A “gorgeous, powerful film.”
‒ Jon J Muth, comic book artist (Sandman), children’s book author and illustrator,
and winner of the Caldecott Honor Book award and Society of Illustrators’ Gold Medal
BAM is a story of rage. In a dense inner city haunted by primordial gods, an unassuming young boxer struggles to understand the disturbing consequences of his explosive temper—both inside and outside the ring. While many of Howie Shia’s films (Flutter, Ice Ages) juxtapose mythological archetypes with modern urbanity, BAM takes a distinctly darker turn: the young boxer’s battles are as heroic as they are tortured, as eternal as they are alienating. Is the violence inside of him a conditioned reaction, an innate reflex, or a divine right?
BAM combines a biting urban soundtrack with Shia’s signature hand-drawn, comic book style, mashing up cacophonous drums and grinding electronics with soft brushwork and swift action. Modernity and civility pound against our protagonist’s most primal instincts, revealing a brutal yet poetic portrait of a classical hero floundering in a contemporary world.
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BAM is a story of rage. In a dense inner city haunted by primordial gods, an unassuming young boxer struggles to understand the disturbing consequences of his explosive temper. A dark, urban soundtrack and gritty, hand-drawn animation paint a brutal portrait of a classical hero floundering in a contemporary world.
First of all, I’d like to talk about this film in the context of your other work. It seems there is a preoccupation with the urban environment and population density in a few of your films (Flutter, Ice Age). And BAM opens with that speeding subway train and the people on the platform… Why are you so interested in this type of setting in particular?
I think much of my interest in urban settings is actually a symptom of my love for classical mythologies. I respond really strongly to the primordial poetics and rituals of old myths and I like digging through the civility and technology and politics of modern cities to see if you can still find traces of those ancient stories in the scaffolding. Is there a relationship between the primordial melodrama of, say, on the one hand, Atlas struggling beneath the weight of heaven and, on the other, the exquisite mundaneness of Prufrock measuring out his life with coffee spoons?
On any given day on the subway, you can find yourself sandwiched between, on the one side, a twitchy twenty-something telemarketer who lives entirely for Instagram, and on the other side, a hard-ass immigrant grandmother whose entire day is spent appeasing superstitions from the old country. And both of them have the newest iPhone. I like exploring the space in between those two people.
I’d like to ask about the central theme of the film: the emotion of anger and how quickly it seems to sometimes come upon us. In general, it’s rare in our culture for men to talk about emotions and how they experience them. Yes, anger is a socially “acceptable” emotion for men to have, but still… it’s such a rare thing to see a frank discussion about the heat of emotions in a hyper-masculine culture. What inspired you to address these topics?
Regardless of gender, I think the film is as much about the function of rage in our lives and communities as it is about its origins. It’s about what happens when you subject classical archetypes to modern judgements. My grandfather was severe and imposing—the chief of the Taipei Police Force, and later a commissioner for all of Taiwan; he was also a revered calligrapher and poet. Today, that combination of thoughtfulness and physical power seems unlikely, even contradictory, but at that time, in that place, I don’t think it was. Certainly, at least in the arts, classical heroes are defined as persons possessing great intellectual and artistic wit as well as an incredible capacity for righteous violence. Odysseus, Beowulf, Zatoichi, Batman—all brilliant and sensitive; all bruisers. I think BAM comes largely out of a question about who my grandfather would be if he was growing up today. Would he have to choose between his physicality and his intellect, and what do you do with all of that power if you have no wars to fight and no dragons to slay?
You’re known for your stark and fast-paced graphic illustration style, which I think suits the themes in this film very well (rising emotions, violence). How did you develop this aesthetic style? What influences would you cite as central to your work, visually, and what kind of visual arts were you exposed to when you were younger?
I don’t know how successful I am at it but I try to give each project a somewhat different look. With BAM, I wanted to try to take some of the things I had been experimenting with in my illustration work—a different approach to contour and texture, and a more precise line—and apply them to animation. I also wanted to explore being deliberately less dynamic in my composition—to treat the screen more like a theatre stage and see if I could tell a dramatic story through performance and pacing and blocking and avoid the use of the extreme foreshortening and crazy angles that seem so popular right now.
