Taking Cinderella back to her roots

David Kaplan talks about his rotoscope-animation of the fairytale, based on a Chinese version of the story, at the Sundance 2007 premiere of the film.

by Tony Sullivan

Director David Kaplan

Director David Kaplan

David Kaplan introduction: Year Of The Fish is an adaptation of Cinderella but this is based on an old Chinese version of the story that was recorded in the ninth century - so about 800 years before the better known European version of the story by Charles Perrault.

We filmed the whole thing in Chinatown in New York, we filmed on live action video and then we did a post-production process wherein we painted over the video and sort of created a painted image of the film – this is called rotoscoping, a process that was invented in 1914 by Max Fleischer and was used by Disney in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and Ralph Bakshi and, obviously, by Richard Linklater in A Scanner Darkly.

Our effect is a little bit different from those films, we used a fairly radical approach that allowed us to work with very few people – about three animators, and we did the whole film in about seven months. If you know anything about animation that's pretty quick. That said, there are a couple of rough patches we'll probably smooth out after the festival so if you're watching this film and you say to yourself, "well, I just didn't like that one shot or those two shots" – it's probably something that will be addressed in the next few weeks. I just want to thank my cast and crew.

Question: Why the animation effect instead of live action?

Kaplan: There were three reasons for that. One was that we were shooting this on a very low budget, so the only choice we really had to shoot on was going to be video, and video just has a very harsh aesthetic to it, it's hyper-real, and I'm not crazy about the look of it, so this was a way to shoot on video, on the cheap and try to craft something aesthetically beautiful.

It was a kind of way to bridge reality and the magical elements of the story and not have it be too jarring when some of the magical things start happening. I think with a live action version it would have been just a little more difficult to combine the elements in this tale.

Rotoscoping helps create a bridge between reality and the magical elements of the story
If we'd had all the money in the world and could have shot on 35mm and built sets and what-not, well maybe, but the other advantage of doing it this way is that we were able to shoot with a very, very small crew, no lights, we could shoot all day, we created the night in the animation. Our crew was almost invisible in Chinatown, people were walking through the shots and it was fine, we were able to capture a side of Chinatown that's actually rarely seen on film just because of the technique we were using.

Everyone was New York except for Tsai Chin who you may recognize from her role in The Joy Luck Club, everybody else was local, I guess a pan-Asian cast, not everybody was Chinese, just a mix of extraordinarily talented actors that we were able to assemble.

Question: Have you ever considered making a horror movie?

Kaplan: Yeah I'd like to do a horror film for my next project

Question: Do you think Asian-American actors are often stereotyped or victimised in Hollywood films?

Kaplan: I don't see Ye Xian [An Nguyen's 'Cinderella' character] as a victim at all, I think she has this kind of incredible strength in a nasty world, where she maintains her self and her values and has this courage – she's not afraid to take a fish from a stranger. Even Mrs Su [the massage parlour Madam], especially at the end we see a side of her, we see the reasons why she is the way she is and why she holds these certain opinions about the world. Quite frankly I think her opinions are quite valid. What she says about love is a very valid statement about the way many relationships work out so.

Question: How did you arrive at the film's title?

Kaplan: The fish is from the ninth century Chinese story where the fairy godmother is replaced by this magical helper we see in other Cinderella stories. The Chinese version of the story is the oldest known version of Cinderella and the title refers to that character.

I guess fairytales have come under attack for having very passive female characters such as in some of the Disney adaptations. But what you find in some of these stories is that there is a lot of spunkiness and strength in these characters which is lost along the way in the adaptations by Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm, where they made them into moral tales for children or, in the case of Charles Perrault, he was writing for the court of Versailles. In the case of Disney, again, it's a very saccharine version of these stories. The original stories tend to be much more unruly and the characters tend to have a lot more verve to them it's usually much more interesting I find.

Question: Can you tell us something about the animation process?

We took a very kind of radical approach. I think it's very cutting edge approach to the animation. Normally rotoscoping deals with very flat colours and clean lines and what we did was more of a total frame approach to it, where as every frame would be a unique frame and it would give it more a kind of flickering, fluttering alive feeling and the colours would blend into each other for a more painterly effect - all of which would probably be considered a mistake in a typical approach to rotoscoping.

We decided early on that that was the effect that we wanted. We used a software called Studio Artist and that was a constant collaboration and communication with the designer of that software, John Dalton.

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