In 2012, Prapas Cholsaranont directed a 3D animation movie called Yak the Giant King based on the Thai animation film Ramayana about two robots on opposite sides of a conflict which lacks any purpose that they can remember. In 2015, Lionsgate re-released the film with English-speaking actors like Bella Thorne and Russell Peters, under the direction of Melanie Simka. I recently caught up to the director from Orange County to discuss The Giant King and her work in animation.
Simka, who studied film at Chapman University, says she fell in love with movies early. “I got into directing animated movies several years ago, and I haven’t looked back. I love the purity of animated movies and family films in general. There is something that speaks to your heart in them, and they are timeless. I also think what we show our children is important, and love to think that something I did might have taught or inspired a child in some meaningful way. You know, sliding doors and all that!”
The director told me that she looks for films that make her immediately want to tell their story, and that character is important when it comes to inspiration. “Most films I feel like I can embrace and love, and make into something worthwhile,” she said. “But if I didn’t feel that way, I would say no thank you. And I have. I think that’s important. Rob Schneider and I have talked about this subject, about how important it is to be discriminating in what you do, and have standards, for yourself and your pursuits. I think that’s critical. This business can swallow you whole if you lose perspective, of why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you love about it.”
I asked Simka how she went about taking a film that had already been made and ‘translating’ it into an English-speaking film, and how she then filled out the vocal talent to fit the characters.
“The process is extensive,” Simka admitted. “First, we get the job to make the movie. Then we have to rewrite and cast the entire thing, from the stars to the tiny little voices throughout. For the star/name roles, we work with the studio to decide on the right actors for each part. For every other part in the movie, I have a lot of flexibility and freedom on who I want to bring into it. I have been known to recast if I’m not feeling it, and the studio at times has done the same. The animation and picture are almost never changed, save for the foreign written words that may be in the movie, changing them to English. For example, signs and newspapers.”
Wondering how much input Simka had from the original writer/director Prapas Cholsaranont, I asked how she formed the team that helped her on the creative side of things. She told me that she had not had the opportunity to speak with Cholsaranont, and admitted that she would like to direct an animated film from scratch at some point.
Simka said, “It’s an amazing process. As for the scripts, the very first things I get are the movie and the script, directly translated from the foreign film. I like to watch the movie with subtitles first and have a fresh mind. Then I decide on the writers on my writing team who I think would be best suited for it, and I supervise the writing process: first giving general ideas to focus on, and then giving feedback along the way. I encourage totally rethinking the movie and seeing all of the possibilities and then I end up changing a lot in the booth as well, because I work best that way, re-writing and adding lines on the spot, while directing the actors.”
“We usually stay relatively true to the original story,” she continued, “but I like mixing it up also. Some things are more “needed” fixes, like making the dialogue more ‘Americanized’, changing humor etc, but I love the idea of being able to just look at the movie and see all the ways it can change and become its own creature, so to speak. I’ve often liked the idea of changing a character entirely. Their personality, their story, anything.”
The Giant King has plenty to say with big themes: about the Earth, and consumerism versus preservation, about befriending people who are strangers (even threats) to you, and about recognizing that the ‘truth’ you think you know might not be the ‘real’ truth. I asked Simka what she thought about the messages included in the film.
“Themes and lessons are such a big part of what I love about family movies and animated movies specifically,” she said. “I think there is always something to learn. For The Giant King, the main one that I focused on, is being true to yourself. It is an incredibly easy idea to talk about, but perhaps hard to follow through on. The robot world in particular lends so well to the idea of having ‘programs’, which we all do, whether it be from parents or friends or government, etc.”
“This idea is something I see in the scarier moments with the tiny robots in Zork’s head, trying to manipulate him and get him “back on track”. These symbolize the individual programming we have about life and the world and who we ‘should’ be. And it takes effort and maybe a little bravery, to fight it and stay true to who you are.”
“Another part I love is when Pinky does her ‘Dear Hard Drive’ thing. I see that as how we can “re-program” ourselves by what we say to ourselves and how we view the world. And the theme of what makes a good friend is huge, and I think that it is another important thing for kids to think about.”
“There is also the way that we can have a tendency to group people together, and judge them based on that. I love when Pinky is wondering about how a guy like Zork can be a danger to everyone..based on what she’s been told, based on being ‘broken’. Seeing a whole group as one way instead of seeing the individualities in them, can be a dangerous thing in the real world, and there are hints of it in The Giant King.
So, I wondered, what are the other films of Simka’s that have made the biggest impact on her, that tell stories that show something of The Giant King’s heart?
“I think my films are similar in that there are great lessons in them for children,” said the director, “and for everyone really. Of course the stories and the characters, the humor, and the animation are all very unique to the individual movies. I love working with comedians and try to have at least one comedian in every movie. I also love working extensively with the main characters and trying to turn them into someone multi-dimensional and interesting.”
“Legend of Kung Fu Rabbit is with the late Michael Clarke Duncan, as well as Jon Heder and Tom Arnold. It has some of the greatest most heart warming characters. It is a story about a quest. And about change, bravery, friendship, and loyalty.”
“Snowflake The While Gorilla is a movie I directed that I truly love. It has David Spade, Ariana Grande, Christopher Lloyd, Nathan Kress, Jennette Mccurdy, and Keith David. It’s about a white gorilla who hates being different from the other gorillas. It is similar to The Giant King in parts, following the themes of friendship, not judging others, and being true to and feeling good about who you are. And that being different can be a good thing. Snowflake is the only movie I’ve done that is half-animated and half-live action. I think the animation is gorgeous but of course, I think they’re all beautiful. The cinematography in the live action world is stunning as well. Because of the dubbing another language over live people, unfortunately, it can never be as perfect as it can be with animation. So some parents don’t understand that and focus on it too much, and I think that’s sad, because in my opinion there is so much to love about that movie. Luckily kids don’t seem to even care at all!”
Simka also has directed movies like Wings and Frog Kingdom with stars like Josh Duhamel, Rob Schneider, Hillary Duff, Keith David, and Tom Skeritt. The first appeals more to boys with its look at planes and dreams, while the second tells the story of a forced marriage and a princess’ desire fight for her independence (which also stars Bella Thorne).
And then there’s Simka’s latest, Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-Cellent Adventure. “It is a silly, interesting and fun movie that is about a rooster trying to save his farm,” she said. “But it’s also a movie about bravery, loyalty, having faith, friendship, and love. It has a bit more for adults than the others but I think it has a lot for all ages.”
So what’s next for the director and her animation team?
“I’m currently in pre production on 2 movies. I’ve been lucky to work often with Lionsgate and Grindstone, and there are just so many talented people who bring everything together. I hope to continue making animated movies and possibly directing one from the ground up.”
“I also am hopeful to get more involved in the music aspect. I had an original song in Frog Kingdom, that i co wrote and that I sang, and am excited about doing more original music in the future.”
“I’m open to other challenges and adventures as well, so who knows? There are so many actors I would love to work with, and so many stories I’d love to tell.”
If you haven’t seen Lionsgate’s The Giant King, I encourage you to check it out!