Update/Correction: Paul Denham Austerberry, who won for Production Design for his work on The Shape of Water, is biracial Asian Canadian, so there were seven Asian and Asian American nominees this year. We also congratulate Kazuhiro Tsuji for his win for Best Special Effects Makeup and Robert Lopez (who is Filipino American) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s song “Remember Me” from Coco for their Best Original Song win.
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In 2015, when April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which eventually became a campaign for diversity and representation in entertainment, she laid out a “10-point plan for change,” that included employing screenwriters of color, diversifying Academy membership, and encouraging viewers to be more conscious about films they view and whether they seeking out perspectives different than their own.
“It was always meant to include all marginalized communities, so while there have been strides being made by black filmmakers [with Get Out and Mudbound] this year, AAPI and Latinx communities are still lagging behind,” Reign said. “There’s so much work that still needs to be done.”
The lack of Asian nominees in the Acting and Directing categories sheds light on the disproportionate amount of Asian American stories being made to even be considered for nomination in the first place. That said, this year has brought some victories for Asian Americans behind-the-scenes, including the critical success of Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, which was nominated for the Writing (Original Screenplay) category and Robert Lopez (who is Filipino American) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s song “Remember Me” from Coco, which is nominated for Best Original Song.
Previous nominees Kazuhiro Tsuji and Ren Klyce were recognized again: Tsuji for Best Makeup in Darkest Hour, and Klyce for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
There are also two first-time nominees in the animation categories: Ramsey Naito got a nod for Best Animated Feature as the producer of Boss Baby and Ru Kuwahata was nominated for Best Animated Short Film for Negative Space, co-directed by Max Porter.
And a Chinese American family, the Sungs – who own a family bank in Chinatown, New York that was the only financial institution to be indicted in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis – are the inspirational subjects of Steve James’ film Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which is nominated for Best Documentary Feature (this film was funded in part by CAAM).
Also worth noting in the Best Animated Short Film category: Gennie Rim is a producer on Dear Basketball, directed by Glen Keane based on a poem by Kobe Bryant. And Bin-Han To is a co-director of Revolting Rhymes by Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer.
This year’s total of six nominees of Asian descent is about average, says actor and filmmaker Chris Tashima, an 1998 Oscar winner for his film Visas and Virtue who has been paying close attention to the progress of the community since he started a Wikipedia article keeping track of all the Asian Academy Award nominees over ten years ago. That was before the issue of diversity was on anyone in the Academy’s radar, “other than those of us [people of color] who were always kicking and screaming about it,” Tashima jokes.
Now that the industry is listening, creatives and activists of color have ramped up their organizing. Tashima is working with the Academy Asians Action Committee (AAAC), a group of Asian American Academy Members, to figure out how to best use their platforms to elevate their fellow Asian American creatives. Reign just launched her new initative Akuarel, a database that lists creatives by race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability with the goal of making it easier for organizations achieve equity in their hiring processes.
But in the meantime, as we anticipate March 4th’s Oscar ceremony, we celebrate. We speak to Kazuhiro Tsuji, Ru Kuwahata, Ramsey Naito, and Ren Klyce about their work that earned them Oscar nominations this year.
(four of six Asian or Asian American nominees this year)
Kazuhiro Tsuji (Best Makeup, Darkest Hour)
Kazuhiro Tsuji is a makeup/special effects artist, nominated for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. He’s been nominated for an Oscar two other times: in 2008 for Norbit, and 2007 for Click. He also created the silicone model of Brad Pitt’s head for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, helped turn Jim Carrey into The Grinch for Dr Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and did special effects makeup for Planet of the Apes – before leaving the film industry to pursue his solo art projects.
You actually stopped working in the film industry years ago, but Gary Oldman talked you out of retirement to do the makeup for Darkest Hour. How did he convince you to come back?
Kazuhiro Tsuji: He told me that if I take this job, he would do the film. If not, he would give it up. I told him that I would like to think a little bit, because I had made a decision to leave the film industry, and I couldn’t just easily go back to the film industry right away, because it would feel like I was betraying a decision [I made] for my life. But my first inspiration for being a special-effects makeup artist was when I read an article about my mentor Dick Smith doing Lincoln makeup on Hal Halbrook [for the 1976 miniseries “Lincoln”]. And I never had the chance to work on that kind of [job] during my film career. So I thought this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
What were the most challenging aspects of turning Gary Oldman into Churchill?
