Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing
The resource is designed to give upper primary and secondary students an insight into the art of Shaun Tan through a focus on both the book and the film of The Lost Thing.
Recommended for Year levels: 3-8
Learning areas: English, The Arts
Capabilities: Creative and critical thinking
This content focuses on aspects of storytelling, including themes, techniques, forms and language, visual, written and aural.
This resource was originally developed to complement 'Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing: From book to film', an exhibition curated by ACMI to explore the artistry of Shaun Tan’s original picture book and the collaborative process of turning the book into an animated film. The exhibition, which is now touring nationally, includes concept drawings, storyboards, creature design and interviews with Shaun Tan and the creative team who worked with him on the film.
Students can browse the pages to complete the activities or download the comprehensive PDF resource.
About Shaun Tan
Shaun Tan is a Melbourne-based freelance artist, author and illustrator whose award winning books re-imagine the world in unexpected ways. Tan creates stories that encourage readers to ask questions rather than reach conclusions. As well as writing the screenplay for The Lost Thing and working as co-director, Tan was intimately involved in all aspects of the animation production process.
1. Introducing the book
The Lost Thing tells the story of a boy who discovers a bizarre lost creature at the beach and sets out to find somewhere it can belong. Shaun Tan emphasises that he writes picture books not children’s books. His books, like many picture books, deal with complex themes.
There is an appealing simplicity in the form, which is not to say that it is necessarily simple: the restrained coupling of text and image can contain any level of poetic sophistication or complexity. ‘Art,’ as Einstein reminds us, ‘is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way.
Accordingly, Tan’s illustrations do not ‘explain’ text but build a landscape of questions and ideas.
|1. Before reading the story:||Look closely at the book cover. Can you guess what the story is about? What hints do you see in the illustrations?|
|2. After reading the story:||Think about your response to the story and share your ideas as a class, in small groups or with a partner.|
|1. Describe the different visual elements used to represent the boy’s world and the world of lost things. Why do you think these two places are depicted in the way they are?|
|2. What colours have been used to represent the two worlds explored in the story? Why?|
|3. Make a list of the shapes and objects that comprise the worlds portrayed in The Lost Thing.|
|4. Focus on the different angles and perspectives used to represent the boy’s world. Describe three of these perspectives in detail and explain what they add to the story.|
|5. The book is made up of pictures of many different sizes; some pictures fill the page, while others are much smaller. Compare the effect of this way of constructing the book with another picture book that is more uniform. Why has Tan chosen this way of telling his story?|
|6. What is the effect of the engineering text books that provide the background for the story? Why do you think this background is not used for the world of lost things?|
|7. What is the purpose of the bottle top drawings on the inside of the cover? What do they add to the story?|
|8. What do you think of the final image? Why does the story end like this? What does this image add to the story? Explain.|
|9. As well as exploring many different aspects of human experience, The Lost Thing draws on many different emotions. As well as being heartfelt and whimsical, The Lost Thing is also comical. How and where is humour used in The Lost Thing?|
Pictures and words
In creating the images for his book The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan drew inspiration from artists as diverse as Edward Hopper, John Brack and Hieronymous Bosch. Hopper and Brack contributed to the look of the boy’s world and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights inspired the look of the utopian world of lost things.
Picture books are not always books for young children.
|1. Choose a page or a double page spread from the book and consider how the pictures and the words work together to tell the story.|
Go to Shaun Tan’s website to read what he has written about the picture book form and the way he sees his role as writer and illustrator.
In this essay Tan uses the metaphor of the battery to describe the relationship between words and pictures in his stories and the role of the reader: "When working I often like to think of words and images as opposite points on a battery, creating a potential voltage through a ‘gap’ between telling and showing. It requires the reader’s imagination to complete the circuit, their thoughts and feelings being the current that fills the silent space, without prescription."
|1. Explain what he means and give examples from your own reading of The Lost Thing or another of Tan’s books.|
|2. Give some examples of moments in the story where you have used your imagination to ‘complete the circuit’ that Tan describes.|
When the boy and the lost thing visit The Federal Department of Odds and Ends, they meet a sad, lost, forgotten creature with a small voice. This creature reappears in the final page of the story.
|1. Why do you think it directs the lost thing to the place for lost things but does not go there itself?|
|2. Why has it ended up where it has?|
|3. Where has it come from?|
|4. What is it?|
|5. Taking as a guide the many different angles and perspectives from which the lost thing character can be observed, create your own creature within a world and draw it from a number of different and unexpected perspectives. Combine the class’s responses to create a gallery of ‘lost things’.|
2. Introducing the film
When adapted to film, the story of The Lost Thing continues to explore a world where people have lost the ability to really see what is around them or to recognise and value something special and extraordinary.
