AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. SUSAN LIM
DIRECTOR, WRITER & PRODUCER OF "FANTASY OF COMPANIONSHIP BETWEEN HUMAN AND INANIMATE"
Multi-Award Winner - February 2021 Edition: Best Animation Film - Best Family/Children Film - Best Sci-Fi Film - Best New Wave Filmmaker - Best Producer - Best Visual Effects - Best Original Story - Best Soundtrack -Best Sound Design - Best Trailer
DR. SUSAN LIM DIRECTOR, WRITER & PRODUCER
Surgeon, scientist, playwright, lyricist, and creative director of a project centred on the future companionship between humans and inanimates, enabled through the new sciences of synthetic DNA, and the technologies of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Physics, to address the global challenge of loneliness and the need for new approaches to companionship in a future world.
. 2021 Boy Scientist
. 2021 Fantasy of Companionship between Human and Inanimate
. 2021 Ode to an Inanimate Companion
Hello Dr. Susan Lim. Thank you for sharing this fabulous, multi-awarded Fantasy with the world! Can you tell us the story of its origins, namely the "ALAN the Musical" project? Where’s the staged musical currently at?
Thank you for the opportunity to interview on this fabulous Cannes World Film Festival - Remember the Future platform. The "Fantasy of Companionship between Human and Inanimate" (Fantasy) has its origins in two forces facing us in society today, longevity and loneliness on the one hand, and disruptive new technologies on the other. This is giving rise to a whole new breed of companions, previously unimaginable, synthetic life forms, and embodied AI systems. As these companions take their place alongside humans in society, they challenge conventional norms, and blur the lines between what is life and what is non-life, which I felt strongly should be opened to the public as a global conversation, through music and the Arts.
So my co-creator Christina Teenz and I wrote a story about the future of companionship between human and inanimate. We wanted to portray our Inanimate companion as warm and friendly, and settled on a stuffed inanimate toy, which we named "ALAN", and communicated most of the storyline through the sung lyrics of 15 new songs which we co-wrote, as lyricists, for the Musical.
Anxious to see our storyline come alive before us, we performed a staged read of "ALAN the Musical", at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), directed by Brian Kite, then Dean of Theatre, UCLA, with a wonderful and enthusiastic cast of students, alumni and artists from around the Los Angeles area. When Covid struck and paralysed all musical performances and staged Acts, we turned to Animation to tell our story.
In 2017, I chanced upon an opportunity to work with an incredibly talented Animation Artist Samudra Kajal Saikia, who was introduced to me through our composer in India, Joi Barua.
I had been invited as Speaker at an INK Conference in Hyderabad in a session “Giant Leaps : Thrilling potential of AI and Robotics”. I chose to speak on the topic of the Future of Companionship, and asked Samudra if he could create an "ALAN" Hologram that would share the stage with me, before an audience of some 1,200 delegates. The "ALAN" hologram performed brilliantly, and launched the start of a creative relationship between Samudra the animation artist, and "ALAN" the character, leading on to the animation of our "ALAN" songs, and an animation film built on "ALAN the Musical", which is work in progress.
The fifteen original songs in the musical provided the melodies and inspiration for an orchestral piece, the "Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra", and this, in turn, provided the soundtrack for the Animated Fantasy which we submitted to your festival.
In various interviews and statements, you coin terms such as « New World Order » and « AI », while there is currently a lot of ongoing defiance, worldwide, when it comes to those concepts. Yet Fantasy of Companionship between Human and Inanimate is a message filled with joy and hope. What pushed you to decide and share your pioneering passion with your fellow-humans?
‘New World Order’ is entirely from the perspective of the Inanimate, a song which it sings as it embraces the new science and technologies, synthetic DNA, robotics and artificial intelligence, to be an enabled companion to its human partner, to have artificial intelligence and the ability to communicate. Here are the lyrics to the chorus of New World Order, the animation is in the works, and perhaps some day soon, we will submit this to the Cannes World Film Festival - Remember the Future!
“It’s a beautiful invention
Robotics, artificial intelligence
It’s the new medication
Exoskeletons, brain implants
I’ll perform a rain dance
Strap me up, wire my brain
And I’m ready for a whole new game”.
