Interview: Olivia Griselda and Sarah Cheok, Directors of Sex-Positive Animated Short ‘She and Her Good Vibrations’14 min readReading Time: 10 minutes
Despite strides in women’s empowerment, our largely conservative society has still made it difficult for women to speak about sex positivity and self-pleasure even amongst friends — let alone to make a film about the topics.
Filmmakers Olivia Griselda and Sarah Cheok are undeterred. With their animated comedy short She and Her Good Vibrations, they look to celebrate female pleasure and spark conversations around sex positivity by injecting a dose of playful absurdity.
The production’s journey began when Olivia was gifted a vibrator by a friend, using it day in and day out till it broke down a month later. Embarrassed, she kept the story to herself for years until she found a safe space at the Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity in 2017. The acting school was holding the 17th edition of Metaphors Be With You, its curated personal story showcase, with “Cravings” being the theme for the night.
Olivia was surprised by the rapturous reception she got from her story amongst the audience of 30 — even Artistic Director Kamil Haque couldn’t stop laughing during rehearsals. After the show, some women shared with Olivia their own experiences as well. This would push the filmmaker to bring her story to Cartoons Underground’s Animated Visions: Story Development Lab in 2020.
It was at the two-day workshop where she won the Best Pitch Award and met award-winning animators Jerrold Chong and Sarah Cheok, who joined as producer and co-director respectively.
She and Her Good Vibrations follows the out-of-this-world experience of a middle-aged woman as she discovers the wonders of a vibrator — but soon grows addicted and loses touch with reality. The team looks to deliver the short, currently planned to be 9 to 10 minutes in length, by October 2022.
The team launched a Kickstarter campaign in early November to bolster the production’s seed funding. By the end of the month, they reached their goal of $8,000. They hope to raise $16,000 before the campaign concludes on 11 December 2021.
We sat down with Olivia and Sarah (joined by Jerrold too!) and got a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s creative process, learnt about their experience with Cartoons Underground, and their tips behind running a successful crowdfunding campaign.
Congratulations on reaching the first stretch goal for the Kickstarter campaign! Getting the heavy questions out of the way: what does sex positivity mean for the both of you?
Olivia Griselda: I think it’s about being able to talk about sex and express your sexuality without any kind of judgement. I think that can be a challenge as concepts such as [gender] fluidity… conversations around them have only grown more prominent in recent years. Even among female friends, we don’t openly talk about these topics until someone opens a can of worms.
Sarah Cheok: It’s similar for me too — being comfortable with yourself and your sexuality without the fear of getting shamed or judged for who you are, and to accept yourself. I think the “shame” part is quite important especially in our Asian society where we don’t really talk about these kinds of issues.
Any advice you can share with women in embracing sex positivity and self-love?
Sarah: I’ve been watching (Netflix series) Sex Education and it’s been quite mind-blowing. I realise that it’s about finding what you like and what you are comfortable with. And I guess that is a part of self-love that a lot of people don’t realise about.
Olivia: I think when more media talks about this, it opens up much more opportunities for conversations — these don’t happen out of the blue. I think it’s also important to find a space, whether that is among friends or a community, that is non-judgemental. It can be very daunting when you bring it up and when you do, people can very critical. So that safe space is very important because that also gives you the confidence to talk about it.
Sometimes, I’m also very cautious when I bring it up to some of my friends because I don’t know if… if they tend to be in the arts or film scene, they tend to be more liberal and be more open to talking about these issues. But there are others who might not be as comfortable.
Olivia, share with us how you found the courage to share your personal experience at the HCAC.
Olivia: I was really scared before I submitted the story — I kept asking myself why I was sharing such a personal story! Actually, it’s quite funny lah now that I think about it. I was so worried even as the deadline for submission got closer but I eventually went ahead with sending it over to my acting school teacher Kamil (Haque). A week later, he wrote back and said he wanted me to share the story.
I was reading the story during the rehearsal before the showcase and Kamil couldn’t stop laughing along! That was when I thought my experience was something interesting — when even a guy can relate to it. The reception was the same when I told it to the audience too, especially the women who were laughing very hard.
Sarah: Throughout this whole project I have heard Olivia share this story about 50 times already so I think she’s really comfortable with sharing!
How important is animation and humour to this short?
Sarah: I think it gets rid of the awkwardness of the subject. Animation provides that distance compared to live-action — live-action is like ‘reality’, right? Animation can be more surreal and we can go crazier with the topic. The space is different.
Olivia: I think humour is able to spark conversations as it makes everything more comfortable. It gives us the opportunity to take the topics not so seriously. Like what Sarah said, the exaggerations, the metaphors — literally just pushing it as far as we can in terms of the fantasy and the imagination. At the end of the day, it’s still about driving conversations around female self-pleasure.
Do you think Singapore as a whole is ready to have those conversations?
Sarah: I think no leh. I think the older generation might not be able to take it. I think their brains will explode.
Is that the reason why the main character in ‘She and Her Good Vibrations’ is a middle-aged woman?
Sarah: Yes! Actually yes, right?
Olivia: Yes! When I initially pitched it, the character was a 20-something woman. I think it’s very normal to hear stories about such a character being sexually active. But for a 40-something woman, it’s something quite rare and unexpected, especially when their view on sexuality can be different. However, I think as we get older, there’s more willingness to not care about what other people think and to do things for ourselves.
What are some of the stylistic inspirations for the animated short?