The film draws on the melancholy sense of loss accompanying the boy’s memories of the lost thing. He was the only one in his bleak and soulless world to notice the strange lost creature, and the only one who cared enough to find a place for it to belong.
However, after glimpsing the magical world of lost things, the boy is left on the other side of a closed door looking towards a future where he will become like everybody else: someone who ‘stops noticing’.
|1. Share your impressions of the two main characters in the film.|
|2. Describe the two worlds presented in the film.|
|3. Focus on the opening of the animation.|
|4. How does the ending of the animation make you feel?|
In the book, the reader remains quite separate from the lost thing and the boy, whom we generally see in the distance. In the film, we are drawn into the world and connected more closely with the boy and his experience.
For Shaun Tan a work of art is required to make us ask questions about what we already know.
Theme: refers to ideas or issues that are beneath the surface of the story. Themes relate to concerns, beliefs, or feelings about life in general.
For instance, in The Lost Thing, although they are not stated, a couple of themes might be loneliness and friendship.
|1. How do we know that loneliness is a theme? Is there a lonely character? Do any of the scenes have a lonely feeling about them?|
|2. What about friendship?|
|3. Can you think of any other themes that might be represented in the film?|
In the audio commentary that accompanies the DVD of The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan describes the city where the boy lives as having ‘a dead heart’.
In The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan uses symbolism to create a link between what we see on screen and our everyday lives. A writer or a filmmaker is using symbolic language when s/he uses an image that stands for a larger and more complex idea or set of ideas. In The Lost Thing the two worlds are symbolic – but so too are smaller elements of each world.
Shaun Tan worked as part of a creative team to turn his book into an animation. As a consequence, the book and the film share a similar look and feel. However, these two texts are also very different as they are completely different art forms.
Shaun Tan describes the soundscape of The Lost Thing animation as offering another dimension to the artwork, as if he was given another colour palette to use.
In the midst of all of the complex technical decisions the team needed to make as part of the 3D animation process, they struggled to find the right person for the narrative voice-over:
"...it was trying to find the right balance between somebody whose voice was engaging and some kind of interesting quality and at the same time to be a little bit flat."
In this online interview, Shaun Tan describes some of the difficulties involved in adapting his story for the screen.
|1. Can you explain what he means when he says that one of the challenges for the creative team was: ‘How to tell a story about apathy without inspiring apathy.’|
|2. What does he suggest is the solution to this potential pitfall?|
|3. Give specific examples from the film of the filmmakers’ response to this challenge.|
Mise-en-scène is an expression related to the design aspects of a film (or theatre) production. It refers to everything that appears in the frame. Key aspects of mise-en-scène include, but are not limited to, composition, sets, props, actors (or, in the case of animation, characters) and lighting.
Mise-en-scène is used to tell you more about the story that is being told. For a clearer explanation and analysis of mise-en-scène, pause on a selected frame of a scene from The Lost Thing and discuss the mise-en-scène and its relationship to the narrative. Consider the following in your discussion and analysis:
Mise-en-scène is important in creating mood or an atmosphere.
|1. What is the mood of the scene you are focusing on? Explain.|
|2. Describe how this mood has been communicated in the mise-en-scène.|
|3. Describe the colours used. What do you think is the significance of the selected colours? How do the colours add to the story?|
|4. Explain how lighting is used to create meaning. Is the lighting bright, gloomy, dreary or dim? Is lighting used to create contrast? How is shadow used? (Shaun Tan has described the lighting of the animation as the ‘varnish’.)|
|5. Explore the design of the set (production design). Draw or list three elements of the production design that add to the mood or atmosphere conveyed in this scene. Explain.|
When Shaun Tan is writing and illustrating his books, he works in a portrait format but, when adapting The Lost Thing to the screen, he needed to work in the wider 16 by 9 landscape format.
