Pain is an inevitable part of many births, and it is no different with the birth of this particular fictional universe.
It was created from the ashes of grief and the age-old human need to make sense of it all.
Creator and coauthor Chuah Jern Ern explains: “I think, at the very start of it, the idea came about when the ‘author’ and his family basically lost a couple of puppies in quite tragic circumstances.
“And when that happened, the question that arose was, how do people deal with the grief of losing animals that they love, and how do they deal with that loss?”
The 46-year-old intellectual property specialist and animal lover says that they realised a lot of grieving pet owners often embraced the concept of the Rainbow Bridge to deal with their loss.
The Rainbow Bridge is a fictional place first referenced in a poem by an unknown author in the 1980s, where pets are suppose to go after their death to happily await a reunion with their owners before moving on to heaven together.
“But above and beyond that, there really wasn’t any great universe or mythology created that helped people have their pets, in a sense, live forever,” says Chuah.
“And you can live forever in a story.”
That was when the spark that eventually resulted in the universe of Ae’Tann came into being.
An end and a means
The brain child of Chuah, this universe set in the place pets live in before and after they come into our world, is the basis of a group of IP assets that are actually a means to another end.
“We realised that if we wanted to do something for animals – and this was really what we wanted to do – the whole idea was to create, in the long run, a foundation that can help in animal education,” he explains.
However, just starting up an animal shelter or charity meant that they would always be reliant on donations to stay afloat.
Says Chuah: “We don’t really know how to run animal shelters and charities, but we know IP.
“And so we were thinking, maybe what we could do is to gather up and develop an alliance whose first focus is to develop a core set of intellectual property rights that can then power the foundation through its ongoing assets.”
This group, dubbed the Five-A Alliance (standing for the “Ae’tann Authors, Artists, Animators & Advisors Alliance”), consists of like-minded animal lovers and storytellers from around the world. Chuah and his wife, Ng Mae Lin, are the cofounders.
There are currently 12 members of the alliance from countries like Malaysia, Singapore, the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain, although Chuah says that they are open to accepting more like-minded people in the future.
“Everyone that joins brings something to the party,” he adds. “We don’t just simply add people.”
For example, some members are pet rehabilitators or specialists in certain types of animals, while others are experts in legal and IP matters.
Telling a story
Although Chuah shares that they were initially encouraged to develop a game app as their first IP asset, they decided against it because they knew they had a story to tell.
“It’s not just a short-term viral thing. We are taking baby steps, we’re growing this over years, so we don’t mind starting slow, but we want it to end big,” he says.
Therefore, their first IP asset in this universe is an illustrated storybook titled The Tails Of Ae’Tann: A Sunset Story.
“We decided to launch as a book because people can spend time with a book,” he explains.
Consisting of two related stories, the book follows the adventures of puppy siblings Red, Olive and Ollie as they prepare to be born and what happens when things go horribly wrong.
Aimed at pet lovers, children and young adults, the chapters have been kept short so they are easy for parents to read aloud to younger children.
As Chuah explains, the story is meant to work on two levels.
On the first, it is a pure adventure story.
“But we didn’t want to do just that,” he says.
“What we really wanted to do was to create a story that adults would enjoy reading to their kids as well.
“We put in a lot of Easter eggs from world mythology, so if you know your mythology, you would say, ‘Oh right! That’s where that comes from’.
“One of the things we wanted adults to enjoy was spotting all the Easter eggs inside.”
Chuah shares that although he was the one who came up with the idea and concept, the writing was a collaborative effort with other members of the alliance.
As such, they decided to go with a collective author pseudonym of Jeren Jordin Oliver.
A Kickstarter start
They also decided to go the less traditional publishing route by crowdfunding the book via Kickstarter.
“We went on Kickstarter to try to maintain some form of creative control, actually,” Chuah explains.
“Because we had an idea of where we wanted this to go to, so we said, for the first one, let us fully create it to show proof of concept of what we would be capable of doing.
“And I think that is the core reason of why we went with Kickstarter.”
He admits that they initially went onto the crowdfunding platform with rose-tinted glasses but soon discovered how difficult and time-consuming it is to run a successful Kickstarter project.
“It actually aged a number of us quite a few years,” he says with a laugh.
But it was all worth it as they not only achieved their goal of US$36,000 (RM159,000) within three weeks of their 30-day campaign, but finally ended up with US$39,388 (RM174,000) in total from 114 backers from around the world.
