The First Two Weeks

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I’m doing something scary and new. I’ve moved to Indonesia for two months to work after a large number of us were retrenched or didn’t get contract renewals in Cape Town. It seems like it’s as good a time as any to do something like this, considering the rate at which I’m approaching 40 and the likelihood of an opportunity like this coming up again if I don’t take it now. The worst part of all was having to leave my family (1 x girlfriend, 2 x kitties) behind. In five and a half years we’ve not been apart for even a single night, and now it’s going to be a cold turkey 2 month period. At least the end is decided on so we know exactly how long it will be, but it’s still tough – far, far tougher than I ever thought it could be.

So I’ve done it and I’m here and it’s great so far. Apart from missing my family, it’s great. And apart from the heat. And the humidity. But that’s it. I think.

Weighing up the options on whether to go or not was a lengthy process. Once we’d agreed that I’d do it, we knew that departure day would be really tough. There were lots of important things to sort out first like my passport, life insurance and making sure other people know the wifi password. The last week was the start of packing and that’s when it hit me that I was actually going. We discussed for a few days how best to handle departure day (should I get a shuttle, should we go inside the airport, that sort of thing) and we eventually agreed that it’d be best for me to be dropped off outside, try say goodbye as quickly as possible and then run in before I chicken out. Anybody who knows me is aware that I’m openly emotional about things and I cry when I’m sad. To say that I was blubbering would be an understatement. It took a bit of time for me to regain enough composure to take my sunglasses off and walk up to the check-in counter and speak to someone. Leaving your best friend and constant companion behind is never an easy thing and it still hurts two weeks into this journey.

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I flew on Emirates via Dubai (as one does), which I was really, really looking forward to as I’d get to compare the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A380 to each other. Despite being a much older plane, I found the 777 to be a better experience. There was a bit more legroom and the seat felt a bit wider too. Unfortunately my personal TV screen started acting very strangely with about 3 hours left of my flight, but at least I was comfortable. The food was also better on the first leg to Dubai.

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Speaking of which, nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – could have prepared me for the organised chaos that is Dubai airport. I’d heard it was big and busy, but clearly nobody had used enough big words for me to truly understand the scale of it all. Luckily the terminal for my connecting flight was only a 15 minute walk away, but some gates require a bus and about 45 minutes. It’s all very well signposted so you can find things if you apply a bit of logic and take a minute to read the boards. The shopping area was absolutely manic though. It made me think of Sandton City as a cheap, quiet hovel by comparison. So many brands, so many shops, so many things to buy, so much of dollars needed to buy them. The shops (even the expensive, exclusive ones) were packed. I didn’t see any shops without at least a bit of a queue in them. The one that struck me the most was watching all the Europeans stocking up on as much booze as they’re allowed and getting a bit feral about it too – as if this is the last time they’d ever be able to buy a drink before the apocalypse arrives. So many-red nosed, veiny-cheeked British travellers (who probably should’ve cut down a while ago!) going nuts over not having to pay tax on something that’s visibly doing them harm was a bit strange to witness among the sea of well-dressed, beautifully-complexioned Arab men and women buying expensive watches. Also, climbing off the plane at 00h35 when the temperature has cooled down to 36 degrees is not great either after being in a sealed, air-conditioned cabin for 9 hours. Free wifi everywhere and some great coffee spots made up for that though.

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The flight to Singapore was a bit less pleasant than the first leg. Apart from the slightly reduced legroom, I had a lady on the aisle seat who fell asleep pretty much as soon as we boarded – and I was desperate to have a pee a few hours in! She just didn’t move and eventually I was watching her closely to see if she was actually breathing. The other strange thing on long haul flights is the artificial introduction of sleepy-time for everyone. I always get a window seat and I love to watch the world outside. Even at night there are things to see, but despite being dark outside, the flight attendants keep insisting that the blind must be closed. They had some funky lighting to simulate a different day/night cycle to what was actually happening outside, and seeing that my sleeping patterns are already irregular and out of kilter with what’s considered normal, this really didn’t work for me. It was sunrise outside (which always energises me after a long night awake) so I was raring to go and looking forward to a good sized breakfast, but it never came as the rest of the plane had been put to sleep. When they all were eventually allowed to wake up, it was four hours after sunrise and I was absolutely ravenous! So they served lunch and this is what I got:

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I’d always heard the food on Emirates was fantastic, but being vegetarian I normally order a fruit platter so that I get fresh food that’s tasty and not mass-packaged slop. On British Airways, the portions are always very generous and very fresh. Three crackers, a solid, not-completely-baked croissant (a third of the size it should be) and five little pieces of fruit (with cold storage burns) is not a great meal, nor is it actually meal.

