How to improve S’pore’s film, TV production: Lee Thean-jeen

Singapore Showbiz

Veteran TV director Lee Thean-jeen says Singaporean directors should go back to the basics in order to improve the quality of productions here. (Yahoo! photo/Jeanette Tan)

How do Singapore productions improve the quality of films and television programming here to the standards seen internationally?

Veteran television director Lee Thean-jeen says the answer to this could lie in the basics of storytelling.

"The fundamental tenet of filmmaking and TV is storytelling; it's using whatever tools you have to tell a story as effectively and as efficiently as possible," he told Yahoo! Singapore in an interview.

Noting that people in the TV industry, which he has been a part of for 11 years, have pushed for improved technology and infrastructure to support better programming, he said, "If you don't have the basic building blocks of a film and a good show, which is the story, then I think everything else is just icing on the cake… it's just like having a lot of sugar and not much cake at all."

He encourages young filmmakers to "tell more stories, and make more films", saying, "It's not so much about whether you should direct more of any one genre, it's just that any opportunity to work on a set or a project is an opportunity not to be wasted."

Pointing out that he started with corporate videos at the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) himself, he said it was for him another opportunity to tell a story using what he knows and the techniques he has within each framework he has to work with.

"Nobody has a passion to do corporate and marketing videos… but what you try to do is to find an entry point into the project," he said. "At the end of the day, if you are a working director, it is still a craft. If you're earning a living from it, it's still something you have to go out and do."

Lee said that the television industry here has progressed significantly from the time he started with the SBC, when series such as Masters of the Sea were in production.

"In terms of production value, in the way we tell stories, in the way they're acted, by and large things have moved forward," he said. "Of course you can't say that, just like in every other craft, everything that is produced is great, but the same can be said of Hollywood and Europe. It's not that everything produced by Hollywood is great."

Addressing frequent complaints online about the quality of local television programming, Lee said that Singapore audiences do have a taste for certain types of shows and genres on the country's free-to-air channels.

"The question is, is it a fair evaluation? Is it because shows tend to get criticised more on a certain platform that they're necessarily bad? I don't think everything on local television is bad, just like how you can't say everything on the internet is good," he said, making reference also to locally-produced shows like Crime Watch, which still comes up to among the highest-rated programmes on Channel 5.

"People aren't saying, 'I'm not tuning into this because it's not an outsourced production.' I think ultimately, what the audience cares about is the story, and how the story is told," he added.

Lee also believes it is a generalisation to say that local television productions face a lack of sufficient budget to improve the quality of their programmes.

"I think if there wasn't any money in doing production, there wouldn't be 70, 80 registered production houses," he said. "People are still doing it, and people are still finding ways to do it, so I think as long as the passion to create shows and tell stories exists, I think there will be people who will find their way to work around the constraints."

"It's a cart-and-horse issue," he continued. "In order to mature, we need to produce better programmes, and when the production value goes up, budgets will increase," he added, acknowledging the attempts made to address the difficulties faced by free-to-air productions here.

"It's also a question of the marketplace; we're a population of five million, and our nearest neighbour Malaysia has a population of 20 million; their budgets are comparable, if not less than ours."

"Television has been very good to me"

As he takes his first bold steps into the feature-film industry, Lee admits he has gained a lot from writing and directing for the small screen over the past 11 years he has been in the trade.

The director of upcoming Lee Kuan Yew film 1965 was responsible for a host of local made-for-TV movies and series including The Pupil, Alter Asians (his first work in 2000), After Hours, and The Singapore Short Story Project, breaking into the film industry here with his debut feature Homecoming, which grossed $3 million in the Singapore and Malaysian markets.

"I think television has been very good to me," he said, explaining that it has been his rice bowl for more than a decade.

Even though the Malaysian director graduated with a summa cum laude in film and broadcasting from Boston University, he says he has enjoyed working in the medium.

"I can't say that I started out in the industry intending to be in TV, but I've had a really good time telling stories with that medium, so I don't intend to stop even though I'm doing feature films," he said. "So for me it's not one or the other (TV or film); it's looking at a story and deciding which is the best medium to tell it."

From television to feature films

Lee Thean-jeen talks about the television and film industries in Singapore. (Yahoo! photo/Jeanette Tan)

Asked if the transition between working on television series and feature films was a challenging one, Lee responded that doing so was not an issue, and that in fact, his TV experience has helped him greatly in his film work thus far.

"In television, we're used to working on much tighter schedules, we have to shoot much more efficiently — you have 15 to 20 days to shoot a feature, while I shot my most recent telemovie in seven days," he said with a chuckle.

"So I think you learn to work a little more efficiently without sacrificing the quality of the film or the story," he added, sharing a fairly unique view that directing for films or TV are not as different as they may seem.

"It's just a question of painting on a different canvas, so you just have to be more aware of certain things, like on TV if you shoot a close-up, it's going on a screen that (editor's italics) big, but in a movie if you're shooting a close-up, it's 50 feet tall… so you just have to be more aware that your canvas is a lot larger," he said.

"The basic principle is the same: you're trying to tell a story, and you're telling it with actors and a camera, and that principle doesn't change whether you're doing movies, TV, documentaries or short films."

He pointed out that the lines between the two media — television and film — are increasingly blurring in the age of the Internet, in particular, with the rise of video-sharing sites.

"A lot of times, even when you're making movies, you have to come around to the fact that at the end of the day, years from now, your film might end up being watched on a computer, which is very likely nowadays," he said. "I suppose there's a lot of 'cross-pollination' occurring these days," he added, referring also to his own efforts across various types of productions including dramas, comedies, infotainment programmes, telemovies, documentaries and feature films.

Is TV becoming more important than film?

Lee pointed out that there is much evidence to prove that television here and around the world holds many merits.

"TV was usually seen, probably not with the same gravitas as film, but I think that's changed a lot over the years because even actors and directors agree that a lot of the best work is actually done on TV," he said.

"Film directors and actors are even going to television because they find they can stretch their craft a lot better in TV, whereas film has kind of evolved into making the same sequels, remakes and basically film, in a sense, has become TV to a large extent," he added.

Lee noted that not only is there a significant amount of quality writing and performance on the small screen, there are also more creative opportunities, and a more stable source of regular work for directors and writers.

"You could spend years developing a single film script, but on TV, there is a constant need for content, so depending on whether you can feed the hunger, you get work," he said matter-of-factly.

Lee is currently working on two feature films apart from his directing role in 1965, one of which is likely to enter production in the second half of this year, while the other, a World War II period piece, is still in the process of researching and scripting. He has just completed a telemovie, The Million-Dollar Job, which will air this Sunday, 25 March, at 10pm on okto.