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Studio Time: Eng Tiong Teo's Pilgrim Pictures
Posted Mar 29, 2008 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Eng Tiong Teo wants to make movies and win an Oscar. It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility: In less than a decade behind the camera, the Singapore native has already amassed a diverse collection of industry awards, both as a videographer and as a filmmaker. His resume includes accolades from WEVA—two Gold awards and one Finalist award for Photo Montage Production (in 2004, 2005, and 2006, respectively) and a Bronze for Corporate Production (2006); three DVDA Excellence Awards for Born in Singapore, a joint project of the country’s prestigious Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Ministry of Information, Communication, and the Arts (2001); and, more recently, Best Original Film in Competition honors at the 2007 Asian Film Festival of Rome. (His production company’s feature film, Truth Be Told, shared that achievement with an entry from Malaysia.)
 Truth Be Told marked a significant turning point for Teo and his producing partner, wife Jen Nee Lim, for several reasons. Released in Singapore last October and now on DVD, the 84-minute story of a television producer’s return to the bleak public housing neighborhood of her childhood is Lim’s first feature-length screenplay and Teo’s longform directorial debut. Its critical success has emboldened the pair to devote even more of their time and energy to independent filmmaking. "Making movies has always been our passion and our dream," he says. "Filmmaking is an addiction: once you get started, you cannot stop, and you don’t want to stop. I want to tell more compelling stories and reach out to more people."
 Can more compelling stories lead Teo and Lim to their proverbial "Hollywood ending?" Only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s rewind just a bit.

Journey from Afar
Born in September 1973, Teo grew up in Bukit Ho Swee, in a public housing neighborhood much like that depicted in Truth Be Told. As a member of his high school’s photography club, he was tapped to help record a play performed by the school’s theater department. "It was then that my interest in videography was sparked," he recalls. Soon thereafter, he enrolled in a 3-day videography course and shot his first documentary—a piece about how daily newspapers are produced.

After high school, Teo worked in a cinema "to watch movies and get hold of movie posters." (He currently owns about 100.) He then enrolled in the School of Film & Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he earned a diploma, with merit, in film, sound, and video. It was here that he befriended Lim, a fellow cinephile also seeking "the thorough grounding in the artistic and technical elements of filmmaking and video production" the polytechnic offers. "Initially, all I wanted was to produce my own music videos," Teo says of his early career aspirations. But as he learned more about filmmaking, his passion "evolved into something bigger and more serious."

Following their graduation, Teo and Lim each earned an internship at Time Warner in Burbank, Calif. For 10 months, they and four others saw for themselves what Hollywood had to offer while learning the ropes of DVD production. From 1998 to 2000, Teo served Ngee Ann Poly as a technical officer, helping the school establish its Digital Media Authoring Studio—Asia’s first full-scale DVD training center—and teaching DVD production.

While shooting a documentary in Nepal, Teo and Lim’s longtime friendship blossomed into romance, and by 2002, the two were married. That same year, they launched Pilgrim Pictures, a Singapore-based production house that specializes in the creation of original screen content for release in movie theaters, on television, and on the web. According to Teo, an Enya song called "Pilgrim" inspired the company moniker. "Removing its religious context, a pilgrim is someone who’s pursuing something perfect through devotion, passion, and perseverance. Our pursuit of that ‘something’ is perfecting our craft of filmmaking and making movies," he says. "‘Pilgrim’ embodies everything we hope to achieve."

figure 1A Tale of Two Pursuits
Teo and Lim were anxious to use their new venture to make movies, but, says Teo, "we also knew we needed to make a living." To that end, they took on whatever video work came their way—wedding, special event, and corporate jobs mostly. "When we started out, producing wedding videos was a three-step process: point, shoot, and put to DVD. Only a few videographers were editing the footage and presenting it as a music video." Given their film background and DVD production skills, the couple soon distinguished themselves by "delivering videos with personalized menus, bonus features, and sometimes even multi-angle options," even as their competitors provided DVDs with either no menu or only a chapter menu.