Choose a picture book (either by Shaun Tan or a different author) and imagine you are turning it into a short film. Use the create a storyboard resource for the following activity.
|1. Create the storyboard for a short scene or sequence from the film.|
|2. What are some of the things you have to take into account when creating a moving image work? (For instance, think about sound, different shot types, movement and characterisation.)|
3. Exploring character: the boy
In the picture book, the boy character is generally viewed at a distance.
However, the animation form requires a more intimate connection to character, with a range of different shots that bring the viewer closer to the character.
In responding to this different storytelling form, Tan had to provide more visual information about this character.
For instance, he designed a range of facial expressions, gestures and stances for the digital effects and animation team to use when creating the character.
Look at the following images. One has been taken directly from the book and the other is a character drawing made as part of the pre-production process.
|1. Describe the differences in the portrayal of the boy.|
|2. How do these differences affect your understanding of the character of the boy?|
|3. How do these differences change your response to the character?|
|4. In describing the process of creating characters for the screen, Shaun Tan suggests that the relationship created between the viewers and the characters in the story has an intimacy that is not part of the experience of reading the book.|
|5. What do you think he means? Explain using examples from the book and the film.|
Exploring the uncanny valley
While Shaun Tan worked with the animator and the CG artist to create more developed characters for The Lost Thing, he was also aware of the dangers of trying to make the characters look too real. If an animation or an image looks too similar to the real thing it can be quite unsettling. This effect is described as entering the ‘uncanny valley’.
|1. Find out more about the concept of the uncanny valley. From your research, can you explain why audiences often respond negatively to animated characters that look too real?|
|1. Choose an image of a minor character from a picture book. Imagine that this character is going to be animated.|
|2. Using the sketches of the boy’s friend, Pete, as a guide, draw a character sketch to give the CG supervisor more information about the character.|
4. The art and the adaptation
When creating The Lost Thing book, Shaun Tan was inspired by his father’s old scientific and engineering text books.
He created a background out of these books to suggest a world without imagination.
Tan likes to think that The Lost Thing was the first piece of fiction ever produced in a society that focused only on facts with no interest in personal stories.
The collage of text book pages that dominates the book is featured in the opening credits and in the sequence that opens with the line: ‘I asked a few people if they knew anything about it.'
|1. What happens in the ‘collage’ sequence?|
|2. Why has this sequence been animated in this way?|
|3. How does the collage frame add to what is being communicated?In what other ways is the idea of a world without imagination represented in the animation?|
Adapting for the screen
When adapting The Lost Thing for the screen, the creative team (including Shaun Tan) could not rely too heavily on the pre-existing work. This is how Shaun Tan described the process to ACMI curator Fiona Trigg:
In producing any adaptation, you have to start from scratch. You’re not just taking one image and thinking ‘Okay, let’s try and turn this into a scene, what do we have to build? What do we have to move?’ That was very rare actually if you look from book to film that there are scenes that are directly translated.
|1. What are some of the things that need to be taken into account when adapting a picture book into a film?|
|2. Choose a scene from the film to explain some of the challenges and changes that are required in the adaptation process.|
Exploring concept art
Shaun Tan describes the book as ‘concept art’ that can be referred to in the filmmaking process.
|1. What is concept art?|
|2. What is its purpose?|
|3. In the video Tan mentions the difficulty of maintaining a balance between the quiet contemplative nature of books and the dynamic nature of film and animation. Has this balance been achieved in The Lost Thing film? If so, how?|
Imagine a world without imagination...
The lost thing is a playful, purposeless creature who finds itself in a fact-driven universe where there is no art, music or literature.
|1. Use your imagination to create your own version of a world without imagination using the creative form that best suits your ideas.|
Shaun Tan, like many artists, draws all the time, exploring ideas that may come to nothing or, alternatively, form the basis for a story. The story of The Lost Thing emerged from a small sketch, a drawing of a tiny man talking to a huge crab on a beach.
The creative process
Shaun Tan’s discussion of his creative process as a picture book writer and illustrator is illuminating and engaging.
|1. What aspects of Shaun Tan’s creative process stand out for you?|
Shaun Tan comments that when he first begins a project, he starts off with very small sketches:
The reason they are so small, and often done with just a pencil on copy paper or even a biro is that the moment that I start thinking I’m creating a significant work of art it becomes terrible.
