Interview with Independent Animator Jeff Tran

8 Oct

Today I start a new feature on my blog, interviews with independent animators.

Interview with Independent Animator Jeff Tran

By Patrick Jenkins


Independent Animator Jeff Tran has produced several award winning animated films since 2007. His 2012 film Traces of Joy, chronicling the loss felt by two Inner City children, won the Audience Prize for Best Animated Film at the 2013 Toronto Animated Image Society Showcase. His 2007 film, Dundas n’ Bathurst, a surrealistic, animated portrait of a Toronto intersection, won both 1st Place and Viewers Choice Prizes at the 2007 Toronto Urban Film Festival.

Born in Midland, Ontario Jeff initially studied programming at the behest of his Vietnamese parents but gradually his passion for art and filmmaking won out. Holding a BFA from the University of Waterloo and a Degree in Computer Animation from Sheridan College, Jeff has worked in the Animation Industry since 2007. His independent films explore multiculturalism and satire through various mediums.


Still from Dundas n’ Bathurst by Jeff Tran.

Patrick Jenkins: How did you get the idea for your film Dundas n’ Bathurst? Can you describe the film a little? It was a collaboration right?

Jeff Tran: Trinity Square Video (a local arts organization) put out a call for ideas for shorts about Toronto, where the winner would have their film shown on the screens in the TTC Subway system during the Toronto Urban Film Festival. My friend Charuvi Agrawal and I had both just graduated from Sheridan College’s Computer Animation Program and we wanted to work on something together, and thought it would be pretty awesome to maybe have our film shown in a public space and possibly win a prize.

We were sitting in the Tim Horton’s, at the corner of Dundas and Bathurst Streets, when we first started thinking about it. I forget why we were in the area at the time, but we were having coffee and just observing the intersection. We looked out the window and started paying attention to everything: people from different races, rice hats, turbans, and hydro wires. Cars, bikes, and people were swerving around each other, all this on one street corner.

Everything was so lively and animated, so we thought, ‘what would the city look like if it was a living breathing thing’? We wanted to see that! We wanted to make a film about this using computer graphics with 3D animation software. So maybe the film is a kind of a surrealist documentary (laughs).

Patrick Jenkins: It seems like a city portrait of Toronto, using one intersection. The city appears to be quite hectic and restless with buildings pulsing as if they’re breathing, and of course a lot of money swims by at one point, like a school of fish. (laughs) Is that a fair description?

Jeff Tran: Yeah, we wanted to fit in a reference to Bay Street, the Financial District, where people are doing the whole rat race thing, chasing money. We locked the shot down to reflect a single person’s viewpoint, so as to ground the viewer, yet not disrupt the kinetic quality of the city. We wanted to imagine a crazy world where everything had an exaggerated, surreal life to it, but in a fun playful way, using strange animated choreography.

Patrick Jenkins: Some elements refer to multicultural groups, specifically Asian and Indian cultures. Were you interested in portraying or exploring the multicultural aspects of Toronto?

Jeff Tran: We both tried to bring in ideas from our different backgrounds, like the traditional Vietnamese and Indian clothing, a dragon, and deities, which are transformed in city life. We definitely wanted to show how traditions and culture are constantly fusing and mixing in the streets of Toronto.

I grew up in Toronto and have always been around Chinatown so I’m aware of the mix of South East Asian culture within the city. Charuvi, was a recently landed immigrant from India. Making the film actually enlightened us about each other’s culture and urban perspectives. There definitely was a cultural exchange between us while we were making it.

Patrick Jenkins: Dundas n’ Bathurst is a fun film to watch, using the image distortions possibilities of computer animation. Was it storyboarded or did it evolve from just playing with the imagery?

Jeff Tran: A little of both, we tried to stick as close as possible to the proposal we had presented, though things evolved as we came up with new ideas. We had made an outline of the intersection and loosely built a story arc of the increasing energy, and choreographed the different elements. We knew some of the key moments. The worm bus was probably the first thing we wanted to do and the image of the pigeons spontaneously combusting at the end. We only had 2 weeks to complete it, so there was this exciting energy, trying to execute our ideas and building everything as soon as we knew where it fit.


