To make its first interactive graphic novel, specifically for online audiences, SBS has adapted the title short story in Nam Le’s hugely acclaimed anthology The Boat. The result is emotionally moving and intriguing. It’s also hard to describe: despite film, television, magazines and books now being consumed on a range of hardware there has been limited genuine creative experimentation with form.
“It’s an important foundation narrative about the Vietnamese diaspora,” says SBS producer Kylie Boltin of the unanimous choice to license Le’s story about a girl sent alone to Australia. To retell it she approached US-based Australian illustrator Matt Huynh and Sam Petty, who has won awards for his sound design on Animal Kingdom, Somersault, Balibo, and many other films.
*Ed's note: The Boat has been nominated in the Cutting Edge category in the prestigious international Favourite Website Awards (FWA). If you like The Boat, you can vote for the site until September 29 here.
“It [Le’s story’ made me very cognisant of how fortunate my friends and family were to be the beneficiaries of compassionate, open-hearted people and policies, and how easily they could've been in the dire, undignified situation that many asylum seekers face today,” says Huynh. His parents, like Le’s, were Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia by boat. He wasn’t born then, whereas one-year-old Le was on the journey.
“This work's tremendous ambition is to have a privileged, lucky audience see themselves within the most vulnerable and desperate people: the challenge of bridging this ocean pumped this old story with emergency.”
"The result is strange and powerful. More importantly, it opens up new ground.” – Nam Le
Huynh said it was an advantage to do the work from his Brooklyn studio, a long way from where he grew up in Sydney’s Cabramatta: “For the longest time I struggled with how to engage this personal history and stories of identity and race, but being away freed me up from that neurosis and let me pull more from memory, emotion and the strengths of the comic’s medium.”
The viewer scrolls down in SBS’s iteration of The Boat, consuming the story at his or her own pace – although there is also an auto scroll option – hence the “interactive” description. He or she will probably pause, take a side trip, perhaps scroll back up too. The text and images sway and jolt in unison with the boat in the story and the wind howls. Arguably, it’s the movement and sound that makes The Boat so unbook like and gives it such urgency.
“Mood, literacy, curiosity and the available time will dictate how fast a viewer will go,” says Petty. “I’ve had to break up what I do into very specific moments that relate to a particular drawing, extend the mood for as long as someone lingers and provide atmospheres that blend into one another. It’s been fascinating… and quite a technical challenge.”
He talks of conveying the claustrophobia of being at sea, crammed into the hold, at the mercy of the elements. The biggest challenge has been doing justice to the story and the beauty of the writing, he says.
“I’ve been going for sounds that are symbolic and evocative without being too complex or layered; finding the essence of the mood.”
Giving audiences a 20-minute experience was always the aim. The finished work contains 300 illustrations – 59 of which include custom animation, FX and/or layering – but first Huynh illustrated the whole story with thumbnail sketches. About a third of the text of Le’s original 49-page story remains.
“The more we work with the form the more we came to appreciate that the images can do a lot of the heavy lifting,” says Boltin, whose close collaborator at SBS was Matt Smith. “We tried to both pare back the text and elevate the image. The primary goal was to make it engaging.”
It’s been a “delicate” process to “find the kernel of the story and the narrative beats”.
“We wanted to experiment, to create something that surprises and amazes. The intersection between art and technology is where the story comes to life – and in unexpected ways.”
Le wasn’t much involved – his choice – but has told Boltin this: “The result is strange and powerful. More importantly, it opens up new ground.”
Huynh had written several graphic novels and talks eloquently about the “poetry” of the form and how “wonderful” it is for introspection. He rarely uses others’ source material and hadn’t collaborated quite like this before but clearly valued how motion and sound gave him a bigger palette with which to give audiences passive engagement, moments of “aggressive clarity and noise” and everything in between.
“[I had to keep] a macro view of the project whilst simultaneously being in the trenches, physically occupied with the labour of drawing each line.”
This new version of The Boat has chapters, archival photos and footage, and a hauntingly beautiful song performed by TuyetLe Tran, a singer and casual producer at SBS. It is now available online, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
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Watch artist Matt Huynh introduce The Boat, here: