NLB Our Story: Keeping It Alive

Client: National Library Singapore / National Archives
Project Title: Our Story: Keeping It Alive
Director: Ong Zheng Kai
DOP: Joel Heng

When Director Zhengkai first approached me to collaborate on the project, he was inspired by “The-Upside-Down-World”, prompting discussions about the possibility of creating a set of infinite blackness, unique-unto-itself and unlike anything we had done before. We went through several treatments, and I proposed 3 different ideas, with 3 distinct decks – finally picking the one that seemed the most practical, yet awe-inspiring.

The idea was to create a space that combined both analogue technology (such as the bulky recording devices and printing machines used in the 60s), as well as state-of-the-art technology used and owned by well-funded institutions.

We needed an expansive physical space. A darkroom, an archival storage, a digital playback room, a media storage room, an intimate interview room for collecting oral histories – all within a single parameter. As production designer, I had to create a space that was versatile for cinematography, actor’s blocking, and lighting considerations. The idea was to employ a series of perspex sheets (each 25mm thick, weighing almost 200kg per piece) to create segregations between the space(s), while at the same time not having to conform and bind ourselves to the logic of framing furnitures within “four walls”.

The use of clear perspex allowed our cinematographer to find a frame by either shooting through the perspex, moving around it, or even employing it as foreground material to create visual texture (sometimes even split imagery from reflection) for his lens shooting, thereby further accentuating the representation of a fantastical, yet identifiable world.

The set was a result of coordination between the truss riggers, perspex load engineering positioning, lighting technicians, as well as the cinematographer’s preference on practical lighting, in order to achieve the director’s creative intent. As set designer, I had to ensure that my designs worked according to plan. I meticulously detailed planar drawings, as well as 3d perspective drawings, and also quick model building in order to align all our creative and technical departments.

Each piece of machinery and equipment that was brought to the set, was authentic to its function as well as scale (thereby its industrial weight). The art department attached castor wheels to all bulky items so as to facilitate shifting around the set, when the need arose. The set was constantly transformed with the shifting of machines, media racks and furniture within the space. The director, cinematographer and myself had pre-production meetings to decide how to frame each scene, with the elements that my art department had put in place.

As we were shooting the current scene, my second team would be involved in setting up for the next scene, to facilitate the running of our shoot schedule, which all- in-all lasted 3 days for principal photography in the studio.

We wanted to shoot an old Chinese junk boat against a green screen backdrop. After doing some research regarding the authenticity and accuracy of the boat, I designed a segment resembling the hull of the boat and had it built for the shot. The structure had to sway like a boat would against the tidal waves. As such it was constructed upon wooden legs that were of different lengths, so that the person sitting on top could use his legs to mimic the motion of gentle waves by raising and lowering his lower leg simultaneously. For good measure, we also built 2 handles on the sides so that there could be 2 people wrangling the front of the boat should the actor start to get tired after a few takes.

As our clients were the National Archives and National Library, we had to represent actual artifacts and equipment while not getting too carried away with the “surreal elements”. We conceived fusing lo-fi elements with a hi-tech aesthetic. This resulted in the idea of our set being enshrouded within a sea of infinite blackness.

Skills: Art Direction, Props Fabrication, Set Build, Set Design, Set Dress, Standby