Interview: Bervyn Chua, animator and director of National Youth Film Awards Winner, ‘The Last Stop’9 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Written by Tan Mei Qi
Imagine your usual agonisingly slow commute on the MRT, but on steroids. A business-as-usual journey becomes a botched rollercoaster nightmare in The Last Stop, winner of Best Sound Design at this year’s National Youth Film Awards (NYFA).
About a lone commuter trying to escape a speeding train, the premise seems deceptively simple. Yet, it is a seersucker punch of a short, packing in an incredible amount of detail and adrenaline in just under three minutes. The commuter wasn’t the only one who had to push against the force of the speed and escape though – faced with a tight deadline of 3.5 months, the team went through a tumultuous journey to make this fast-paced, tension-filled animation.
We sit down with director Bervyn Chua as he brings us on a ride through his animation journey, the making of this punchy short, and things Crazy Rich Asians actually did right.
At first glance, it was hard to tell that the 25-year-old had recently succumbed to the dreaded plague known as COVID. Over the slightly fuzzy call, he seemed a little wan, but quickly became more animated (sorry) as we went into the intricacies of his work. Animation is clearly the spark that lights his fuel.
“I’m not sure what the word opposite of regret is,” Bervyn says about the beginning of his journey in the medium, “But when I went in I saw people drawing the storyboards, the sketches and I was so intrigued…yeah the word is intrigued.”
From that moment on, the Nanyang Technological University Art, Design and Media undergraduate never looked back, shelving his initial plans to read business and law for an entirely different path. Remaining steadfast but flexible, he started out in 2D animation with a strong interest in drawing, but found himself hopping on to 3D as he realised how much he liked solving the problems and doing the software work.
This flexibility rears a creative head in his works too. Spackled across his various online portfolios are personal animation projects made on a whim as inspiration strikes. These include a video of an imagined world where animals are comically large, an unending loop of Gudetama yolks plopping into their shells, and a rather nightmare-inducing video of Bananas in Pajamas sleepwalking.
However, despite what looks like an unending flow of creative energy, Bervyn experienced a period of burnout in his first year of university. Because of the myriad of backgrounds ADM students came from, their artistic experiences were all different, some more extensive than others. It was difficult not to feel like he was falling behind.
Nevertheless, rather than dimming his love for the craft, the burnout became “a sparking fuse – it made me feel tired, but at the same time it inspired me, drove me to push myself”. What helped was seeking support from those around him. It is clear how much the director values and recognises that support as a strength of his filmmaking. Every one of his achievements posted on Instagram is filled with thanks to different people, and throughout our interview he speaks constantly of the five-man team, comprising VFX artists Martin and Rodolfo, technical/lighting artist Jinsheng and concept artist Alvin, who worked with him. “Everyone’s strengths complemented each other in this project,” he highlights.
Even when asked about what went into the award-winning sound design, Bervyn unfailingly brings up his friend Ryan’s guidance regarding technicalities such as EQ, as well as takeaways from a professor who taught a music module he took out of sheer interest. The uncannily similar MRT announcements in the short are also credited to a niche Internet community of train lovers who recorded different train announcements and posted them on YouTube. Putting together the sounds from different sources, Bervyn was able to obtain the crisp, unmistakable BGM of our morning commutes.
However, the sound design proved more challenging than just Internet-sourced cut-and-paste. “Singapore’s MRT sounds quite loud in a not-so-cinematic way,” Bervyn explains. Attempts to record the sound of the trains as they sped up were also foiled by the lack of adequate equipment. These difficulties gave the director room for innovation – “If I can’t use the train sounds,” he figured, “Why do I have to use train sounds?” With a wonderfully innovative sampling of rocket ships, jet planes and the sounds of birds flying by, the roar of the speeding train was born.
Knowing how short the film would be, the priority was to create tense and loud sounds that would keep audiences glued. Inspired by Christopher Nolan’s use of the Shepard Tone, which creates an illusion of continuous rising or falling frequencies, it was used as the base of The Last Stop‘s sounds to create an unending sense of dread and tension. Combined with panning, where sounds shift from one channel to the other, the sense of speed and immersion in the short was enhanced.
Having spent a decade overseas, Bervyn returned with a craving to make local-themed shorts that appeal globally. Something that spurred him on was when an animation that he created made it to the Top 100 of the Alternate Realities CG Challenge hosted by VFX artist Clinton Jones. “I didn’t expect it, but when people messaged me on Instagram or email like “Man, thanks for showing Singapore”,” he realised the joy of seeing your own culture represented on something big. “That’s the feeling I like to have and I want others to have.”
Are there any potential unexplored Singaporean niches? For the tastefully adventurous director, it’s the Sang Nila Utama and the lion city story. “Some companies have done events where they need to show Singapore’s history and they do short little animations of the Merlion, how the lion city name came to be,” he laments, “But it’s a teaser and not super amazing. You haven’t really seen a full-on blockbuster of it.”
However, as much as he wants to put Singapore on the map, he also acknowledges that it is just as important to only insert the locale where it’s relevant. He cites fellow contemporary, Calleen Koh’s To Kill The Birds and The Bees, as a way in which the setting of Singapore is well-utilised. “Doing it the wrong way would be like ‘Oh, I just want it to be set in Singapore because I’m Singaporean and Singaporeans would love it,’” he said, “But the way she designed some buildings to look phallic [is a use of] universal film language, good design to change Singapore to fit the tone of your film so that anyone who watches it from any country can enjoy it”.
The Last Stop is an instance of that, where the setting of the MRT imparts a uniquely local flavour, but the look of it is slightly skewed through squeezing the proportions, adding to the tense, horror-esque aspect of the short.
Another means for animation to create local storytelling with global appeal has to do with the medium’s greatest strength. “I know people don’t like Crazy Rich Asians,” Bervyn said, “But I feel like why people still remember it is because it’s a caricature, and that’s the whole point of animation – to exaggerate”. What he means by caricature, the animator elaborates, is isolating a specific element and removing everything else that is irrelevant. “There’s certainly enough here to make something out of it, but it’s just how you go at it.”
How Bervyn will go at it is apparent in a trailer for what looks like a monster movie about the Merlion. “I made that in two weeks for my entrance to ADM,” he chuckles as I bring it up. “Instead of doing a house drama set in Singapore so you know it’s Singaporean, the way I approach it is more like infusing Hollywood themes into Singaporean culture”. A refreshingly novel mix of Japanese kaiju, American destruction movies and our famous local icon, there is no doubt that this would be a killer feature film.
Just looking at the final year ADM student’s playfully inventive works is enough to spark excitement about Singapore’s future in animation. Seeing his juniors getting better and better, he is similarly hopeful. A dream he harbours is for Singapore to one day have a show that it is known for in animation. “I hope and know that we will make something that globally people will see and know that yeah, that’s a Singaporean thing.”
The day that will happen is not far off now. The Last Stop is certainly not Bervyn’s last stop, and local animation is all the better for it.
Image Credits: Bervyn Chua
This article is produced as part of the Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme, organised by *SCAPE and The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the writer:
When not deep-diving into the trove of queer Asian dramas and cinema, Mei Qi is busy wishing that Ghibli food was real.