Upon first sight of a washed landscape of mountains, a sitting fisherman, bouncing ducks and a cup of coffee, I was already dialed into the world that animator Vincent Tsui made. As this world began to unfold before me, with sounds of dings, slides of drawn panels and human-like figures doing human things, my suspended belief did not go on a holiday, it remained. Thus, a conversation with its creator Tsui, revealing toys in confusion, the country China and how his coffee habit began with this film. Now, with Vincent Tsui, somewhere between reality and dreaming in America.
The Coffeetographer.: Firstly, How do you like your coffee?
Vincent Tsui.: With a lot of sugar! I am actually not a big fan of the taste. The funny thing is I had my first coffee working on ‘Made in China’, when I really needed something to keep me awake to work.
c.: Funny thing is, my first coffee came by way of the same, except I was working on a short story in college. Wasn’t a fan of the taste, it was my Dad’s Folgers and I had no idea how to make coffee.
This short film is called ‘Made in China’, can you share about coffee culture in China, and what about the place may have inspired this film?
v.t.: I have no idea about the coffee culture in China… As a matter of fact, neither coffee nor China inspired this film. The only thing I can tell you is that my dad is Chinese and drinks a lot of coffee!
c.: Ha, well, there that is! Coffee plays a beginning role in your film, starting out in one of its first scenes. Why did you choose this? And, is it a commentary on how many people may start their day?
v.t.: Yes! It is indeed the first scene if we don’t count the opening scene with the fisherman. I needed something really simple and that most people would be able to relate to, in order to make the film’s concept really clear from the beginning. The failure of the simplest action that is drinking coffee was a good illustration of this toy’s limitations. In addition to that, as you said, it is a very symbolic moment that represents the beginning of the day, at least in France, which is where I grew up. The idea was to spend an entire day, from sunrise to sunset, in this miniature world. So this scene was very important to convey that idea.
c.: What a wonderful way to underscore the symbolism of a ritual! Coffee as such, is usually a conversation starter, or people have conversations over coffee. Do you think your short film helps coffee conversations?
v.t.: Ha-ha, I don’t know if my film is helping coffee conversations, I hope it does! It would actually be nice to talk about this over coffee with anyone!
v.t.Well you have me, kind of, digitally. Shall we continue? The palette here is muted but still vibrant and works so well for your created miniature well. How did you decide to use toys to illustrate the limitations of humans?
v.t.: I was actually very inspired and fascinated by an American contemporary painter named Amy Bennett. [As Amy Bennett is new to me, I research her and see exactly how Tsui is inspired by her and how Made in China is informed by such a narrative Brooklyn painter. The fascination is contagious.]
She has a very interesting process. She builds miniature settings such as suburban houses or a person seeing a doctor, which she eventually paints. So the final piece is the painting, not the miniature, which makes it fascinating. Because, when you’re looking at the painting, there’s no scale information or anything else that would tell you it is a fake setting. It brings you in a strange place where you’re kind of lost between reality and dreams. This is what I was really interested in, this confusion between what’s real and what’s not. In that idea I had other references like The Truman Show, The Prisoner or Hopper’s paintings. My initial goal wasn’t really to illustrate our limitations as humans but to throw the audience (and the figurines) in that confusion.
c.: Confusion, I see. And as the audience goes along they are figuring as the figurines have to figure. I feel that. So, then how did you choose the landscape of the film – its scenes and where you wanted its actions to take place?
v.t.: Well the idea was to depict the typical day in this miniature world, so I needed scenes that could take place at different times of the day and be symbolic if possible, such as the coffee scene. I wanted it to be very simplistic looking in terms of shapes, the same way toys would look like. It think it also allowed more people to relate to it and gave more room for them to project their own experience and understanding of the world.
c.: I definitely felt I was in the world with them while the world also spoke to me about my own world. Your toys are definitely limited. Do you experience these limitations? Or, could one ask if this short is at all autobiographical. If so, how?
v.t.: Interesting question! It is true that doing animation can feel really repetitive and limited sometimes… but unlike my film, I am more optimistic about overcoming those limitations! This could be autobiographical in the sense that I am criticizing the standardization of a society I belong to. I am sadly not better than what I am denouncing, but this film could be the first step towards a better authentic life!
For a journey into more of the confusion and authenticity of Vincent Tsui’s work visit here.