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Where do I begin about this project? Let’s just say it’s been a long time coming.
Back in October of last year, Phil, Christine and I went to London for the YouTube Music Awards. We were asked to make something inspired by music (yes it was a really really general prompt). We ended up making a fun lip sync video with some of our friends to promote the awards show. But that wasn’t the only thing we shot there. Since we had a full week in London, we found some time to create some personal passion projects.
My original idea was about a couple separated by long distance. I was thinking the short would be a narration of thoughts and feelings while one of them was traveling through the city and listening to a song. It was meant to be a super low-key and simple short. I wanted to capture the sights of London and use the narration to string a loose story together. At the time, London was experiencing a beautiful autumn and everything looked lovely. I spent a few days invested in this idea and even went searching for props with Christine. We went all over in search of a vintage cassette player. In the end, we weren’t able to find one. Oh well. The prop was the least of my concerns.
I remember thinking about the story and asking myself how I could make it more interesting– how I could make it different. To be honest, I didn’t have much. I knew I wanted the two characters to be separated by an outside force. I decided it would be work or school of some sort. It would be mutual but still heartbreaking. I wanted to express the reservations and doubts about the decision to separate. I knew wasn’t going to try to tell their whole story. It would be more of a glimpse into their thoughts in one particular day. That’s pretty much all I had. Not much.
Context and framing is everything. Deep down, I was aware the story concept lacked a unique setup. That’s when it occurred to me that a long distance relationship can exist anywhere. It can span cities, states, countries, or even planets. Two people separated living on different planets. With just that adjustment, the story became so much more engaging to me. Then I got really excited. There were questions to answer: Why are they on different planets? What is the other planet? How would I portray a different planet while in London?
In the future, because of climate change, contamination, war, and disease, Earth is unable to sustain human life. As a result, an artificial planet (roughly the size of the moon) is created to support mankind. This planet is called Icarus. Icarus is meant to mimic Earth’s most populous cities. One of the stages of it’s construction includes “the mirroring phase” which describes how everything is perfectly replicated on Icarus. Through a mass migration, everyone on Earth eventually inhabit Icarus as their new home.
For the most part, life on Icarus is good. It’s meant to feel the same as Earth– so life goes on, unchanged. However, this is a select group of people who have their eyes and hopes still set on Earth. This group is called ARC: the Adapation and Revival Corps. ARC is dedicated to restoring Earth as place to live and thrive. Their work has already seen success. A number of ARC teams have returned to Earth and set up livable revival base stations. One of them is the park where Doug reflects to himself.
Doug and Hilarys’ characters separated because of the distance. There was an understanding that sustaining the relationship across planets would be unlikely. Doug’s character joined ARC and left for Earth because he felt it gave him a higher calling– a purpose. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t still think of her. Hilary’s character is also facing certain realities. In the short, we see her acknowledge that she needs to let go of the idea of them.
We met Doug at the YT Music Awards. He was really fun to work with and has some entertaining vlogs on his channel too! Plus, he was definitely helpful in production since he was a local. We met Hilary through some tweets about casting that we made after arriving in London. She was also a pleasure to work with and even suggested some amazing locations for the short.
We shot all around London. The park with the fountain (Postman’s Park) serves as an anchor for the characters and the short as a whole. Even though both characters are in what looks like the same location, it’s important to remember they are actually on different planets. The park exists on Earth and on Icarus as a “mirror” of the original. The memorial wall located at the park was an unexpected bonus that tied nicely into the story. After seeing Primrose Hill, I knew I wanted to see a wide shot of ships launching into the sky from there. Doug’s living quarters was actually the apartment room I stayed. It was such a cool,compact, modern space that it just begged to be put in the short.
This being our first science fiction based short, I’d say I might’ve gotten a little ambitious with the world and futuristic elements. Thankfully, Kenson was just as enthusiastic as I. Like me, he’s always wanted to do something in this genre. I’m pretty sure this is the most visual effects shots we’ve had in a short of this length. This short is was brought to reality largely through Kenson’s skill and dedication. On top of the elements created from scratch, there’s a lot of small details that were created to show this a future world. One of my favorites is the “Dream Capture” wall projections. You might notice Porter Lynn is also featured in the cast. This is because I had her record the voiceover of Hilary’s character after returning from London. Originally, I did record with Hilary while I was there, but I changed some of the lines significantly. It was more practical to redo the lines completely.
GUPPY SHIP + ICARUS DESIGN
One of the highlights of creating this short was being able to design the spaceship and planet, Icarus. I knew from the beginning, I wanted the ship’s shape to be inspired by a whale. I feel like the best designs often come from the natural world around us, so this was a chance to explore that. While I had some elaborate ideas in my head, my drawing ability is unfortunately limited. I ended giving my brother, Brian, some really rough/primitive sketches and a silhouette of the ship. He came back to me with beautifully detailed drawings and also the nickname Guppy Ship (even though it’s supposed to look more like a whale). Since my brother knows my tastes pretty well, I didn’t have many adjustments to make. Next, he modeled the ship in 3D and sent it back to me. I spent a solid week texturing the ship with Kenson. After that, we placed the final ship into shots I had taken in London and mapped out the exact movements. The last step was adding particle effects like flames and dust to make the whole thing convincing.
Creating Icarus was challenging because I couldn’t figure out how to create something that would look enough like Earth but unique enough to differentiate right away. It was important for Icarus to have a very particular silhouette so that it could be recognized at first glance. After a lot of concepts, I liked the asymmetrical ring the most. My brother added some nice intricate details to really sell it too. This was the most 3D work we’ve done. A lot of it was learned on the spot but ultimately I’m pleased with how everything looks.
Many people have said the theme in this short reminds them of Cloud Atlas. That might be because I told Kenson I love the way that piece sounds. He managed to compose a beautiful score that is definitely unique but gives the same hopeful energy.