Today, the combination of longevity and loneliness has created one of the biggest challenges facing us in society, and this has spurred countries including the UK and Japan to set up Ministries of Loneliness, to address this pressing social concern.
AI empowers the inanimate forms around us to help in nursing homes, as robot assistant nurses, and robot companions to combat loneliness in society. Of course we are aware that AI-enabled inanimates provide technical dexterity in a variety of manufacturing industries. In my field of surgical robotics, my partner in the operating room has been a surgical robot. This has given me the confidence to embrace AI, and to share the positive attributes, while cautioning that there is still a lot to be mastered in its full implementation going forward, and that AI is not to replace but only to complement humans in society.
Do you think that scientific progress and innovations actually boost the human imagination? It’s a tricky matter of « the chicken and the egg » really, do we progress when we dare to imagine, or does progress help push the limits of imagination?
The answer is a definite yes, to both, that scientific progress boosts the human imagination, and vice versa.
Progress in Science opens new possibilities, provides new solutions, and fires up human imagination. Take my field of organ transplantation as an example. In the 1980’s as a transplant surgeon, TIME was of the essence between the harvesting of an organ and its implantation into a critically ill patient.
Human organs could not survive for long in the simple preservation solutions available then, and any means of hastening the safe transport of organs between donor and recipient hospitals was implemented, including the use of police road escorts. I do recall several occasions landing on the river Thames in a helicopter, to deliver an organ I had harvested elsewhere in the country, to the transplant recipient team in London. This time constraint inspired scientists to imagine and develop better preservation solutions that can now store human organs for up to 24 hours.
The dire, global shortage of human organs has led to new scientific breakthroughs, the development of cell transplants, in place of whole organs, such as insulin-secreting cells, instead of a whole pancreas for diabetes, and YES, we have dared to imagine and develop the 3D printing of organs starting with skin, while other more complex organs are in a developmental phase.
Who would have thought that advances in the field of Immunology would inspire a re-visit to the use of animal organs as xenografts, which is in a research phase of development, and that breakthroughs in Materials Science would provide new scaffold material for the 3D printing of organs, also in a research phase of development.
The record is an absolute musical feat. How did you proceed to bring together so many Artists from several countries? How did you present them with your idea, be it the composers, the conductor, the soloists? How did you manage to get the actual London Symphony Orchestra to come on board as well? How long did it take to record the entire piece, rehearsals et all?
This is my proudest achievement entering the Creative Arts and Music Industry to date; to have identified and brought together a truly talented team of composers, musicians, and animators from four continents, as the "ALAN" team, working passionately together to create beautiful art in the form of music and film.
Our composers for the original songs hail from 3 different continents, Joi Barua from Mumbai, India, Ron J Danziger from Melbourne, Australia, Matthieu Eymard from the south of France, and the composer, orchestrator and arranger for the Fantasy, Manu Martin from Bordeaux. I first met Joi Barua at a Conference in Singapore where we shared the stage, myself as speaker, with Joi following on as singer. I was taken by his talent and over lunchbreak, asked if he would compose music to lyrics I had written for an "ALAN" song. He agreed, and the outcome was our theme "ALAN" song, with its joyful and catchy tune.
I consider France to be the birthplace of our music, as it is where I met our project manager and lead vocal Matthieu Eymard, and our composer and orchestrator Manu Martin, both of whom were performing at the ski resort of Courchevel 1850, the annual winter retreat for my family. In the winter of 2016, while in the cocktail lounge of the Cheval Blanc, enjoying an apres ski aperitif with my soulmate Deepak Sharma, I approached Matthieu Eymard, who was performing that evening, to sing our newly composed "ALAN" song. The rest is history.
We have a strong French presence in our team of musicians - Jerome Buigues (electric guitar), Frederic Riviere (bass), Manu Martin (keyboard), Matthieu Eymard (vocals), joined by Michele Drees on drums and Afla Sackey on percussions from London. My co-creator and co-lyricist Christina Teenz was a medical student in Melbourne, Australia, at the time she wrote the lyrics to 5 "ALAN" songs. She has since graduated, accepted a neuroscience research position at Stanford University for a year, and will soon commence Neurology Residency at the Cedars- Sinai in Los Angeles.
