There's a bunch of independent films out there in metamorphosis: the ideas and talents are there, waiting to break free from busy studios and Kickstarter pages. These films that are fueled with masterful direction, creativity, innovation, mind-blowing visuals, soothing music, and an epic story that's worth bringing to life on screen. And many of them deserve more attention than some brainless MTV reality shows or artless Hollywood crap embraced by the masses.
The Monster of the Sky is one of those inspirational films that needs to emerge (What a fitting title for an artistic beast!). Award-winning film-maker Sam Koji Hale puts his brilliant touch to this steampunk moving masterpiece that reminds me of a China Miéville novel (And that's saying a lot!). And the most fascinating element about this project: the actors are twenty-inch beautifully-sculpted puppets that resemble the classic Japanese theater or Bunraku. Computer-generated effects of the film also make the experience feel more magical and realistic.
In 2006, director Sam met taiko performer Shoji Kameda at a live Japanese folktale Fox Lantern during Nisei Week, and they soon collaborated on a film called Yamasong, which was featured in more than thirty film festivals and won Best Animated Film and Best Fantasy Short at Dragon Con independent Film Festival in Atlanta, GA in 2010.
They have teamed up again, along with Grammy-winning composer, Christopher Tin (Stereo Alchemy), to create a larger film, a film that would dazzle with its artistic vision and romantic themes.
Interview with Director Sam Koji Hale
Fantascize.com: Your project "Monster of the Sky" looks brilliant. How did you come up with this artistic vision?
Koji Hale: It started in a very similar way to how I approached my first film “Yamasong” – sit with my eyes closed and listen to the music, let the rhythms and sounds conjure up imagery.Then listen a second and third time with pen and paper and start jotting down ideas.When I’m satisfied with that, then look at what I have and start finding a narrative thread that runs throughout.What struck me about “Monster of the Sky” was the sheer power of the lyrics – it was a song about obsession and a relentless pursuit.I imagined almost immediately a goddess flying in the eye of a storm, lightning flashing, rain falling, swirling thunderclouds, that sort of thing.Then, again from the lyrics, came the story of forbidden love set in this world of sky mansions, mountain carved with ancient kings, a ruined world – which I expanded into a Clockwork/Steampunk world mechanized but rusty and old – a world that didn’t quite work the way it was designed to anymore.Because of the sky mansions, I wondered what would be a fun, cool convention for people from that culture to visit the Steampunk world below? – and I thought of mechanical wings!!It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while with puppets anyway.And these winged strangers aren’t just casual visitors, but rulers or conquerors – here’s where I can work in the theme of imperialism and native cultures a bit.Then the image of Sky at the well where she meets the Winged Prince came to me – that became my starting point visually.So it all mixes together and becomes less of a puzzle and more a tapestry of ideas as I think and develop the story.
Fantascize.com: Tell us about the story of "Monster of the Sky", and how is it inspired by Lord Byron's poem "Manfred" ?
Koji Hale: “Monster” is the story of a young woman named Sky and her emotional journey from innocent youth to idealistic bride to betrayed and angry goddess.It’s the story of a person’s stages of maturity derailed along the way.And as her emotional world falls apart, it threatens to tear the ordered, balanced Clockwork world around her apart when she gains this cosmic power while still a flawed, human mind.She’s Rose Tyler getting the TARDIS power inside her in Doctor Who.The relationship to the epic poem “Manfred” is complicated – the Stereo Alchemy song lyrics are certainly inspired by lines of “Manfred”, particularly the lines uttered by spirits who torture Manfred as he contemplates death for some unspoken crime he’s committed. Manfred is a story of forbidden love, so I’ve built MOS as a forbidden love story too.And the spirits come in to play as spirits of Sky’s ancestors who bring her back to life and imbue her with otherworldly power, a departure from Manfred, but a springboard for me.Beyond that I’ve started reading more Byron and finding visual inspiration in other parts of “Manfred” as well as his other poems.
Fantascize.com: Using puppets to create your film is an amazing feat. How did you overcome the challenge of bringing these puppets to life in film?
Koji Hale: I like puppets because of the real-time quality of performance as well as the symbolic power of puppets.The challenge of this style, tabletop puppets, is that 3-4 puppeteers in green=screen suits perform and then we remove them digitally in post.Sometimes that’s simply keying out all the green and then dropping in the background.For more complicated shots, it may require rotoscoping, or cutting out the puppeteers frame by frame – which is painstaking.One thing I experimented with on “Yamasong” was adding eye blinks and iris dilation in post, which turned out great, so this time I’m going to take it a step further and add more facial animation, especially for close-ups, using my human voice performers faces as motion-capture reference – the poor man’s Gollum/Andy Serkis/Avatar approach!
Fantascize.com: The artistic style in this project is marvelous. What other sci-fi films or artworks have influenced the artistic style of "Monster of the Sky"?
Koji Hale: My influences are wide and varied.There’s “Dark Crystal”, as mentioned before – I love so much of those Henson Creature Shop projects – “Labyrinth” and “Storyteller” too!And comic books – that was one of my few connections to pop culture growing up – Marvel and DC comics.I picked the Jack Kirby look because this story deals with a goddess and a culture in sky – made me think of DC’s “New Gods” or classic Kirby “Thor” comics. And besides, this material is very mythic – I’m creating modern myths here!I’m also inspired by the Taiwanese film “Legend of the Sacred Stone”, which has martial arts rod puppets!Japanese art definitely permeates my work too – I like Meiji Era woodblock prints because it’s a visual bridge between classic woodblock prints and modern Japanese manga.Check out Yoshitoshi Tsukioka to get a feel of that time period –social and political upheaval captured in illustrations!And another inspiration is the Japanese dollmaker Jusaburo Tsujimura – his work is exquisite! I’m also a fan of Art Nouveau, especially Czech artist Alfonse Mucha – great designs and beautiful women.
Artwork from "Monster of the Sky"
Koji Hale: Chris and Shoji, aka Stereo Alchemy, already created the music before I came along.It was one of ten songs on their “God of Love” album, which takes 19th-century Romantic poetry and puts it to a modern electronica sound.I know they’ve told me it was the toughest song to finish, but turned out to be one of the strongest, I think.I do expect to go back in with them and fill out the wraparound intro and outro, which will be exciting!This new part of the story takes place in space where a mummified corpse is discovered and plugged in to a machine to “read” its memories and find out how it wound up out there in the first place – so the story starts with a big mystery!
Check out Monster of the Sky's Kickstarter page - Click here