By Ada Tseng for CAAM
This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Xfinity.
This year’s total of six Oscar nominees of Asian descent is about average, says actor and filmmaker Chris Tashima, an 1998 Oscar winner for his film “Visas and Virtue” who has been paying close attention to the progress of the community since he started a Wikipedia article to keep track of all the Asian Academy Award nominees about ten years ago. That was before the issue of diversity was on anyone’s radar, “other than those of us [people of color] who were always kicking and screaming about it,” Tashima jokes.
As we anticipate the 2018 Oscar ceremony, we celebrate. We speak to four out of the six Asian American or Asian nominees about the work that earned them Oscar nominations this year: Kazuhiro Tsuji, Ru Kuwahata, Ramsey Naito, and Ren Klyce.
Kazuhiro Tsuji: Best Makeup, “Darkest Hour“
Kazuhiro Tsuji is a makeup/special effects artist, nominated for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” He’s been nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for “Norbit” and 2007 for “Click.” He also created the silicone model of Brad Pitt’s head for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” helped turn Jim Carrey into The Grinch for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas;” and did special effects makeup for “Planet of the Apes” before leaving the film industry to pursue his solo art projects.
You actually stopped working in the film industry years ago, but Gary Oldman talked you out of retirement to do the makeup for “Darkest Hour.” How did he convince you to come back?
Kazuhiro Tsuji: He told me that if I take this job, he would do the film. If not, he would give it up. I told him that I would like to think a little bit because I had made a decision to leave the film industry. I couldn’t just easily go back to the film industry right away because it would feel like I was betraying a decision [I made] for my life.
But my first inspiration for being a special-effects makeup artist was when I read an article about my mentor Dick Smith doing Lincoln makeup on Hal Halbrook [for the 1974 miniseries “Lincoln”]. And I never had the chance to work on that kind of [job] during my film career. So I thought this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
What were the most challenging aspects of turning Gary Oldman into Churchill?
KT: It was really difficult because they don’t look like each other at all. The proportions and everything is different. Also, with Gary, it was challenging because when people get older, their skin becomes soft and stretchy. If I put makeup pieces on the skin of a 20-year-old, the piece moves really well with the face. But in this case, as soon as he starts to move, the piece [becomes visible], so I had to decide what was the minimum amount I could put on him to make him look like Churchill. So I positioned a fake chin, bringing his neck forward and the chin up to make his face look shorter. We shaved his head and made a wig to change his hairline and head shape. Lots of subtle changes. We used platinum-cured silicone, which is a very soft silicone that can go onto his skin and move with him very well. And on set, the makeup was applied by David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick. It took them 3 hours and 30 minutes every day.
Ru Kuwahata: Best Animated Short, “Negative Space“
Ru Kuwahata is an animation director, who is nominated for the Best Animated Short Film “Negative Space” alongside her partner Max Porter. Together, they work together as Tiny Inventions, and this is their first Academy Award nomination.
Can you tell us about what inspired “Negative Space“?
Ru Kuwahata: The film is based on a 150-word poem [of the same name] by Ron Koertge. We saw the poem online and thought we thought it’d be really cool to turn it into an animated film. I also had a personal connection because my father is a retired airline pilot, so he used to be away a lot for 2-3 week spans. and he had this meticulous packing list he followed. So it reminded me of my childhood.
For this short, we were in France for 9 months, making it with a French team with French producers and funders, which was amazing. It was our first time working in France. Everybody was so passionate and poured so much energy into the film. I really can’t be happier about it.
How do you and Max work together to create your films?
RK: We’ve been working together for 11 years, and our working process is like a conversation. We write together, draw together, bounce off each other. Sometimes I’ll make a drawing and he’ll make a revision, sometimes the other way around, so who knows whose idea it originally was? But in terms of technical specialties, I’m a bit more in charge of design and prop/setting building, and Max does more of the cinematography and editing. So I’m more responsible for the front end, and he’s more responsible for the back end. I can’t imagine making anything without him these days. I always joke that we’re a printer and scanner in one. If one thing doesn’t work, everything breaks. [laughs] So far, it’s working out.
Ramsey Naito: Best Animated Feature Film, “The Boss Baby“
Ramsey Naito is the producer of “The Boss Baby,” which is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. She previously produced “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and was the executive in charge of production for films like “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and “Rugrats in Paris: The Movie.” This is her first Academy Award nomination.
How did you get involved in Boss Baby?
