In the midst of the busy schedule of Thesis and Second film production, a group of us had the opportunity to visit Infinite Studios** in Batam where the production of The Joker Game* was taking place. The ferry ride from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Nongsa, Batam took about half an hour, followed by a fifteen-minute drive in pitch-dark on Nongsa’s lamp less roads that set the mood for the short trip. We kicked off the visit with dinner at the crew’s canteen – talk about being a gracious host and one who is adept in contingency planning where about 20 of us students managed to wine and dine to our stomachs’ content despite coming unannounced. We were then given a personal tour of the exterior backlot facility by none other than our Cinematography lecturer, Hideho Urata, who was critical in organising this eye-opening trip. Utilising natural lighting from the only light source available – the moonlight, Hide’s ingenuity and astute sense of lighting heightened the atmosphere of the backlot as we explored the sets that were used to film the spy thriller.
Torture chambers, underground tunnels, back alleys, makeshift foods stalls along several streets filled with pawn shops, grand hotel lobbies and iconic coffee shops that were painstakingly created with a great deal of attention that was paid to details instantly brought back the nostalgic feel and charm of Singapore in the 1940s and 50s. After the tour of the backlot, we stepped into the huge soundstage where filming was in progress, it was literally an air-conditioned aircraft hangar, if not bigger. The general mood of the soundstage was solemn as it was evident that everyone from the Japanese side and the Indonesian side (many of whom functioned as assistants for the various departments and translators) on set knew clearly their respective roles and responsibilities. We hustled quietly from corner to another around the main set which is a structure of a roof of a bell tower as we observed the crew at work. The structure was on an elevated platform and it was much like watching a play in action, the crew knew exactly where to move and where to stand during and after takes, there was no unnecessary chatter and no rushing, everyone paid close attention to the rehearsals and takes and huddled together orderly when an important safety announcement was made in English, Japanese and Indonesian and back to their positions to continue with their roles when the whole thing was through, so much so that the entire crew made the Director and the Director of Photography and other key crew members looked like loafers whilst sitting behind the monitors.
The whole set was organised chaos in motion, compared to our student sets, ours were just plain chaos. One can only imagine the amount of planning and time spent during their pre-production to achieve this level of execution of production, it is a standard that we definitely should strive for in our future shoots! After hanging around for a couple of takes of the climatic scene involving stunt extras falling off, towering bells chiming and fire explosions, we stepped out for a breather while the meticulous crew set up for another take. Like a scene right out of a film, the whole lot of us basked in the moonlight as we sat down and caught our breath outside the stoundstage and talked about our progress in school and everything under the sun (or moon in this case). It took some small fireworks that could be heard in the distant vegetation as it lighted the dark skies faintly to jolt us out of the holiday mood we were in the moment we boarded the ferry and realized how close most of us were to graduation as we pondered silently about our futures – For the level 3s, we had in fact just finished our third Thesis film on the day itself and the fourth and final film was in two days time. Shortly after, we were joined by the Director of Photography of the film, Katsumi Yanagishima, the senpai (mentor) of Hide and we learnt that he has been a long time collaborator of critically acclaimed Japanese director, Takeshi Kitano and is in fact the man behind lens and lights of several Japanese cult classic films such as Battle Royale, Zaitochi and Sonatine. It was a rather awkward start, he could barely speak a word of English and neither could we speak a word of Japanese (Hide and one of our classmates acted as translator throughout the meeting) and we were probably too dumbstruck to be in the company of such an established filmmaker from the Japanese cinema – We also learnt that there was yet another royalty from the Japanese cinema back in the sound stage amongst our presence, the Soundman for the film is Yasuo Hashimoto, the kōhai (protégé) of Fumio Yanoguchi (1917-1985), the go-to Soundman for most of Akira Kurosawa’s films, whom was most notably known for his work on Stray Dog, Seven Samurai and Ikiru.
The night went on into the early morning and we soon had to be on our way for an early ferry back to Singapore, the whole trip was nothing short of an amazing and humbling experience to be in the presence of established and dedicated filmmakers, in a multi-milion dollar production and facility, to put all of us in our place and reflect on our futures where the possibilities of our roles on a film/commercial set are endless. Given today’s media climate and the infrastructure available, having a Japanese feature film of such a calibre in production right in our backyard where the journey is equivalent to that of traveling from one end of Singapore to the other, really makes one wonder where we will eventually stand at the end of all these. I guess that brings us back to the very question and decision we made when we first joined the film school.
*Based on the prize-winning short story by Yanagi Koji, Joker Game is a fictional story set on the eve of World War II about a young man recruited to be a spy for a mysterious organisation called the D Agency. Joker Game is currently in production, with filming expected to end in late February. Toho Co Ltd is set to distribute the film locally in 2015.
**Infinite Studios is an integrated Media Entertainment and Creative Services Company and is headquartered in Singapore, partnering closely with the Media Development Authority and the Economic Development Board to attract international projects into Singapore. The site in Batam boasts 2 additional soundstage and a 1 hectare backlot facility specifically designed to cater to period backdrops to complement Singapore’s technology focused productions by providing larger scale productions with sets and props construction requirements and a natural island resort environment as locations for filming.
WILSON Tan, is a Directing major and a final year student at The Puttnam Film of School. He is a keen observer of his surroundings and thrives on the constructive use of solitude as an approach towards the creation of his films as he believes that it helps him open up his mind to wander and observe while getting in touch with his inner creative voice.