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Shaun Tan's Picture Books

In a similar fashion to Maurice Sendak, Tan is taking his fantastical and slightly dark picture books to the big screen.

In much the same way as Maurice Sendak did years earlier, Shaun Tan’s  books have that perfect balance of light and dark that makes them so palatable to adults and children alike. Tan’s ability to render the details of everyday life into the fantastical worlds he creates are the hallmarks of his illustrations and books. And now like Sendak and his classic, Where The Wild Things Are, Tan is taking his work to the big screen.

Dazed Digital: Your stories seem to have very strong, basic principals on the whole. How important is it for you to keep your concepts simplistic?
Shaun Tan: Quite important - at least they tend to evolve that way from more complicated ideas, like a messy ball of string refined into a single key thread. I'd be wary of saying simplistic though, I think essential is a better word because it better suggests something that is both simple and complex. Simple in the sense that there is one fundamental idea or emotional pitch, such as a migrant traveling to a place of things without names, or the overall feeling of unhappiness in The Red Tree. And complex in that those ideas are open to thousands of possible interpretations.

DD: Is that the key to ensuring your books are endearing to both children and adults alike?
ST: I think so. You can read them on any level, and I like the idea that you don't have to know a great deal about the world to enjoy a good story or image, you only have to be interested. The main thing is to create a strong impression of something, it doesn't really matter what that something is. There are sometimes suggestions of historical subjects, artistic movements, or particular events or places but I don't think a reader should have to know anything about those.

DD: You're not afraid to touch on political issues and social injustices. Are these themes premeditated or do they organically fit in as the story progresses?
ST: I've often been asked about 'issues' in books, as if it's a conscious decision, when that's rarely the case. I think what happens is that subjects such as political oppression, injustice, or any abuse of power (which covers most bad stuff), is just really thought-provoking and moving. For instance, when starting The Arrival I was mainly interested in little personal stories about immigrants, the weirdness of their cross-cultural experiences. But inevitably that led to bigger issues, questions of why were they migrating in the first place? Political and social injustice, as a theme, emerged again and again in my research; so many stories were about people were escaping from something. The Lost Thing is another good example of this: it started out as a crazy story about a boy finding an ignored creature and taking it home. At the time I was primarily interested in making a story that was funny and light-hearted, almost nonsensical. Yet the more I played with the idea of this strange unwanted thing, the more it began to 'rhyme' with some political issues in Australia at the time, the rise of neo-conservatism, economic rationalism, and negative attitudes towards refugees.

DD: You're in the process of making The Lost Thing into a film. How does that creative process differ from creating a book for you? Are there elements that you've found to be better or worse?
ST: For a start, film is a lot more work - its means of describing things is very elaborate. If you have a character walking down a street, you have to move them in a convincing way, add sound, and check the timing and so on. Problems of illustration, such as a nose not looking right, are multiplied exponentially when played out across so many frames. By the same token, there's also the amazing facility of this medium - the ability to elaborate on the details, mannerisms and kookiness of a world that is as kinetic as the original illustrations imply. For instance, I always had a sense of how the lost thing moved, a cross between a small puppy and a huge lump of junk, of the ambient sounds of the industrial landscape and so on, things that cannot be conveyed so well using only painted images and written words.

DD: Do you have plans to continue with the film angle and animation or is literature your preferred medium?
ST: I think literature is my preferred medium; I like the scale of it, the economy of it, and I'm quite a solitary person by nature. Actually, my preferred medium is simply painting, just working on singular canvasses that are not especially for exhibition or publication, which can be a freeing thing to do. But I do hope to continue working with film, as long as it is with the right people and projects. I also enjoy contributing work to other peoples films, having developed concepts for Pixar's WALL-E for instance. But my primary means of expression is the silent, hand-made image, sometimes with words.

DD: The Arrival was your first graphic novel and you've likened its narrative being akin to that of a silent film. How did you find working without words to fill in the blanks so to speak?
ST: It feels very natural, and the absence of words can almost be a kind of relief, of removing any risk of excessive interpretation on my part, just delivering a minimal world on the page. There are some problems of course, mostly due to the lack of motion in drawn images, and my decision not to use any expression lines that often assist with comics' visual narrative. You can't show someone nodding or shaking their head, conversations are tricky too. What welds it all together, though, is realising that as a creator, I don't need to know everything about a character's intentions, actions or feelings, that I can enjoy the mystery of 'missing information' as much as any other reader, to show without explaining.  A lot of sequences worked much better than I expected, once I stopped worrying about their meaning.