17 Mar 2021

On March 17 2021, Passion Ma was invited to share her experiences as a professional Set Designer with First City UC Design students via Zoom.

Her resume includes working with the film crew of the Malaysian hit film Ola Bola, an international rom-com flick called Crazy Rich Asians, as well as The Ghost Bride, a local Netflix series.

A few days before the session, we managed to ask her some in-depth interview questions about her job. Below is the transcript of our online interview with Passion Ma.


You were a graduate from First City University College (then KBU International College). May we know how your time as an IAD student prepared you for your career as a Set Designer?

Before I decided to study IAD in KBU (now First City UC), I did quite a lot of research on Set Design or Production design. As I was always curious about the workings involving set design in Film and Stage, I tried to find how where in Malaysia I could study Set Design. Unfortunately, there weren’t any colleges or universities that offered this specific course, unless you took Mass Comm.

Eventually, I found out that most of the Foreign Production Designers do have an Architecture or Interior Design background, so this led me to enrol with the Interior Architecture & Design programme.

Basically, the design process as a set designer is similar to what I studied in IAD. We need to understand the brief (script), do our research, create the mood board, start design planning, space planning, preparing drawings and construction drawings. Overall, I managed to apply most of my knowledge and skills that I learned in my career. Although the design process is similar, there are differences in design thinking and solutions in terms of working on ID and Film.

Also, teamwork is a crucial factor too. This is really important in any stage of design; we can never do anything by yourself. During college, I always enjoy working on group projects. From there, we can understand how to work with each other and learn to communicate with them. This is the most important skill to possess in an industry that relies heavily on group work.


During your time as a FCUC student, were there any competitions or projects that you took part in (for example, your Graduation Showcase event)?

I took part in some design competitions such as the Exhibition Design for Goodrich (Asia’s leading wallpaper supplier), a design event for PCOM (Smart Home Technologies provider), and also a Residential design event for Bukit Utama Condo (residential area). Also, I did participate in some FCUC events, such as those related to the Malaysian Society of Interior Designers (now Malaysian Institute of Interior Designers) and Sequence, the design faculty’s Graduation Showcase event.


Were there any lecturers who have guided you throughout your student years?

Yes, of course! There were a number of lecturers who helped, guided and influenced me throughout the 3+1 years in KBU. My thanks to Miss Jinchi, Miss Ruby, Miss Sin Ai, Miss Huwi Huwi, Mr Kelvin, Mr. Leong, Miss Artie, Miss Joanne, Abang Adi, Miss Rosidah, Miss Wardah and others!


As a set/stage designer, you have been involved in various projects (Ola Bola, The Ghost Bride, Crazy Rich Asians). Is it possible to share your experiences and challenges on one of these projects?

“Ola Bola” was my first film. Thanks to my Brother, I was able to contact Soon Yong Chow, the Art Director of “Ola Bola”. He was looking for an art assistant who was familiar with graphic design. Thanks to the knowledge and skills I acquired, I started off as a graphic art assistant. The experience for this job is quite tough, as we only have 6 people in the art department, plus I am the only female in this department. There were many occasions that we needed to pack and carry heavy stuff!

Working 16 hours per day and 7 days a week was considered a norm for local film crews at that time. It was tough physically, but it was a fun and memorable. Once you start your first job, you will get connected with more jobs and experiences. And eventually I get to work with more “masters” in this industry.


What words of encouragement do you have for those looking to become a set/stage designer?

I used to think as a stage or set designer, you need to study in a particular course first. But nowadays, we have a lot of avenues to learn anything. We can learn any skill from YouTube, online courses and more.

Set Design for Film is about designing a set based on a story. Our job involves observing the people, talking to them, touching the objects, feeling the texture, architecture, design, colours, weather, everything that happens surrounding us, and then recording it down by taking photos, or sketching it in a notebook.

As long as you are passionate in this industry, you have to remember you are not working alone, but in a group that comprises different professions. Respect and be humble to everybody, and be sure to be open to any opportunity.

Design is always about giving solutions. I do believe Design Thinking is among the best skills that can be applied in any area. Never stop learning.