At first glance, siopao seems like a simple dish. It’s a straightforward Filipino steamed bun, consisting of dough, boiling water in a steamer, and pork asado — meat braised in a harmony of sweet soy sauce and savoury spices. But taken for granted are the stories a simple recipe carries or the skill required to elevate a quick snack into a testament of the chef’s love. There are memories and experiences waiting to be written by those who eat it, prepared by generations of inherited love. 

Creating a meaningful animated film requires a similar process to making siopao. Family stories, immense skill, shared love, and a bit of heat — this was how the independent animation film The Lovers became a viral success and received over $80,000 in funding in less than 24 hours. 

Meet A. S. Siopao, a duo operating under a joint pseudonym who founded an indie animation studio, Studio Heartbreak. As a result of harassment they’ve encountered both online and in person around the project, the duo, ‘S’ and ‘A’ asked to speak under their pseudonym.

Making the dough

S is a third-year Arts and Science student at U of T. Artists are ambitious people, and S is no different: when inspiration struck after a series of failed internship applications to animation studios, her first thought was, “How can I enhance my portfolio?” 

Studio Heartbreak was created in collaboration between friends S and A, who became the duo A. S. Siopao. A had a drawing lying around that they decided would inspire the concept of their debut film. S began working on a setting, kneading out the world and the story. 

The result was a queer enemies-to-lovers story that takes place in a dark fantasy version of the Philippines. It follows the story of Sara Lim Baylon, a reluctant seafood chef from Binondo, Manila, forced to live up to her late father’s reputation and keep their business afloat. When Sara’s restaurant plans the governor’s inauguration dinner featuring a sirena — a Filipino mythical sea creature often portrayed as a vicious mermaid — as the centrepiece, Sara finds herself in a dangerous affair with the mythical creature. 

Featuring mature and complex themes like repression, identity, and generational trauma with dialogue in Taglish — a mix of English and Tagalog — it was without a doubt bound to be an amazing watch.

Creating the asado filling

A beautifully animated film, however, does not appear from thin air. The characters A. S. Siopao imagined didn’t spring to life on their own, nor did they speak on their own accord without a team effort. So A. S. Siopao turned to the internet, calling for all freelance artists and animators who wanted a part in their vision. 

To their surprise, they received an immense and overwhelming number of applications for various roles that they needed to fill. Carving through each and every portfolio that turned up in their inbox, the duo worked on getting compositors, voice actors, animators, and background artists. Slowly, Studio Heartbreak expanded to a small team of just 20 members.

Steaming the buns

Assembling the perfect dish is not a smooth path. Like working in any kitchen, the stress of creating The Lovers reached many boiling points. S and her co-founder A are studying full time in school. With what S describes as “pain and suffering,” she was able to strike a fine balance between the two endeavours. 

Worst of all was their imposter syndrome. Every positive comment was another bit of added pressure that slowly built up to the point that S had to take a break from social media. So while S was studying full time, writing assignments, and hanging out with friends, she was running a small animation studio as a co-director, managing negative and homophobic comments on their posts while overseeing every aspect of the animation production pipeline and trying to communicate with each department efficiently. Thankfully, S was able to overcome this weight on their shoulders and produce a quality trailer with the team.

A famous, proudly Filipino dish

Studio Heartbreak published a short teaser on Twitter, racking up well over one million views and building up incredible hype around their new indie animation studio. When their Kickstarter was released on May 9, it reached its funding goal of $81,628 in less than two hours. The reaction to the complete 45-second trailer on YouTube was immensely positive, with a commenter saying that it meant a lot to the queer Filipino community. The story is set in S’ home city of Manila, and she was filled with pride upon returning to her home which she chose as the setting of the successful love story.

Given the meticulous planning and quality in their Kickstarter, it’s no wonder that this 45-second trailer took them almost a year to create from nothing. Depending on how much you pledge on Kickstarter, you can get cool rewards, like prints, art books, or Sirena’s bath water if you have pockets as deep as the ocean. They read all the comments and look at all the fan art. They even have their own channel in their private Discord to share fan messages to boost morale.

Looking forward, A. S. Siopao hopes to create more animations, but for now, their goal is to get the full length of The Lovers out. And they’re getting closer to that goal — slowly but surely. Even though the movie itself is still in its infant stage, just creating The Lovers trailer was a long journey of thousand frames of animation, a meticulous recipe that called for dedication, hard work, and love for the craft — and it all started with an idea and a bit of ambition.

To stay updated on their progress, you can find them on Instagram @studioheartbreak, Twitter @studioheartbrk, TikTok @studioheartbreak, or on their website.