23-year-old's animation about sex education in Singapore snags Yugo Bafta Student Awards nomination
- 23-year-old animator and film-maker Calleen Koh is the only Singaporean whose short film was nominated for the Yugo Bafta Student Awards
- While her film did not make it into the finals, Ms Koh said she was happy being nominated
- Her film on sex education in Singapore has received praise globally, especially in Europe
- She has future plans to expand her graduate short film to reach out to more people, and is working on her third film
SINGAPORE — It was 4am when 23-year-old Calleen Koh received a notification on Facebook – a fellow film-maker had been nominated for a Yugo Bafta Student Award and had tagged her as a fellow nominee.
“It was really funny because I didn’t even find out from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) itself,” said Ms Koh, an animator and designer at local animation studio Finding Pictures.
Despite knowing that most people would be fast asleep, Ms Koh immediately contacted her friends, family and lecturers to inform them that her short film, To Kill the Birds and the Bees, had been nominated under the animation category.
Not only was her film able to stand out from the 715 submissions Bafta received this year, she was also the only Singaporean and one of a handful of Asians who were nominated.
Only two people were awake to join her in the celebrations in the wee hours of the morning late last month — her boyfriend and her lecturer from Lasalle College of the Arts.
“My lecturer was going ‘Oh My God!’ (over text) and told me he’s never been happier to wake up in the middle of the night,” she said.
While Ms Koh may not have made it to the finals, she was thankful to be nominated for her short film.
“Being shortlisted among all the films from around the world is pretty cool already. I just thought of getting into the finals as a bonus,” she said.
TALKING ABOUT THE BIRDS AND THE BEES
Ms Koh’s 11-minute short animated film To Kill the Birds and the Bees is about sex education in Singapore.
The animation follows a pair of primary school twins, a secondary school prefect and a conservative housewife — each of them encountering a sexual situation in the course of their day.
Having seen more sex-related crimes in 2019 and 2020, especially in universities, Ms Koh said she wanted to address the root of the problem through her animation.
“I was very bothered by all the comments on news articles about sexual harassment cases. There were a lot of judgemental attitudes and people dictating what the victim should have done… which makes me sad,” she said.
It was created as a graduate project with two other classmates in 2020.
They conducted a research survey involving “hundreds of people” to understand attitudes towards sexual harassment in Singapore.
Some of the respondents even shared their own experiences with sexual harassment.
“The whole process (of making the film) was very hard for a three-person team as we were doing everything and creating it all in just seven months,” said Ms Koh, who was the film’s director, producer and writer among other roles.
Their efforts have paid off. Aside from the Yugo Bafta Student Awards nomination, the film has been screened around the world, including at the Oscar-qualifying festival Stuttgart International Film Festival in Germany and Toronto Animation Arts Festival International in Canada.
Although the film was focused on the sex education system in Singapore, Ms Koh was surprised by positive reactions among international audiences, particularly in Europe.
“I was surprised to hear that a lot of Europeans find the film relatable as I thought they were a lot more liberal than us. Some Germans I met at Internationales Trickfilm-Festival Stuttgart said that sex education in Germany was about the same, which I found very surprising.
“But it was definitely very encouraging to hear international audiences laugh and gasp while watching my film at screenings, I'm glad it resonated with people beyond Singapore borders.”
In Singapore, she also bagged three awards at the National Youth Film Awards under the media student category for Best Art Director, Best Screenplay and Best Original Music.
PARENTS GREW SUPPORTIVE OVER TIME
As a child, Ms Koh’s parents would expose her to arts and crafts, which she enjoyed — so much so that she wanted to turn it into a career.
While she was unsure of what direction she wanted to take in the arts scene, she enrolled as a fine arts student at the School of the Arts (Sota), which exposed her to various art forms.
But that all changed in 2013 with the release of animated movie Frozen — for which she has merchandise displayed around her room till today.
For the self-proclaimed “extroverted introvert”, the movie was a breathtaking change from the typical princess Disney movies, with meta-comedy and designs that stood out to her.
“I watched videos of the behind-the-scenes and that made me really appreciate the film-making behind it,” said Ms Koh.
So after completing her diploma in Sota, she enrolled into Lasalle College of the Arts' degree programme in Animation Art, where she created her short film To Kill the Birds and the Bees.
Although her parents were concerned about her decision to pursue the arts, Ms Koh said they grew more supportive as they saw her doing well.
“When I was nominated for the National Youth Film Awards, I didn’t want to watch the award ceremony because I thought I wasn’t going to win anything, but my parents wanted to watch so I thought okay, sure,” she said, adding that she was happy to have won three awards that night.
"When I told them of the Bafta nomination, they didn't know what Bafta was and were like 'okay, cool' until I explained the significance of the awards, only then did they congratulate me."
When asked how she felt about her accomplishments thus far, Ms Koh said she was "quite overwhelmed by all the positive responses".
"I've made only two short films, which is not a lot compared to the big players in the industry, but I feel like I've accomplished a lot for what I can do within these few years, what I have and my age," she said.
With the success of her film, Ms Koh said that her team has started working on future plans to develop it into something that more people can watch and appreciate.
“You’ll find out more soon,” she said, adding that she is also working on another film.