Ramsey Naito: Short story is that I’ve known [director] Tom McGrath for almost 20 years. We’re good friends who always wanted to work together, he was working on “The Boss Baby” with the writer Michael McCullers, and he needed a producer. When I read the script [based on the 2010 picture book by Marla Frazee], I was so excited, because I’m a mother of 3 kids, and when my third child was born, my second child was 7, just like Tim Templeton, and there was a lot of sibling rivalry in the family. So I just felt like this is so relatable, not only for me personally, but for mothers, for families, for everyone who’s ever had a sibling, or had fear of competing for love.
Were you involved in the creation of the Asian American baby Staci, voiced by ViviAnn Yee?
RN: [laughs] It is possible I was an influencer there, being that I’m Asian American. The movie is about brothers, and there is this young baby squad because the boss baby has a playdate with 4 other babies, so we talked a lot about how we could bring diversity and comedy and cuteness into that group. So it was a great opportunity to make one of the babies Asian, the triplets were African American, and we had a big chubby baby who was Polish. It was important to us that we cast someone Asian American to voice Staci because she’s an Asian American character, so we saw 10-20 people for the role, and ViviAnn was the best!
Ren Klyce: Best in Sound Editing, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi“
Ren Klyce is supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer, and musician who has been nominated for seven Academy Awards. The most recent two are this year’s for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” He’s known for working with frequent collaborator David Fincher on everything from “Fight Club” and “Se7en” to “Mindhunter.”
When you were a kid, George Lucas was editing THX-1138 next door and your godfather was a voice actor in it. What does it mean for you to be working on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” years later?
Ren Klyce: My godfather, Henry Jacobs, was at the forefront of sound and music recording and manipulation before the term “sound design” existed. His influence on Walter Murch contributed to the evolution of film sound. Given this special connection, and having been a huge “Star Wars” fan growing up, makes my opportunity to have worked on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi“ a dream come true.
I also read that you got to explore the set while they were at the beginning of the production of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Can you elaborate a little on how that helped inform the sound?
RK: It was not only helpful, but a lot of fun to be able to visit Rian Johnson on set. We got to touch and hold all of the weapons including the lightsaber; Michael Kaplan’s costume design—where we could touch the fabrics, clothing, and shoes; and Neal Scanlan’s creature shop and crew, where we were able to get a sense of the scale of some of the larger creatures. In the film, Rey trains with Luke Skywalker on an island, where indigenous half fish—half humanoid creatures reside. We got to see all the props that were made as part of their living huts; for example, fishing nets and wind chimes.
When I met Rian for the first time it was on the set of the gambling casino on Canto Bight. It was incredible to see this massive set-piece. It was the antithesis of the gritty cantina scene in “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” with its opulence, sparkling excess, and bling—and Rian wanted the sound to reflect this aesthetic. These experiences exploring the sets absolutely helped inform the sound.
The Four Oscar Nominees On Representation
Kazuhiro Tsuji: I have a few friends in the industry that are Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, and they are some of the top people. [Race] shouldn’t matter, and I hope that someday we won’t even care about this sort of thing. But especially in Hollywood, the superficial is really important, so I’m sure there’s a difference between what we do [in special-effects makeup] and what actors have to go through.
Ru Kuwahata: In a way, gender and race are less apparent in animation. Sometimes you meet an animation filmmaker, and you think, “I didn’t know you were this skin color or this gender.” I never felt like being Asian or female held me back, but I also work with my husband as a co-director, so it’s hard to say what it would be like if I were a solo director or co-directing with another female. So in a way, I didn’t really think about it.
But after the nomination, I realized what I was representing. I realized I was linked in all these categories, whether it was an Asian nominee, a woman nominee, a female director, a woman of color. I was always feeling like I was chasing after a role model, but after the nomination, it hit me in the head that I’m not this debutante anymore, that I’m in this place where people of the next generation can look up to me and that felt really good.
Ramsey Naito: In animation, what we have to be careful about is stereotypes because we are talking about caricatures. So it’s very helpful to have people of different colors and and races working behind the camera to react to the designs we’re making. If we’re making movies for everyone, the people making the movies need to represent everyone.
The big animation studios, like Dreamworks and Pixar, are pretty international, so we have people all over the world working in animation. But where animation could do better is with women. 70% of animation students are women, but only 20% are getting hired. The last time there was a woman-directed film was Jennifer Yuh Nelson and “Kung Fu Panda 2.” So the gender gap is pretty big. Not to mention women of color.
Ren Klyce: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is really bringing to light previously underrepresented groups in Hollywood. It was fantastic to see Asians, women and people of color represented not only as supporting roles or in the background, but as main characters.
Ada Tseng writes for Public Radio International and NBC News Asian America, and she’s the former editor of Xfinity Asia, Asia Pacific Arts and Audrey Magazine. She hosts the podcasts Saturday School and Bullet Train, and she’s the creator of Haikus With Hotties.
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