An idea for an orchestral recording first came about when project manager Matthieu Eymard and composer Manu Martin shared with me the idea to include a strings arrangement in four of our "ALAN" songs which had been created for "ALAN the Musical". The result was astounding, as it provided the lyrics with an added dimension and power of expression. Simply put, it took my breath away! Almost immediately, I thought, why leave out the other "ALAN" songs? Brainstorming with Matthieu and Manu, we dreamt up a full orchestral recording which would draw inspiration from ALL of our 15 "ALAN" songs.
In the spring of 2018, I travelled to a small town Rye, in Upstate New York, to meet with the renowned, retired pianist Tedd Joselson, to seek his opinion of this concept. We lunched in the historic French cottage restaurant "La Panetière" to a menu inspired by the berries of the season. Tedd’s strong affirmation of our orchestral plan to include our 15 "ALAN" songs, set into motion a series of events, and overnight a Fantasy was born, orchestrated and arranged by the gifted composer Manu Martin.
Tedd Joselson agreed to come out of retirement to lead as solo pianist, and brought in Arthur Fagen, music director of the Atlanta Opera, as Conductor. Despite the fact that composer, creator, pianist, and conductor were located on three different continents, we managed to meet physically for two weekend rehearsals at home in Singapore, before the big recording at Abbey Road Studios. We were of course over the moon that the London Symphony Orchestra agreed to record the Fantasy with us. The recording of the entire Fantasy was over two days, the first day 19th November 2019, in Studio one with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fagen, and Tedd Joselson on piano, and the following day 20th November with a 36 member choral ensemble of London Voices.
Of course, there is much more to this. The 15 original songs of "ALAN the Musical", whose melodies inspired 15 tracks of the Fantasy, were recorded in 3 separate Abbey Rd sessions between 2017 and 2019, with an amazing group of musicians, which included guitarist Jerome Buigues, bass player Frederic Riviere, drummer Michele Drees, keyboard player Manu Martin, percussionist Afla Sackey, and lead singer Matthieu Eymard. Together with our creators and composers, we banded together loosely as the "ALAN" team. Animation Artist Samudra Kajal Saikia from India joined in.
It was our dream to record at Abbey Rd Studios, with the London Symphony Orchestra, and one that came true for us.
The film triggers a deep metaphysical reflection. Mostly, as indicated by the very title of the opus, the possible relationship between the living and the inanimate. One question recurrently comes to mind while pondering on your stunning essay in music and images: can we assert that anything really is inanimate, ever? Isn’t matter always in movement, somehow, therefore always prone to unexpected entanglements?
In 2018, I went to an exhibition of the Dutch artist Theo Jansen who had created kinetic sculptures or Strandbeests out of plastic piping and bottles, that move on beaches powered by the wind. Through his artistic lens, he believed he had bestowed life to these artforms, which he referred to as artificial life.
From an emotional viewpoint, inanimate objects can be perceived as having a life of their own, through the stirring of emotions in the eyes of the receiver. A stuffed toy can speak to a child through echoes of the child's own thoughts, as reflected emotions, back to the giver.
In the field of synthetic biology, scientists have created living organisms whose DNA is entirely man-made. This blurs the boundaries between life and non-life. ACT 4 of the Fantasy takes inspiration from this scientific breakthrough, as "ALAN" the inanimate craves some synthetic DNA to repair its wizened form, and sings its song Synthetic DNA to the lyrics “Synthetic DNA, will someone just write down my code; 4 alphabets it is, A T G C, yes, will someone please make a brand new me”. Indeed, the music of the Fantasy is embedded with the DNA code of the inanimate, like a motif, which, strung together, forms the genetic code which is expressed musically, as melodies and harmonies in the Fantasy.
It is precisely this blurring of what is life and what is non-life that inspired us to open this conversation to the public, to artists, musicians, philosophers, politicians, psychologists, sociologists, engineers and more, and what better way to do this than through music and film.
Can you tell us a little more about the making of the film? How did the co-writing process with Thomas Z. Shepard take place? How did you organize and distribute the tasks between you and your co-Directors Christina Teenz Tan and Samudra Kajal Saikia?
The "ALAN" script and lyrics to the 15 "ALAN" songs were written by Christina Teenz and myself, and this was brought to life in a staged read of "ALAN the Musical" in April 2019.