Still from  Jolly Melancholies by Jeff Tran.

Patrick Jenkins: Your 2009 short, black and white movie, Jolly Melancholies, is a homage to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Can you describe the film and the ideas behind it?

Jeff Tran: I’m a fan of old black and white films, especially comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I’m amazed how they can still make me laugh. They’re timeless films. Actually black and white films creep me out a bit… the actors have black make up around the eyes! I know now that they outline the eyes so they pop out in the film, but it still kind of creeps me out.

But technically what they were able to execute back then is amazing. If you see Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., it’s magical that all the effects were done in camera. I think the first thing that drove me to make Jolly Melancholies was to understand the process of editing movie film stock. Contrary to computer animation, where you can control everything, here we had a ‘work with what you have’ mentality and crazy problem solving.

I was in my ‘Old Man Period’. I was fascinated with the elderly for some reason back then, and aging, and dying! I’m still afraid to get old! Maybe it was because I was delving into all these artists like Norman Rockwell and looking at old films, where the people onscreen are no longer are alive yet there’s this bittersweet, amazing work they left behind. Watching them move about in a world from the past, but at the same time knowing they’re dead is pretty eerie. (Laughs)

Story-wise I wanted to make a fun film that tips it hat to those old movies, where the main character looks back on his life and lingers on a happier time in his life when he wasn’t so confined by old age. Hence the title, Jolly Melancholies.

Patrick Jenkins: This film seems like another take on multiculturalism, but focusing on cultural stereotypes in Cinema.

Jeff Tran: Well I’m sure it looks that way with an Asian being the main character (me!) and raises thoughts on Asian leads in Hollywood. Hollywood was definitely was different back then. And there’s definitely an embarrassing history of how Asians are portrayed in film: Charlie Chan!, Breakfast at Tiffany’s! But my parents grew up watching Charlie Chaplin, who they call Charlot in Vietnam and they loved him, so I knew who Chaplin was when I was growing up and it showed to me how silent comedy communicated cross-culturally.

I’m pretty aware of the race discrepancy in North American film, so I’m not going to bore you with that stuff. But I find it funny that things haven’t changed very much as most Asians in film are designated to token roles like Kung Fu fighting, or delivering food in broken English. Maybe comedy is a way to bridge the gap again?


Still from  Jolly Melancholies by Jeff Tran.

Patrick Jenkins: I like that it was shot on grainy 16mm film with lots of dust and scratches on it. Why did you do that? Was that important to you? There’s very little film being shot now.

Jeff Tran: I really love the look of film stock with its natural grain. There’s an emotional weight to it, and an authenticity in the handcrafting a movie film. I’m a little exhausted by digital effects lately.

For Jolly Melancholies I shot on 16mm movie film using a Bell and Howell Camera that you have to wind up to shoot. It was an insanely meticulous process at every single step in the filmmaking process, like measuring light balance, the distance from camera (no auto focus!) and such. I had mainly worked before that with Final cut and Premiere editing software, so one of my personal goals in making Jolly Melancholies was editing without an infinite ‘undo’ button, maybe to help me become a more disciplined and critical editor. Once you cut the film, that’s it, you can’t uncut it. I had all this movie footage taped up, hanging around my room. A lot of clips were only two frames long. It was very daunting keeping track of the entire film with just a small written note on each strand of movie film.

I had to measure and jot down everything like F-stop, focal length, distance, shot length, shot description… Oh man!  And if you forget to wind up the camera…what you shoot is what you get.  Then there was loading the film, and making sure you wound it up just enough and that the camera was set on the correct frame rate!  I was trying to challenge myself to learn to plan ahead more. Nowadays all you have to do is go to your ‘effects’ menu and click ‘dust and scratches’…. I guess I wanted an authentic, hand crafted feel. Editing this thing was intensely laborious, but strangely therapeutic. I really enjoyed pulling the splicing tape out and chopping film. I eventually resorted to using a Steenbeck, a motorized film editor. It was definitely a complicated time consuming exercise, and I really appreciate how films used to be made with just scissors and tape, though I’d doubt I try it again! (Laughs)

Patrick Jenkins: I assume it was totally scripted before hand right?

