As we get excited for what Disney+ has to offer in 2021, it is important to look back at some of the great Disney+ originals from 2020! And one such addition to the Disney+ library was Short Circuit, a collection of innovative short films from the Walt Disney Animation Studios. “Jing Hua” is one of my favorite Short Circuit films, and to celebrate its one-year anniversary on Disney+, I sat down with the composer of “Jing Hua”, Joy Ngiaw, to learn about her experience writing Disney music. Keep reading for my full interview with Joy Ngiaw!
CORBAN: What was your first experience working with the Walt Disney Company, and how did you get involved with “Jing Hua” on Disney+?
JOY NGIAW: My first project with Walt Disney Animation was the VR animated short film “A Kite’s Tale” directed by the very talented Bruce Wright. It was such an incredible experience working with Bruce and the team on such an innovative and adorable project. “A Kite’s Tale” is actually Disney’s second VR short which combines hand-drawn animation with virtual technology, so to be able to see the behind-the-scenes of what goes into this experimental film was truly inspiring.
After our wonderful collaboration, I was introduced to Jerry Huynh (our amazing director for “Jing Hua”), and I was blown away by his heart-wrenching and beautiful story.
CORBAN: I had the chance to watch another Disney short film, “Cycles”, in virtual reality, so I recognize how virtual technology is transforming the short film experience! While it is not a VR short, “Jing Hua” tells a painful but important story of grief and sadness and paints a beautiful picture of Chinese culture. How did your music adapt throughout the film to reflect the different emotions that Nhi was expressing, and how did you strive to make the film sound distinctly Chinese?
JOY NGIAW: Jerry and I bonded very well with our Chinese background, and I was so inspired by how he infused our culture into the storytelling. From the meaning behind our film title ‘Flower In The Mirror’ (a Chinese proverb that means something that is so beautiful yet unattainable), to showcasing Chinese martial arts and watercolor paintings – it made it so meaningful to score for a film that represents our cultures and history so beautifully.
Growing up in China and listening to lots of traditional Chinese music definitely influences the melodies that I write. We wanted the score to have characteristics of a traditional Chinese dance but wanted to steer clear of being too on-the-nose with it. Our vision was to portray grief as a universal emotion that everyone experiences, therefore we decided to go with a solo cello to represent the voice of Nhi as opposed to a traditional Chinese instrument. We were so fortunate to bring on the very talented Tina Guo as the solo cellist, and her emotional playing brought so much character to the score.
CORBAN: The final product of “Jing Hua” is absolutely beautiful, and much of that beauty can be attributed to your wonderful score! “Jing Hua” is also unique due to its resemblance to a watercolor painting. How, if at all, does the animation style of a short film affect your musical choices?
JOY NGIAW: Jerry had the fantastic vision of how the film plays out like a fluid piece of art. Like a dance, Nhi is painting her emotions with her martial art movements, and we as the audience reacts to her movements and expressions. The stunning animation style definitely influenced how our main theme was shaped, as we wanted the music to flow with the beautiful visuals, closely supporting and evoking those impactful emotions and bringing us along the emotional journey of Nhi.
CORBAN: As you mentioned earlier, you also worked on the Disney VR short film “A Kite’s Tale”, which has a much different tone than “Jing Hua”. How did your approach to composition differ between both projects?
JOY NGIAW: My approach to film scoring is that the story always comes first. I think about what inspired the director to create this film, what emotions are the characters feeling, and how can the music support the story and vision.
In the case of “A Kite’s Tale”, through the journey of the dragon kite and puppy kite becoming friends – we wanted the score to feel playful, warm and colorful. The music represents the two kites’ very different personalities. The music also follows very closely to what is happening on screen, with lots of changes in tone and pacing. For Jing Hua, the score is to represent Nhi’s inner emotional journey as a whole, therefore the music is fluid and intimate.
CORBAN: The music of “Jing Hua” helps us to experience the complex range of emotions that Nhi faces throughout the short film, and it contributes to a truly immersive experience. What is one of your favorite aspects of the composition process, and what was your biggest takeaway from working on “Jing Hua”?
JOY NGIAW: The best part of this collaboration is becoming friends with Jerry. Through this collaboration process, he constantly inspires me with his honesty and vulnerability – how he bravely channeled his grief into a beautiful piece of art that resonates with so many. That is why I feel grateful that I can be a film composer – I get to connect and be inspired by these talented storytellers, and we as an audience get to turn inwards and experience how their film affects us.
CORBAN: Disney stories are always the best, and Disney music plays a large role in creating these wonderful stories! While the current pandemic has affected much of the film industry, do you have any future projects in the works, and how can our readers find and connect with you?
JOY NGIAW: I am currently composing for another exciting animated short which would be announced very soon. Stay tuned as I will be sharing the news on my website (www.joyngiaw.com) and social media accounts (@joyngiaw). Thank you so much for having me for this interview!
CORBAN: Absolutely! Thank you so much for joining me to chat about “Jing Hua” and your other Disney projects. I can’t wait to learn more about your upcoming short film!
And, to the reader, you can watch each of the Short Circuit films, including “Jing Hua”, now streaming on Disney+.