As a little girl in Vietnam, Thao’s mother would rescue ants from bowls of sugar water. The tiny creatures would later return the favour, leading her desperate family through darkness—and pointing the way to safety.
With Boat People, illustrator and author Thao Lam undertakes a creative rescue mission of her own, joining forces with animator Kjell Boersma to recount her family’s dramatic trajectory across the turbulent waters of history—they were among over 1.6 million refugees who fled the chaotic aftermath of the Vietnam War, venturing across the South China Sea in precarious open boats.
The filmmaker’s dazzling narrative flair counterbalances a very human story with a lesson in ant behaviour. Ants may not experience loss, Thao remarks in her minimalistic, measured narration, but the visuals tell a story of humans carrying the burden for a lifetime. The striking aesthetic of this animated documentary was created using a hybrid of traditional 2D animation, stop-motion multiplane animation, and 3D rendering to capture the unique look of Thao’s hand-printed paper textures and patterns.
A sharply etched personal story, exquisite in its specificity, Boat People resonates with universal themes, speaking across time and culture to anyone who’s ever fought to protect the people they love.
As a child in Vietnam, Thao’s mother often rescued ants from bowls of sugar water. Years later they would return the favour. Boat People is an animated documentary that uses a striking metaphor to trace one family’s flight across the turbulent waters of history.
Co-directed by Thao Lam and Kjell Boersma, the film employs a hybrid of traditional 2D animation, stop-motion multiplane, and 3D rendering to capture the unique aesthetic of Lam’s handmade paper textures and patterns.
It comes down to karma: as a little girl in Vietnam, Thao’s mother would rescue ants from bowls of sugar water. The tiny creatures would later return the favour, leading her desperate family through darkness—and pointing the way to safety.
In Boat People, illustrator and author Thao Lam undertakes a creative rescue mission of her own, joining forces with animator Kjell Boersma to recount her family’s dramatic trajectory across the turbulent waters of 20th-century history.
With dazzling originality and narrative flair, the filmmakers counterbalance a lesson in ant behaviour with a very human story. Ants may not experience loss, Thao remarks in her minimalistic narration, but the visuals tell a story of humans carrying the burden for a lifetime.
Her family were among over 1.6 million refugees who fled the chaotic aftermath of the Vietnam War, crossing the South China Sea in open boats. Thousands would lose their lives along the way, while many others made the heartbreaking decision to stay behind, never to see their loved ones again.
With elegant visual economy and a striking metaphor, the filmmakers craft an unusual account of rupture and resilience. The unique aesthetic of the film was created using a hybrid of traditional 2D animation, stop-motion multiplane animation and 3D digital rendering—in an attempt to stay true to the look of Thao’s art style. Patterned papers and handmade paper textures created with black ink hand-printed on paper are combined to produce the multi-layered collages.
A vast Malaysian refugee camp, depicted in stylized animation, evokes one of nature’s industrious subterranean communities, while a small column of ants, marching tirelessly towards its unknown destiny, becomes a poignant expression of perseverance and survival.
A sharply etched personal story, exquisite in its specificity, Boat People speaks across time and culture to anyone who’s ever fought to protect their family or community.
A production of the National Film Board of Canada, Boat People is co-directed by Thao Lam and Kjell Boersma, produced by Justine Pimlott and Jelena Popović, and executive produced by Anita Lee.
What was the genesis of this project?
Thao: My mother has told this story many times, so I’ve been hearing it all my life. And although I write children’s books, I envisioned this particular story as a film. There are so many elements in the narrative that suggest motion—boats, waves, storms and so on. The story is all about movement, how people and other creatures migrate, so it seemed well suited to film.
Your title refers to specific history. A deliberate choice?
Thao: Boat People was just a working title at first, but it stuck. On a basic level, it does describe what my family experienced. And we don’t refer directly to history in the film—we talk about my family and ants—so the title brings us back to that moment, the Vietnam War and the exodus of refugees. ‘Boat people’ was a common term for Vietnamese refugees, for people like my family. I got used to hearing it, and for better or worse, it’s become part of my own identity.