Jeff Tran: The general story points were pretty planned out: the chase, and old man on the bench. The splicing montage idea was something I really wanted to do. There were a lot of surprises though, with some decisions made on the spot while we were shooting!  We drove around to various places for the montage like the Eaton Centre, Ryerson University, spontaneously. I felt a bit embarrassed being dressed as an old man. I got lots of strange looks. (Laughs) The shot of us running through the pigeons was a trial and error shot but it turned out really well.


Still from Traces of Joy by Jeff Tran.

Patrick Jenkins: My favourite film of yours is Traces of Joy. Again it’s collaboration. Can you describe that film and how it came about?

Jeff Tran: I met Louis Yeum while we were working on a computer animated kids show. We were getting a little tired of children’s animation and we both wanted to do something that was more serious. We loved all this great animation from Japan, specifically Studio Ghibli, which dealt with all kinds of stories that weren’t slapstick, that were more grounded in reality. We wanted to explore a realism that is pretty much non-existent in North American animation, well, not counting indie films of course.

I remember we would talk about nuanced performances. For instance in an Anime film a kid would be running and then, abruptly he trips and falls, and then gets up and runs again. It such a minor detail but I remember being in awe of this realistic approach to animation, and how it made the character seem more alive and real.

We wanted a story that was from Toronto, inspired by living in a city, something gritty and grounded. We wanted to comment on this aspect of city life: how life is tough but it’s worse if, like a kid, you’re sheltered from that reality. Life’s bittersweet that way.

Patrick Jenkins: The film is about loss. Was there a specific story that inspired it?

Jeff Tran: We really wanted to create this film as a counterpoint to the fantastical children’s shows we had worked on, that were so clean and neutral. We wanted to make a film that didn’t talk down to youth and with more challenging subject matter. Kids are clearly conscious of the violence in the world, through media, games, and even at church.

At the time we were becoming more aware of violence in Toronto. A murder happened close to our work, which woke us up a bit. It reminded me of an incident where a friend of mine was an innocent bystander and was shot.  We both had stories of growing up with friends who were affected by gang violence. We were fascinated that we were pretty much sheltered from this this reality, but also frustrated. We wanted to respond artistically to this feeling, from a child’s perspective, dealing with these issues of violence in their daily life.

But it goes back to the perception that ‘children are precious and sacred and fragile’. I feel they’re more resilient than that. There’s this standard in children’s cartoons that everything has to be so clean and happy all the time, when actually children face challenges in life. It’s not all happy. I feel there’s more to a child’s life than learning the alphabet or slapstick comedy. Life is bittersweet, there are challenges and children need to deal with it and move forward.

Patrick Jenkins: I like how you used texture mapping in a more poetic way, not totally realistic, but gritty and grimy. Can you elaborate on that?

Jeff Tran: Yeah, one of our main goals was to really try and break down the perfection that computer animation gives you right out of the box. One of the main gripes with computer animation is everything is so precise, and flawless. It’s actually really hard to make things look organic.

There are these shaders (filters) that you can just pop on your models that look cartoony but you can tell that it’s off. It was a personal challenge for us to try and capture a raw, looser quality to the art and add a more human touch to it. The story takes place in a stylistic, yet grounded and detailed world. We wanted it to feel like the characters came from this environment.

For the playground we made sure that you could see everything from cracks in the pavement, used gum, syringes, trash, graffiti, cigarette butts and oil stains, every detail from the city. We wanted this world to be believable and alive. I get a little annoyed watching a lot of cg films where every sidewalk and paved street clean and pristine, without a single piece of trash on the ground.


Still from Traces of Joy by Jeff Tran.

