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Award-winning Fil-Am actress makes her feature animation film debut

By: - Columnist
/ 12:15 AM May 09, 2019

Ching Valdes-Aran —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

LOS ANGELES—An ancient Tibetan woman with a live chicken—yes, a googly eyed, clucking chicken—perpetually perched on her head. Award-winning Fil-Am actress Ching Valdes-Aran couldn’t have asked for a more memorable, unique character, Gamu, to voice in her feature animation film debut.

Ching, who won the prestigious Obie Award for her performance in the original New York production of Ralph B. Pena’s “Flipzoids” in New York, is in great company in “Missing Link.” The latest from Laika Studios, known for its stop-motion animation gems, “Missing Link’s” voice cast includes Hugh Jackman, Emma Thompson, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana and Timothy Olyphant.

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Ching’s “old and rude” (in the words of her character’s granddaughter) Gamu figures in a scene up in the Himalayas where a trio of explorers—voiced by Hugh, Zach and Zoe—seek her help in finding the fabled Shangri-La.

The granddaughter’s one important admonition to the three visitors before they enter Gamu’s house is, “Don’t mention the chicken!” Of course, when they see the chicken on Gamu’s head …

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“I found out from a reliable source that a Hollywood celebrity was supposed to voice Gamu, but couldn’t hack the Tibetan accent, or at least that was what I understood,” shared Ching, born and raised in the Philippines and residing in New York, in our interview via e-mail.

Gamu puppet, meticulously detailed, at Laika Studios outside Portland, Oregon. —RUBEN V. NEPALES

Ching’s feature film credits include Ira Sachs’ “Little Men,” Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” and Lav Diaz’s “From What Is Before (Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon),” which won several honors, including the Golden Leopard, the top prize in the Locarno Film Festival.

Ching’s TV work includes “The Blacklist,” “Feed the Beast,” “BrainDead” and “Nurse Jackie.”

In theater, the veteran thespian played Lady Macbeth opposite F. Murray Abraham in the title role in “Macbeth” at the Belasco Theater. Ching’s other stage credits include performances with the Ma-Yi Theater Company, which champions plays by Asian-American writers, and of which she is on the advisory board; Off-Broadway, regional theaters and in plays mounted all over the world.

The talented Pinay, who is also a director and a visual artist, is currently touring internationally in Geoff Sobelle’s “Home,” with performances that include stops in New Zealand, Edinburgh, Brisbane, Sydney, Taiwan and South Korea.

Valdes-Aran (right) and Hugh Jackman who voice Gamu and Sir Lionel Frost, respectively, in “Missing Link” —LAIKA STUDIOS

Ching tells us, in her own words, how she landed the Gamu voice role in the latest film by Laika Studios, which is based outside Portland, Oregon.

In late 2016, my agent Paul Hilepo had me record my voice at home on a Gamu scene. The working title of the film then was “Seeking Shangri-La.” We didn’t hear back from Laika casting, so I forgot about it. But a few months later, we got the offer. That was in January of 2017. It was quite a surprise. I was delighted, of course, because it was my animation film debut.

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At the time, I knew that Hugh Jackman and Zack Galifianakis were on board.

A voice/accent coach was hired from LA to coach me on a Tibetan accent via phone. We did that for at least three or four times before they flew me to the Laika Studios toward the end of January 2017. I was there for only a weekend. I was driven to the Laika Studios, where Arianne Sutner and Travis Knight (producers) and Chris Butler (director) gave me a very warm welcome.

They said I am going to have makeup done, first thing. I thought to myself, why? Nobody will see me! It was explained later on that a film crew will be following me as I toured the Laika facilities. I was introduced to each head of the design team (costume, set, art direction, 3D printing, etc.) and a slew of other artists who create this fantastical world.

Mr. Link/Susan (Zach Galifianakis) and Gamu (Valdes-Aran) —LAIKA STUDIOS

I felt like a child in a fairy-tale land. When I saw the puppet of my character, Gamu, and they took pictures of me with her, I was just in my element. She was just a palm’s length. And that cute little chicken on her head … Hilarious! Seeing the Gamu puppet helped me know how she “sounds” like.

In the afternoon, we drove to another location for the recording. I was in an enclosed glass booth. Chris Butler and the crew were on the other side of the glass. The accent coach was on the phone listening in from LA. It was so much fun!

Gamu was a fun character to do. Sometimes, we would stop recording because we would be laughing so hard. Chris was reading the scene with me from the other side of the booth. It probably took only about two to three hours. It was followed by a filmed interview with Chris and me. This was a day of work adventure—delightful, educational and an eye-opener for me to greatly appreciate and respect the artistry of stop-motion animation.

Animation takes creative imagination, passion, skill, patience, dedication and a little bit of “madness.” These talented artists have all those. I was shown how stop-motion animation is done, and it boggles the mind! I asked the artists, “How was your childhood?” They all laughed. Because they are still “child-like,” working in a “children’s paradise.”

After that, I had only two looping sessions in New York, one in a studio and the other at home just to record “hmmph.”

E-mail rvnepales_5585@yahoo.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.

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TAGS: Ching Valdes-Aran, Gamu puppet, Missing Link
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