Interview with Saladin Writer and Co-director, Chi-Ren Choong

By AMRITA VALECHA | 2 March, 2011 - 13:23

Tell me something about yourself before Saladin?
I started off doing theatre in high school. From my first play I knew this was something I wanted to do. Then I went to college at Columbia University and majored in film. But even then, I was focusing more on theatre, acting, writing and directing plays. I always loved movies and TV, though. When I came back to Malaysia I started off working in production, because it's a good way to get a job and no ones going to hire you as a writer right off the bat. I probably made a name for myself as the worst production person in the country! I was bad at it. But from production, I managed to make enough contacts where I sort of moved into freelance writing. I wrote magazine articles, tourism documentaries, corporate videos-- anything to pay the bills. I even managed to get gigs writing television and movie scripts.

How you landed writing and directing Saladin?
At the time I was just a writer for hire. I would come in and write whatever I was paid to do. I was basically learning how to write for the screen at the time. Sometimes the scripts would get made. Sometimes they wouldn't. And sometimes you would wish it never got made. It's no one's fault. Stuff like this happens. And then one fine day I got a call from ED (Juhaidah Joemin) who was the original Executive Producer on the project before she went to JCC. She remembered me from some conference in Singapore and so she called an asked 'would you like to come and interview for a writing job?'. I really needed a job at the time so she probably barely got the words out before I said 'yes, yes, what is this job about?' And then she freaked me out a bit by saying “I'm afraid I can't tell you, you'll have to come to KL for the interview first.' Naturally, the cynical part of my brain went 'it's porn, they want me to write porn, my career is over, wait, do they even make porn in this country?' But then, at the interview them told me about Saladin.

Their brief was they wanted to do Saladin. And they wanted it to be an animated show for kids. They gave me a bunch of research material and told me to read it and come back to them with story ideas. Now I hate doing research but I sat down and did my best to read through some really dry history books. I found out there was a lot written about Saladin when he was a child and an incredible amount written about him when he was 26 and joined the army, but there was very little written about Saladin’s teenage years. That was what I was interested in. I wanted to explore Saladin's journey from boy to man to hero. And of course, since there wasn't much written about those years, I wouldn't have to do anymore research!

What is that element in very episode to keep the audience entertained?
Because I started in theater a lot of my training is sort of in character and dialogue and things like that. That’s my background and I always try to find something that I can relate to in the story since Saladin is not something that I would’ve written on my own. My genres of choice are more like science fiction, crime fiction, horror-- things like that. I never would have thought to write a historically-based 12th century period piece. So I had to find a way in, and it was basically trying to develop these characters into people I could relate to. One thing I'm really happy about was for the most part from pre-production to post-production, nobody was showing up just for a pay cheque. I mean people were passionate about this project, all the way down the line, and I think you can see that in the final product.

It’s been 5 years! How has it been so far?
Well I had less white hair before I started. 5 years, it’s been a long time. But I've worked with amazing people the whole way. A lot of development in the show happened during pre – production because I would create a character, and I wouldn’t be sure how to write the character and Sandra our character designer, would design the character and then we would have our storyboard artists come up with visual ways to tell the story, taking it to another level. Basically, improving the script by leaps and bounds. The set designs and all that too. All the people working on the show gave so much of themselves that it was a beautiful thing to be part of.

Tell us something about the co-director?
Nazih Hatem is absolutely brilliant! What’s great about him is that, he has this ability to not only understand a story but know how to tell that story visually. Not only visual story telling but also color, lighting and even really tiny things that you don’t even notice. Its very simple things-- like he talks about light in the eyes, reflecting in the irises and that creates-- sort of thinking and it creates a soul behind the character. Even tiny things like that he is very particular about. He doesn’t ask for much, just perfection. He is very good at what he does. We couldn’t do this without him. And let's not forget the animators at Young Jump. We ask them to do the impossible on a daily basis and they pull it off brilliantly. With what Naz and I ask them to do, I'm surprised they haven't tried to kill us yet. Then again, project's not over yet so there's still time. And just to quick mention for Imaginex studios. They do our sound and music. They do amazing work and really push the quality of our episodes over the top.

Did you have a background in animation also?
None whatsoever. Not that I told anyone that till I got the job. That's why learning to tell a story visually was the biggest challenge for me. I think what helped was that Steve Bristow, one of our directors, was on board from the beginning, from the early part of the production. He really taught me how to keep the story moving. Coming from theater I thought six pages of people standing around and talking was how you were supposed to write. Not so in animation. He also helped me flesh out the characters. In animation, your characters come together in pieces. First you write the script. Then the characters get designed. Then their movements get storyboarded. Then you record with the voice actors. Then you record with the motion capture actors. And then you have to put the facial expressions on top of the motion capture actors. To complete one episode, that process can take 6 months – from when you record the voices to when you're seeing facial expressions, so you never quite get a complete character until way down the line, so it is a real challenge. I think this is where being a writer kind of helped me because I wrote the scripts so I knew where the story and characters were going.

