An­i­ma­tion: Giv­ing new life to the char­ac­ters

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - In Heaven

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which re­mains one of the high­est gross­ing films of all time.

“It was un­der the in­flu­ence of Princess Iron Fan that Osamu Tezuka, Ja­pan’s fa­ther of manga and the cre­ator of Astro Boy, aban­doned his med­i­cal stud­ies and in­stead pur­sued a ca­reer in car­toons and an­i­ma­tion,” Lu says.

In 1961 an­other an­i­ma­tion, Havoc

by Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio, based on the Mon­key King story in the Chi­nese clas­sic novel Jour­ney to the West, was re­leased. With a sound­track of tra­di­tional Chi­nese mu­sic and char­ac­ters con­sist­ing of Pek­ing Opera fig­ures, the film would be­come a mile­stone that de­fined Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion, win­ning nu­mer­ous awards at home and abroad.

“The pro­duc­tion of an­i­ma­tion movies felt the ef­fects of the ‘cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion’ (1966-76), but there were many more good works to come, such as Nezha Con­quers the Dragon King (1979) and Three Monks (1980),” Lu says.

“How­ever, in the 1980s Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion be­gan to go into grad­ual de­cline.”

The coun­try aban­doned the cen­tral planned econ­omy in 1978, but it was not un­til 16 years later that the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try fully em­braced the mar­ket.

Those years of lost op­por­tu­nity re­sulted in a dearth of tal­ent in the in­dus­try, with the old hands be­com­ing even older and few young peo­ple be­ing trained to fill the breach when they even­tu­ally de­parted.

With the old sys­tem gone and a mar­ket-based sys­tem re­main­ing to be de­vel­oped, the once flour­ish­ing an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try with­ered.

Lu, who has served on count­less in­ter­na­tional an­i­ma­tion fes­ti­val ju­ries over the years and was the direc­tor of the an­i­ma­tion for the Bei­jing Olympic Games mas­cot Fuwa in 2008, says: “I al­ways feel em­bar­rassed when my for­eign peers say to me: ‘Lu, have you got some good Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion you can rec­om­mend?’ The Dasheng (Mon­key King: A Hero’s Re­turn) and Dayu (Big Fish & Be­go­nia) are good, but not good enough.”

Ja­panese car­toons

Many Chi­nese who grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s cheer­fully re­call child­hood days when they saw Ja­panese car­toon char­ac­ters such as Astro Boy, Do­rae­mon, Saint Seiya and Sailor Moon.

Tele­vi­sion sets were then start­ing to be­come part of Chi­nese liv­ing rooms and TV sta­tions made im­ported an­i­ma­tion se­ries a sta­ple of their pro­gram­ming. One of the rare pop­u­lar Chi­nese TV se­ries was Cal­abash Brothers, a pa­per-cut an­i­ma­tion aired in 1987.

Like many in China who be­came car­toon afi­ciona­dos in that era, Zhang Liyan, the direc­tor of Cal­abash Brothers, who last year made a se­quel to cel­e­brate its 30th an­niver­sary, gained his in­spi­ra­tion from Ja­pan.

Zhang, 45, re­calls the Ja­panese manga se­ries Dragon Ball and its an­i­mated TV se­ries when he was pre­par­ing to en­roll for art col­lege in 1990.

“It had a huge im­pact on me,” says Zhang, who had stud­ied Chi­nese paint­ing when he was a child.

“It opened my eyes, mak­ing me re­al­ize there was an­other way of draw­ing.”

When an an­i­ma­tion stu­dio came scout­ing for re­cruits among stu­dents in his school the re­sponse was over­whelm­ing, he says.

“Al­most half the class ap­plied, in­clud­ing me.”

After two years of study and work, Zhang learned how to make an­i­ma­tion and opened his own com­pany in the mid 1990s.

He then spent a decade strug­gling to come to grips with the nascent pri­vate sec­tor.

“It was very tough. Many com­pa­nies were founded and just as quickly died, but I stuck to it be­cause of my pas­sion for an­i­ma­tion.”

In 2003 Zhang was given the op­por­tu­nity to study tra­di­tional Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion at the Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio.

