“Live, From New York, It’s (an Animated) Chinatown!”
By Jennifer 8. Lee, The New York Times
Published: August 27, 2008


A realistic portrayal of New York City’s Chinatown can be seen in a new animated movie, “The Year of The Fish.”

The independent film, which opens on Friday at the Angelika Film Center, is an adaptation of a Cinderella-like Chinese fable by David Kaplan. The film was shot in live-action, then adapted with rotoscope animation. That process creates realistic scenes of Chinatown — from the lion dance in the Chinese New Year’s parade to senior citizens performing tai chi in Columbus Park to the neighborhood’s open air markets. The shots of the corners, nooks and crannies throughout Chinatown are instantly recognizable to New Yorkers.

Mr. Kaplan explained that it is actually quite hard to film shots of Chinatown in live-action movies. “As soon as you try to create that with the casting of 101 extras, it is never going to be quite the same. There is always going to be this artifice,” he said. “People told me that Chinatown was a very difficult to shoot. When you bring in a big production team and lock up the street and bring in all your extras, then all the local businesses lose a day’s work. Not everybody is happy to see a movie roll into their block.”

But rotoscope animation — which traces over the video frame by frame — gave the crew memers freedom to shoot with a much smaller set than a live-action movie. For one thing, they didn’t have to bring lights which stops traffic. They didn’t need to use extras or get releases from passersby for street scenes because the animation would render the people anonymous. And, the handheld camera meant that they could go into tight places — like right into the middle of a Chinese New Year’s parade.

“This is stuff that you can’t really recreate,” he said. “It was sort of like shooting in the greatest biggest studio lot. It has this authenticity.”

Because they didn’t need to lock down any streets, the film crew was quite mobile, sometimes operating with only a van. “We were able to do multiple company moves in a day, literally walk from spot to spot,” Mr. Kaplan said. It kept the actors, who were used to waiting around during standard film shoots, busy.

In many ways, “The Year of the Fish” was shot more like a documentary, with Chinatown as a backdrop. The crew shot about 80 hours of film, which was condensed to 90 minutes.

The screenplay, an updated version of an old Chinese folk tale, tells the story of an illegal immigrant girl from Guangzhou named Ye Xian, played by An Nguyen, who comes to New York City to earn money to support her family and ends up in a massage parlor. When she refuses to do sex work, she is forced to do the laundry, cooking and chores. But she finds solace in a magical fish given to her by a strange hunchback woman.

“The Year of the Fish” played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, and now, Mr. Kaplan is the middle of making another New York-themed film, “7 to the Palace,” a Bollywood-themed project shot in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Mr. Kapan said there was one clear advantage to shooting “The Year of the Fish” in Chinatown: the food. “We decided not to cater,” he said. “We were able to give everyone $10 and they were able to go off have lunch and come back in an hour.”