Kayo' Aya (Experimental Short)

“The written word can be powerful and beautiful - but films transport us to another place in a way that even the most evocative words never can.” - Saoirse Ronan

I have had an incredible learning experience while here in London. Two years may seem like short duration for an education, but I feel very humbled to have grown as an animator/filmmaker. There is still much for me to learn and to improve my craft, which is something I always look forward to. Before my journey as a MDX student ends, I thought it appropriate to gift a little something from my home in return for all the valuable things I have gained here.

That is how the idea for Kayo' Aya started. Kayo' Aya when translated to English, means "the tree of life". Among indigenous cultures, the tree of life is a widely universal and sacred symbol. It represents our interconnection with everything around us, besides Nature and Nurture. I believe that there are deeper things at work, and it always comes full circle in the cycle of life.

I myself am considered an 'Orang Ulu' (people from upriver). Orang Ulu is actually a collective term for the much smaller, numerous tribes scattered around Borneo. I am a Bisaya. Among ourselves, we introduce our roots based on where our village is based, for example, the Kenyah people of the Lepo' Anan tribe. There is one generally well-known motif that outsiders can recognize as part of an Orang Ulu identity - the tree of life motif.

I was very ambitious with this project. I wanted to animate an experimental film that told the destruction of the Borneo rainforest, detailing the journey of a fellow tribesman and his lament for the loss of his home. I thought it would be a good idea to make visual poetry, as it can combine both tribal musical elements and patterns. I sought the help of my boyfriend's father to translate my script as he was better versed in our traditional language, while I worked on improving the look of my film. Adjustments to the translations were done several times. In the end, I only decided to use the first verse at the beginning of my film. It would be told in the old ways of my elders when presenting their folktales. I wanted the audience to interpret the rest of the film for themselves without having the remaining script to spoon-feed them so that they are taken on their own philosophical ride.

The production phase went smoothly for me. Besides the script, I was also working on my pitch bible and updating my animatic. I had my own animation assistant, Aleks and my music composer, Dharmadev. I began production in January 2020, after the New Year holidays. I had already put in quite a bit of animation work for my animatic, so I started by working on scenes that were almost completed in terms of its animation. I took only a few days to create my After Effects compositing and I watched tutorials from Youtube to help with certain aspects (eg; to add flickering light effect, and camera tilt). Towards the end, I did not need Aleks' assistance in After Effects but he had already helped a great deal in the animation department which I am very grateful for.

I then sent a copy of the film to my composer Dharmadev so that he could export his soundtrack with my animation. Prior to this, I met with him numerous times to discuss the kind of music I wanted as his original soundtrack did not have any tribal feel to it and veered more to the modern cinematic approach. I attached several notes requesting that he include the war cry and voiceover which my boyfriend had recorded, as well as the synchronization of certain beats to elements in the film. This he did marvellously, it took only three tries to adjust everything to our satisfaction. Afterwards, I added sound effects on my own in Premiere Pro.

Emma once told us during a tutorial, "Films are not meant to be understood by everyone in the same way. Films are a matter of opinion". I found this sentiment helpful, particularly when I was overwhelmed by various feedbacks and it made me unsure of how to proceed. I think many of us students usually feel this way because we obviously want to make a successful film that answers to most of the constructive criticisms. This became a challenge for me since I almost lost sight of my film's direction. However, Ossie was also kind enough to constantly remind all of us that it remains our own film to direct and our own story to tell. From there, I told myself that I will try to complete this film to the best of my abilities and even if it might not be a strong enough film, in the end, I hope that it will at least be a testament to my hard work and passion for animation.

Another important challenge that I faced when making this film was, "how am I going to introduce my indigenous culture to audiences who have never been exposed to it before?". There are so many layers and history to it that I do not know where to begin. I spent many sleepless nights just thinking of how best to bridge that gap, but I eventually made the decision to narrow/shift the focus of my film to the ties of life and nature. Inserting my tribe at this point acts as a personal gesture.

It is quite unfortunate how the end of my final academic year at Middlesex University has turned out due to Covid-19. But in times of hardship, growth takes place for all of us. Like the seed adapting to her surroundings, in spite of all tragedy, pursuing only growth with her roots outstretched to connect to the system of those around her in an outward dance, I hope I too will continue to make the most of all that I have learned and continuously build myself as a filmmaker. Working with Dharmadev and Aleksandr has been a real joy as well. Despite struggles with our own workload, it was great to still be able to check up on each other and provide encouragement from time to time. I absolutely like how they were able to understand what I wanted from the start, so we faced no issues other than just minor tweaks. Thinking back, I learned a lot from all the tutors about directing a film, executing a specific vision, and getting the message across - which is a real gem, because I can always improve on my own technical skills, but gaining knowledge on something important like 'how to make a wonderful film' is hard to come by. So thank you, for watching my film. It has been a real ride working on this film project towards the end of my studies.

Official Selection at Animate Australia Film Festival 2020

Cardiff Animation Nights 2022

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