Kjell: There’s also an interesting connection with the theme of ants. We don’t perceive ants as individuals, they’re just a mass, and the term ‘boat people’ tends to obliterate people’s individuality. But we’re telling Thao’s personal story with this film, embedding something personal in history, and I think the title plays on that idea, singling out a specific story from the anonymity of history.
Why this particular metaphor?
Thao: Ants have always been part of the story my mother tells. She saved the ants—and they saved her in return. I’ve always liked that idea of karma. We did a tonne of research, on both the Vietnam War and ant behaviour, and we began seeing all kinds of connections, how ants have an instinct not simply to survive but also to protect each other. The script went through many stages, but I think we’ve found a nice balance between the two stories.
Kjell: It was that ant metaphor that hooked me when Thao made her pitch. I immediately saw the potential for fascinating interplay between the two themes, human migration and ant behaviour. There were lots of comparisons we could have made, but in the end, it was about telling a good story. We focussed on the family narrative, putting those visuals in place and letting them suggest ways to weave in the ant narrative.
How did your collaboration work?
Thao: We came to the project with different strengths. I’d never made a film before and it required a lot of patience on Kjell’s part. He had made the trailer for my first book, Skunk on a String, so he was the first animator I approached with the idea. And I’m so grateful he took the project on. We worked on the script together. I’d provide details about my family history, and he’d bring it to another level, pushing until we hit the right note. The visuals are based on the illustration style of my books—where I work with paper and collage—and we stuck to that look. Kjell’s job was to figure out how to recreate that handcrafted aesthetic with animation. We ended up working with digital tools. Kjell worked with other members of the team on those technical aspects while I supplied the style guides.
Kjell: While I oversaw the actual animation, every shot was guided by Thao’s style. She would create a blueprint of the composition, design the characters and props, and supply the paper textures, which are created by pressing ink washes onto watercolour paper. I love the handcrafted quality of the artwork in her books, and it was crucial to me to recreate that through the animation process. This added a significant layer of complexity, but part of my thinking was that so many people who underwent the same journey as Thao’s family did not survive. Her artwork could have very easily never existed. So it was important to me to be authentic to her style and process.
So film as an act of rescue?
Kjell: That sounds a little grandiose, so I will just say that it was important to me to get this particular story right. It was a long journey, and there aren’t many places that would have given us the resources to experiment so much in the pursuit of our animation process. I’m so grateful that the NFB was willing to come along for the ride. We could not have made this film without them.
What animation techniques did you use?
Kjell: Initially we tried to recreate Thao’s artwork through stop-motion. Thao’s artwork doesn’t use jointed puppets, so to get the right poses we’d need to treat every frame of character animation as an individual construction, swapping it out many times per second. We developed an efficient laser-cutter process that allowed us to essentially render traditional animation into paper components, which were then assembled into frames.
But the process was very laborious and the pre-planning became a hindrance to creativity. After seeing our animation tests, Eloi Champagne and our producers, Jelena Popović and Justine Pimlott, suggested we try to recreate the same result digitally. I was reluctant to abandon the purity of the physical process, but in the end, constructing it as a 3D scene allowed us to get closer to Thao’s artwork. There’s a lot of delicate layering of the paper, layers interwoven into each other, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that with the laser-cutting process. Our final process also allowed us to go back into scenes months later, making alterations as the entire film came together. This meant we could really focus on the story.
Thao, how did your experience with books translate to film?
Thao: My books have more images than text, so I initially expected that making a film would be similar. But it’s not! There are so many more possibilities with film. The idea of visual perspective was new. As an author who works mostly with paper, I’ve tended to do flat composition. I wasn’t used to thinking about perspective, but when making a film, you’re working with camera angles that open up completely new ways of looking. So that was quite the learning experience.
Working with music and sound was also new. I hadn’t realized how much music can contribute to telling a story, adding another layer. The process of writing and rewriting the script was also very useful. The whole experience has sharpened my storytelling skills. Everything I learned while making this film, I’ll keep it in mind now when writing a book. And when working on a book, I’ll always be thinking, how could I recreate this as a film?
