The Illustrations

Ask for the Moon has wonderful illustrations and cover art, created especially for the book by Rebecca Stewart. Prior to working on this book I had never collaborated with an illustrator before and I found the process both fascinating and rewarding.

Why illustrations? Why not just stills from Shaw Brothers films?

It felt important to have images in a book about a visual art form like film but, working with a tiny budget, I was concerned that I couldn’t afford to pay fees for copyright licences to use stills from the films. Perhaps, more importantly, Rebecca and I both agreed that it just didn’t make sense to populate a book that had innovation as its overarching theme with reproduced images. We felt that illustrations that were an original response to the book’s content would better honour that overarching theme.

Choice of illustrator.

I was delighted when Rebecca offered to illustrate the book. In many ways she was the ideal artist for this project. I have known Rebecca for years, and we have collaborated before but in completely different roles and on a completely different project, never as writer and illustrator.

I have long enjoyed looking at Rebecca’s artwork and knew her to be an extremely talented artist, with a particular passion for illustration. Pertinently, for a book dealing with a kinetic art form like martial arts movies, she has an instinct for drawing movement: Rebecca is a mad keen fencer, training and competing regularly, and, prior to this project, I had seen many of her dynamic sketches depicting fencers in training.

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Rebecca’s illustration inspired by Come Drink with Me.

Rebecca also started off her professional career as an animator and is highly film literate, so she quickly got the ways in which the filmmakers I was wanting to talk about in the book – Lau Kar Leung, King Hu, Chor Yuen, Chang Cheh – were exceptional.

The Process.

Rebecca came on board a few months before the completion of the writing of the book. She read the second draft, we had quite a few meetings to discuss the ideas I wanted to write about as well as the aesthetics of Shaw Bothers films, and I supplied her with a collection of images that I felt typified these aesthetics. These included screen shots from the films themselves, digital images of marketing collateral harvested off the internet such as posters, lobby cards, and Shaws’ own fan magazines.

Rebecca did her own research, unearthing gems such as some terrific photos of Sir Run Run Shaw which inspired her caricatures of him in the book. Of course, she watched DVDs – I was gratified to find that The Magic Blade went down particularly well – and found clips from the movies on YouTube. I remember her telling me that, as a preparatory exercise to get her eye in, she was working through a fight scene from The Five Venoms on YouTube by stopping it every few moves and doing some sketches, when she had an epiphany as to just how beautifully complex the choreography in these films can be and realised what had been inspiring me about this aspect of martial arts filmmaking for years.

Every few weeks Rebecca showed me some of these preparatory sketches to check if I was happy with the way the illustrations were shaping up. I was intrigued, and excited, to see that Rebecca was modifying her own style to ensure that the illustrations for this specific book were complementary to the tone and aesthetics of Shaws’ films. Check out Rebecca’s Instagram page to see the style of other drawings in comparison to the work she did for Ask for the Moon.

So, all in all, the process of working with an illustrator was a wonderful process, both for the creative companionship such a collaboration can bring as well as having a suite of images that add another layer of meaning to the book.

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Interview on Bedrock Games Podcast

Brendan from Bedrock Games recently interviewed me about my book for the Bedrock Games podcast. We did the interview via Skype and struggled with the internet connection somewhat (like most Aussies, I was quick to lay the blame on our woeful internet speeds) but otherwise it was a really fun conversation. Brendan really knows his wuxia and shared some great questions and insights.

If you are a fan of the martial arts movie genre then the Bedrock Games blog and podcast is really well worth checking out.

If you want to listen to the podcast, then you can find it here.

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Brendan is a big fan of Cheng Pei Pei, as I am. This illustration by Rebecca Stewart was for the chapter about ‘Come Drink With Me’ in my book.

Why ‘Ask for the Moon’?

“The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing.”
~ Shaw Brothers Studios director Chor Yuen

Someone recently asked me why I called my book Ask for the Moon.