Arriving in Singapore was a relief after that flight. I learned a few things that’ll be useful for a smoother experience next time. Firstly, the wifi is free, but you have to go to a little desk/pod thing to get an access code. I didn’t realise that until after I was already standing in the queue for passport control and didn’t want to lose my place. When I got to the passport control officer, I learned the second really important thing: there’s actually a little immigration form you need to fill in before you get to the desk. As you go down the stairs to passport control, there’s a bank of stations on the right with the forms and pens to fill them in. Thankfully I wasn’t the only person caught out by this, but it would’ve been better to know beforehand that this is required. That’s the only bit of inefficiency I’ve experienced in Singapore so far, and it’s fairly minor.

Once through, I got to the luggage collection belt and my bag was just coming around as I got there. What’s really cool is that people waiting for you also know what conveyer belt your bag will be at so they can wait for you in front of the correct doors. Very clever that.

Sean was waiting for me as I came through and it was super great to see him gain. We’d worked very well together before, so he’s the reason I was offered and took this gig. We spent some time at the airport getting coffee and having a quick catch-up, before heading out to the city to see some stuff. Getting a SIM card is super easy too – no forms necessary, just your passport is needed. Pop it in your phone and you’re good to go immediately – none of this ‘wait six hours for activation’ crap we have to deal with back home.

We went to the Funan Digital Mall and spent a few hours browsing around there. It’s basically a mall built for me – computer, camera, game and digital shops over four or five floors. All busy, all well-stocked and all affordable. We also grabbed some food there. I’m pleased to report that my first meal in Asia was a pizza with the Goo Goo Dolls playing over the radio. It felt like home, and that actually sums up what it’s like to be in Singapore: it does feel like home. Everything is familiar, most people speak and most signs are in English, the people are super welcoming and friendly – not that fake, overly sweet, sugar coated sense we often get from staff who’ve had to be trained to be nice, but rather genuinely friendly responses. You know that thing where somebody smiles and their eyes light up too? That. That’s what I keep seeing and experiencing in Singapore (and Indonesia). It’s a really good introduction to Asia as there’s a lot of Western influence and accessibility, so it’s not as much of a culture shock.

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Getting to the island I’m staying on (Pulau Batam, which is part of Indonesia’s 10,000 little parcels in the ocean) requires catching a ferry from Singapore. The Tanah Merah ferry terminal is close to the airport and is accessible by taxis and a bus service. The ferry costs SG$46 and takes about half an hour. Coming in at night was a very strange first experience as the Singapore Strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. There are thousands of ships waiting for a mooring to collect/deposit their cargo in Singapore. These moorings are pre-booked and charged for by the hour, so none of the ships hang around in port for any longer than they have to. It’s a strangely disconnected feeling to be travelling between them at night in the mist and seeing the eerie glows stretching way off into the distance. If the ferry wasn’t so loud I honestly thought I was having an out-of-body experience.

Coming in to the island at night is pretty cool but also a bit disconcerting as you have no idea of directions and locations and distances of things. Sure you can see stuff, but it’s easy to miss many of the details at night. The walk to the passport control counter is mostly uphill, so after a lot of travelling and jaunting around Singapore, this was a bit tedious with my luggage. It’s not actually a problem, just that little bit of extra slog after a long couple of days. Passport control on Batam is much more relaxed than in Singapore and it moves really quickly – also because there are a lot less people coming in here. Really cool thing for both Indonesia and Singapore is that with my South African Passport, no visa is required! That means I can easily go from one to the other as often as I like. I actually get 30 days to visit in each every time I go in and the passport has to be stamped as usual, but it makes getting around the region so much easier.

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The place I’m staying in is called Nongsa Village and the houses are built in the traditional Indonesian wooden style. They’re also paper thin and there’s not much attention paid to creating an airtight fit for any of the doors or walls, which really just adds to the charm. It’s one of those things where it’s actually so hot, closing all the gaps to the outside will make almost no difference. In many of the houses you can see through the floorboards to the ground – which in some cases is about 5 metres below. Now don’t think it’s shoddy and crap looking because it’s not. It looks really good and the houses are constructed very sturdily, but there’s a wider tolerance for measuring than what we would deem acceptable back home. What would’ve been a good addition would be some form of insulation in the walls to help block the heat somewhat. Thankfully all the rooms are air conditioned and many people leave theirs on almost permanently.

