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Khoo Siew May

Khoo Siew May

Meet Singaporean illustrator and animator, Khoo Siew May.

Image by: Marvin Tang

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am your typical Singaporean girl-next-door, who is blessed to be able to illustrate and animate as a freelancer/permalancer for a living. My curiosity and hunger towards life drives me to be a lover of many things. When I am not busy with work and nerding out on the latest and coolest work from the cinema, Behance, and Vimeo, I spend my time hanging out with my loved ones, my guitars, PlayStation, books, traveling and exploring with my camera. Some might say I have too many hobbies, but I think I’m just passionate about living and exploring life.

 

Describe the city you’re living in and what it’s like to live there.

Singapore is a garden city that has a very sci-fi looking cityscape. It is full of greenery and our streets are very clean. The country is also very small, so it is very quick to get from destination to destination compared to bigger countries. The longest distance from one end to another is about fifty kilometers. Singapore is also known to be very safe to live in and you can expect to travel here with a peace of mind even until the wee hours, since most of the citizens are quite well taken care of and we don’t have to struggle as much to make a living compared to other countries where homeless people are so prevalent. I love the diversity of Singapore and my experience traveling to other countries so far has made me appreciate how harmoniously the different races are living together here. As we are exposed to different races and cultures since young, it is very common to hear the locals mixing theirs or each other’s mother tongues and dialects into our country’s common language –English. Personally, it brings about a great sense of warmth whenever I hear my friends from other races mix in a bit of my mother tongue when we converse.

 

Singapore is a garden city that has a very sci-fi looking cityscape.

What is the best and worst thing about living in your city?

The best thing is, of course, the diverse cuisines we have here and how safe the country is. These two are neck and neck in terms of which is best. The worst thing, in my opinion, is the high standard of living. Our cars and houses, in particular, are very expensive to own as compared to other countries.

 

Give us 3 words that describe what it’s like to be a creative in your city.

I can only speak for the commercial scene in Singapore since I am not very well versed about the fine art scene here: Repressed, safe, progressing.

 

How did you start your career in art?

Both my parents worked when I was little and I was put under the care of my aunt until I was six. I was quite isolated from other kids at that age since we hardly get to go out and I spent most of my time doodling Sailormoon and drawing random stuff. When I was in primary and secondary school, I started to draw for my friends because my drawings seem to make them happy. Naturally, I chose to study animation for my diploma as I thought it was more sustainable than fine art and I can still do what I love– draw.

 

However, I was disappointed by the lack of art when I was getting my diploma as it seemed to me that there was a high focus on 3D and software skills, such as Maya in particular, which is very understandable since the goal of a polytechnic is to prepare the students to be industry-ready. There is, up until today, high demand for 3D and VFX skills over here in Singapore. For my degree, I initially wanted to major in Visual Communications since I already obtained a diploma in animation, but the school saw that I could draw and I was placed into my third choice– Animation, which in retrospect, I didn’t completely regret going through again. It was around that undergraduate period that I discovered Good Books “Metamorphosis” by BUCK and “TOMS// The TOMS Story” by Giantant. I immediately fell in love with that kind of work and I dreamt about working for those studios. Inspired and wanting to do something of that quality, I began to do lots of motion graphics related freelance gig during school holidays and going for internships, which led me to working for two different well-known studios in Singapore after graduation, before finally becoming a freelance/permalance illustrator and animator today.

 

I immediately fell in love with that kind of work and I dreamt about working for those studios. Inspired and wanting to do something of that quality, I began to do lots of motion graphics related freelance gig during school holidays and going for internships, which led me to working for two different well-known studios in Singapore after graduation, before finally becoming a freelance/permalance illustrator and animator today.

Were the people around you supportive of your decision on working as a creative?

I am fortunate that my family was not against the idea of me being a creative, although there were doubts about whether I will make enough money to support myself in future. The stigma that becoming an artist or being a creative means that you will have a harder life is very common in Asian countries. Almost all Asian parents will want their child to live life well by becoming either a teacher, scientist, engineer, lawyer or doctor. I have some friends who have left the creative industry and even encouraged me to leave too by citing how much more money they could earn by working for banks and not have to work crazy hours. Well, my brother works for a bank. His working hours are as crazy as a studio’s life and he is not earning a crazy amount of money too. For me, it’s not about being able to earn an excessive amount of money, although it would be wonderful to have! So long as I can continue to do the things I love to do, have good health and can live comfortably, I’m happy. I’m very blessed and thankful to have parents who would rather see their children happy and healthy than to force us into an industry where we won’t feel fulfilled.

 

What are some goals and ambitions you have for your future work?

I have many goals and I add them organically through the years based on what is revealed to me about myself through time. To state a few examples, I would love to be able to work with my idols–BUCK, Giantant, OrdinaryFolk, and Oddfellows one day. I don’t mind working as their oldest intern even! As long as I could learn and collaborate with them, that is enough. The dream project would be to create a meaningful and cool illustration or short animated film, that touches the heart of many, that could shine the limelight on things that are obscured but requires the attention of the world and it would be a dream if I could work with people that I love working with and are smarter than me.

