The makers of the new Thai animation “9 Satra” adopted a new and, they hope successful, approach in making their film
It’s been four years in the making and today the producers and directors of Exformat are breathing a big sigh of relief as film critics, bloggers and the press are lauding their first ever movie project – the animation “9 Satra” (“The Legend of Muay Thai”).
Favourable comments have been circulating since sneak previews started showing at theatres and the audience attending Wednesday’s gala premiere poured on the praise, making such comments as “surprisingly good”, “the action scenes are awesome”, “I’ve never seen such a thrilling Thai animation as this”, “far better than I expected” and even “the best Thai animation ever”.
Project creator and producer Phusanat Karunwongwat is hoping that the great feedback will spread and cinemagoers will throng to see his project and help the big budget animation survive in the box office.
He is right to be cautious in his optimism though. Prior Thai animation outings have been criticised for weak scripts and being poor replicas of animations from Hollywood and Japan,
“So when they see that our film is fun and entertaining, we hope that they will tell all their friends to come and see it,” he says.
Yet despite the Bt230 million that has been poured into the animation, the people – a group of friends mainly trained as architects have little, if any, filmmaking experience.
“9 Satra” follows a young muay thai warrior Ott (voiced by singer/actor Kanokchat ‘Typhoon KPN’ Munyadon) who uses his kickboxing powers to unlock the secret weapon from which the film gets its name to fight against the giant Yaksa who have besieged the Ramathep kingdom.
The animation is the brainchild of Phusanat. He’d had a little experience making the short cartoon series “The Salad” and wanted to come up with an animation that wouldn’t cost more than Bt30 million.
“We are not in the film industry so our experience in filmmaking is zero but we agreed to invest in the project after Phusanat told us about his idea,” says architect Apisek Wongvasu, one of the producers who put money into the project.
Phusanat adds that the group was so inexperienced that they had no idea Bt30 million wouldn’t be enough. “We later learned that animations cost a whole lot more,” he says with a smile.
After renting a cinema to screen the first seven minutes to film companies, the group upped the budget to Bt60 million and set up Exformat Films Company. As it turned out, getting the animation from drawing board to screen would cost them Bt230 million not to mention four years of hard work.
“We wouldn’t get anything back if we gave up so we decided to put more money in and make it as good as we possibly could,” says Apisek.
That meant looking for talent in every field among friends and colleagues before expanding the search to include Hollywood companies. Scriptwriters like Suphakorn Riansuwan from Scenario Production and Daraka Wonsiri from Dreambox came on board and the team eventually hired Hollywood script doctor Bryan Hill to give the storytelling more of an international feel.
The process continued in much the same way, with the group bringing on board as consultants former muay thai boxer Charoenthong Kiatbaanchong for advice on the movements, artist Sakwut Wisetmanee to comment on the visual design and musician and music producer Suthee Sangsereechon for the soundtrack. Canadian Ryan Shore was then hired to compose the score. The nephew of Howard Shore who wrote the score for “The Lord of the Rings”, the younger Shore is a well-known composer and songwriter for film and television including for the “Star Wars: Forces of Destiny” TV series. The entire score played by a live orchestra was eventually recorded in Macedonia.
“For every process, we started with local talents then followed our consultants’ advice to find the right piece of the jigsaw to complete our project,” says Apisek.
Hill or Shore regularly flew to Thailand to be briefed by the team on such Thai elements as the belief in magic tattoos, history, muay thai, and melodies before refining both the script and score.
The original idea was to make an animation about Nai Khanom Tom – the legendary icon of muay thai and much of the early work focused on Thai character designs like the Nai Jan Nuad Khiaw in the epic “Bang Rajan”.
“It’s not easy to blend Thainess and international style and both our teams, local and international, worked closely to share ideas and concepts so that the film would not just attract a domestic audience but also animation fans all over world,” says Phusanat.
The animation work itself flowed from the fingers of local animators both hired by Exformat and also with Riff Animation Company, which made a name for itself with the GTH movie “May Nai Fai Raeng Fer” ("May Who?”).
“We can’t beat Pixar or Disney, so we have to create our own style and hope the audience will give us a chance,” adds co-director Gun Phansuwon who teamed with scriptwriter Nat Yoswatananont. A photographer and a professional golfer, Gun came to the project through an uncle of one of the producers.
Gun says that “9 Satra” is targeting both children and adults, indeed anyone who wants to learn a little more about Thai art and culture. “We’re looking at an audience group aged between 14 to 40 and aim to expand to include merchandise and games as well. So the idea has to be more universal and the film has to be the best. We don’t want to be sitting around afterwards asking ourselves ‘what if’,” he says.
Apisek agrees, adding that “9 Satra” has been a collaborative project from the world go, bringing everyone together – from producers and directors – to brainstorm and make decisions at every step.
“9 Satra” will soon be screened at Chinese theatres through Really Good Film, an affiliate of major Chinese studio Bona Film. However, Exformat has called off an earlier deal made with The Weinstein Company following the charges of sexual harassment against its owner.
“9 Satra” is now with the China censorship board and waiting for approval under the country’s foreign film-screening quota. The plan is to release it in between 5,000 and 10,000 cinemas nationwide and Exformat has already negotiated a good deal for the profit sharing.
And there’s every reason to think it will be a hit there. Exformat’s Chinese partner suggested early on that some Chinese elements be included in the story to help the mainland audience identify with the film. That was achieved by redesigning the original character of Maya – a girl from Holland – and turning her into a sexy pirate called Xiaolan.
Most Thai animations made since the first release “Sud Sakorn” in 1979 have tended to focus on children and have portrayed Thai cultural heritage and history. A good example is the top-grossing animation “Khan Kluay”, which despite being a success still fell Bt22 million short in recouping its Bt120 million investment.
Much more disappointing was “Anatta”, which cost Bt100 million to make, but earned just under Bt6 million at the box office.
Can “9 Satra” turn the tide? The team at Exformat are not the only ones hoping that it does.