KT: It was really difficult because, they don’t look like each other at all. The proportions and everything is different. Also, with Gary, it was challenging because when people get older, their skin becomes soft and stretchy. If I put makeup pieces on the skin of a 20-year-old, the piece moves really well with the face. But in this case, as soon as he starts to move, the piece [becomes visible], so I had to decide what was the minimum amount I could put on him to make him look like Churchill. So I positioned a fake chin, bringing his neck forward and the chin up to make his face look shorter. We shaved his head and made a wig to change his hairline and head shape. Lots of subtle changes. We used platinum-cured silicone, which is a very soft silicone that can go onto his skin and move with him very well. And on set, the makeup was applied by David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick. It took them 3 hours and 30 minutes every day.
Ru Kuwahata (Negative Space, Best Animated Short)
Ru Kuwahata is an animation director, who is nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Negative Space alongside her partner Max Porter. Together, they work together as Tiny Inventions, and this is their first Academy Award nomination.
Can you tell us about what inspired Negative Space?
Ru Kuwahata: The film is based on a 150-word poem [of the same name] by Ron Koertge. We saw the poem online and thought we thought it’d be really cool to turn it into an animated film. I also had a personal connection, because my father is a retired airline pilot, so he used to be away a lot for 2-3 week spans. and he had this meticulous packing list he followed. So it reminded me of my childhood.
For this short, we were in France for 9 months, making it with a French team, French producers, and French funders, which was amazing. It was our first time working in France. Everybody was so passionate and poured so much energy into the film. I really can’t be happier about it.
How do you and Max work together to create your films?
RK: We’ve been working together for 11 years, and our working process is like a conversation. We write together, draw together, bounce off each other. Sometimes I’ll make a drawing and he’ll make a revision, sometimes the other way around, so who knows whose idea it originally was? But in terms of technical specialties, I’m a bit more in charge of design and prop/setting building, and Max does more of the cinematography and editing, so I’m more responsible for the front end, and he’s more responsible for the back end. I can’t imagine making anything without him these days. I always joke that we’re a printer and scanner in one. If one thing doesn’t work, everything breaks. [laughs] So far, it’s working out.
Ramsey Naito (Best Animated Feature Film, Boss Baby)
Ramsey Naito is the producer of Boss Baby, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. She previously produced The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie and was the executive in charge of production for films like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Rugrats in Paris: The Movie. This is her first Academy Award nomination.
How did you get involved in Boss Baby?
Ramsey Naito: Short story is that I’ve known [director] Tom McGrath for almost 20 years. We’re good friends who always wanted to work together, he was working on Boss Baby with the writer Michael McCullers, and he needed a producer. When I read the script [based on the 2010 picture book by Marla Frazee], I was so excited, because I’m a mother of 3 kids, and when my third child was born, my second child was 7, just like Tim Templeton, and there was a lot of sibling rivalry in the family. So I just felt like this is so relatable, not only for me personally, but for mothers, for families, for everyone who’s ever had a sibling, or had fear of competing for love.
Were you involved in the creation of the Asian American baby Staci, voiced by ViviAnn Yee?
RN: [laughs] It is possible I was an influencer there, being that I’m Asian American. The movie is about brothers, and there is this young baby squad, because the boss baby has a playdate with 4 other babies, so we talked a lot about how we could bring diversity and comedy and cuteness into that group. So it was a great great opportunity to make one of the babies Asian, the triplets were African American, and we had a big chubby baby who was Polish.
It was important to us that we cast someone Asian American to voice Staci, because she’s an Asian American character, so we saw 10-20 people for the role, and ViviAnn was the best!
Ren Klyce (Best in Sound Editing, Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Ren Klyce is supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer and musician who has been nominated for seven Academy Awards. The most recent two are this year’s for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He’s known for working with frequent collaborator David Fincher on everything from Fight Club and Se7en to Mindhunter, currently on Netflix.
When you were a kid, George Lucas was editing THX-1138 next door and your godfather was a voice actor in it. What does it mean for you to be working on Star Wars years later?
Ren Klyce: My godfather Henry Jacobs was at the forefront of sound and music recording and manipulation, before the term “sound design” existed. His influence on Walter Murch contributed to the evolution of film sound. Given this special connection, and having been a huge Star Wars fan growing up, makes my opportunity to have worked on The Last Jedi a dream come true.