The drive to work is fantastic. We get a golf cart to ride around the resort in and as a result can take a short-cut across part of the golf course that lies between home and the office. Here’s a Hyperlapse of my very strenuous morning commute:

The place I’m working at is Infinite Frameworks. They’re a large, very well-known Singaporean company that also has facilities in Indonesia. There’s also a film studio here with two large sound stages and a decent size backlot for shooting outside. They also have a special FX and set building facility on site. I’m in the animation building though, where we have capacity for around 300 seats. Currently we have about 180 people working here and they’ve all been super nice so far. (You’ll notice a trend here – everybody I’ve met so far has been wonderful!) There’s an experienced team of 3d artists who’ve won a number of awards for their work on shows like Peter Rabbit and despite being on average quite young, there’s a passion to learn and deliver that’s sometimes missing from places I’ve worked at back home. There’s a good feeling in the studio and I don’t get the sense that there’s much they can’t do.

I’m helping set up the 2d pipeline for a new show and my team is even younger. We have a group of interns who are still at school and have to do maths and Mandarin homework too. (Another cool thing is how diverse the studio is: we have people from Indonesia, China, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ireland, Jamaica and South Africa working here.) Most of the people in this group of forty have only recently been exposed to animation and are already producing shots that are ready to drop into episodes and be broadcast. The Animation Supervisor is a mad-but-lovely Irishman called Denis and he’s been giving them tons of useful tuition on drawing and animation that’s really helped to push them quite far in a relatively short space of time. I’m confident we’re going to nail this.

The studio itself is fairly big, but well air conditioned and with proper access control. It’s by far the most impressive setup I’ve seen in terms of scale compared to all the facilities I’ve been to back home. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to take pictures inside due to contracts and things, but it looks great.

One of the benefits of working here is that we get fed twice a day: lunch is at 12h00 and dinner is at 17h00. I was admittedly a bit apprehensive about the food here as I’ve not experienced it before, but those fears were completely unfounded as I’m loving it! As luck would have it, we have a group of Buddhist animators who are vegetarian, so I get the same food they do and it’s really, really good. There are things that the kitchen staff does with tofu and mushrooms in particular that leaves me dumbfounded almost every day. There’s a good deal of chilli in the food as well, but it’s well-flavoured and just under my heat limit so that’s good. The staff are all surprised that I’m enjoying the food and the chefs keep trying to make other things for me like pasta, but what I’ve had so far has been fantastic so there’s no need for special orders for me. Here’s a sample from my first couple of weeks. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of rice and a lot of chilli.

In getting to know people that I’ve met it strikes me how there are two things they know about South Africa: Nelson Mandela and Die Antwoord. Pooh. Nelson is obviously great and well known, so no comment necessary there, but Die Antwoord? Seriously? I did cause some upset when I explained to someone that it’s all an act and they’re actually not so tough and come from good families, etc. Illusion well and truly shattered.

One of the last things I had to buy before I came was a travel plug. Unfortunately in SA we use the stupid big round plugs which don’t fit into anything else easily. I eventually found an adaptor for Indonesia, with which I’ve taken the girlfriend’s Japanese MacBook Pro plug to make it work. Unfortunately, the resort I’m staying in and the company I’m working at is Singaporean, so they put their standard plugs everywhere! What’s that about the best laid plans? Right.

I met some really cool people at the local bar in one the resorts, which is affectionately called The Prison. Nobody’s quite willing to tell the story of how it got it’s name, but I have time to find out. There is a group of mostly Scots who work for another part of the company in various sectors. Vinnie is a big man with tattoos and shoulders that are hairier than many people’s heads. Jim and Jackie have been living abroad for 40 years but still sound completely Scottish. They’re truly marvellous human beings with hearts of gold. Billy is completely unintelligible to me. His Scottish accent is so thick that you can only nod and smile and hope he’s not actually telling you a sad story! It’s made a bit worse by the fact that he speaks softly. Lovely chap though! Then there’s Huey. Poor Huey chose to go to Thailand instead of home to Scotland for his three weeks off the oil rig because he and the missus and an argument. He discovered that what happens in Thailand really should say there as he unfortunately posted some pics of his shenanigans on Facebook and the missus is now an ex-missus. Apparently Batai is the place to go if you want to be single.

