BackArts & Culture » Film & TV » From Trash to Treasure: How Sở Thú Studio Crafts Animated Stories From Scraps

From Trash to Treasure: How Sở Thú Studio Crafts Animated Stories From Scraps

From old newspapers, coffee grounds, used styrofoam boxes, sticks, and more, Sở thú Studio, a collective of young creatives, has created many fascinating animation projects.

According to statistics from US-based Green Production Guide, on average, a major movie production can churn out about 225 tons of iron metallic scraps, 50 tons of construction debris, and 72 tons of food scraps. As a response to this wastage, the green cinema movement was born and has slowly made its way to the forefront of the global movie industry. This means that not only the resulting films should promote environmental protection messages, but the process of creating them must also contribute to their overall “greenness”: using equipment and tools that are environmentally friendly, reducing waste, and cutting down on power consumption, etc.

Several major entertainment companies, such as Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, and Warner Bros, have undertaken measures to make their film studios more sustainable by pushing for the recycling of wood, steel, and glass after a film finishes instead of sending them straight to landfills.

Young filmmakers and green cinema

The Sở thú Studio team.

Established in December 2021, the 20-member Sở thú Studio is Vietnam’s first animation studio with expressed interest in using recyclable materials. They all share an affection for animations, especially those with a green angle, and have come together to pursue their dream of turning local trash into movies.

Lê Mẫn Nhi, a producer at Sở thú Studio, shared with Saigoneer about her workplace’s founding. They met at the short film competition Màn ảnh Xanh (Green Screen) co-organized by the Vietnam Film Development Association and Netflix. “Not wanting our connection to stop at the competition level, we formed a group to continue making movies together. Sở thú Studio brands ourselves as an animation studio using recycled materials, including reusing discarded items as well as employing environmentally friendly props and equipment.”

Set production involves a number of recycled materials.

“The name ‘Sở thú’ [Zoo] sounds like a kickass rock band! Each member shares the temperament of a zoo animal, but we all have a love for filmmaking and a hope to create the greenest products possible,” Nhi explains.

For Sở thú Studio, animations are accessible to everyone and not just children’s movies, as watchers from different age groups will approach them with different thoughts and reflections. Finance remains the biggest hurdle for young filmmakers in their pursuit of cinema. Selecting green materials that can convey the soul of the movie is one thing, but those choices must also stay within a limited budget. The studio is always on the lookout for brands and organizations that share their vision to create animations.

A prop created by the team

An elegant debut

Vượt Thành Axima (Out of Axima) is the first-ever project by Sở thú Studio; it managed to clinch the third prize of the Màn Ảnh Xanh filmmaking contest thanks to a daring approach and polished production values.

The short has a runtime of four minutes and chronicles the journey of its protagonist Max to seek out con sáng (wisps), the only power source that can help heal his tree. The film setting is a barren Earth in a not-too-distant future: riddled with pollution and crippled by depleted resources. Minh Khuê, the short’s director, shares: “Cinema has the power to resonate. My team and I hoped that the short could tell an engaging story, cultivating in our viewers a seed of concern for our environment, so that, when the sun rises, that seed will germinate.”

Vượt Thành Axima was created using stop-motion, a technique involving stringing together a series of still images to simulate movements. The studio chose this direction due to the medium’s popularity and accessibility across age groups, thanks to the success of well-known works like Shaun the Sheep, Coraline, and ParaNorman. Stop-motion is also especially suitable for the employment of recyclable materials.

Stills from the short.

About 60% of the materials used in Sở thú Studio’s projects were recycled and turned into characters and set production. After a script is finalized, studio members start the process of procuring the needed materials from the humblest of beginnings: styrofoams from the landfill, coffee grounds from street coffee stands, burned coal from BBQ restaurants, etc. Depending on the material, they would process the ingredients accordingly, like smashing up used coal briquettes, mixing with water, newspaper, and glue to create “bricks” for the characters’ homes; old styrofoam boxes are washed and dried, then covered with old newspaper and painted over. Besides, filming tools are also fashioned out of common household appliances, like how a broom handle could double as a camera handle.

The production process.

Mẫn Nhi shares: “The challenge here is often the discovery that our reality is different than what we envisioned in our mind. The house of Max, for example, began with clay, but we felt the material wasn’t evocative enough, so we switched to used briquettes. It’s much more rustic and authentic.” In the film, a lot of the visual elements were inspired by real-life H’Mông culture, such as Max’s pink cheeks, colorful clothes, and the region’s unique stone homesteads.

The procurement team can source production materials from any humble beginnings.

Following the short’s completion, Sở thú Studio organized an exhibition to showcase the items and props featured in the film. They were even kept in their workspace as treasured keepsakes. The plants used in shots still thrive, and some props now beautify the team’s work desks. “Before we started, we knew that no matter which production, wastage is unavoidable. We try to minimize creating new trash by making use of old things.”

After Vượt Thành Axima, the studio is working with a number of third-party entities on “green” projects. Most recently, they collaborated with national broadcast channel VTV4 to create the animated short Kevin lạc trong thế giới văn hóa.

Trailer: Vượt Thành Axima.

Sở thú Studio hopes to inspire audiences to play their part in improving the environment. To them, making movies from such materials is not anything too major, but simply an act of living green from the smallest life choices, ones that everybody can do together, starting from their own routines — cut down single-use plastic, reuse second-hand items, or bring a water bottle for coffee orders, etc.

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