“These old artists showed me how to make an­i­ma­tion us­ing pup­pet or pa­per-cut char­ac­ters. Not only did they teach me so much, but their wis­dom and ded­i­ca­tion in­spired me.”

Since then he has made sev­eral an­i­ma­tions in the tra­di­tional Chi­nese style, us­ing ink and brush, pup­pet and pa­per-cut.

Zhang’s am­bi­tion to re­vive tra­di­tional Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion is ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing in his project A Fish­boy’s Story: Tor­toise form the Sea, an an­i­mated film fea­tur­ing Chi­nese pa­per­cut­ting tech­niques that he hopes will go on the big screen next year.

In the film Zhang’s team has used com­put­ers to repli­cate the tex­ture and feel of pa­per-cut char­ac­ters, and has set the story in the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), telling how a young fish­er­man over­comes his fear of wa­ter and of his ad­ven­ture with a huge tor­toise.

Tra­di­tion

Tra­di­tion is guid­ing other an­i­ma­tors as well.

“Chi­nese early an­i­ma­tions were not com­mer­cial prod­ucts,” says Li Guanyu, 37, the head of the an­i­ma­tion depart­ment at Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Uni­ver­sity of Shanxi. “These an­i­ma­tions were art.”

Li, founder of an an­i­ma­tion stu­dio in Shanxi prov­ince, Shrub Cul­ture, says that when he was a child he was fond of Ja­panese manga and Chi­nese tra­di­tional pic­ture-story books.

He opened a stu­dent car­toon club and sold comic books when he was still in col­lege in Taiyuan, Shanxi prov­ince.

In 2002 he ob­tained a de­gree in graphic de­sign and went to Bei­jing, where he worked with var­i­ous com­pa­nies for a year, be­fore study­ing at Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio for six months.

His ex­cite­ment is clear as he re­calls that ex­pe­ri­ence.

“De­spite their age, the old artists taught us the very de­tails of the an­i­ma­tions they made,” he says, be­fore recit­ing a string of artists’ names and their works.

“I was fond of an­i­ma­tion be­fore and did not fore­see how far I would go on this road, but after see­ing the en­dur­ing pas­sion of the older prac­ti­tion­ers I re­al­ized that mak­ing good an­i­ma­tions is worth a life­time.”

Li thinks all an­i­ma­tions are shaped by the art of the time.

Works by Shang­hai An­i­ma­tion Film Stu­dio are heav­ily in­flu­enced by tra­di­tional Chi­nese art, he says.

“For ex­am­ple, the chief artist of Havoc in Heaven, Zhang Guangyu, took in el­e­ments from folk dec­o­ra­tion to de­sign the anime’s back­ground.”

These an­i­ma­tions were made by the coun­try’s top direc­tors and artists, too, he says.

“The direc­tor of Havoc in Heaven is Wan Laim­ing, one of the Wan brothers who were the trail­blaz­ers of China’s an­i­ma­tion.”

Since those days, mak­ing Chi­nese tra­di­tional art ap­peal­ing to mod­ern peo­ple has grad­u­ally be­come Li’s guide­line in his cre­ation.

At the mo­ment his stu­dio is work­ing on an an­i­mated TV se­ries, Kiki and Kaka.

The main char­ac­ters are two tigers in the form of cloth dolls, a tra­di­tional craft in Shanxi listed as a na­tional cul­tural her­itage in 2008.

“My chil­dren liked it,” says Li, a fa­ther of two. “They have watched it over and over again.”

At­ten­tion

Since 2000 the gov­ern­ment has given more at­ten­tion to the state of the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try, aware that the coun­try’s screens were dom­i­natan­i­ma­tion ed by for­eign char­ac­ters for more than a decade.

In 2000 the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ra­dio, Film and Tele­vi­sion is­sued a guide­line on im­port­ing and broad­cast­ing for­eign an­i­ma­tion, set­ting a ra­tio of 6 to 4 for aired do­mes­tic and for­eign an­i­ma­tions, and lim­it­ing the air­time of for­eign an­i­ma­tions to less than a quar­ter of each chil­dren’s pro­gram.

