WHEN Liew Seng Tat (Flower In The Pocket, Lelaki Harapan Dunia) began work on his latest project, he was determined to try new things.
Here at the KL Journal, he is sat next to special effects (SFX) make-up wizard Bernard Floch (Marie Antoinette, Holy Motors). Together, they’ve been working out the science required for Seng Tat’s filmmaking: how feasible is it to bring a headless woman to life on the screen? The Girl With No Head won’t be going anywhere anytime soon — she’s got unfinished business and its up to Seng Tat’s team to calculate how they can send her to the barzakh as soon as possible.
Seng Tat is one of Malaysia’s celebrated young filmmakers at present. You can verify this by checking out the latest issue of Sinema Malaysia, the one where Tunku Mona Riza serves you face. In fact, Seng Tat was one of only three filmmakers allowed to sit down and hold a filmmaking prop on the cover.
Film festivals and local awards ceremonies are fond of Seng Tat’s take on Malaysian culture. Flower In The Pocket won over Busan, Lelaki Harapan Dunia was Malaysia’s submission to the Oscars, while project in-development The Girl With No Head scored support from the Taipei Golden Horse Project last year.
But The Girl is shaping out to be a beast: script-refining and SFX tests were being held as of August when the film is only expected to begin production in the middle of next year. It’s for this reason that Seng Tat and Bernard have arranged a meeting with The Daily Seni so we could get in our questions before they return to the laboratory.
Sat in the KL Journal, we prodded The Girl‘s director and SFX artist to unearth some surprising information about their peculiar new project.
For his off kilter writing and sense of humour, Seng Tat is one of our favourite film directors in the industry. He is damn gigih: some of you may remember that part of Lelaki Harapan Dunia‘s production and promotion included the lifting of an actual house. With The Girl however, his game is upped even further.
During test sessions last month, Seng Tat and award-winning French SFX artist Bernard Floch managed to recreate the physical head of actor Grace Ng (whom you may remember from Kapangan at Iskarnival).
Based on descriptions from the team, the process sounded traumatising. Grace began by sitting still while wearing a bald cap. Then silicone was poured over her head and left to set.
“My hearing was obscured, my vision was blacked out. I went into a meditative space,” Grace would tell us later in the day.
But this was only step one. After a highly-detailed silicone mould was created from her head, it was time for plaster casting.
“This part was a bit scary as I couldn’t hear anything or even move my mouth. There were a few seconds I felt scared.”
The man conducting the procedure deems the process “relaxing” but insists that the body must be relaxed or it will react to the feeling of silicone poured over skin. Thankfully, the cast sets within fifteen minutes. After that, it’s another world of work.
“We spent a lot of time on the details of the prosthetic,” he explains. “Every eyelash must be punched in one by one, and then we must paint the silicone to make it look like flesh and complete the rest of the reconstruction.”
Bernard has been doing this for donkey years; he was an integral part of realising Leos Carax‘s complex, bizarre imagery for Palme d’Or nominee Holy Motors, and he also served on Sofia Coppola‘s extravagant visual feast in Marie Antoinette.
Cost however remains a big obstacle. According to the team, not many productions opt for SFX makeup because the process calls for a high budget.
Importing ingredients such as silicone into the studio is a lot more expensive in Asia due to lack of availability. Necessities such as production-grade silicone cost at least three times more to ship into Malaysia. Chemicals that go through customs may also be held for indefinite amounts of time.
Pushing the limit on their latest project meant combining SFX and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to complete the film’s universe. Given all the challenges, the team pushed for success on each attempt to avoid extra time in the post-production phase.
“We’re using a combination of SFX and CGI because the green screen is not very emotional,” opines Seng Tat. “But it’s very, very risky, so we try to get it right.”
“You really need to know what you’re doing because post-production is very costly and it’s not easy fixing things in post. Only do it in post if that will bring better results.”
This is also why the team have begun tests well in advance of production. Claiming it will help them plan better and be more economical during the actual shoot and in future projects, Seng Tat has put Bernard to full use during his time in Kuala Lumpur — Bernard was assisted by a local make-up artist who might just have picked up a thing or two from the process.
“In my job, I like to travel and meet new people — Europe already has plenty of people with my skills. There’s something to develop here in Southeast Asia, and I can teach techniques that are not widespread here.”
But ever wondered why there’s not much ground-breaking SFX in local cinema? Apart from budget concerns, Seng Tat pins it down to a matter of self-censorship and lack of expertise. People limit themselves to immediately executable ideas and what is most familiar to them. It’s also why Dain Iskandar Said‘s elaborate Interchange has got the local film industry anticipating a game-changer.
Bernard believes that the extent of prosthetic use and visual effects employed in Seng Tat’s upcoming film has not yet been done in Malaysian cinema. He also informs us that its easier to put together a monster than a human being; The Girl for example will require prosthetics and skin tones that match with its actor in order to deliver its director’s vision.
“The public has become quite demanding. You can no longer put a wig on a puppet and say it’s a dead body,” concludes Seng Tat.
And if stories from pre-production of terrified crew members and collaborators uncomfortable about handling replica-Grace’s severed head are anything to go by, then we believe Seng Tat and team are doing a good job.
We’ll be back with more news from The Girl With No Head in the near future.