships in real life and also in animated worlds.
We’re also making a little short film about parents and their journey, hopefully in time to be released on Mother’s Day this year.
Curious about what Robot Playground Media has done?
Catch The Violin here.
You can also watch Timescapes: A Singaporean Anthology, a collection of five animated films that includes The Violin.