So do you think motion capture made the job easier for you?
I think there are pros and cons to Mo-cap. I think the pros of Mo-cap are that you can see what would take you forever in a whole-- what 1000 people do with key frames you can do that in one shot with good actors and we are lucky we have very good Mo-cap actors to work with. The Mo-cap actors have really embodied their characters, so you can tell what character they are playing, simply by the way they are moving and that’s great because you feel the character almost come to life when you are seeing the Mo-Cap.

The con of that is that, let’s say you put everything together, and you realize that this scene needs to be longer. If you don’t have the data for it, it is very difficult to extend that scene. You have to re – shoot or you have to key frame it or you have to choose a different angle, so you don’t quite have the freedom you have with key frame. With key frame, if you need it longer, they just make it longer, if they need it shorter, they just make it shorter. With Mo-cap you are pretty much stuck with the data that you have and because we are doing television, its not that we have buckets of time to go back and fix it. Sometimes perfection is great, creativity is great, but you’ve got that deadline and you have to finish this episode by this date otherwise the next one’s not going to get done.

What were the major challenges when it came to scripting each episode? Also considering it is for Middle Eastern market?
You have to respect the Middle Eastern market, because it is a huge market for the show, also the cultural sensitivity to certain things, you have to kind of respect that. You can’t ignore that but we were also trying to sell the show to the western market. Basically you kind of have to tread carefully. And also Saladin is such a massive figure in the Middle East. You have to be mindful of that.  But at the same time you have to remember the main point of each story. Of course I'm a writer so I'm biased but I believe story is king. If it's good for the story then it's a good idea. I don’t mind as long as the changes are cosmetic changes. If it was something that would dramatically change the story, then I would be like, ‘I don’t know if we can do that, can we try to find something else and still retain what you're trying to say. ' For the most part though we were given creative freedom which is quite a rare thing.

What was JCC’s involvement? Did they review each and every episode after you wrote it and than it went for production?
The entire first season was written before JCC came on board. So what changed was a lot of design stuff. The architecture and the costumes tend to be quite accurate to the period. There were certain scripts that were completely inappropriate and could not be shown in the Middle East. So, I think there were significant rewrites for few episodes. Two episodes were thrown out altogether, if I remember correctly.

Talking about the each episode, how much time did it take?
It depends. I wasn’t the only writer. There’s another writer called Aniza Azizuddin who wrote two episodes in season one. And I wrote the remaining 24 and Steve would go through the really depends. Some episodes just poured out. Others were like pulling teeth.

Which is your favorite episode?
In season one; my favorite is the sixth episode called ‘The Shadow of Death’. Shadow is my favourite character. I don't want to give anything away, but that episode in particular came out really well. And the final two episodes of season 1 turned out really well. I think they are a fitting finale to the season. One of my Mo-cap actresses actually said that her 16 year old sister watches the show when it broadcast on Saturday and than wakes up early in the morning again on Sunday to watch the repeat. And her father also watches the show. According to her, watching Saladin is like family time and I love that! That was always the goal. To create something anyone could watch and get something out of, irregardless of age.

Your experience working with Saladin and did you face the challenges
Everyday was a challenge! That’s the thing about the job. Again you know I was the writer to start with than I slowly got bumped up higher and higher until I became a co- director. I had never directed animation before so everyday was a challenge. But I enjoy the problem solving aspects of the job. And I have a great team doing all the real work and making me look good. So the main challenge is trying to take all the credit for myself. I'm kidding. Maybe.

Did you have the so called ‘writer’s blocks’?
I don’t believe that writer’s block exists! I think when you have writers block it’s your brains’ way of telling you that your scripts not working. What I tend to do is I write an episode and if I get to page ten and find myself struggling to write, I just chuck the whole thing and start from zero. The best scripts I find are written in a very short period of time. They just pour out of you.

What is the advice that you would like to give to upcoming writers?
Two things for the upcoming writers: Learn to direct because in a way directing is the only way you can protect your story and the great thing about directing is that it teaches you to be a better writer. I became a better writer working as a director. Once you see how your script translates to screen, the visual picture in your mind when you are writing becomes a lot clearer. And again it’s a sort of the more information you have about anything it just makes you better at what you do. And also listen to other people. It’s nice that I get the credit as co-director but there is an army of people working on the show.

Another thing that I would like to tell writers is to study  story structure. People have ideas for story; they can create characters, they write pretty good dialogue but  structure is something I see a lot of writers struggling with. You have to learn the basics of storytelling. You have to learn how to tell that story within the time you have. Every scene, every line has to either move the story forward or develop your characters. It’s like music where you have to learn the basic scales before you can improvise. In the second season of Saladin you see a lot more playing with structure, playing with time because I think we got more comfortable with our storytelling skills.

Tell me about season 2. What’s different?
Season 2 is going to be better than season one in everyway. The acting is better, I feel my writing is better, I feel the animation looks better. All the lessons that we learned during season one, we have applied to season 2. I think we have got a better and stronger story for season 2. And also, season 2 has a giant chicken. You can't go wrong with a giant chicken.