By Rebecca Stewart
Cover design by Rebecca Stewart

Ask for the Moon is part film criticism, part history, part musings on the nature of innovation. It describes a daring adventure in filmmaking, both creatively and in terms of business and production models. Entrepreneurialism, as demonstrated with such flair by producers Run Run and Runme Shaw, and martial arts movie making, as demonstrated with equal flair by the likes of filmmakers like Lau Kar Leung and Chor Yuen and others, might seem like odd bedfellows, but at Shaw Brothers these two seemingly disparate things came together in a venture that saw benchmarking films massed produced. This venture was a success – Shaws films are vastly entertaining and have left a rich legacy in terms of filmmaking and social history in Hong Kong. As a business, the studio was equally successful: Shaws dominated their industry both as producers and distributors for more than two decades and made money hand over fist.

Shaw Brothers Studios constituted a daring experiment in filmmaking, and an experiment that worked. One clever thing that Run Run Shaw did when developing the Studios was to pool good resources so that they were handy to support his filmmakers; as the above quote from Chor Yuen points out the resources he and his fellow filmmakers could draw on were “amazing”.

I am not good at titles, and actually only came up with the title for this book shortly before we started typesetting it. Illustrator and typesetter Rebecca Stewart had to keep reminding me that we needed one!

In the end I am really happy with this title. While it does allude to that amazing level of resourcing that Shaws were able to provide, I think it also captures the aspirational nature of what was being undertaken at Shaw Brothers Studios, by entrepreneurs and filmmakers alike. Shaws films are exercises in confident filmmaking and unmistakeable in aesthetic – they are bold, imaginative, dynamic affairs. Mind you, there was a downside for creative people who were working under Run Run Shaw’s tight and all-seeing direction at his studios, and I discuss this in the book as well. But the aspirations to make great entertainment were always there, and I’m glad I thought of a title that could pay tribute to that.

The Heroic Ones

“The history of The Heroic Ones gives an impression of magnitude.”

Thus, states director Chang Cheh about his movie The Heroic Ones, an action-packed saga about a clan of warriors in historic war-torn China, in his memoirs. The Heroic Ones was also a title I considered co-opting for the book I wrote about the people who worked at the studios where the film was made – Shaw Brothers Studios as I wanted a title that spoke about the adventures of a group of people. Now, my book is not about people involved in a war or a fight; it is about people engaged in a business and creative enterprise, namely the making of martial arts movies. But the history of Shaw Brothers Studios and their filmmakers is such a fascinating one, and quite epic in scale, that I think it could be seen as an adventure in its own right.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Chang goes onto say about his cast of characters in The Heroic Ones:

“It is about how a bunch of relatively barbaric people who are loyal, forthright, crude and brave… become embroiled in a culture so ripe that it has begun to rot.”

The real-life characters in my book were not “relatively barbaric”; the Shaw brothers and their directors were well educated and learned. Whether or not they exhibited the qualities of loyalty, forthrightness, crudity or courage varied from individual to individual. But culture certainly played a part in their organisation’s story, as it does in the story of any enterprise.

“They succeed because of their unique qualities, yet they are also victims of the conspiracies of ‘civilised men’… bringing themselves to their own tragic downfall by slaughtering each other.” ~ Chang Cheh

No one in the Shaws Organisation slaughtered anyone else – they left that kind of shenanigan to the characters in their films. And it can’t be said that Shaws had a tragic downfall. While it’s true that they ceased film production in the 1980s, they then morphed into other avenues of business and indeed had always maintained different business interests throughout their history. Shaws has always been willing to diversify. But the successes of Shaws and their filmmakers did come about because of unique qualities, including the ability to adapt and to innovate.

I have a confession to make: I don’t actually like the movie The Heroic Ones. I find the characters a bit too crude and barbaric; I can’t engage with them and find it hard to care what happens to them as they busily get on with doing horrible things to each other.