Starting a project, particularly a creative project can be hard and people have different ways of working creatively and different techniques for getting started.
|1. How do you begin a new project?|
|2. If you are wanting to be creative, what techniques do you use?|
|3. Do you use the same strategies each time, or do the strategies you use depend on the nature of the project you are working on?|
|4. Focus on an artist, writer, filmmaker or musician whose work you admire. Try to find out more about the way they develop ideas for a new project.|
It is amazing to think that The Lost Thing was inspired by a single tiny drawing of a boy sitting on the beach talking to a large crab.
|1. Find an image that sparks your imagination and create an artwork or piece of writing inspired by this single image.|
6. Setting the scene: the city
The City in The Lost Thing is a place without imagination or creativity. It exists to work efficiently but not to make its inhabitants' lives better.
|1. What is the effect of the pipes, signs and lack of vegetation? Explain by focusing on a couple of specific examples.|
|2. Jot down some adjectives to share with the class that describe the music and your response to the music. How does the music add to the story being told? What aspects of the narrative does the music accentuate or complement?|
The place where The Lost Thing is set is a place without imagination.
|1. How important are imagination and creativity to a society and to the people living in a particular place?|
|2. Think about the place where you live. Describe some of the ways people express, experience or share imagination and creativity in your community.|
|3. Are there qualities or aspects it shares with the world of The Lost Thing?|
|As a class, you might like to put together a collection of images that demonstrate the differences and similarities between your world and the world of The Lost Thing.|
At the end of The Lost Thing, the boy has grown up and no longer sees 'lost things':
'Maybe there aren't many lost things around anymore nor maybe I just stopped noticing'
(In the book the line reads 'Maybe there aren't many lost things around anymore nor maybe I just stopped noticing them.'
|1. What happens to a place when people stop noticing things?|
Inspiration for the city
When designing the city, Shaun Tan was inspired by Collins Street, 5p.m., a painting by Australian artist John Brack. The painting is owned by the National Gallery of Victoria and you can find out more about this painting on the NGV website.
|1. Why does Shaun Tan refer to this painting in his depiction of the city?|
|2. How do the figures inspired by Collins Street, 5p.m. contribute to our understanding of the world where The Lost Thing story is set?|
When animating the city scene inspired by Collins Street, 5p.m., the CG supervisor Tom Bryant 're-purposed' a set of 8-10 basic characters. He was then able to re-use assets that had already been animated, simply by changing characters' hair or clothing.
|1. Draw your own generic character using a digital program. Then with as few changes as possible, add and take away features to create a group of characters.|
|2. You might like to try adding your characters with those created by other students to make a crowd scene.|
7. Production process
As well as being the writer and creator of the animation of The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan worked as co-director with Andrew Ruhemann and was involved in all aspects of the production process.
Despite being a very ‘painterly’ book, The Lost Thing film was made using 3D animation techniques.
|1. What do you think this digital animation process has added to the film? Focus on the creation of the film’s world and the animation of the characters.|
How to tell the story
Before making any specific creative decisions, the producer, Sophie Byrne and the directors, Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann, needed to make a number of decisions about how to tell the story. As well as deciding how long the film would be, the creative team needed to decide the audience the film would be aimed at.
|1. What kinds of things need to be taken into account when deciding on the intended audience of a film?|
|2. Why is it important to know who the audience for a film is going to be?|
Any form of storytelling requires the creator, or the creative team, to adopt a particular tone. Mood is about the feeling and atmosphere created within the story but tone relates to the audience and provides information about how to ‘read’ or understand the story.
|1. What is the ‘tone’ of The Lost Thing?|
|2. Is the tone of the film different from the tone of the book?|
As part of the CG animation process, Tan worked with the CG supervisor to create a painted effect. This required Tan to paint textures and then scan them. They were then wrapped around the models.
|1. Focus on a single frame from The Lost Thing and describe the use of paint to add texture.|
|2. Explain what this adds to the world of the film. How does this technique contribute to the story being told?|
The storyboarding process is the same whether you are producing a live action film or an animation.
|1. Build your own storyboard, exploring the effect of different shot types using a short script you have written yourself.|
8. Symbols: The Federal Department of Odds and Ends
When creating the Federal Department of Odds and Ends, Shaun Tan had to find a balance between the surreal and the ordinary.
