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Boat People | Q&A with Thao Lam and Kjell Boersma

// Women in Animation

Boat People, a new animated documentary from the National Film Board of Canada, is set to begin its festival run this month. Recounting the story of writer/director Thao Lam’s own family, the film explores resonant and universal themes of loss, emotional fortitude and karma.

As a little girl in Vietnam, Thao’s mother would rescue ants from bowls of sugar water. The tiny creatures would later return the favour, leading her desperate family through darkness—and pointing the way to safety.

Adapted from illustrator and author Thao Lam’s book The Paper Boat, the film draws upon her own family’s dramatic and turbulent journey as refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Boat People harnesses the talents of  animator Kjell Boersma in retaining the hand-crafted look of the original illustrations in service to a compelling narrative that both parallels and contrasts human survival with the instinctual behaviour of ants. Narrated by Thao herself, the short features music by respectfulchild and is produced by Justine Pimlott and Jelena Popović of the NFB.

In anticipation of Boat People‘s world premiere this week at ITFS Stuttgart, Skwigly spoke with directors Thao Lam and Kjell Boersma to learn more about the film’s journey.

To start with, it would be great to hear about the source material and how the original book The Paper Boat came about – what were the circumstances/influences that brought the project to life?

Thao: I never envisioned this story as a picture book. To me the migration of people and ants was always told through movement. The act of fleeing is a movement. The journey across the South China Sea, the motions of the waves as it rages during a storm, the bodies of people moving about in a refugee camp like scurrying ants—all forms of movement. When I first began to think of the story, I actually pictured it as a film. While we were developing the idea, my publisher became interested in doing it as a picture book, and the book moved a lot faster than the film.

What drew you to ants and ant behaviour as a throughline for the story?

Thao: Ants have always been part of the story my mother tells. She saved the ants—and they saved her in return. I’ve always liked that idea of karma. We did a tonne of research, on both the Vietnam War and ant behaviour, and we began seeing all kinds of connections, how ants have an instinct not simply to survive but also to protect each other. The script went through many stages, but I think we’ve found a nice balance between the two stories.

Can you tell us a bit about your respective backgrounds in the arts and what ultimately led you to animation?

Thao: I graduated from Sheridan College [in Ontario, Canada] with an Illustration diploma and I am now an author and illustrator of children’s books. Though I don’t have any experience or training in animation, I do have an understanding and passion for storytelling. This process has taught me that filmmaking is just a different medium of storytelling.

Kjell: From an early age I have been obsessed with animation. My uncle would tape episodes of the program Long Ago and Far Away on PBS and mail them to me, and I would watch the animated shorts over and over again. While attending film school, I just became increasingly drawn to animation and taught myself the techniques I needed to animate my thesis project. After that, I worked as a compositor in stop-motion for television, and then moved to New Mexico for several years, where I directed my film Monster Slayer, which was a combination of live action and Ray Harryhausen-style creatures. After returning to Toronto, I was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to create a kids’ film that would be performed live with the orchestra. That production filled in a lot of the missing pieces for me, and I built off those techniques when developing the animation process for Boat People.

How did the two of you come to be paired together for this project? Had you worked together before?

Kjell: Thao and I had worked together once before on an animated trailer for her first book, Skunk on a String. I was drawn to the graphic quality and textures of her work, and that project really made me wish we could do something that was imagined as animation from the start. A year or so later, I had just released my film DAM!, and Thao approached me with the idea that eventually became Boat People. I was hooked right away by the story of the ants in the grass, and it is exactly the sort of complex subject that first drew me to animation.

The overall look of the film carries across the cutout style of the picture book very effectively; it would be great to have a breakdown of the animation process. Did you use digital and analogue processes – or a combination of both – to achieve this look? 

Kjell: For me it was very important that Thao’s style come through in the animation, but once we started testing different approaches, it turned out to be quite a complicated thing to do. We started with a physical process that tried to replicate how Thao creates each panel of her books. This led us to individually laser-cutting each layer of each frame from different papers, assembling them by hand, and then animating them in stop-motion. While it achieved the look we wanted, it was a very cumbersome and rigid process. We decided to develop a digital workflow using those laser-cut tests as a blueprint, while still using Thao’s ink-on-paper textures. The end result is a combination of traditional hand-drawn animation in TV Paint, digital cutout in Harmony, 3D rendering in C4D, and compositing in After Effects.

