Not that long ago, Phanuthep Sutthithepthamrong (or just Phanu) was a forest monk in his native land of Thailand. Years earlier, he had worked in the Thai Film industry earning him credits on several animated films; but after burning out from movie-making, he checked into Buddhist monastery for a two-week meditation retreat that never ended.
After spending five years as a monk and earning degree in Buddhist studies ( in the Theravada tradition), Phanu traveled to the United States in 2011 in pursuit of a PhD at Ohio University. As part of his studies, he enrolled in a one-month seminar at Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages in Berkeley. During his stay, he toured Dharma College, where he was introduced to Barry Scheiber and Pema Gellek of Guna Foundation. Once learning about the foundation’s intention to create an animated film about the ancient transmission of Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet, Phanu knew that his talent and experience as an animator would be of particular use.
“Anyway, making a movie feels more real to me than earning a PhD,” he explained in an interview with Berkeley Times.
Now, Phanu is the one-man animation department at Guna Foundation, located on the second floor of Dharma College in downtown Berkeley, where he is working on the upcoming film, The Great Transmission.
According to the animator, it was Pema Gellak’s telling of the story that touched his heart and inspired him to volunteer: how in the 8th Century, more than 200 Tibetan lamas set out for India, and how just a few more than 100 returned with translations of the Buddha’s teachings. Despite the ordeal of their travels, the transmission of ancient knowledge is what preserved the wisdom of the Buddha. That’s because the once great Buddhist universities in India were eventually sacked and destroyed.
It’s an epic story. Accordingly, the film is animated in epic fashion. In The Great Transmission, there are close to 20 animated sequences – each developed from photographs and carefully researched recreations of historic sites. Every aspect of this film reflects the underlying beauty of the ancient knowledge. It’s an aesthetic with many details, and one that would not be possible to create without modern software technology.
Making of the film
The making of The Great Transmission started with a reading of the script, which had been co-written by Gellek and Julia Witwer. From the script. From the script, Phanu developed an outline to help him imagine scenes. Then, with the help of the Internet, he studied historical images, photographs of geography; and cultural references. Thumbnail sketches were drawn and scenes developed on rough storyboards, and then improved by the entire team. With the completed storyboards, a timeline was developed.
Much of the research (and collection of images) for the film was completed last year. The actual work of animating the movie scenes began in January; and Phanu remains on track to complete the film in July 2015, when Guna Foundation intends to release the film through independent means.
How does one man animate a breath-taking beautiful feature-length film? Using novel technology and by combining many traditional techniques: camera projection, green screen, and matte painting to name a few. Specially, Phanu had relied on Autodesk’s Maya +3ds Max, leading edge software that was specifically donated for the project by Autodesk. He also has relied on other software tools: Photoshop, After Effect, and Nuke.
In this way, a talented forest monk from Thailand has recreated a hero’s journey on a modest budget…here in Berkeley.
“The purpose of animating this film is to make this story more accessible,” said Phanu about the project. “Hopefully, a wider audience will see this film, and see how essential this story if to all mankind.”
To see a trailer of the film or to make a donation to help fund the release of the film, go to gunafoundation.org
(Berkeley Times/ Vol.5, No.12/ April 23, 2015)