As for influences growing up, I have a mixed bag. Comics from all over—equal parts superhero and D&Q [Drawn & Quarterly] and BD [bandes dessinées] and manga—but, also, I’ve always been interested in gallery work. Saskatoon, where I grew up, had a great gallery called the Mendel that exposed the city to a really eclectic mix of picture-making.
There are so few elements in BAM that appear in colour… particularly the yellow apple in the library scene. Why is this? What does black-and-white offer that colour does not? And what effect does the sporadic inclusion of colourful elements have?
BAM is based very loosely on the life of Heracles, so I included a few references to his mythology, some in colour, some not: the Golden Apple, the “Lion’s Mane” from the bully in the subway, the “Hydra” of referees and trainers in the boxing ring, etc. As for the generally monochromatic look of my films, I don’t really have an answer to that specifically. Probably it’s just where I’m most comfortable. My palette branches out a little more in my illustration work, but in general my basic vocabulary is black, white and a half-tone. I think there’s a sort of theatre to it that I like, having to create complete worlds and a full emotional range with very limited props.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of collaborating with your brothers, Tim and Leo, on the soundtrack to the film? Do you always get along with your brothers or are there tensions when you work together? What’s it like to be part of such an artistic family?
My brothers and I have made art and music together all our lives, so it’s hard to clearly delineate where hanging out ends and work begins. More often than not, our meetings are a 15-minute conversation squeezed in after dinner and before wrestling matches with our nieces (we destroy those chicks every time). When I was living in Brooklyn and Leo was in Taipei, we did most of our stuff over e-mail and Google Hangouts—usually wearing funny hats.
For BAM, the brief from [NFB executive producer] Michael Fukushima was specifically to do a film that was heavily influenced by the music and sound. I did an initial animatic and Tim and Leo put a rough score to it that was beautiful and cool, but in the end, with some really helpful notes from our producer, Maral Mohammadian, we decided that what we really wanted to make was something less cool and more bold—a mini-opera—but also using contemporary textures and grooves that we were listening to at the time. I had just finished designing the packaging for Donny McCaslin’s CD Fast Future and was really into that record’s cross of electronica and jazz, as well as the epic arc of the tunes (despite being quite short). At the same time, I’d recently discovered George Benjamin’s new opera, Written on Skin, and the Takács Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s Late Quartets and asked Tim to look at how the orchestration could be at once both lush and dissonant, romantic and harsh. Tim, meanwhile, had been looking at both Ennio Morricone’s scores and, hilariously, The Benny Hill Show, to explore different ways to balance music and sound design. Leo had gone back to studying the textures on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and was also freaking out over the new D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar albums. I guess in the end we threw all of those ideas together and came up with what we came up with.
I want to point out that working with the NFB sound crew (sound recorder Geoffrey Mitchell, mixer Jean Paul Vialard, and foley artist Karla Baumgardner) was also an incredibly important part of elevating the work that Tim and Leo did and giving the film a real sonic identity.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects in the works, and can you give us an idea of what kinds of things you’re interested in and thinking about these days? Even if you’re not developing a specific project, what’s been on your mind?
I have a bunch of things I’m working on: I’m fleshing out some stories I have that I want to do as a graphic novel—including a sequel of sorts to BAM. Leo, Tim and I have been talking about doing an animated online series in Taiwan—something about the hip-hop community there—but with a magic realist twist. I’m also interested in doing some animation for non-cinematic venues: theatre, gallery installations, music venues. Tim’s band, The Worst Pop Band Ever, has a new record coming out about the 2003 blackout and we are thinking of turning that into some kind of interactive stage show. I also feel ready, finally, to do something about Saskatoon or some place like it: a small city with close ties to rural life but also ambitions for a more urban identity. Of course, my main priority right now is to help my wife raise our new daughter. I’m getting her started on some algebra flash cards as soon as this interview is over.
Written, Directed and Animated by
Music & Sound Design
TIM SHIA & LEO SHIA
© 2015 SOCAN
TIM SHIA: Keys, Programming, Drums
LEO SHIA: Turntables
TIM SHIA & LEO SHIA
ROSALINA DI SARIO
JAVIER LOVERA & GASTON SOUCY @ STUDIO 223a
Special Thanks to GEORGE & ELEANOR SHIA
Dedicated with feelings to JA & HMXYS
In Memory of DON SALUBAYBA
the NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
© 2015 National Film Board of Canada