Atiqah Mohd Abu Bakar sits quietly tucked away in a corner at The R&D Studio in Pacific Place Commercial Centre in Ara Damansara, Petaling Jaya. At her desk, she busies herself researching images, reading stories, sketching, painting in watercolours, and crafting images digitally.
The 29-year-old concept artist is part of a small team of creative minds behind the award-winning short film Batik Girl, which has been gaining much attention and successfully inspiring Malaysian pride, after being made publicly available on YouTube earlier this month.
Batik Girl is a beautiful 2D animation featuring a simple but poignant storyline about family, love and loss, while promoting Malaysia’s traditional art of batik.
Set in two dimensions – the real world and a fantastical world – Batik Girl traces a simple tale of a little girl and her grandmother who live in a coastal village in Terengganu.
Struggling to cope after a recent tragedy, the young girl finds herself drawn into a magical world within a batik painting.
At R&D, in a room nearby, about 1.5m from Atiqah the artist, four other millennials joke and crowd around a computer screen discussing a project they are working on; a handful of other young men and women seem to be engrossed in their own work in different parts of the studio.
The office is not lavish, in fact it’s minimalist with just a few interesting posters, artworks, bookshelves and computer stations. But what is apparent is that everyone is enjoying themselves and is creatively absorbed in what they’re doing.
Their boss, Irwan Junaidy – an unassuming, well-spoken 40something former architect turned director/filmmaker/designer – is jovial with his team and allows them a long leash to let those creative juices flow freely.
His partner Zuhri Aziz, who handles the business side of things, is equally relaxed and amiable.
“We start work quite late. Some even come in at noon,” Irwan said with a smile, explaining that no one likes getting stuck in traffic.
“But there’s a period when everybody is in the office when we have what we call a story meeting, when we throw ideas about, and talk about the different projects we are working on.”R&D is a content creation company (In case you’re wondering, R&D stands for Rogue and Dodgy, nicknames for the founders).
“We create content for TV, online, for publishing. We are really platform agnostic. We’re a small company but we do a lot of different work. We’re one of the few people in Malaysia to do work for Disney,” he said, sharing about TV series, Wizards On Warna Walk, the first long-form series by Disney in South-East Asia, which just ended its run on Disney Channel.
“We did everything from casting to shooting at Pinewood (Iskandar Studios in Johor) and post-production. We are pretty proud that a small company like ours was able to do all of this,” he said, adding that this opportunity raised the bar for them.
“As a rule, in order to keep up with the higher global standards, technology comes into play, because there are things that you want to do that only technology allows you to do, and that keeps us continuously learning.”
Irwan said that currently his team is working on four separate projects, and while he is there to give support as chief creative officer, he is also ready to let others take charge.
He said: “When you’re senior enough and you have experience, you can lead a project. I’m there to support them and make sure the bills are paid!”
The genius in R&D is the no-fuss concept of having a small team. Irwan was previously in an interactive games company that started small but grew to a sizeable staff.
“After that, I told myself I was just going to work in a smaller company so that I could devote 90% of my time to doing creative work and 10% to managing people rather than the other way around,” he said.
“This way I get to do cool things and I don’t need to worry about the company that much.”
So how does such a small team create something as visually stunning, creatively heart-tugging, technically and musically sound as Batik Girl and then go on to take it on the festival circuit around the world, and win a slew of awards?
“For Batik Girl, we did the bulk of the pre-production – the designs, the story. And we also worked on the post-production.
“But the middle part, for the character animations, we partnered up with animation company, Tudidut Studio; and for the music we teamed up with Universiti Teknologi Mara’s (UiTM’s) faculty of music.
“During post-production, came the editing. And that’s when we compiled all the different elements – the visuals, animation, music – and added some special effects to finish it off,” Irwan explained, adding that R&D often partners up with other studios.
Irwan said that this is the model that he has worked on for the last few years or so and it especially suits him because he is able to maintain the small team, which is easier to manage and more agile.
“We also hire people with multiple skills sets. So in Batik Girl, for example, we had three people who were involved in pre-production who also handled post-production. In fact one of the ‘post guys’ created all the real world sequences, the backgrounds and the paintings,” he said.
Sketch to screen
Though just nine minutes long, making the short film took much research and legwork. The seed for the story was planted in Bologna, Italy, when Irwan and writer Heidi Shamsuddin chanced upon a Caucasian couple who were intrigued by a batik tablecloth at a book festival in 2017.
“We decided to use batik as our starting point. We wanted to share this part of our rich culture, which we take so much for granted, with the rest of the world,” said Irwan.
“We felt it was something we should do as Malaysians. And hence we did a ton of research, drew a lot of batik, travelled to Terengganu many times and interviewed people, came up with a story and visuals.
“We had to do it many times before we came up with something that we felt was okay and we submitted it to the festivals,” Irwan summarised the process which took a good 12 months to accomplish.What’s the process like from start to finish?
“We do the story, which goes to the storyboarding process, when we start doing the key visuals. At this stage it’s just pictures.
“Once that is locked, we pass it to the animators, who in the case of Batik Girl used a newish software (Moho Anime Studio) which allowed us to do some fancy camera movements,” he said.
Irwan got a little excited at this juncture when he described a particular shot in Batik Girl with a 2D 360° VR video shot, inspired by a scene from The Avengers.
He said: “During the storyboard stage I asked if I could have that sort of shot, when the Avengers are grouped together during a battle scene and the camera pans all around them.
“The animation people said they had read about a software which could do it, and asked for two weeks to experiment and they ended up doing it!
“It is sort of a 3D software in a 2D space. So the skill set, if you know 3D, with rigging and things like that, is applied to the characters and you end up being able to do all sorts of fancy things. It’s tougher to set up of course and takes a long time.”
Irwan knows the film in and out and is happy to walk one through individual scenes, as he gushes about the wind and waves, the little Easter eggs that have been included in the film, the authenticity of the Terengganu-style architecture, and how they tried to achieve a high level of detail (check out the clocks in the film which actually denote what time of day it is, the inclusion of a leaky tap, the lighting and shadows... visually there is lots to savour).
The same goes for the music. Even though UITM composed and developed the soundtrack for the movie (and it did a smashing job!), Irwan still wore the director’s hat when it came to the final say.
“I don’t have any formal music training, but I was a drum major in the school band,” he joked.
“I love to study how people do things. And some of the most memorable things that I’ve seen (or heard) is when there’s a concept. For example, in Benjamin Button, in which aging is reversed, there was a part when the music went forward then backward... it was the same chords but in reverse. I thought that was pretty clever.
“Or in Inception, where the first two bars are really, really slowed down to reflect the dream time.”
When it came to the architecture, Irwan, who holds a degree and post-graduate diploma in architecture from Britain, was on top of his game.
“We made a 3D model of what the house and batik workshop would look like, and then painted over them. We put in the flooring and pillars, just how an actual carpenter would.
“We wanted everything about it to be real. If somebody looks at the joints, they’d notice they were built properly. We took our time and researched everything in great detail, and we took great pride in what we were doing,” he said.
You can check out the making of videos on YouTube, and be sure to watch the post credit scenes of Batik Girl too.
Did you find this article insightful?