Sarah: When we were pitching the story, we looked at short films such as Hot and Tasty by Laura Jayne Hodkin. When I refer to them, I mainly look at the colours they use to see how they portray adult themes in a more digestible way. They tend to use a lot of bright, strong psychedelic colours to really highlight the absurdity and surrealism.
Will ‘She and Her Good Vibrations’ be in a similar style to your previous films, such as ‘Tiger Baby’?
Sarah: I’m trying to keep it even looser this time. I think what I had before, in terms of animations and backgrounds, they were still quite [rigid]. The lines are looser this time to keep a certain fluidity.
What were the reactions from friends and family to ‘She and Her Good Vibrations’?
Olivia: Most of my friends have been very supportive because they also feel that we don’t really talk about these topics enough. My mum too… when I pitched this idea for an animated film, everyone was thinking that animation is for kids — I didn’t really tell her what the premise is. My 8-year-old nephew was asking about it and I kept evading the question. When the Kickstarter campaign opened, I sent it to my mother and she agreed that the film wasn’t too kid-friendly so we’ve been finding ways to deflect questions from my nephew.
But as a whole, my mother has been very supportive. My previous film, Just Because We’re Friends, also dealt with female sexuality and had a few intimate scenes. I was watching the film with her at the Bali International Short Film Festival — she was just sitting beside me while all of those scenes were going on. I felt so awkward! But I spoke with her about it later. She thought it was good and encouraged me to continue making films.
Sarah: I also have a 10-year-old sister who comes into my room when I’m working. She will ask about what I’m drawing and I will try to avoid the question. I think my parents are part of the generation who are not willing to talk about these topics. But when they learnt about the film, they were supportive — my father was laughing along when he found out.
Are both of you worried about censorship or backlash from the short?
Sarah: A bit! For the later scenes, I think they might be quite graphic so we will have to try to balance that.
Olivia: I feel the backlash might come from those who are not comfortable with these topics in general. What gave me the confidence to stand by this story is, I would say it’s based around 75 – 85% of my own personal experience — people may not be comfortable with it but it’s still my experience.
I was writing the story as it is, without thinking too much about censorship. And we were talking to another animator recently and they were saying that actually for animation, even with sex-related topics, you can get away with more [compared to live-action] and that was very surprising to hear.
Yeah, I think that is quite true! Calleen [Koh]’s ‘To Kill The Bird and The Bees’ is quite explicit too.
Olivia: Oh yes! Like in Sexy Sushi, I think there was a scene when a guy was killed…
Sarah: Ya. you can get away with murder, man.
Where is ‘She and Her Good Vibrations’ at right now?
Sarah: It’s now in production. We have started to do backgrounds and animations for certain scenes. But the animatics are still in progress; not everything is confirmed yet. We are just working towards the April deadline.
Where and when can we expect to catch ‘She and Her Good Vibrations’?
Olivia: We shared on our Kickstarter campaign that we look to finish everything by October 2022. We will be submitting to film festivals and, as the short talks about female sexual wellness, we are looking to speak with potential media partners or entities that are focused on those topics just to amplify the conversation, and to take the film to a wider audience beyond animation fans.
Share with us your experience with Cartoons Underground.
Olivia: It was intense because the Lab was held over two days. I had a rough idea of the story and it grew based on the feedback from mentors and fellow participants. I learned a lot from the journey, such as about the animation industry, about financing, about experiences pitching ideas within the industry and the rejections they got — which I really appreciated because they were really honest about it.
But I think what I really treasured the most was being able to meet Sarah and Jerrold through the lab. Without them, I don’t think we will be where we are now.
Sarah: I learned a lot about pitching as well even when I was a judge [during the Lab in 2020]. And I think Olivia’s project really stood out.
Olivia, you have successfully crowdfunded YouTube comedy web series ‘Alice Wants a Date’ through Indiegogo. Any tips on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign?
Jerrold Chong: She’s the expert sia. I learnt so much from her.
Sarah: Ya! Very mind-blowing.
Olivia: It’s been very stressful! I think a lot of people have the idea that once you launch the campaign, you don’t have to do anything else. But there really is a lot of preparation leading up to the launch.
One of the things that worked well for us is that we had one year to work on the project and share about it with our friends in the industry. We were already at the storyboarding and animatics stage so we could share the concept art Sarah did by the time we applied for grants earlier this year
A month before the launch of our campaign — and a month really isn’t a lot of time — our preparation allowed me to think about how to layout the page and who to reach out to. We wanted to get as much backing as early as possible. I think the early backing really adds to the credibility of the project — especially to those we are not in contact with, so they are more likely to back it.
We were also very fortunate with how Cartoons Underground mentioned us in their press release this year. That gave us more opportunities to link up with media platforms such as Vice. It has been about preparing press releases and media kits, and researching on all the different media outlets and all the journalists. There has been more news about female sexual wellness in the past few months and I have been secretly noting down the blogs and writers behind them.
Additionally, we wanted to personally thank our backers so that there is a personal touch and build a community to join us on our journey.
What are your hopes for Singapore animation?
Sarah: I think there should be more grants from the government for animation. The IMDA grants are currently both for films and animation so they are lumped together. I think they should be separated eventually. The budgeting for animation is way different compared to animation.
I also hope to see more animation filmmakers, to see a bigger community. I think we are still quite small.
Olivia: I definitely hope to see the animation community grow. It’s really interesting to me as I come from a live-action filmmaking background. I realise that the animation is very warm and very tight-knit. I think it’s also very exciting to see the different kinds of animation works emerging — with the growing number of female animation filmmakers as well! The stories they tell are very unique and personal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.