24 hours with Raman Hui
The Hong Kong-born animator has hit the big time in Hollywood. The director of the forthcoming multimillion-dollar Shrek 3 talks to Desiree Au about working for Dreamworks Studio and battling homesickness.
My work as an animator takes me between San Francisco and Hong Kong. I spend a lot of time in Hong Kong because
I work with local animation companies even though my company, PDI/Dreamworks, is located in Silicon Valley [California]. In the coming month, I will return to the United States, where I will continue working on the animation film Shrek 3.
I have been involved in various animation projects with Dreamworks, including Antz, Shrek and Shrek 2. I am directing Shrek 3, although I don't really want to say that because, until the film is released in 2006, anything can happen. Let's just say I am intensely involved in all phases of production for that movie.
My days in the US are routine. I get up about 7.30 in the morning because I have to commute from the Sunset district in San Francisco to Redwood City. It's a long drive because there is so much traffic in the morning. I live by myself so I make some instant oatmeal for breakfast before heading out. By the time I arrive at the office, it's about 9am.
There are about 40 animators working on Shrek 3 and, sometimes in the mornings, we have screening sessions. That's when all the animators put their storyboards on screen and we get an update on what everyone is doing. We are still in the preliminary stages and working out the storyline, which we are still changing. I can't give away much except it's going to be a happy, feel-good tale, and most of the characters from Shrek and Shrek 2 will be there, including the very popular Puss 'n' Boots. The year 2006 may seem a long way away, but we have so much work to do we are setting weekly production deadlines. When the storyboards and the animations are done, I look at them and give the animators my opinion.
I admit I am fickle; subtleties are so important in making a character come to life. For example, Shrek may be smiling because he's done something embarrassing and I may comment that his smile looks too smug, or that I am not sure what he's trying to express. That's the thing about working with computers, they allow us to do our work faster but in the end, it's still about human sensibilities. We do a rundown of the script and correct things as we go along. We may extend a pause, or change the dialogue, or certain actions look impossible for the characters to do. You don't often notice the problems because everyone works individually, so every week when we put every part together we see the big picture and do all the adjustments.
Thankfully, I've got a really good boss, Jeff Katzenberg of Dreamworks. Ever since they acquired the company I work for, PDI, they've allowed us to work creatively without too much interference. I no longer have to worry too much about all the administrative stuff, so it leaves me more time to be creative. But my lifestyle is still a world away from Hollywood. We don't travel in limousines and we don't stay at five-star hotels; it's motels much of the time - except for when we attend premieres. Then, Dreamworks puts us up at the W Hotel in Los Angeles and we get to ride in a limo.
I grew up in Hong Kong, where my mum raised me and my three siblings on her own. I have loved drawing ever since I can remember and studied design at Sheridan College in Ontario. There wasn't much future in terms of doing computer-animation work in Hong Kong so 12 years ago, I decided to try my luck in the US. I was on my own and a little homesick, and I was quiet. I especially hated it when my colleagues were chatting and I had no idea what they were talking about because I didn't have the same experience. But gradually I realised I had to be more outspoken. I think that's one of the most important things I learned from being in the US, and that's to express myself. A lot of people helped me along the way. When my bosses knew my English was not good, they sent me to a voice coach. Now, I think I speak much better English but it took me a long time to be vocal because I would be so self-conscious. I speak freely to my colleagues, and tell them how I want things done.
I finish work relatively early, about 6pm. I commute back home and go to my favourite Chinese restaurant, ABC. The people know me there from reading articles about me in Hong Kong magazines. I always order my favourite, Hainanese chicken rice.
Even though I do so much work with computers, I've always enjoyed drawing. So on the weekends, I attend a drawing workshop. I've always wanted to illustrate my own children's book and it looks like my first will be published in mid-November. I approached a friend about it and he got skincare company Kiehl's, which has a charity, Keihl's For a Cause, to support me. It's called Brownie and Sesame. Brownie is a cat and Sesame is a mouse, and the story is about their friendship, which prevails over peer pressure. It's got a happy ending and all the proceeds of the book will go to support St Christopher's Home, a charity that works with senior citizens and children in Sha Tin.
I've spent the past five months in Hong Kong because my company is also involved with the American sitcom, Father of the Pride. It's an animation show and we've sub-contracted the work to a company in Hong Kong, so everything is done here. I enjoy being here and I live with my mother in Tsim Sha Tsui. We work with very young animators and I try to bring that open atmosphere of working in an American company here. Everyone is into video games at work. During our lunch hour, when I am trying to catch a quick nap, everyone's playing computer games around me. I've gotten so used to the noise that I can't fall asleep without it.
The appeal of living here is that everything is so close and most of my friends are still here. Although I am a homebody in the US, when I live in Hong Kong I can go out all night, seeing movies, eating out and doing some karaoke. It's great when we can all meet up within 10 minutes because the travelling time is so short.
I will be leaving next month to go back to the US for more intensive work on Shrek 3. I try not to have too many expectations and put pressure on myself. When Shrek came out, I was shocked that it performed so well. And Shrek 2, where I was supervising animator, was beyond my wildest dreams. I've enjoyed the success and the money - I now own a house in San Francisco - but at the end of the day, I just want to be drawing all the time.