What started out as a side project by college students about a chef and a mermaid falling in love in Binondo became a viral sensation.
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Animation has always been the medium for creators to let their stories run free with only their imagination (and budget) limiting them. On one hand, you can find classic tales like the ones in Disney and Pixar that are loved by all ages, and on the other, you can have more mature themes that explore topics you often don’t find in mainstream media. For independent animation studio, Studio Heartbreak, they took a hard left to the latter.
A passion project that has been a few years in the making, The Lovers is an animated film that follows 24-year-old Sara Lim Baylon (Vanille Velasquez), a reluctant seafood chef from Binondo, Manila. As the youngest member of her family to run their restaurant, the Lidagat Seafood Restaurant, Sara faces the daunting pressure to live up to her late father’s reputation and keep the business afloat. When the governor’s inauguration dinner is planned at the restaurant, featuring a sirena (Dawn M. Bennett) as the centerpiece, Sara finds herself drawn into a dangerous affair with the mythical creature.
While it’s sapphic love story set in the Philippines is enough to get eyeballs, the fact that it’s dark fantasy setting incorporates a good dose of local mythology lets it stand out from the crowd. No wonder then that, following the release of its trailer in early May, the film became the talk of social media. Not bad for a project run by a couple of college students.
The Lovers is the first project of Studio Heartbreak, an animation studio started by two college students during the pandemic after they got rejected from internships they applied to. “It started when I was in my first year of university, which was last year. So me and my friend, who I met online, decided to start a studio together as a test or just as practice. It wasn’t supposed to be serious. We wanted to create a project with each other. We just asked a bunch of our other friends to join us and our team started with just six people,” shares A.S Siopao, the co-director of The Lovers, in an interview with NYLON Manila.
The bare-bones beginnings of the studio even reflects in how they operate as a team. While quite a few of the studio members are either based in or from the Philippines, they do not have a physical office. None of the members have even met each other in person. Though, their unique set-up allows them to have a more global background. “Our studio is scattered all over the world. But I think that that came to our advantage because we were able to expand globally and we have a bunch of people from different cultures working on our team.”
So, how does this global team scattered across all four corners of the world communicate with each other? “We basically just do it on Discord. We have our meetings on Discord in the voice channels and our work, like different departments, are organized into different channels. We even get to see each other draw live and we can give feedback live.”
SARA AND THE SIRENA
When Studio Heartbreak began working on The Lovers, they weren’t looking for that film to be the top trending topic on Twitter. It bore out of their first day in a brainstorming session as they imagined what they would do if they had their dream animation studio. “My friend was the one who came up with the elevator pitch for the studio, basically a mermaid and seafood chef. What if we make a story about this? And I was like, ‘Oh, we can make it Filipino too.’”
The two studio heads got to working on the idea, spending their free time after classes to build this film of a chef falling in love with a mermaid, before more team members came on board. For A.S, the project wasn’t special just because it was the studio’s debut, but also because it touched upon her Filipino roots. “I come from Manila. It’s been easier for me to research because it’s a place that I grew up in, live in, and able to observe life here in a more genuine perspective.”
The idea of seeing Filipino representation in media, especially in an animated setting, was too good to pass up. “There aren’t a lot of animated films set in the Philippines. I really wanted to see, since I was a child, my beliefs and people on screen. And this was a project that we were working on as a fully self-indulgent piece. So, we wanted to see things that we had never seen before in this project.”
A ROMANCE IN BINONDO
The film’s Filipino representation goes beyond the characters. It can also be found in its setting which is, among all places in the Philippines, Binondo. As for why Manila’s Chinatown served as the backdrop of this intense love story, A.S Siopao shares that it was a place her parents would take her to a lot as a kid, and also because Binondo, Manila isn’t what you would imagine as the most romantic place in the city. “It’s not something that people would find a lot of beauty. It’s not the easiest place to study or go around in. But I just wanted to celebrate the mundane parts of Binondo and find beauty in it. And I just really enjoy the history of it, too. It’s also really convenient because it’s close to the bay.”
But while it’s one thing to set the story in Binondo, it’s another to capture the proper detials of the eccentric location. And that’s a task A.S and the rest of the team set out to do. As seen in the trailer and other concept art the studio dropped, they managed to add that local spin and incorporate it into the dark fantasy setting. But given how some of the development artists did not live in Manila, they had to make do in other ways, such as using Google Maps and Street View. “It is not an exact copy or replica of Binondo, but it’s more of a dark fantasy. So, we were also able to get really creative with some of the elements.”
Even team members who were living in the Philippines didn’t have the easiest time to walk around Binondo given that they began working on this during the pandemic. They got around that hurdle by turning to trusty YouTube. “I actually live a few hours away from Manila, and it’s the pandemic. So it’s kind of like, still a bit scary for me to commute there. So, what I did is I actually watched a YouTube video of someone walking around Binondo,” shares Gillian, an artist in the studio’s visual department.
