Sundance Features

January 18, 2007

David Kaplan, Year of the Fish

"At first I thought I could set it in ancient China, but then the idea of setting it in Chinatown was even more exciting -- and certainly more doable."

A still from David Kaplan's animated Cinderella adaptation Year of the Fish

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

S o for the record, what can you tell me about Year of the Fish?

Year of the Fish is an independent animated film. We were trying to figure out if there were any other animated features at Sundance this year, but I think we're the only one. I know Chicago 10 has a little bit of animation in it as well. But its based on an old version of Cinderella -- an old Chinese version of Cinderella that is the oldest known version of that story. But it's set in modern-day Chinatown in New York City. We shot in live-action, then did this rotoscoping process in post -- sort of like Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly, but a very different aesthetic: much more painterly; much more sort of a fluctuating, flowing sort of colors of mixing in within each other rather than a graphic novel look. The project got some support from Sundance in terms of the screenwriters labs and the directors labs, and we got a fellowship from them as well. It's my first feature film, although I've done several short films as well.

Sure, and you're a Sundance veteran of sorts. How do the expectations and anticipation change when you take a feature?

I think the feature game is a whole different ballgame. In many ways, the curse and blessing of being a short filmmaker is that you're not quite taken seriously. So you can relax and enjoy everything and have a lot of fun at these festivals. With a feature, as I'm sure you've heard from other people, there's a lot of money riding on it -- other people's money. So the stakes are a little bit higher, and the whole question of having done all this work for all these years, and will it ever get seen by an audience, is a pressing one. But that said, yeah, I guess I won't know until I get there how to compare the two. I've done several shorts that were not accepted by Sundance, so I've had both experiences on that front.

The cast of this film (Tsai Chin and Ken Leung among others) is pretty solid, but then there's the rotoscoping. Were you or they concerned about hiding or obstructing them in any way with this new technique?

Not really, because I did some fairly extensive tests of the animation process before we actually started shooting just to make sure it was going to work, though I was never 100 percent sure. I knew that every single facial tic and expression of the acting was going to read through into the painting, and I assured the cast of that as well. So from their standpoint, I don't think it really changed their performances. From my standpoint, we just changed the live-action; we still needed to make the best film possible. The main factor with the animation was that it allowed us to shoot with a very small crew -- almost a documentary size crew -- with no light really whatsoever. All natural lighting. And to let people walk through the background of shot in the midst of Chinatown. We knew we didn't have to get releases because they were going to be animated and obscured. So that was a huge help, and we were also able to shoot day for night, so everything that was supposed to be a night scene we just shot during the day and made it look like night in post-production. That was a huge production savings.

But in terms of the actual performance of the actors, everything shines through. It's not obscured in that way. It's not overly simplified.. They really come through; in fact, I think they look even better. I think they'll be very pleased with how they look. Were we to shoot this on video, it has such a harsh unforgiving aesthetic to it that all the pores and flaws... This is almost more of an old-school film approach in a way. It's very pretty, and they're going to be very pretty. And their performances won't suffer.

What about Chinatown itself? You're a native New Yorker; what did you do to blend your impressions of the neighborhood with the animation style and technique?

If you're asking about the aesthetics of it, and how those transfer, it's just magical. We shot during the Chinese New Year parade and shot it in several seasons. Since it was such a lightweight production, I was able to take the camera out and shoot stuff myself, which we later incorporated into the film. We shot during a big snowstorm, we shot during the Chinese New Year parade, and then there were all the little street scenes we did. A normal film that went into Chinatown would have to lock off a street and upset the local shopkeepers and populate the street with their own extras, and what winds up happening is that there's this sort of artifice that takes hold where they either don't have enough money to hire enough extras -- so it looks artificially sparse -- or if it's a bigger film, they can really only do one or two big street scenes. Whereas we were able to shoot anywhere and everywhere and just be able to have the whole of Chinatown operate as our studio backlot -- almost as if we were a multi-million dollar production. It really benefits the film a lot. You wind up seeing, in a way, the real living, breathing Chinatown.

And what kind of other freedom does the technique allow? Besides day-for-night and painting over imperfections, how did you benefit as an independent filmmaker having limited means but the luxury of experimentation?

It allowed for a lot more freedom; shooting with no lights was enormously helpful. In many cases it just seemed like we were invisible. We would just set up on a corner and all we had was either a handheld camera or at most maybe a camera and a tripod. And people just didn't pay us any attention at all. Which was wonderful. Also, for interior shooting, when we actually had a real location, loading in and loading out was very quick. We were just able to operate with extreme speed and shoot a tremendous amount of footage, and that itself lends itself to a lot of experimentation: shooting rehearsals; turning the camera on and grabbing little bits of this and little bits of that. That was great. The day-for-night thing was terrific as well. The downside to all that is that on the post-production side you'll dealing with a literal mountain of footage. Like your typical documentary, we shot about 80 hours worth of stuff that we had to pare down to an hour and a half. Our shooting ratio was much higher than your typical independent film shooting on 35mm, which might have a (take-to-scene) ratio of 6:1? We had something like 40:1.

You've made a name adapting fairy tales and classic legends with different technical twists. What was it about this version of Cinderella that so appealed to your imagination?

I had been interested in an adaptation of Cinderella for quite some time, and it's taken me quite a while to get a full-length feature underway, and I was so desperately seeking something I could do for a very low budget and in New York so I wouldn't have to travel anywhere and pay for that. And so for this one, the idea of setting it in modern-day Chinatown just seemed to be a perfect match. Just for aesthetic, budgetary reasons --everything seemed to click. In terms of this particular tale, there are just some wonderfully charming details in the old Chinese version of this story. Instead of a magical fairy godmother or fairy grandmother, she's aided by this magical fish that grows bigger and bigger until finally she has t dump it in this pond outside her house. The usual stepparent and stepsiblings, but the tale itself I found very intriguing, and it's the oldest known version of the Cinderella story. At first I thought I could set it in ancient China, but then the idea of setting it close to home, in Chinatown, was even more exciting -- and certainly more doable.

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