Monday, February 22, 2021

2021 #VWEDU: Thoughts about Looking for Mr Gelam, a short film An invited article by Chris Mooney-Singh. Immersive learning as time travel.


Thoughts about Looking for Mr Gelam, a short film  
An invited article by Chris Mooney-Singh.  
Immersive learning as time travel
A VR-journey back in time to the year 1825. Immersive learning as time travel.


Dr Chris Mooney-Singh is the co-founder of Poetry Slam in Singapore and has mentored three Young Artists of the Year Award winners. He is a Director of a non-profit arts company, Word Forward, located at the Aliwal Arts Centre in Kampong Gelam, Singapore. Mooney-Singh also teaches in the M.A. Creative Writing Programme at Lasalle College of the Arts. His verse novel Foreign Madam and the White Yogi was commended in the unpublished fiction category of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in Melbourne, Australia. This is his first short film.

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Why did you create this film about early Singapore?

Dr Singh:  I was moved to make this film because of COVID-19. We are all living a collective life we hope won’t become a prequel to The Walking Dead. I am exaggerating, of course, but the truth is the world is masked. These are plague times. Neither can we flee from our countries to sprawl on a beach in Bali, Thailand or Australia. That’s where a virtual beach comes in handy. My digital build partner Kaylee West, along with our talented crew of 3D modellers Modee Parlez and Ada Radius and post-production team have recreated one that doesn’t exist anymore. .

I was fascinated to learn that Beach Road at Kampong Gelam, the Malay heritage sector in Singapore once fronted the sea which is now reclaimed land with skyscrapers and freeways. After delving into the history I also came to learn the significance of the word 'gelam', used for boat-building and as herbal medicine use in things like Tiger Balm. There are only a handful of gelam trees left today in Kandahar Street Park and one replanted in 2004 as a nod to history at the Malay Heritage Centre by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, past Minister of the Environment and Water Resources as depicted in the film. I wanted to also suggest that heritage is vital to understanding where Singapore began and that we should also be mindful of preserving the environment, not just in name only. Should we only have street names pointing to history? Ironically, Australian-born but long-settled here, I also recognised the gelam tree as the paperbark gum, native to my country of birth (Melaleuca leucadendra). This makes Kampong Gelam even more significant to me.

Do you have a background in virtual worlds?

Dr Singh:Yes, I have been involved in online virtual communities for more than a decade as places of artistic performance, digital art creation and also virtual education. The pandemic has shown us that online learning platforms have untapped potential to engage audiences. I hope this little film opens more minds. We should use the latest tech to honour our heritage, preserve it and share it freely.

Do you value Immersive Education?

Dr Singh: Yes, yes, yes! Singapore Circa 1825 is set up for virtual learning journeys. For the quite young a virtual world needs to be a secret garden behind secure cyber walls, ideally with a private login portal. When that protocol is met, then the immersive learning can begin. These days due to COVID there has been a rush in world. Our travel options may be limited but not virtual ones. Obviously, the best learning is done outside the formal classroom and that is what virtual worlds are purpose-built for.

Virtual world tech and headsets are cutting edge devices. How do you want others to view your project?

Dr Singh: My hope is that those who see the film will understand why Beach Road and Kampong Gelam are so named. Recreating an idea of an original Kampong Gelam is a powerful cue to remember where we have come from. I am also excited to see how virtual modelling can reinforce telling the story of history. The vast majority of young people play computer games. Why not use the same tech for cultural preservation and virtual education as well as present a new vehicle for virtual tourism? Much of Hollywood uses green screen technology to design film sets because it is cost-effective. In this case, building a virtual model from one small part of historical Singapore, although not simple, served the same purpose.

From a filmmaking point of view modelling 3D locations and characters is practical and cheaper during pandemics. Moreover our modest indie budget could not have sustained period-costume film segments. Digital set design created through a computer game-engine is one of the forms of virtual movie on the cutting edge of cinema today. Our short film thus creates a virtual set in real time. I decided to turn the lens back on history to remind people what we have lost. I hope this little film helps us remember who we are.

Does one need an expensive headset or gaming computer to experience a virtual world?

Dr Singh: There are different kinds of VR experiences that need headsets to experience 360 degree environments. Yes, they are expensive. This 'computer game' style experience only requires a laptop, a reasonable internet connection and is more practical at this point for the ordinary person. Anyone can log into Virtual Singapore,1825 and have an impacting digital learning journey, even a whole class of students can visit it to help visualise the past for virtual storytelling as a film set. As mentioned, online education uses advanced 3D learning games which can impact minds, young and old with great power. In the near future, we will be making this available to the public.

How did you come up with the design? It seems very detailed.

Dr Singh:  I am basically a world builder with ideas and words. I took inspiration from historical writing, period maps, original sketches, and later period historical photographs to try to conceive an authentic environment and styles of clothing. With those resources, I project-managed our team of digital modellers who did their own specialised research, and with great skill turned 2D images into 3D forms. I am all for preservation. This kind of blended reality filmmaking aims to help audiences appreciate their heritage.

Is this virtual depiction of early Singapore true to history?

Dr Singh: One has to piece together Singapore's past with care and diligence and suggest what it may have been like. There is a lack of visual records of those times, so for example, it is clear that the first Sultan Mosque and palace (now the Malay Heritage Centre) are not the same as the present day ones which were commenced much later by European architects blending traditional Malay features. I relied on scholarly research that shows how the first masjids followed original Malay design that reflects the influence of Buddhism’s tiered roofs and Hinduism's square precincts.

What did you learn from this filmmaking experience?

Dr Singh:  Whether scripting a fictional drama that starts on the high rise rooftop of a Singaporean hotel or takes a walk down present-day Beach Road, or shifts into a 3D dimension, all storytelling is world building. If the audience buys into the present and past as real experiences then the film succeeds. A film relies on the ability to realise through imagination people, times and places. The film thus provides a lens into the past for the purpose of envisioning a future that builds on its cultural achievements. This can also have a significant impact on tourism and commerce.

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