- Everything was shot in one day– much like our One Days HK shorts
- Doug and Hilary are always solo in their shots because we were pressed for time and couldn’t schedule them together
- The shot of the “launch lift” is actually passing lights in a tunnel. I got it while we were in a taxi between locations.
- Certain shots of sky and clouds were grabbed on my flight from Singapore back to the states!
- The desert-looking shots were shot at the dry lakebed while were filming Wong Fu Weekend – Desert Racing Edition!
- Simon and Melvin were two local photographers that were extremely helpful in making this short. Thanks guys!
- The reason this short has taken so long is because it was only worked on in between our regular projects
- Choosing the acronym ARC wasn’t a mistake. I did want it to loosely reference Noah’s Ark
- I called the planet, Icarus (Greek mythology) because I believe even though it serves as a temporary home, it will fall and people will eventually to return to Earth.
- It’s ridiculously difficult designing sci-fi elements that haven’t been seen before!
- I’m totally aware of other shows/movies with a similar premise. Voices of a Distant Star by Makoto Shinkai is a breathtaking piece of work and I can only home we captured something that matches it in live action. There’s also similarities to Elysium and Oblivion which I also love!
- I hope this shed some light “A WORLD AWAY” and how we created the short. Thanks!
PERSONAL THOUGHTS (UPDATED MAY 6, 2014)
At Wong Fu Productions, there’s a few different types of projects. Most of what you see is a collective effort in terms of how the final product is crafted. And on the other hand, there are passion projects. These are usually shorts that Phil or I have written independently.
I’m a slow writer. I’ll sit on an idea for months before anything actually gets put on paper. For that reason, the output of my projects has typically been one or two per year. That’s totally fine with me. There’s plenty to do at WFP so it’s not like my creative outlet isn’t being fulfilled.
Phil and I have different styles– in writing, shooting, directing, and editing. That’s just natural because we’re different people. And I think it’s beneficial for WFP to have these different perspectives. I believe our distinct styles are most evident in our personal projects.
“A World Away” is the most recent personal project of mine to date. And just looking at the YouTube stats, it’s also the most disliked. The initial response was interesting to me but not a total surprise. I understand as an artist I’m in the position to be critiqued. And that’s wonderful. The feedback is definitely welcome and helpful in my own creative growth, so I thank you for it. I am not offended by any of the comments. And what I’m writing isn’t a defense of the work (although it may sound like it haha). I just wanted to offer some of my thoughts. I’m not trying to argue or change your mind about the work.
“The plot is lacking. There’s no character development. It’s boring.”
Different people like different things. It’s that simple. I think I announced “A World Away” had science fiction elements, everyone imagined an epic story. Let’s be honest. I’d love to do something on a grander scale but that’s not for this project. The plot is lacking if you’re looking for something more. And I can understand a lot of people were. This is not the most compelling character-driven drama WFP has created. But then again, it’s not trying to be. It really is a stream of consciousness of two people in a futuristic setting. I think some people are expecting some big emotional release when watching something I’ve written. I can say while true in the past, that wasn’t my primary intention with this piece. I had only a few hours with the actors separately, so I decided to tell their story in narration. The goal was to let the two character’s emotional thoughts guide the exploration of the worlds. I was very much interested in trying new visuals by working with Kenson and my brother. And to be totally honest, in a way, I just wanted an excuse to play with spaceships and such. As for how boring it is, well I’ll just say yes, it does help if you’re in a certain mood to watch something like this.
“It’s too cheesy.”
This will always come up with emotional/dramatic material. Similar to what I said earlier, different people have different tolerances to what is too over the top for them. Even I have a threshold for cheese. You could say AWA is cheesy and “nobody talks like that” and I agree. But it’s the internal thoughts we’re hearing– not actual dialogue. To me, there is some liberty there. What we think and feel is sometimes many times stronger than what we say.
“The concept/theme is overused.”
It never claimed this was a completely original idea. I was always very transparent that this has been indirectly influenced by other great works. Many amazing films, series, and anime have touched on the idea of a separate but similar world to our own. AWA is not an imitation. Yes, it’s a similar concept but it’s also something we’ve never done at WFP. And that’s what excited me the most.
“It’s not science fiction, it’s just another typical WFP drama.”
This is a relationship story framed in science fiction. The choice to make this a relationship story was because I’m aware that that’s what resonates well with our audience. I was hoping it could be a bridge into a new genre. But again, I’d like to emphasize it’s a very loose dramatic short. Don’t expect crazy plot points and twists. I understand viewers enjoy stories that are relatable. I think some of the themes of AWA are pretty universal. But this was not meant to rank high on the “relatability scale” in the scope of WFP work. Lastly, it’s funny to me because the whole idea of this short was to try something different (with the limited resources I had at the time). Yet, the criticism has been that it’s the same thing. I understand the sentiment, but I am consciously trying to progress the type of content we make. Just understand that it’s being done with baby steps. I’d love to tell a science fiction story that involved space battles and alien lifeforms, but not in this short. People have different ideas of what qualifies as science fiction.
“This isn’t your style.”
This seems almost contradictory to the previous statement. Do our viewers determine what our style is? Or is that something the creator puts on themselves? All I can say is, yes it’s different, and it’s not going to resonate with our entire audience the same way. Ultimately, this was an enormously time and energy consuming project and I’m very happy it was finished. It wasn’t made for the sake of being different. It was made because it interests me and it excites creativity in me. The critiques have helped me learn, and more importantly, further inspired me. Thank you everyone for watching, regardless of whether you enjoy our content or not. I also want to encourage other creators (or aspiring) to make what stimulates your own creativity. It’s all a process. And it never ends. But you know what, that’s probably the best part.