Chuah muses: “I think one of the things that really made us successful on Kickstarter was when we added the reward that wasn’t just about buying the book but also about supporting a charity.
“We had this programme called ‘Share the Love 10x’ where people could buy 10 books and give them to an organisation of their choice. They would also get two complimentary copies for themselves.
“Then people started buying not 10 – they were buying 70, 80 (copies) and giving it to hospitals, animal charities, etc.”
That move really helped push the campaign over their funding goal.
“When our Kickstarter closed, we were the most funded children’s book Kickstarter project during that three-month period, and we were in the top 30 of all-time projects,” he shares.
Currently, the alliance is hard at work on the sequel to A Sunset Story, which will be titled The Tails Of Ae’Tann: A Sunrise Somewhere and is targeted to be out in 2019.
The next book set in the Ae’tann universe, however, is an anthology of short stories and artwork titled Trusthearts & Tails: The Great War Of Eden & Other Stories, scheduled to be out in 2018.
It is a seven-year project (estimated to end in 2023) encompassing five books, although Chuah says that they already have ideas for a spin-off series as well.
As the funding is only for the first book, the alliance is exploring options to not only place A Sunset Story in bookstores, but also working with other parties to fund the subsequent books.
Illustrations that get children to read
Being primarily targeted at children, it should come as no surprise that The Tails of Ae’Tann: A Sunset Story is an illustrated storybook.
The search for a suitable artist was a serious one, with the Five-A Alliance – the team behind the concept and book – launching an art competition to find the right person.
As they had a very clear idea of their universe and how they wanted it to look, the competition participants were given a very specific brief on what was required.
The prize was a fee for the winning art piece and, more importantly, an opportunity to work on The Tails Of Ae’Tann book series.
Ironically, the eventual winner, illustrator and The One Academy lecturer Chang Woon Bing, 30, was the one participant who did not follow the brief. But because of that, his artwork stood out from the rest, and according to the Five-A Alliance cofounder Chuah Jern Ern, it really had life and movement to it compared with the others.
However, it was project coordinator Tan Renjie who was insistent that the team include Woon Bing, as he is known professionally, in the shortlist of five finalists who were invited for an interview.
“Of the five, it became very clear – there were no questions asked – that Woon Bing had the passion and ability to contribute (to this project).
“So we signed him on in 2014,” shares Chuah. Woon Bing’s contract is for five books, lasting through to 2023.
As he personally enjoys drawing animals and landscapes, the work fits his own artistic interests quite well.
He shares: “I think so far, in terms of the characterisation and all that, the writers are quite good in providing the descriptions of the characters.
“Of course, there’s research involved as well.”
He adds that for the various backgrounds, he finds inspiration in National Geographic visuals and photos.
Chuah shares that they purposely created set pieces within the story to evoke a cinematic feel.
“You know, it’s not easy to get kids to read nowadays. So in order to get them to read, you have to attract them in some way, and the best thing that they could say is if this thing flows like a movie in their heads.
“So a lot of the art that we did is basically there to showcase to them how this could actually be a movie.”
He adds that this is also potentially helpful in expanding the Ae’Tann universe so it can be adapted for other platforms.
Adds Woon Bing: “I think it is the ‘aww’ and ‘awe’ factor.
“The ‘aww, so cute’ (for the animals) and the very awesome views. It’s juxtapositioning those two things together.”
The book series is, however, part of a bigger picture.
The plan is to use the profits from the series and its associated merchandise to fund a foundation that will help educate people about animals.
“I really like the intention behind it – the whole idea behind eventually using the IP (intellectual property) to fund educating people on how to treat animals right – I think it is quite a noble goal,” says Woon Bing.
On the first book, The Tails Of Ae’Tann: A Sunset Story, the dog owner comments: “One of the things that really resonated with me was the theme of living in the present.
“The book talks about the idea of there’s the past, there’s the future, but now is important.
“I think a lot of people who have owned pets before will understand that – the time you spend with your pet really helps you to forget everything else and just live in the moment.”
A Sunset Story (RM90, excluding shipping costs) will be available for sale to the public until this Sunday. Those interested can either buy the book at the Comic Fiesta event held this weekend at the Putra World Trade Centre, Kuala Lumpur, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.