It’s amazing how art and technology can connect likeminded people. This is true for Studio Heartbreak, an independent animation studio/production company formed by two talented Gen Z kids.
They go by the screen name AS Siopao—A is a Chinese-American junior at Yale University while S is a Filipina sophomore student at the University of Toronto. Both are art and animation enthusiasts but the collegiate courses they are taking up are not related to film, art or animation.
“We met on Instagram in December 2021,” 20-year-old S tells us. “I have an art account and she was the one who followed me first. She was like, ‘Oh, I like your art’ and then I followed her [art account] back.” They instantly became a fan of each other’s works and that’s how the friendship began.
Both wanting to gain experience in art and animation, the girls thought of applying for internships in different companies but they didn’t have much luck. Disheartened but not crushed, they later thought, “Why don’t we put up our own studio and do a project together?”
A, a big fan of the animated horror series “Love, Death and Robots,” suggested a premise for a romantic thriller: “How about a mermaid and a seafood chef?”
S, who’s familiar with mythology and sirena stories added to the idea: “Why not set it in the Philippines?” She thought it would be easier to work on something she has a bit of background on, a story anchored on a specific place and culture.
“Sirenas in Philippine mythology, they are beautiful,” says the aspiring Pinay filmmaker, “but they're also kind of feared because you don't know if they want to seduce you or eat you. Those questions go into the dynamic of our two characters.”
S has been to Binondo, Manila several times and she thought it would make for a perfect setting for their short film. “It's a place where we’ve always had lunch before, and I learned to appreciate it since,” she offers. “It's not the sort of place that all people would appreciate because it's not as polished as the other parts of Manila. But then a lot of other artists saw beauty in it.”
She adds, “People just get really inspired by the architecture and the layers of history in that district. It's not a place that a lot of people might find as beautiful, but it deserves attention.” Since Binondo, believed to be the world’s oldest Chinatown, is near Manila Bay, it’s also a convenient setting for the sirena-seafood chef story AS Siopao wanted to tell.
The duo calls their LGBTQ romance-horror short film “The Lovers.” They know it’s not the type of project Disney or streaming platforms like Netflix would be keen to produce, which makes the two young girls all the more driven to do it.
To make their dream a reality, 30-plus artists from around the world—some of them industry professionals—volunteered to produce a trailer so the studio could raise money to independently make the short film. The trailer was launched a month ago on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.com.
“We’re striving for connection with our audience by telling stories that celebrate authenticity and depth, inspired by our real-life, multi-cultural experiences,” the young filmmakers wrote on Kickstarter.
To their surprise, “The Lovers” surpassed the $60,000 funding goal they set within the first two hours of the trailer’s launch. As of this writing, Heartbreak Studio has raised five times their target on Kickstarter. They have also organically amassed a following of 129,000 on Instagram and 102,000 on Twitter. The admiration for “The Lovers” has also spawned a slew of fan art from animation artists across world.
Support from fellow creatives
Where did these two young ladies get the confidence to take on this ambitious undertaking? “I didn't have the confidence to work on this at first,” S admits. “It was just something I wanted to do for fun. It's something that me and my co-director worked on consistently for more than a year. We kept adding to the idea and it just grew.”
S says they definitely had their low points—“where we were hit by imposter syndrome.” And this is where encouragement and advice from industry professionals including Filipino animators Bobby Pontillas (“Rio,” “Moana,” “Zootopia,” “Wreck it Ralph,” “Frozen,” “One Small Step”) and Cynthia Ignacio (“The Lion King,” “Pocahontas,” “The Simpsons Movie,” “Atlantis”) have been a huge help.
“I really look up to Bobby Pontillas. A few years ago, he actually followed me back on Instagram, which freaked me out,” S recalls with a laugh. “So I have that sort of connection to him.” When AS Siopao formed Studio Heartbreak, she reached out to Pontillas to ask for advice and the Pinoy animation director helped them during the early stages of the visual development and ideation process.
Ignacio, for her part, was also “always there to help and send advice our way,” S offers. “Surprisingly, a lot of them are very helpful and want to see fellow creatives succeed in the industry, especially if they're also Filipino.”
“The Lovers” will be released for free on YouTube in 2025, and this early, the team is already talking about the possibilities of screening it in different venues. “I hope we have one in the Philippines,” S says, sounding thrilled. “Maybe in Binondo.”
Images courtesy of Studio Heartbreak