I also read that you got to explore the set while they were in the beginning of the production of Last Jedi. Can you elaborate a little on how that helped inform the sound?
RK: It was not only helpful, but a lot of fun to be able to visit Rian Johnson on set. We got to touch and hold all of the weapons including the light saber; Michael Kaplan’s costume design- where we could touch the fabrics, clothing and shoes; and Neal Scanlan’s creature shop and crew, where we were able to get a sense of scale of some of the larger creatures. In the film, Rey trains with Luke Skywalker on an island, where indigenous half fish – half humanoid creatures reside. We got to see all the props that were made as part of their living huts, for example fishing nets and wind chimes.
When I met Rian for the first time it was on the set of the gambling casino on Canto Bight. It was incredible to see this massive set-piece. It was the antithesis of the gritty cantina scene in A New Hope with its opulence, sparkling excess and bling – and Rian wanted the sound to reflect this aesthetic. These experiences exploring the sets absolutely helped inform the sound.
Do you have a favorite sound sequence in Star Wars: The Last Jedi?
Ren Klyce: When initially reading the script, one of the scenes that I was most excited about was when Rey goes into the mirror cave. It felt metaphysical, spiritual, and unlike anything I’d seen in a Star Wars film previously. From the moment that Rey crawls out of the water and approaches the mirror cave, Rian really wanted the scene to be laid out vertically. When Rey touches the mirror, Rian wanted that moment to be the kicking off point. On that edit, the entire soundtrack that we were creating would change. We used a lot of natural sounds for this scene. Recordings captured underwater, sounds of ice, ocean kelp and other organic sounds. There are a lot of sonic textures that were fun to create.
When Rey snaps her finger, that sound of the snap was done editorially with just a finger snap lined up to the picture. We panned it, added reverb, and moved it in the mix. Rian stripped away more of the sounds that were originally in that scene to open it up.
Lastly, John Williams composed a beautiful textural piece of music for this scene. The combination of the music, sound effects and dialogue took a long time to craft, and there was a lot of back and forth with picture editor Bob Ducsay. We would send tracks back and forth and it was a great collaborative process that helped us to discover this special scene.
ON THE OSCARS
Kazuhiro Tsuji: When I started doing special effects makeup as a hobby at 17, it was my dream to win an Oscar. Of course! I think it’s one of the goals for anyone who’s involved in the film industry. I don’t think anyone doesn’t care about it. [laughs] It’s not the final goal, of course, but it encourages many people to work harder and to have a dream.
Ramsey Naito: Oh my gosh, I’ve been watching the Oscars with my mother since I can’t remember when. My mom was a hippie who was against branding, against pre-made coloring books, because she wanted me to draw my own pictures and be creative in my own right, and I wasn’t even allowed to watch TV, because she didn’t want TV polluting my brain. But I was allowed to watch The Oscars. Because for her, film was an art form. And for me, as a kid, the silver screen was magic.
Ru Kuwahata: When I watched The Oscars as a young girl, they were so glamorous. It never felt like my goal or anything. It seemed like a different universe. I’m used to like small animation community or small film festivals that are not that glamorous. You don’t have to think about a dress or anything. It’s surreal that people from my middle school are watching my film. It’s like I’ve entered a new dimension.
There’s been some talk about how there still isn’t much representation from Asian and Latino artists at the Oscars this year. Often conversations about representation center on higher-profile actors and directors in the industry, but what has your experience been like in your field?
Kazuhiro Tsuji: I have a few friends in the industry that are Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, and they are some of the top people. [Race] shouldn’t matter, and I hope that some day, we won’t even care about this sort of thing. But especially in Hollywood, the superficial is really important, so I’m sure there’s a difference between what we do [in special-effects makeup] and what actors have to go through.
Ren Klyce: The Last Jedi is really bringing to light previously underrepresented groups in Hollywood. It was fantastic to see Asians, women and people of color represented not only as supporting roles or in the background, but as main characters.
Ru Kuwahata: In a way, gender and race are less apparent in animation. Sometimes you meet an animation filmmaker, and you think, “I didn’t know you were this skin color or this gender.” I never felt like being Asian or female held me back, but I also work with my husband as a co-director, so it’s hard to say what it would be like if I were a solo director or co-directing with another female. So in a way, I didn’t really think about it.