What about sound? What it always clear that Thao would narrate?
Thao: I was the only one who didn’t get that! All along, everybody thought that I should narrate, and obviously it’s my personal story, but I always saw myself as a stand-in until we found the perfect person. The running joke was that I wanted George Clooney to do it. I’m still on pins and needles about it, to be honest. I’ve never been comfortable being in the spotlight but I’m getting lots of great coaching.
Kjell: It was always clear to me that Thao should do the voiceover, but the rest of the soundtrack has been a journey in itself. It took a while, but we finally found a sound and tone that we both like, sound that complements the minimalism and texture of the visuals. We wanted something unconventional, and we didn’t want to hit the emotional beats in an obvious way. Throughout the film there are two stories—the ants and the humans—and they interact with each other, adding layers of meaning, and we wanted the sound and the music to add another layer of meaning on top of that. It’s a delicate line to walk, adding understanding to the story without telling people how to feel.
Tell us about your team.
Kjell: The whole process is quite complicated, and every team member plays a vital part. We start with traditional hand-drawn animation, which is left quite rough but delivers everything we need in terms of character acting—timing and emotion. Our traditional animators were Miranda Quesnel and Simon Cottee, both exceptionally talented at the sort of restrained, emotionally complex character acting that we needed.
Once the roughs are complete, another animator, Adam Brown, would go over them in Harmony, using complex digital rigs that contain several layers or versions of the character. It all needs special attention. He’s essentially animating the character in three dimensions—depth, texture and displacement. So, for every frame, we had at least three different outputs coming out of Harmony.
These passes are then mixed together in Cinema 4D shaders, adding depth and physicality. Then we add lighting and additional effects, and do the final render. Our technical director, Martin Sulzer, was responsible for enabling all this, so he’s been absolutely integral. It’s easy to describe a process that moves between many different pieces of software but altogether something else to actually build a pipeline and code all the tools that allow these platforms to speak to each other, and to do it in a way that enables animators to create freely, first and foremost.
Also important was our animation assistant, Samantha Lucy. Our process involves a lot of very specialized skill sets, so we needed someone versatile enough to work on our creative assets at every stage of the process. Our editor, Jordan Kawai, was essential as a fresh set of eyes, and he changed the film for the better in many ways. And, of course, our producers Justine and Jelena—they pushed us continuously (and sometimes mercilessly) to make the film better and to strip away everything that was not essential.
What audiences do you hope to reach? What would you hope to communicate?
Thao: When I published The Paper Boat, which tells this story in a different format, I got lots of feedback, mostly from refugees, many of them Vietnamese Canadians or Vietnamese Americans, telling me how closely it resembled their own stories. The book often gets tagged as a conversation starter on the subject. So I hope the film will speak to anyone who’s had similar experiences, but it’s also for everybody else. You hear of countries refusing to take in refugees, turning them away. Even during the Vietnam War, some boats were towed out to sea and refused permission to dock. So I want audiences to understand that people don’t choose to be refugees. They have no other option. So I hope this film can educate and tell a human story at the same time.
Kjell: Sadly, this continues to be a timely story. When we started, we were thinking about the Syrian refugee crisis, and now there’s the war in Ukraine… so I think the film will continue to resonate. As Thao says, it can be a conversation starter about a complicated and difficult subject. When I was a kid, obsessed with animation, I was often drawn to subjects we’d probably consider too dark for children. But animation is not just entertainment. It has the power to address complex and important themes.
Design & Layouts
Cornelia (Li Shi Tong)
Animation Supervisor / Compositor
Animation Assistant / Layout Assistant
Samantha Lucy Haslam
Pierre Yves Drapeau
Senior Production Coordinator
Consulting Technical Director
Studio Operations Manager
Shaghayegh Haghdoust Yazdi
Jean Paul Vialard
Hong Duong & Tai Lam Maddie
Science Discovery Zone, Toronto Metropolitan University
© 2023 National Film Board of Canada