As we sit together trying our best to ignore the hearty rumble of unroadworthy trucks charging down riverside, it becomes immediately apparent that James Speck is a master of understatement.
Or perhaps he is just incredibly humble.
Either way, any man who attempts to reduce to little more than a footnote a television show which, at its peak, attracted 1.2 billion viewers conjures equal parts respect and bemusement.
If I were in his shoes, it would probably be sensible to make the rooftops of Phnom Penh my permanent home, seeing as I’d spend so much time shouting from them.
Yet Speck, in his easy manner, just mentions these enormous viewing figures in passing when we discuss his biggest successes in the animation business.
Lili is an interactive virtual character created by Speck who fronted her own show on the MTV Asia Network.
The Lili Show not only shattered the billion viewers’ mark during its peak years, it also won the Asian Television Award for Most Innovative Program.
“I think we were the first show in Asia to do a live broadcast with a virtual character,” says Speck. “It could be that Japan or Korea had done it but we’re still talking early days; this was in 2000 and 2001.”
Lili was an animated video jockey (or VJ) for MTV Asia and interviewed “just about any pop star you could imagine”, according to Speck.
Of course, he stops short of naming many of the superstars who passed through the Singapore studio because he “doesn’t want to name-drop”.
But he is willing to admit that the huge success of The Lili Show changed his life “both for good and bad”.
“The first thing I realised was that it is very easy for somebody who has a huge pop culture hit to assume that it is going to go on forever,” Speck explains.
“It does not. It’s like that rapper MC Hammer – one second he’s everywhere and then all of a sudden you read that he’s doing an obscure gospel show or he’s a mailman, or something.
“I guess I had something of a hangover; I expected it was going to happen again and it didn’t. Once I got over that, I think the only changes were positive because I liked the concept so much that I’ve stayed with it all this time and have been pitching it with various degrees of success.”
Speck’s definition of “various degrees of success” differs from yours or mine.
Almost everything pales next to a billion-plus television audience, of course, but he has since helped produce a live show for 40,000 people in Melbourne, and is currently working with a production company in Jakarta, as well as “talking to one of the theme parks in Singapore”. Now, he is bringing some of his wizardry to Phnom Penh for the first time, having moved here from Singapore about six months ago.
The 53-year-old Arizona native defies practically all of the usual stereotypes of a computer geek.
He is effervescent, often talks animatedly with his hands and sports a small, silver hoop in his left ear.
Perhaps more techno pirate than techno nerd, then, but he remains passionate about his chosen profession.
“I use special motion-capture software and the best way I can describe it is electronic puppetry. It used to take about five people to make a character work.
We had them using different devices to make the body parts move, but now the technology is so good that the software I use allows me to do everything on a laptop.”
His latest creation is an interactive devil character, which will make its debut at Paddy Rice this Halloween weekend.
Speck is quick to give kudos to the Irish bar for being “brave” and “the first people out of the gate”.
“I went to the TV stations and everyone was nice. I usually got a meeting, but nothing was really happening,” he explains, before adding that he is now in negotiations with NagaWorld, although he cannot say anything more at this time.
He has been putting the finishing touches to his devil this week and is looking forward to the opportunity to gauge the reaction to his work. The character will take pride of place on the bar’s big screen, as well as a smaller TV, and will be interacting with the crowd throughout the Halloween evening.
“Hopefully people will be drunk and having fun and they will enjoy having the character talking to them,” says Speck.
“Even when we did the tests there were some huge smiles lighting up from the staff.
It’s a big party, there’s going to be a band, tarot card-reading and more.
In between the sets, this character is going to come on and talk directly to the audience. I’m going to improvise and try to have fun.”
It should not prove difficult for this naturally outgoing man to entertain the crowd at Paddy Rice.
He will be secreted away behind a curtain during the devil’s appearance onscreen, but the voice you hear will certainly belong to James Speck – the man who has entertained billions but is happy to remain unfamiliar.
Paddy Rice (213 Sisowath Quay) will host two nights of Halloween fun this weekend. Saturday, October 30 will see 1000 free vodka jelly shots and face painting, as well as Kheltica, Holiday in Cambodia and a brief appearance from the interactive devil. Sunday, October 31 is the Gypsy Jazz Halloween Party and will feature tarot card-reading, face painting, a live performance from Balgass and the interactive devil’s main appearance. The festivities kick off at 8pm on both evenings and San Miguel is $1.50 all day and night.