If everything is too ordinary, people stop paying attention to some extent; they stop asking questions about what's going on... Whereas if you make it a little bit weird and you exaggerate some features, suddenly people realise the slight absurdity of some bureaucratic processes.
|1. What are some of the exaggerated features of the Federal Department of Odds and Ends?|
|2. What do you think Tan might be trying to get you to notice or think about by exaggerating these features?|
|3. What is the connection between the Federal Department of Odds and Ends and the lines of people heading to work in the preceding image/scene?|
|1. What is its role in the story?|
|2. Why is it so keen to help the lost thing?|
|Why do you think it has not followed the signs to the world of lost things?|
|1. How does sound contribute to the story in the scene set in the Federal Department of Odds and Ends?|
|2. Consider this still image of the Federal Department of Odds and Ends from the film. List 10 Foley sounds that would help bring this image to life? (Think about sounds you would use to convey isolation, the inhumanity of bureaucracy or the feeling lost?)|
|3. What do you think of the entire soundscape of the film?|
|4. Try watching a section of the animation with the sound turned off and the subtitles on and then watch it again with sound. Explain what the sound, music and/or voiceover contribute to the story.|
|5. How does the sound in the film match up with the sounds of the world you imagined while reading the book?|
Find out more about the meaning and function of bureaucracy and consider why certain kinds of bureaucracy are described as 'absurd', 'soulless' and 'inhuman'. You might like to start with the discussion of Franz Kafka's The Trial on Shmoop.
|1. Why do you think systems originally designed to be efficient and rational sometimes end up inefficient and absurd?|
|2. Do you have any personal experience of bureaucratic absurdity - maybe an experience at school, or trying to get your laptop fixed or trying to get a concession travel pass? Explain.|
The Federal Department of Odds and Ends creates the feeling of isolation, authority and lifelessness, yet is still a place of employment for humans.
|1. Imagine you work at the Federal Department of Odds and Ends. Write a job description for yourself.|
|2. Imagine what an office function at the Federal Department of Odds and Ends (i.e. a Christmas party) might be like.|
|3. Draw or write a description that communicates the absurdity and inhumanity of this world.|
|4. Create your own logo in the style of the logo of the Federal Department of Odds and Ends. You can either create a logo for an unimaginative world like the one we discover in The Lost Thing, or you can imagine a completely different kind of world.|
|5. What is the name of your department? What kind of world does it exist in? What is your motto? Why have you designed the logo in the style you have chosen?|
9. Theme: Utopia
When talking about The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan calls the world of the lost things Utopia. A utopia is an ideal or perfect society.
Creating the animated world of lost things was one of the greatest challenges faced by the animation team. As well as making the creatures depicted in the book three dimensional and animating them, Tan designed many new lost things.
|1. Describe your response to the animated world of the lost things.|
|2. How does this animated world compare with the single page represented in the book? What are the similarities and what are the differences?|
The concluding scene
In describing the decisions made about the music for the film, Michael Yezerski, the composer, explains that in the Utopia scene, he had to decide between drawing attention to the oddness of the characters in this world or focusing on the story. It was decided that the music be designed in such a way that the 'audience felt the conclusion of the story'.
|1. How can music make viewers 'feel' a conclusion? What music elements did Yezerski introduce to create this emotional effect in The Lost Thing?|
|2. List some other films or animations where the music adds to the sense that the story has reached a satisfying or heartfelt conclusion.|
|3. What happens to the music as the door closes after the boy and the lost thing have said goodbye?|
Consider the emotional effect on the viewer of the final scene in which we see the boy grown up. Some people argue that the animation should have left the viewer in the world of the lost things, rather than bringing them 'back down to earth'.
|1. What do you think of the above point of view?|
|2. What does the concluding scene add to the story?|
Shaun Tan's style
Visit Shaun Tan's website and the website for The Lost Thing to see Shaun Tan's designs for the creatures that populate the world of lost things.
|1. Choose a particular creature and describe Shaun Tan's drawing style.|
|2. Most of Shaun Tan's work is signed - even his preliminary sketches. Why do you think this is the case?|
|3. Why is it important for an artist to keep his/her name on their work?|
|4. Is this more of a challenge for people creating in a digital field?|
Imagine you are creating an exhibition for The Lost Thing. Watch this video that describes the exhibition Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing: From Book To Film for some ideas.
|1. How would you design a section on Utopia, the world of lost things? In a style and artform of your choice, make a fantasy world filled with remarkable creatures.|