By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Mike started getting a reel together, and by summer 1997 he had landed a national spot for The New York Times. Chris remembers Mike insisting on wearing a suit jacket to that interview, despite having been warned that no one in the industry dressed formally. After looking at his work, the producer said, “You have the job, but don’t ever come in here wearing that jacket again!” The resulting television campaign ran for more than two years, giving him the exposure and confidence he needed. Mike began to meet the right people.
One of them was Garson Yu, who at that time was second-in-command at Imaginary Forces, a feature-film company that also handles marketing, branding, commercial advertising, architecture and experience design. (Teamed with United Architects, IF was one of six finalists competing for the redesign of the World Trade Center site.) Garson was preparing to launch a new company called Good Spot, and he invited Mike to join him. During the 10 months he was there, Mike worked on teasers and trailers for films like Saving Private Ryan, Deep Impact, Snake Eyes, 8MM and Amistad. After a company shakeup, Garson left to start his own, yU+co.
Mike then gave up a creative director position at Good Spot to learn visual effects with a man he calls a “phenomenal talent,” Alex Frisch, who was the lead artist at Method Studios. Together they made the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Around the World” video, which was the first clip featured on MTV’s Making of .?.?.His résumé from that time includes music videos like Garbage’s “You Look So Fine” and Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.”
“I moved to L.A. with absolutely no education in terms of having gone to school for this stuff,” he says proudly. “And I became one of the highest-paid after-effects animators around.”
Maybe so, but three years into his L.A. stint, Mike was still driving a beat-up red Neon, which he holds responsible for his difficulty in meeting women during that period. And despite having made it into the business, he was burned out from 80-hour work weeks and started to wonder if that’s all there was to a life. He decided to take a three-month sabbatical, just to clear his head. That was seven years ago. “L.A. was very good to me in terms of work, finances, people, connections. I had all the things I thought I wanted — house, car, everything you could call the American dream at 26 years old — yet I was completely unhappy. So I gave it all away.”
His feelings are shared by plenty of 20- and 30-something voluntary émigrés, bored or even terrified by the prospect of getting stuck in the sort of cookie-cutter lives their parents led. But Mike also knows it’s easier to make an impact in Asia’s much smaller artistic community.
“If I stayed in L.A.,” he says, “all I would ever do is make money and join a list of other highly paid people who help the machine build the best work in the world. But here, I matter.”
Which is not to say that it has been easy.
“November 15, 1999!” It’s a rain-soaked afternoon in 2005 when Mike remembers — with the clarity of an ex-con citing his release date — the day he broke free from the world as he knew it. Since then he has learned to say “you’re beautiful” in six languages and made the acquaintance of not one but three Miss Worlds, all in India, where he worked for the world’s largest film studio complex, Ramoji Film City. He lasted six months in Hyderabad, subsequently traveling around India for an additional three. Then it was on to New Zealand (“a place old people go to die, not where young people go to live”), Canada, Singapore and Bangkok, where he spent most of 2003.
We’re at the headquarters of Toan Viet (All Vietnam), which he and his Uncle Ly have transformed from a bargain-basement recording studio into a state-of-the-art post facility. In contrast to most Saigon workplaces, which switch off their fluorescents for a two-hour siesta, Toan Viet seems to operate on an American schedule. Everyone takes an hour for lunch when there’s time but is expected to work into the evening for as long as it takes. The receptionist orders takeout beef and vegetables with rice and offers us Cokes from a stocked refrigerator while Mike indicates a Miami Vice–inspired glass-enclosed space near the front door, slated to become his personal office.
The rest of the building, on a shady stretch of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in District One’s Dakao Ward, is typical of modern Vietnamese architecture, with two small rooms on each level facing either side of the staircase, in this case housing not a family but animators, designers, producers, editors and a couple of accountants. The walls are covered with old movie posters and stills from commercials the company has produced, mostly for the local market. Except for two Belgian 3-D animators, a Canadian editor and a Filipino producer, the rest of the staff are Vietnamese, and most of the communication I hear is in that language, although Mike says he often has to switch into English to clarify a point.