Patrick Jenkins: There are some beautiful, poetic moments in the film. One I’m curious about is where one of the girls leaps to different parts of the playground as if she’s being magically teleported around. How did that sequence come about?

Jeff Tran: That’s actually an extension from the technique I used in Jolly Melancholies, where the character continues walking, through various locations through match cutting. But for Traces of Joy, I wanted to make sure it made sense to the story.  At that part of the story we wanted a more poetic slower pace. Instead of a simple montage, we wanted to show the girl teetering at dangerous heights, as if she’s about to fall, but then match cut her to a different location in the playground right as she steps down. It was a way to challenge ourselves narratively.

Patrick Jenkins: I understand that the film was produced while you were an Artist in Residence at Sheridan College in 2011? How did that go? Can you describe the process of working with students on this film?

Jeff Tran: It was a great learning experience for sure. We had close friends helping already, but as it was our first time doing this, we had to go and hire more people for the project. It was funny going to Industry Day at Sheridan College because you have all these big time Animation Studios walking around and here I am, just an independent filmmaker. Surprisingly though, we got a really positive response from a lot of talented people there, so the process wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be. We met more students while we were doing the residency, and they offered to help us out. It felt like I was back at school and just another student.

When things started to roll with production, that’s when it started to be ‘fun’. It was definitely trial by fire. You have to be organized and prepared, especially with twenty crew members doing different parts of the film. We ended up using Google doc’s spreadsheets to link everyone online, and keep track of dates and assignments.

You learn to manage things. Scheduling was very difficult thing as people are doing this in their free time. You’ve got to learn to adapt! Next thing you know, team members get real job offers. Some can still work around their work schedules, but others had to reduce their commitment to the project. It happens. Though we did have budget to offer payment, we couldn’t compete with full time work in the industry.

We learned to adapt and not be too strict with our ideas. We had a structured idea about what the film was going to be like, but we had to be open to creative input from our artists. You can’t expect them to have the same commitment that we, the directors, are putting into the film, but there were many very committed members on the team and we’re very grateful for that. We still keep in touch with a lot of the people we met through the project so that’s always a plus.

The idea of the residency started in 2010 when we got in touch with Mark Simon, the Computer Animation Program Coordinator and my Professor at Sheridan College in 2007. We talked to him about about having us as Artists in Residence at Sheridan to finish our film. He got things rolling for us to come in and supported us along the way, which we appreciated. We also want to thank Ken Walker at Sheridan, who helped resolve the technical issues on our project. We’re really honoured that this was the first time Sheridan had collaborated on an Arts Council funded, Computer Animated Film.

Looking back, it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. There were many stressful, sleepless nights, but it’s gratifying when you have your film turn out very close to what you had envisioned. I loved the raw energy everyone had working on the project. It was the first time doing this for a lot of us. We worked very late and did a lot of problem solving. Being able to work on your own project at a supportive College facility was a great experience. I learned a lot about what it takes to manage a production.

Patrick Jenkins: What are you working on now Jeff?

Jeff Tran: Nothing! Just joking! I’m actually finishing up a ‘dramedy’ script with live action filmmaker Keith Lock. We met earlier this summer. I’ve been an admirer of his work, he’s a thirty-year veteran in the industry, and I thought maybe we could combine live action and computer animation. It’s a slice of life story, a little bit self-inspired, combining live action, pixilation, and other analog animation techniques. I’m also developing a short story about my brother and me being, possibly, the first Asian students when we were in Grade 3 in a school in Little Portugal.

Patrick Jenkins: Thanks Jeff. I appreciate you doing this. Best wishes with your work.

2 Responses to “Interview with Independent Animator Jeff Tran”

  1. Shawn Drain October 8, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    Absolutely amazing animation… and tears! (I watched all 3 posts)
    And such variety too…I want to see more!


  1. Thanks!! | Patrick Jenkins Animation - October 29, 2013

    […] to everyone who dropped by to read my interview with Independent Animator Jeff Tran over the past three weeks. I’ve had a record number of hits on my blog for that posting! […]

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