Year of the Fish Comes to the Kabuki

by E. "Doc" Smith on August 22, 2008

Next Friday will mark the debut of “Year of the Fish”, an amazing new animated independent feature film written and directed by David Kaplan, shot entirely on location in New York City’s Chinatown. A modern-day adaptation of Cinderella based on an old Chinese version of the story, it was shot on inexpensive live-action video that was used as a guide for digital painting in post-production. The story is a mix of fantasy, romance, and suspense. A young hopeful girl named Ye Xian (An Nguyen) travels alone to New York City to try to make some money for her ailing father back home in China. She falls into the clutches of Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin), who runs a massage parlor in the heart of Chinatown. But Ye Xian refuses to do the requisite sex work for the clients, so she is made into a menial servant who must do all the laundry, cleaning, shopping and cooking – a Cinderella. However, she finds solace in a magical fish given to her by the strange hunchback Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim) and in her fleeting, tender encounters with Johnny (Ken Leung), a local jazz musician. With a crescendo that takes place at the height of the Chinese New Year – complete with lion dancers, firecrackers, and an enormous banquet in a palatial Chinatown restaurant – Year of the Fish spins the conventions of the traditional fairy tale in ways that are consistently surprising and engaging.

The film features a first-rate Asian ensemble cast including Tsai Chin (THE JOY LUCK CLUB), acclaimed Broadway veteran Randall Duk Kim (THE MATRIX RELOADED), Ken Leung (X-MEN 3, RUSH HOUR) and introduces An Nguyen as Ye Xian. It was executive produced by Janet Yang (THE JOY LUCK CLUB, PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT) and produced by Rocco Caruso (JUDY BERLIN).

Kaplan’s screenplay is based on a 9th Century Chinese variant of the folk-tale, the oldest known version of the story, recorded some 800 years before our better-known European versions. It was developed at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs and was the recipient of a 2005 Annenberg Fellowship.


The animation was created with an advanced algorithmic digital painting technology to achieve a living, fluctuating painterly look. The aesthetic effect is totally unique, less like a graphic novel and more like a painting brought to life. Once the shooting and live-action editing were completed, the animation of YEAR OF THE FISH began. Following in the footsteps of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “Scanner Darkly”, the production was shot and edited on miniDV and then rotoscoped in post production to create a high-definition animated feature film.

“Rotoscoping” is defined as a technique where animators trace live-action film, frame-by-frame, for use in an animated film. It was invented by Max Fleischer as early as 1914 and was later used by Walt Disney to great effect in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. Filmmaker Ralph Bakshi also used extensive rotoscoping in his many animated features.

Kaplan’s film, however, has a very different aesthetic than his precursors, less like the flat colors and clean lines of a graphic novel and more like a living, breathing painting brought to life. Some shots resemble watercolors; others look like oil paintings. The colors move and dance and spill into each other.

Using Synthetik Studio Artist, a digital painting software based on cognitive neuroscience studies into the nature of human visual perception, Kaplan and his small group of part-time assistants were able to work quickly and efficiently, doing with 3 people what would normally employ 40 full-time animators. A single miniDV live-action frame was upconverted to a high-definition painted frame, and that one frame was interpolated into a technique for converting an entire shot. After rendering these shots, Kaplan and his team were able to go back and refine the images frame by frame, add particle effects, and hand-paint details. This entire animation process was achieved on four Macintosh G5 computers and two Wacom tablets, and took only 6 months.

Kaplan was also able to sample the color palettes from some of his favorite artists, such as Van Gogh, Brueghel, and in particular, Cezanne, and then incorporate these palettes into the animation. This gave the overall color scheme a richness and depth unusual to animated fare. The result is a unique approach to the independent filmmaking process, allowing Kaplan to transcend the aesthetic limitations of a ‘video look’ while retaining the creative advantages and flexibility of working at a very low budget level.


Opens Friday, August 29
at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas – San Francisco
96 minutes . Unrated . In English
Official Selection Sundance Film Festival 2007

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart, Jimmy Cliff, and John Mayall among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached at

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