But after the nomination, I realized what I was representing. I realized I was linked in all these categories, whether it was an Asian nominee, a woman nominee, a female director, a woman of color. I was always feeling like I was chasing after a role model, but after the nomination, it hit me in the head that I’m not this debutante anymore, that I’m in this place where people of the next generation can look up to me and that felt really good.
Ramsey Naito: In animation, what we have to be careful about is stereotypes because we are talking about caricatures. So it’s very helpful to have people of different colors and and races working behind the camera to react to the designs we’re making. If we’re making movies for everyone, the people making the movies need to represent everyone.
The big animation studios, like Dreamworks and Pixar, are pretty international, so we have people all over the world working in animation. But where animation could do better is with women. 70% of animation students are women, but only 20% are getting hired. The last time there was a woman-directed film was Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Kung Fu Panda 2. So the gender gap is pretty big. Not to mention women of color.
ON THEIR PERSONAL FAVORITES
Ren Klyce: I am rooting for Phantom Thread. I love the quiet moments in that film, and the sound design in the eating sequences between Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Reynolds Woodcock and Alma (Vicky Krieps).
Ramsey Naito: I’m really rooting for Jordan Peele. I think Get Out is amazing on so many levels. Someone asked me which of the other Oscar nominees I’d choose to do a crossover with Boss Baby, and I said Get Out, but that would be kind of weird. [laughs]
Kazuhiro Tsuji: I’m really happy that Gary [Oldman] is nominated and winning so many different awards, there’s so many awards out here I didn’t even know about that he is winning. I’m really happy for him because he’s never been recognized this way and he deserves that.
Ru Kuwahata: I hope people who like the Oscar-nominated shorts also go out to their local animation festivals to check out other kinds of shorts. Every festival has their own taste, so if people check out other festivals, there will be a whole other crop of films that they can be introduced to.
Ru Kuwahata, on being a part of the community: I want to tell people who want to be a part of the indie animation community to feel welcome, because it’s extremely friendly, generous and supportive. We wouldn’t be here without the outpouring of support we’ve gotten from film festivals, organizations, funders, and old colleagues who kept motivating us to keep making stuff. I hope I can help as much as people have helped us.
Ramsey Naito, on speaking up: I take offense whenever Asian American roles have been given to Caucasian actors, which has happened a lot in the last five years. I think it’s really despicable, really unintelligent and doesn’t represent where I think we are as an industry or or where we should be. But I think Asian Americans are speaking up, and other people of color have come to support Asian Asian Americans, and I do feel like it is making a difference. There are a lot of movements holding people responsible for their behavior and their moral and ethical decisions.
Kazuhiro Tsuji, on pursuing your passions: Make sure you know what you want to do, give your best effort, and keep going with it. The thing is, if you know what you love to do, then you’re lucky, because there’s so many people out there who don’t know what they want to do. So don’t waste time. Keep working on it, work harder than anyone else, and that will make each person a great artist.
Ramsey Naito: I just started working at Paramount Animation as an executive a couple months ago, and I’m helping to develop their new division, so that’s exciting. We’re also working on new Spongebob movie, which will be a love letter to Spongebob that will coincide with their 20th anniversary.
Kazuhiro Tsuji: I’m planning to do my solo art show in Japan in 2020, so I’m preparing for it. If [I was offered] another interesting film project that I think is important, I wouldn’t refuse it, but ideally, I’d need to keep creating my fine art pieces.
Ren Klyce: I look forward to collaborating again with Fisher Stevens on his upcoming documentary. It was extraordinary working with Fisher on his previous documentary Before The Flood about the climate crisis. His latest documentary will further explore this critical issue.
Ru Kuwahata: We just got accepted to Torino ScriptLab to develop our first feature script. It’s going to be about my personal story. I moved to California when I was 16, so it’s going to be about a 16-year-old Japanese girl who moves to the US to attend a private high school. The film will explore different cultures, what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be the only Asian — all those good topics.
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Ada Tseng writes for Public Radio International and NBC News Asian America, and she’s the former editor of XFINITY Asia, Asia Pacific Arts and Audrey Magazine. She hosts the podcasts Saturday School and Bullet Train, and she’s the creator of Haikus With Hotties.
This article is made possible by Comcast. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.