"I still remember one project where we had multiple audio tracks—bride/groom commentary and bridesmaid commentary—and multiple angles," he says of a video for the 2004 wedding of Jonathan and Ann. (The 7-minute photo/video montage earned Pilgrim Pictures a WEVA Gold award the following year.) Following the project’s completion, Teo and Lim were featured in a local magazine. "Soon," he says, "a few of our competitors came in disguised as customers to check out our work," and eventually they began offering similar packages.

Pilgrim Pictures has revolutionized the local videography market in other ways, too, introducing "montages with storylines and not just cut-outs or PowerPoint-style treatments." Those montages would, in fact, bring them much acclaim—and not just in Singapore. Beyond the aforementioned WEVA awards, Teo has twice presented his "How to Create Photo Montages Clients Love and Recommend" session at WEVA Expo.

figure 1To date, Teo and Lim have shot and edited roughly 80 wedding and anniversary videos and 30 videos for corporations, schools, and social organizations. Along the way, they’ve flexed their creative muscles by also producing a 24-minute documentary about affordable housing in Mongolia (Stepping Out, 2003), a 16-minute short film about a single parent who unwittingly makes a promise to his daughter that she won’t let him forget (Dollhouse, 2006), and, of course, their passion project, Truth Be Told (2007). Although Teo says Pilgrim Pictures is "slowly but surely moving toward full-time filmmaking," it still accepts wedding and corporate projects, "but we don’t actively promote it. Nowadays, we mainly concentrate on producing short and feature films." Still, he’s grateful for the experience videography has given him, and says he enjoys both professions equally.

"Videography can be personal, intimate, and spontaneous," he raves. "Your team can be small; you can just pick up a camera and shoot what you feel like. There are so many stories to tell. Some are encouraging and some are upsetting. The good thing about this profession is that you get to share it with the people experiencing it. The wedding jobs have taught us how to tell touching, romantic stories. They sharpen our skills. The corporate jobs have served as research for characters and given us insights into different professions. They open the door to new stories and new opportunities."

For 8 months in 2004, for example, while filming a video for an international gas-exploration company, "I wore a safety helmet, boots, and pullovers every day, climbed up decks and went into hulls, and got to witness the fabrication of one of the world’s largest gas-mining platforms," he says. "Never did I imagine that I would be walking on the deck of a ship. I felt the anguish of the foreman when the deadline was near and the joy of the project manager when a milestone was reached." (That video, "Shah Deniz Gas Export Project Singapore," earned Teo and Lim another WEVA award in 2006.)

Filmmaking "is more like crafting," he says. "The story needs to be cooked and the schedule needs to be planned. The team is bigger, and coordinating can be tedious. That said, the sense of achievement is greater when you see your own film on the big screen and your movie poster displayed next to those of Hollywood blockbusters."

The diversity of such experiences, he adds, is perhaps his greatest joy. "I’ve been a shipyard worker and I’ve directed one of Singapore’s more popular actresses. I’ve shot documentaries in Nepal and Mongolia. And every year, I travel halfway across the globe to give seminars in Las Vegas. I don’t see where else one could find such a fulfilling job. I love every aspect of it."

At present, Pilgrim Pictures is developing its second feature film, this time with Singaporean actor-turned-director Alaric Tay at the helm. (Tay’s 2006 comedy, When We Were Bengs, earned three awards at last year’s ReelHeART International Film Festival.) With a budget of $1 million and a working title of Thunder Boy, the project is currently scheduled to release this November. And then it’s on to … more of the same, Teo hopes. "Our goal is to make a feature a year, then progress to two films a year, four films a year, and, in five years’ time, eight films a year," he explains. "I won’t be directing all of them, of course, but we’ll produce them."

Marla Misek Clark (mjmno1 at aol.com) is a freelance writer and editor based in Alexandria, Va.

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