Premiering at Singapore International Film Festival this December 5, The Last Artisan is a documentary that chronicles the life and legacy of Teo Veoh Seng, following his retirement after seven decades as the head artisan of Singapore’s Haw Par Villa theme park. APB speaks with Craig McTurk on his first cut as a director for a feature film.
APB: The Last Artisan is your first feature film as a director. What inspired you to produce this documentary, and what is the message you would like to bring across to your audience?
Craig McTurk: Having lived in Singapore for many years, I chose this particular story because some of the massive changes the country has undergone in the past seven decades can be distilled into this simple story of paintbrush being passed from one generation to another. The film is designed to tell a few stories at once — the master artisan’s life, that of Haw Par Villa (where the film takes place), and — to a lesser extent — that of Singapore itself.
Some themes that I hope will connect with the audience are the passing of a generation that toiled with their hands in the hot sun, the legacy of Mr Teo’s life and work, and the under-appreciated value of migrant workers who are now maintaining Singapore’s tangible history.
Can you share with us the conceptualisation process behind the making of the film? Were there any challenges you faced during the filming of the documentary, and how did you overcome them?
McTurk: I opted to tell this story using interviews, footage of the three main characters as they work and relax, animation and archival footage. Finding the right balance of each was solved by spending hours in the editing room, and getting some feedback from some test screenings.
Main challenges during production were working around everyone’s schedule as I brought the crew and the workers at Haw Par Villa together on many occasions. We had about 18 days of principal photography in making this film and a few sessions of recording voices in a V.O. booth, spread out over a two-and-a-half-year period. With about eight to 10 people involved on a sporadic shooting schedule, it was not easy to have everyone free at the same time.
Working with an interpreter on set was also a learning curve, as it took a bit of time for everyone to develop an ideal workflow. After one or two shoots, though, we were all up to speed and had a routine in place. The fact that we spread the filming over a long time was ideal, because we had to piece together the transcripts to form the story flow and decide what to film next.
As this was my first time to incorporate drone footage and animation into a documentary, there was a learning curve involved in trying to piece this material into a cohesive whole. The narrative structure of the film really came out in the editing process. Doing all of this on a tight budget made it as challenging financially as it was creatively.
The documentary will be released in the format of 4K/Ultra HD (UHD) DCP and Dolby 5.1. As a filmmaker, what are the drivers for you to adopt these technologies?
McTurk: As much as possible, I want to future-proof the show for a few decades and 4K/UHD is a relatively affordable way to do this. In a few years’ time, 5K, and then 8K, will become the norm, so it’s beneficial to try to extend a show’s lifespan as much as possible using technology.
My main added cost to shoot in 4K/UHD was needing to buy a 32TB hard drive at the outset to house all of the footage, [as well as] using many 4TB or 5TB portable drives during production itself. All of the data is backed up in case of emergency.
Dolby 5.1 will provide an immersive audio experience for audiences that will complement the visuals. The 5.1 theatrical mix will be down-mixed for broadcast and streaming outlets. I would have loved to have done the audio mix in Dolby Atmos, but the budget did not allow for that extravagance.
The Last Artisan is also colour-graded in high dynamic range (HDR). Can you elaborate on the reasons behind the decision to employ HDR in post production, and in your opinion, what values does HDR offer to both the filmmaker and the viewer?
McTurk: I owe the decision to colour-grade in HDR to Chai Yee-Wei of Mocha Chai Laboratories, who convinced me that HDR could achieve the highest dynamic range of what is currently on the market. I could see for myself the incredible range during a recent session to colour-spot the show to preset the look of a dozen shots, which the colourist can use as a palette for the rest of the show. The deep blacks that can be achieved are readily apparent.
HDR really enhances the colours of the statues and paints that appear throughout the film, and I love the idea that the very latest technology is being applied to tell the story of an elderly man who works in the medium of painting and sculpture. HDR is not yet used in Singapore theatres, but no doubt it will become standardised in the future. So at this point, the film is actually ahead of the commercial theatres in terms of its use of HDR. For the premiere screening of the film at Singapore International Film Festival, The Last Artisan will be shown in 4K/UHD standard dynamic range (SDR).