She used the videos, as well as her years living in Manila during her college days, as reference to help design the visual elements of the film. “That gave me a lot of insight and references to design, the visual development and backgrounds for the short film, which is super helpful.” It all made for a look that felt distinctly Pinoy for many. “The power lines are super, super bendy, and I think that’s kind of like just a Manila thing. Let’s also put there, for example, a lot of posters about food,” says Gillian, who has a particular fondness for Hopia.
The film’s marriage of sapphic-love-story-meets-Filipino-folklore was also an aspect the team wanted to play around with. Classic monster film was always on the mood board when work began on The Lovers, but also in how it twists the idea of what we think a sirena is. As A.S shares, “I think that there is a lot of intrigue around sirena myths and I wanted to put that into the film. They are supposed to be described as beautiful creatures, but also very dangerous and mysterious. I think having a really complicated romance between those two characters just solidifies that for the sirena character as well, that you don’t really know what she actually wants. Is she actually trying to serenade you? Or does she want to you?”
BECOMING A VIRAL SENSATION
When work began on The Lovers, it was just a group of online friends making a film in their past time. As it went on, the project began making noise and gaining fans. But it really blew up when Studio Heartbreak dropped the trailer and Kickstarter to fund the project. The team was hoping to bank $60,000 dollars in 45 days. But not only did it break that goal in the first day, the Kickstarter also raised over $273,000 with still over a month of fundraising to go. The trailer’s virality and numerous broken stretch goals wasn’t the reception the team was expecting.
“When I was talking to our producers, we were like, ‘Okay, in case this does not go well, we have 45 days for this Kickstarter campaign to run,’” recalls A.S. Initially, they came up with a plan that, in case the Kickstarter did not succeed, they would prioritize paying the animators first with what funds they made. Needless to say, that didn’t push through. “Within the first two hours, we already surpassed the goal. The whole team was just watching it on Discord, watching the numbers rise live, it was crazy. We were like, ‘Why is it going so fast?’ I mean, some people did anticipate it, but not this fast.”
The pressure is real Studio Heartbreak, but they’re more than determined to get the project out. “We have this project we started for fun as internet friends, but I think now we actually have to make sure that we can deliver it. I do believe that our story has so much potential and the people who have looked into the story also believe in it. I do think it’s really solid. It just depends on how we pull it off,” voices A.S.
As to when fans can expect to watch The Lovers in full, that will take a little while longer. During the interview, A.S Siopao stated that we can expect the film around mid-2025, with the reason for the timeline being how the team is composed of either college students or animators/artists who have other jobs that they need to balance. Still, Studio Heartbreak is more than grateful for the support The Lovers and their studio is getting. It wasn’t an easy journey to how they got to where they are now and where they hope to go. They faced their fair share of challenges and, more importantly, lessons learned that helped the team grow as a studio and individuals.
“Even as a leader, you have to have the humility to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing sometimes, because everyone in this studio is learning. So we have to learn from each other. Everyone kind of has to understand each other but also admit when they need help. At school, you’re kind of taught to put your best foot forward, but you should be allowed to show weakness to some degree to the point where you’re being honest about when you need help or don’t know something,” shares A.S.
As for Gillian, being part of the studio taught her that there’s always room to learn and grow. “There was also time that I don’t know what I’m doing. But whenever they give feedback, it’s giving me this motivation to do my best, but also being happy about something that I need to work on. I’m just seeing everyone’s work, and there is already a wonderful and humbling experience, because I learned a lot.”
FOR THE YOUNG ANIMATORS
At the end of the day, The Lovers is Studio Heartbreak’s baby. As their first project, this diverse team is working hard to deliver an animated tale that has a lot of things going right for it. “I think it’s just that it is truly a labor of love,” expresses A.S. “Nobody’s really obligated to work on this project. But everyone wants to and they work on it anyway because they want to see themselves influence a piece of media. That means something to them. And we hope it means something to our audience, too.”
As for her advice for other young animators out there, A.S, who isn’t studying animation in college, wants creators to know that just because you don’t have the means to access the conventional route, that doesn’t mean it’s over. “I’m not even an art school. And my co-director is also not in art school. And the studio in general was founded in a very unconventional way of working on the internet. So, I’d say, work with what you have, be resourceful. And also, do not be afraid to ask other people for help. You might think that the industry is cold out there, but you never know. There’s a 50% chance they’ll say, no, and there’s a 50% chance they’ll say yes to helping you. And most of them are willing to help you because they want to see young people succeed.”
Gillian adds that, while some may fear rejection, that shouldn’t prevent you from following your dreams. As someone who’s faced her own series of rejection, she wants young creatives to embark on that first step. “The journey is not easy but it’s going to be fun and I hope [young creatives] continue to create stories with their skills.”
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