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Behind The Scenes Of Star Wars-inspired Short Film SubWars

Q&A with director SeanSoong and sound designer Ayo_Chen on the absurd drama’s inspiration and what the idea of “direct media” might mean for the future.

Feeling a bit under pressure lately while riding on the subway, or a little creeped out when an old, white-bearded man stands next to you? This may be a side effect of watching SubWars—a graphic, five-minute animation that we blogged about a few weeks ago. The film, which took nine months to make, is said to pay tribute to Star Wars and received over 100,000 views in a single day on Vimeo—a huge win for Chinese animation. We spoke to SubWars’ director Song Shang (aka SeanSoong) and sound designer Ayo_Chen (aka Xi) about working on the viral film.


The Creators Project: Can you tell us about yourself?
SeanSoong: My name is Song Shang. My online name is SeanSoong. I am senior student at the Communication University of China. I love to draw and am always on my Deviant Art website. I am the director of ANISAND and SubWars.

What was your original intention for making this animation? Did it really came from watching people interacting on the subway?
Haha, I’m shameless to say that the film was an homework assignment! Haha, just kidding. I have a notebook from my junior year where I wrote down: “in the subway, the distance and space between people are destroyed which leads to some unimaginable event…,” and since I am a huge fan of Star Wars, I wanted to make something to pay tribute to it. My professor, Xue Yanping, and I discussed this extensively. Professor Xue gave very valuable advise especially on the performance side. After a lot of work, the idea became an absurd subway drama.

How long did it take to finish SubWars? It seems like it has been a while since you made your first film ANISAND.
Nine months. We now make fun of how long it took to make. So many ridiculous events happened over nine months. All kinds of delays and accidents such as the hard drive being destroyed. We came out from those nine months with a lot of bruises and scars. If we were to remake the film, it would only take six months.

The animation is filled with exciting, fast-paced action scenes. What was the production process like?
I love good rhythm—the beat of action, the beat in which scenes change, any smooth beat. We made some mistakes during pre-production, so for the story version we relied heavily on our feelings. Here I want to particularly thank Li Xia, the director of Light House and Red Scarf Pioneer. He helped me with editing, so I’m pretty confident in how the single-frame tempo was controlled.


It seems that you’re into creating iconic, classic figures. Will you continue to do this?
There is a ritual before becoming a original, and that is to “Ji” (to worship, to make offerings to) everything that has made a strong impression on you. This makes sense both psychologically and from the creative process. I can only say I may continue this if I remain a director, but of course not all at once like in SubWars.

Besides using different interpretations of iconic figures, have you thought about creating your own characters?
Of course! They’re just not in this film. I am in the process of making my next short film, you will see my own characters then. But we’re still in the preliminary stages. Give me some time and they will appear.

Congratulations on your high views on Vimeo. Will the internet be the primary channel to show your work?
It was quite unbelievable when the Vimeo page had over 100,000 views in one day. I think internet broadcasting is the best way, especially with the advance of mobile devices and faster internet speed. I have every good reason to choose it.

Speaking of technology, if the sky was the limit, what do you hope to see in future technology?
A form of art that acts directly on our neurological system! Perhaps it would be a drug or an electronic terminal, some ultimate “direct media” so that you don’t have to wear headphones, go to the theater, or own a 40 inch flat screen TV. You just need to take a drug or download a terminal in your receptive neurons. I guess it could take the form of a "dream"—an artificial dream.


Xi, now it’s your turn. Tell us about yourself.
Ayo_Chen: Currently, my main job is designing sound for multimedia projects. For example, sound effects for software, games, interactive media, and movie soundtracks. It sounds kind of distant from real life, but my job actually extends to different corners of everyday life. Especially for sound that is broadcasted in public channels and country-wide online sites, like the notification beep that comes up on Sina Weibo [a popular Chinese microblogging site]. Besides designing, we have to make adjustments according to feedback from different operating systems and hardware models. As “Xi” my other alias is acting as a long-time advocate for independent artists in Chinese Electronic Music. Most people know me through my first electronic music album. You can check out my website to learn more about my music.

Ah, so Chinese people have already know you for a long time through Weibo’s UI customer notification sound! How did you and SeanSoong began to collaborate?
I met SeanSoong through a friend, Wang Tianfang, who is a member of the website AnimeTaste. SeanSoong was making a stop-motion film with charcoal powder that didn’t have a soundtrack. I thought the film was cool so I joined. We enjoyed working with each other and we communicate really well so the second time was easy. In fact, we agreed to work on SubWars together last year.

How was it working long-distantly?
It might be easier to mess up on other projects over long distance, but for sound it’s not a big problem. It’s relatively fast and intuitive for sound files to transfer back and forth. However, having mutual understanding and trust is more important in long distance collaboration. We built a deep relationship that went from being in a deadlock, to understanding each other, to reaching a compromise.

How did you come up with the sound concept for the subway story? How was it realized?
My first impression of the film was its strong visual impact. Regardless of the underlying meaning it is trying to reflect on, I wanted to reveal the most intuitive raw intensity of the film. The sound effects and music had to highlight the sense of excitement and energy, so I picked heavy beat electric music for the basic background. Since the film pays tribute to Star Wars, I also incorporated piano variations of “The Imperial March” in the last section. For audio processing, I used a lot of Doppler effects to render the dynamic stereo sound. To create a realistic atmosphere, I recorded the sound in a Xi’an subway station. Many online viewers noticed the station conductors announcement voice and commented on it. That was surprising.

Besides collaborating with SeanSoong, are you involved on any other movie soundtrack projects? What’s the difference between making film scores and composing your own personal creative work?
I work with other university animation teams as well as commercial advertising and feature columns for movie projects. I haven’t done an original soundtrack for a feature film yet, but I hope to have the opportunity in the future. In general, I can do whatever I want in my personal work, but with film soundtracks I need to adhere to the movie script. When the film and the music goes against each other, then the problem lies in the difference I’ve mentioned above.

What personal projects are you currently working on?
I’m making my second album, but I need more time to accumulate experience. I hope I can release it soon.

Special thanks to SeanSoong and Xi for providing behind-the-scene pictures.