When dealing with the heavy themes of this type of story, what are the primary advantages of animation (and, at its core, illustration/design) in a film such as this?

Thao: As a children’s book author and illustrator, I have always found that picture books often act as portals into issues kids have a hard time expressing, because I can package heavy themes in a style relatable and accessible to kids. I feel like animation is similar but has fewer restraints, because it can reach a wider audience and age range and therefore we can tackle more complicated themes like family dynamics, resilience and sacrifice. This lack of restriction also allows for more creative freedom when I am making a film compared to when I am creating a children’s book, like the subtle changes in facial expressions as characters interact with each other.

Thao’s family and other refugees crossing the precarious waters of South China Sea by boat (Image from Film, Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada, 2023)

From a storytelling perspective, what advantages – or challenges – does animation have when it comes to this type of adaptation?

Kjell: The big advantage with animation is that the only limitation is your imagination. This can also be a challenge in that, sometimes, limits can be helpful. Thao and I imagined many different versions of this story; I lost count of how many versions our animatic went through. Like Thao said, animation can also be a way to deal with dark material in an accessible way—I thought a lot about films like Grave of the Fireflies and Watership Down while working on Boat People. In a more basic sense, animation allows us into points of view that would otherwise be impossible.

How did working with the NFB benefit the production of Boat People? Had you hoped to bring them on board from the outset?

Kjell: The simplest answer is that the film wouldn’t exist without the NFB. Thao and I had tried for about a year to find funding for the film (unsuccessfully) before our executive producer, Anita Lee, saw something in our project. I can’t think of many other places that would have had the resources and the patience to go on this journey with us. The film required a lot of research and development to achieve the style we wanted, and that’s something the NFB has a unique commitment to supporting. We were also lucky to get to work with very talented and supportive producers. Justine Pimlott, from the NFB’s Toronto studio, brought a wealth of experience from the documentary world that was instrumental in helping us find the story and craft the narrative, and Jelena Popović, from the Montreal studio, has a real passion for animation as a medium and pushed us to be more ambitious in our imaginations.

Noting that you (Thao) provided the narration from the film, were there aspects of the story that drew from your own lived experience, or is it more of an observational piece?

Thao: Most families have stories that are told and retold. For the longest time, all I knew about the war and our escape was a story told by my mother, a lesson in kindness and karma. Long before the war, when the only invasions were of ants looking for food, her mother would set out bowls of sugar water to rid the house of pests. As a child, my mother would spend carefree afternoons fishing ants out of these bowls. On the night of our escape we got turned around in the tall grass. By the light of the moon, my mother spotted a trail of ants; lost and desperate, she decided to follow them, which led us to the riverbank where our escape boat waited. The ants she rescued as a little girl saved her in return that night. This story with the ants and the sugar water became the cornerstone for the film, making it an animated documentary.

Congratulations on your upcoming world premiere at ITFS Stuttgart. What are your feelings about being involved in such a highly regarded event, and do you feel that in-person festivals are an important part of a film (and filmmaker’s) journey?

Kjell: We are, of course, very excited to have our premiere at ITFS. It’s an incredibly valuable experience as an individual, as well as for the film and the filmmaking community. It’s wonderful to see your film with an audience, to meet people from all over the world and see projects that would have never crossed your path. Visiting Germany has also been a real treat; it’s no wonder so many artists end up here (including two of our animation team).

Do you have any plans to work together again in future?

Thao: This is my first time as a film director and working in animation. There is still so much for me to learn about this different medium of storytelling, but the possibilities are endless and I am excited to see where this will lead. I would love another opportunity to work with Kjell and the NFB. Halfway through the making of Boat People, I did pitch another project to Kjell, so we are in the very early stages of that film, and I am currently working on a script of another idea I have.

Boat People will premiere at ITFS Stuttgart April 27th at 9pm in International Competition 3. The screening is repeated at 11:30am on April 28th.

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