In 2004 the ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued ad­vice on de­vel­op­ing the coun­try’s an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try, en­cour­ag­ing more pro­duc­tions, air­time, fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives and man­age­ment.

They were sig­nals from the gov­ern­ment that were well re­ceived by the coun­try’s young an­i­ma­tors, He Zhan­wei among them.

After ob­tain­ing a de­gree in ap­plied arts, He em­barked on an an­i­ma­tion ca­reer in Hu­nan prov­ince in 2004, join­ing a com­pany that was pro­duc­ing China’s long­est an­i­ma­tion se­ries, Naughty Blue Cat’s 3,000 Ques­tions. The se­ries, with more than 2,000 episodes, was broad­cast un­til 2012.

“I learned how to make an­i­ma­tion fast there,” He says. “In my fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion China was build­ing its in­dus­trial econ­omy, and now it is turn­ing to the cul­tural econ­omy.”

Top pro­ducer

In China, about 82,000 min­utes of an­i­ma­tions were pro­duced in 2001, a num­ber that more than tripled to 261,000 in 2011, ac­cord­ing to The His­tory of Chi­nese An­i­ma­tion, a re­port by re­searchers at the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Uni­ver­sity of China.

In 2010 the coun­try over­took Ja­pan as the largest pro­ducer of an­i­mated films.

How­ever, there is a sin­is­ter side to that in­creased out­put, many an­i­ma­tion com­pa­nies be­ing set up sim­ply to ob­tain gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies granted for an­i­ma­tions that could be re­garded as medi­ocre at best, in­dus­try in­sid­ers say.

In an in­ter­view in 2011, Lu said: “With­out qual­ity there can be no an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try. … China can­not be­come a lead­ing an­i­ma­tion pro­ducer by pro­duc­ing quan­tity at the ex­pense of qual­ity.”

In 2011 pro­duc­tion fig­ures be­gan fall­ing and last year 119,000 min­utes of an­i­mated film were made in the coun­try, the Na­tional Bu­reau of Statis­tics says.

“It was about that time that I re­al­ized the cul­ture in­dus­try is un­like any other in­dus­try,” He says. “It takes time and it takes tal­ent.”

He is the founder of the so­cial net­work­ing app for an­i­ma­tors, Cloud of Artists, on which they can dis­play their pro­files and port­fo­lios to po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers.

The app or­ga­nized its first off­line job fair in Bei­jing on July 15, at­tract­ing 50 an­i­ma­tion com­pa­nies and hun­dreds of job seek­ers.

“What is keep­ing China’s an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try back is a lack of pro­fes­sion­als and those skilled in sto­ry­telling,” He says. “We want to con­nect the right peo­ple with com­pa­nies in need.”

Like many others in this in­dus­try, he is op­ti­mistic, say­ing that over the com­ing decade “Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion will take off again”.

That op­ti­mism is backed by a grow­ing thirst for orig­i­nal Chi­nese an­i­ma­tions.

There were more than 45,000 movie screens in China by the end of June, sur­pass­ing that in the United States, and mak­ing China the coun­try with the most movie screens. Last year, an­i­mated movies pulled in 7 bil­lion yuan, about 15 per­cent of the coun­try’s to­tal box of­fice.

A grow­ing sub-cul­ture of an­i­ma­tion, comic and games has spread among young Chi­nese, and the works they han­ker after, in­clud­ing orig­i­nal Chi­nese an­i­ma­tions, are among the high­lights at ex­pos around the coun­try ev­ery year.

Ear­lier this year, a se­ries of short an­i­ma­tions ti­tled “Chi­nese Choir” was well re­ceived on the video web­site Bili­bili, the largest on­line group of young Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion, comic and games fa­nat­ics.

Each video, telling the story of an an­cient Chi­nese poem with tra­di­tional mu­sic, has re­ceived hun­dreds of thou­sands of clicks.

The en­thu­si­as­tic com­ments from view­ers, such as “The Chi­nese-style draw­ing is so cool”, “This is true Chi­nese an­i­ma­tion” and “We sup­port orig­i­nal Chi­nese car­toons” sug­gest that the story of the coun­try’s an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try will in­deed have a happy end­ing.

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