Meet the animators behind Myanmar's hottest web series
IT’S late at night. You’re curled up on the couch watching a scary movie. All of a sudden the television screen opens to a portal and a ghost slowly crawls out from the screen. You tremble; you prepare to scream – but then the power cuts off, as happens sometimes in Myanmar, and the ghost becomes half stuck in the TV.
No this isn’t a remake of the 2002 American psychological horror film, The Ring. This is “The Trouble of Being a Ghost in Myanmar”, an aptly named video of many in a series called Gwen University, all uploaded to Facebook by Myanmar animation company Joosk Studio.
Gwen University is a fictional university that only exists online, with videos following the lives of four main characters: Soe Tay (featured in the ghost video), Doon Kyi, Sai Lamin, and Cherry. With a cast of around 40 characters, the Gwen University page posts videos and humorous stories reflecting the lives of ordinary university students in Myanmar.
The characters are intended to portray the average, everyday student, each with their own “awkward” qualities. One character, for example, is named U Handsome Lolly Poppy Sexy Whity Pinky. He is always shown playing on his smartphone, never talking to anyone in real life. When the teacher calls roll, he even responds “present” via a messaging app.
“The animation named Gwen University comes from a university name, called Gwan [cotton wool] University where a lot of cotton trees are planted in its compound in the story of writer Ko Min Thu Kyaw (later, the script writer of Gwen),” said Nobel Aung, the cofounder and creative lead of Gwen, explaining the fictional back-story.
Joosk Studio first started after four of its five founders – Nobel Aung, Thet Paing Kha, Zeyar Winhtet and Myo Thura Htun – met as illustrators for Panzagar advertorials that made up an anti-bullying campaign. Inspired by blogger Nay Phone Latt, who led that team and was elected last year to represent Thingangyun township in the Yangon Hluttaw, the four became friends and decided to branch out on their own.
They all share a passion for edutainment, combining animation and education to send a wider message. Since its creation, the studio has worked on projects with Facebook and NGOs including the International Labour Organisation to fight against slave labour, according to co-founder, Thet Paing Kha.
“At first, we didn’t have our own office and shared working space with a start-up. We had to use our own equipment. After six months, we could rent an apartment with funding from projects. And gradually we could buy more and more equipment,” he said.
The apartment housing Joosk Studio is also home to a small sound studio, where their diverse team of directors, animators, colourists, designers, sound engineers and more create their own sound effects. Before working at the studio, most of the staff worked in other fields such as medicine, IT and engineering. In fact, only two of Joosk’s employees actually have a background in art – in their case, painting.
“Our target audience for Gwen is Myanmar. We would like to show [that] we, Myanmar, can do animation and give a taste of Myanmar animation, because people normally watch English language animation from the Cartoon Network and Japanese anime,” he added.
Joosk Studio was inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki of Japan’s legendary animation company Studio Ghibli, as well as Walt Disney. After learning animation skills online on YouTube and other sites, they tested the waters, releasing videos online to see how viewers would react.
“Myanmar animators existed before us. However, because of limited funding, they disappeared,” said Nobel Aung. In Myanmar right now, animation can hardly make a profit compared to the booming film industry.
Despite lack of funding and resources, Joosk Studio is determined to become more efficient and productive. A one-minute animation takes 10 staff members four weeks, after drawing at least 24 frames per second.
The studio held a one-week-long character workshop for all studio staff members, even sales and marketing employees. Everyone at the workshop had a chance to learn about the process and give their feedback on what qualities would make the best
character. “Each of us presented a character. Should he be thin or fat? Tall or short? Have acne or not? Things like that. And we collected all of the good points and drew characters from the suggestions. After the workshop, we created all 40 characters of Gwen,” said Nobel Aung, the “university’s” director.
Already, Joosk and the series have proved successful with over 60,000 followers on Facebook. Their 2015 short film, “My Life, I don’t Want,” was awarded an animated human rights award in the UK, Romania, India, Italy and Ireland, all within four months of producing last May.
Currently, Joosk Studio uploads one short video every two weeks to the Gwen University Facebook page. But the founders dream big, hoping to make animations as long as 15 minutes about ordinary life in Myanmar, from the joys of Thingyan water festival to the stress of matriculation exams.
Soe Tay, one of the characters in the Gwen University videos, hangs out at Joosk Studio with creator Nobel Aung.
Joosk Studio has already been internationally recognised for a short film the team produced in 2015.
This cartoon came out during the Pokemon Go craze of August 2016.
Animators laugh as they come up with new content for videos and social media posts.