We’ve had a few school tour groups coming through the studio this week. It’s quite cool seeing their perfectly pressed uniforms and everyone behaving so well, until they all started sniggering and quietly laughing at me. Sean walked in ahead of me and they didn’t react, so it wasn’t just because I’m a Westerner. It happened a few times and eventually I worked out why: I was wearing shorts and it turns out hairy legs are a massive cause of amusement around here as it’s not something that’s commonly seen. Felt kinda weird for a moment but it’s all good. No, I haven’t shaved them in an effort to fit in, in case you’re wondering.

I’ve been to Singapore a few times now and I can best describe it as a new, grand, clean, beautiful and functioning version of Durban. It’s hot and humid, but so incredibly clean and pretty. The people are just fantastic too. But most of all I’m in love with their public transport systems, partly because they actually work and partly because they’re really affordable. I took five trains and a bus in one day and it only cost around SG$4.50 (about R45). The payment system is great too. You load a plastic card up with money and tap on a terminal thing every time you get on and off a bus. For trains, you tap to go to the first terminal, and even if you change trains a couple of times, you only tap out when you leave your last station. The cleverest thing of all though is that the little boom gates at the terminals that let you in don’t have to close after the previous person in order for you to get through, so when there’s a large number of people moving through, they basically all tap while they’re walking through and there’s no queue buildup waiting for a turnstile to swing around.

I spent Sunday in Singapore with a group locals who work for the same company but in the Singapore office. We met at the DC Superheroes Cafe in the Marina Bay Sands shopping centre which is a real treat! The theme is all DC comics and there’s a great shop with many clothing and other items for sale. But it’s also a cafe with food and stuff, where everything is named after DC characters and places. Not cheap, but really, really cool. From there we went to the Dreamworks exhibition at the ArtScience Museum. It’s part of a travelling show that’s been here for a while, but is closing in a week so I got here just in time. There was a lot of really cool content to see, including original concept drawings and maquettes of various characters and scenes from all of their films. There were a few videos on some of the processes too and it was generally well laid out. Some of the sections included some clever projection of the story process that were a treat. The highlight of the show, by far, was the widescreen showing of a flight on Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon. It starts off with a script being written on the screen, then shows some storyboarding, then adds 3d models and camera moves and textures and lighting. Throughout this the screen is getting wider and wider and wider and wider until you can’t actually see all of it in your field of view. Seriously impressive. We actually remained seated (lying down on some beanbags) to watch it again immediately. I know this word is so over-used nowadays, but I’m taking it back: epic. This was epic. Your breakfast was just a breakfast. This was actually, literally, definitively, epic.

I stayed in the city hoping to be able to catch some of the F1 which was happening later. I couldn’t find a last minute ticket so went hunting for a viewing spot. The vibe in the city was incredible. Such a good energy with so many people being there for the race, but even those that weren’t, weren’t perturbed or put out by what was happening. I got the sense that everybody was happy about this thing, which essentially shuts down some of the major streets in the city. Thankfully the trains still run so you can actually still get almost everywhere. I found a really good spot on a balcony with a view of a corner while the Porsche Cup race was on. But then the balcony was closed for a private event and I had to move away but couldn’t find another vantage point. The city is locked down tight for F1 to ensure Bernie makes as much money as possible, it seems. Hotel and hostel prices were also through the roof for the weekend so I decided to grab a ferry back to the island. I made it in time for the last one at 20h30 and managed to see the last 20 laps of the race. It was always a gamble, but I’m glad I tried. I did manage to drive along a section of the track a few days earlier though:

There are a more few imports coming over the next few months to join various projects here. Dianne has just arrived from Jamaica (she’s the Production Manager on the 2d show I’m working on), Dexter arrives next week (3d pipeline tools dev from South Africa) and Chris arrives in November (CG Supervisor, also from South Africa). As I am the first of us to arrive, I got to choose the house we’ll all be staying in. I looked at six and chose the nicest and most convenient one. It’s close to the parking lot so that when I get my motorbike I can get to it easily (as will Chris when he gets here). I also got to choose the best bedroom for myself, obviously 😉 Here are some shots of the village – the last one is my house. It’s a really great place to live.

This is what it’s like when it rains here. It’s like having a hot shower outside.

At the end of my second week I’ve just had a look at some new shots from our very young 2d team and they’ve learnt so much in a really short space of time and are producing some great looking shots already. I’m very excited by what they’ll be able to achieve. The passion and the drive here is real and is not something that can be taught. It’s such a vital thing to have and I miss it back home where for most people it really is just a job. For these guys and girls though, it’s a different story and that’s so, so encouraging. It’s certainly going to help make the time away from my loved ones a bit easier.

 

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