 

The dream project would be to create a meaningful and cool illustration or short animated film, that touches the heart of many, that could shine the limelight on things that are obscured but requires the attention of the world and it would be a dream if I could work with people that I love working with and are smarter than me.

If you could collaborate with any person in the world who would it be?

I don’t have a specific person that I would want to collaborate with, but I think it would be very interesting to collaborate with someone outside of my field, such as coding, architecture, furniture design or robotics. To me it’s important to cross-pollinate if I want to create a work that is fresh, cutting edge and different, which can be harder to achieve if it’s with people of the same field. I am very inspired by Gmunk’s “Box” because it is a perfect marriage of design and technology. In my personal opinion, I think the final output is totally mesmerizing, fresh and inspiring. I would love to be able to create a piece as powerful and as cutting edge as that.

 

How would you describe the women around you?

The women around me are strong yet gentle, radical, compassionate, smart and patient. My mother is a great role model to me. She is a clerk, my dad on the other hand, was a senior engineer. Both of them worked at a shipyard. A few years ago, my family underwent a financial crisis. My dad was let go because he had reached the retirement age and the company decided that his expertise was no longer useful because computers and machines could now do his job. He tried to work as an Uber driver once, but that job was not meant for elderly people because of two things: self-entitled explicit language using passengers and the incredible amount of energy required to focus on the road. At that age, it was very tough to have people hire him or to work in a more dignified job. It was a very tough time. We even had to cancel our subscription for newspapers because it was too expensive for us to afford. My mother and I were the only ones supporting the family at that time. In the end, we were able to get out of debt because my mother gave up a large portion of her hard-earned savings that was for herself, to help clear the debt. That incident completely put my mother into a different perspective and I saw what it means to be a woman in a modern time — instead of men saving women all the time as depicted in a lot of books and movies, women now are as capable as saving men. She taught me to be independent, strong yet gentle, frugal, and not to wait for prince charming to come and do the saving.

 

The women around me are strong yet gentle, radical, compassionate, smart and patient.

Were there any local female creatives that you looked up to when you were growing up?

I looked up to one of my closest friends, Audrey Yeo a lot, who is also currently an art director at BUCK. We knew each other since we were in polytechnic. I learnt so much about the importance of being very curious and being passionate about life, to work smart because sometimes, we do not necessarily have to work until we bleed all the time. Sometimes, it is a matter of taking the time to step back and see if there is a better way to work yet achieves the same result we want. As much as we need to work hard to master our craft, I learnt that we also have to set aside time for play. It is very true that sometimes as creatives, there is a tendency to become very insular, which is not bad in itself, but anything that is too excessive is potentially unhealthy. As a creative and as a storyteller, we need to know what is going on with the world. We need to go out to see and experience things in life so that we have something that is interesting to tell or problem solve through design.

 

Are there any challenging aspects of being a female in your industry?

Fortunately not for me. So far, the people I have worked with have all been very respectful towards me as a female. What I do find more problems with is with my youthful appearance despite my age, which is a blessing and a curse for Asians. In my experience, people tend to link youthful appearance with experience. The younger you look, the things you try to talk about may seem less credible even though it is a fact and you have done your part by cross-checking with many cream of the crop and experienced professionals. As much as I love to be myself in front of everybody, my experience has taught me that there is a need to have a spectrum of yourself depending on the circumstances you are in. I can’t emphasize the importance in knowing how to posture yourself in such a way that people will not think you are a pushover, be it in a studio or having to meet clients as an independent creative. I used to be an incredibly shy person, filled with anxiety. Ever since going solo, and probably this is something that comes with experience and age, I have learnt to sound and be more confident about myself. Confidence is so important because of the need to give your clients and bosses the assurance that you can deliver the work, particularly if you want to sell an idea. Knowing how to balance humility and being confident without coming across as arrogant is a craft and also of paramount importance in the industry. Nobody wants to work with difficult people after all and words get around very quickly.

 

I would advise women, even men, to see themselves and the opposite gender as simply a human being. Just work hard and be a good person. Go into the industry with a heart to learn and be open. Learn to detach yourself from your work and be open to criticism.

Do you have any advice to young women who are aspiring to work in your field?

In my personal opinion, the key is to never limit yourself and your capabilities as a female, or even a male, in the professional industry. When we categorize ourselves into genders, it creates division among people, which is problematic. Limiting yourself or someone to gender is a very narrow-minded way of thinking and we may risk becoming very self-entitled if we do that. I would advise women, even men, to see themselves and the opposite gender as simply a human being. Just work hard and be a good person. Go into the industry with a heart to learn and be open. Learn to detach yourself from your work and be open to criticism. I know creatives can be touchy when it comes to criticism, but from what I have gone through, criticism can be a win-win situation and it is not a negative experience all the time. If a senior creative criticised your work, most of the time they have a valid point and it improves your work or it fits the brief better. If a client criticises your work, find out what is it that is not working for them, if you think their feedback does not work, learn to suggest, explain and show why it does not. Getting emotional about your work being rejected does not solve anything. If all fails, just go with their requests since the project is for them after all and they are happy to have their requests heard. My experience is, if my client is happy, I am happy. Practicing this advice is a craft, don’t expect to master all these in a day. It took time for me and I’m still trying to perfect it even today.

 

 

Photos courtesy of Khoo Siew May.

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