So, it took me by surprise when my brain suggested to me that this could be the name of a chapter. But I entertained the idea. I’d wanted a title that referenced the gloriously over the top films themselves, and a reading of Shaws’ achievements does give “an impression of magnitude” that the title suggests. Furthermore, The Heroic Ones is about a group of people – a family and their retainers – and how the dynamic between them shifts and changes as they respond to external challenges. My book is about a family (a group of brothers) and their retainers (the filmmakers who worked for them) doing the same thing. The glaring difference between the characters in the film and the real-life characters in the Shaws adventure are their fates: the characters in the film seem to be caught up in a kind of nihilism; they are destined to churn through various macho tropes that inexorably lead them into danger, conflict and, for most of them, gory deaths. The Shaws and some of their filmmakers, on the other hand, had a spectacular talent for creating entertaining films that saw them prosper.

In the end I went with another title for the book… Why I did this will be the subject of my next blog.

Extract from ‘Ask for the Moon’

“The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing.” ~ Shaw Brothers Studios director Chor Yuen.

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Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“Strange things happen in the night fog. This is ‘Moonlit Sky’, a well-known scenic place by the shore of the South Sea. During moonlit nights, the waterfall reflects colourful lights, creating a beautiful backdrop. Hence the name. This is a very picturesque place, but there has been a string of strange things happening. People can hear mysterious sounds of zither, but no one has seen the player. Many from the martial arts world have come here for the legend. The strange thing is, no one who comes here ever returns home. After they have disappeared for days, their bodies would flow out from the waterfall.” ~ Opening voiceover from The Enchantress

The Enchantress (1984) starts promisingly with this voiceover; the sets do indeed show a “scenic place” and the gloriously hued “colourful lights”, enhanced by smoke machines pumping out vapour on an industrial scale, set off the artificial rocks, waterfall, trees, and night sky to wonderful effect. Not many seconds after this voiceover does its scene-setting work, the film’s hero appears and wins his first fight. Thereafter, The Enchantress takes us on a wild ride with its story of an assorted group of swordsmen, magically gifted Taoists, and divinities doing battle against an evil vampiric spirit (the titular enchantress). Spells, possessions, ghosts, disappearing mansions, a magic mirror, a visit to heaven, and plenty of sword fights are all accommodated in the plot.

This being a Shaw Brothers Studio film, the production values are fabulous, with exquisite costumes, sets, lighting, and action. Being a film about the supernatural, much of it takes place at night, so shining down on some of the nocturnal scenes, with sets all constructed and used on indoor lots, is a beautiful, sumptuous artificial moon.

As a former arts worker who has worked on many badly funded projects, I absolutely understand the director of The Enchantress Chor Yuen’s tone of wonder in being able to “ask for the moon” and then getting it. During their martial arts movie making heyday, Shaw Brothers made sure that their massive studio, Movietown, was stuffed to the gills with state-of-the-art resources. The brothers were on a mission. Powered by a bold new business model, they proceeded to pump out movies with assembly-line efficiency. Their intention was to flood and dominate the market with handsome films that had artistic merit and made lots of money. To this end, they employed gifted people to work in front of and behind the camera. The finished products were eye-popping entertainment, which bore the imprimatur of the creatively audacious artists who made them and, paradoxically, of a rigid filmmaking template. Shaw Brothers films are unmistakable in aesthetic because of the assembly-line approach, but often contain surprising effects, as Shaws’ artists embedded creative flourishes of their own into the fabric of the films they were working on.

Thus, Shaw Brothers films often show the best and worst of chopsocky; they can be strange compounds of the overblown, the ridiculous, and the hackneyed, while also bearing the hallmarks of cinematic art that has been lovingly crafted with skill and audacious imagination.

This book looks at how Shaw Brothers Studios set up the conditions to support and constrain the creativity of its filmmakers.

From Chapter 1: Innovate or Die, Grasshopper!

If you want to purchase Ask for the Moon then please click here.