The Future of Chinese Animation

The future. What does it hold in store for China and it’sanimation industry? What studios are making changes and being noticed for adapting to a more world wide audience?

 When we speak of animation from Asia, we tend to think of Japanese works similar to the ‘Death Note’ animations or releases from Studio Ghibli, such as ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ or ‘Pom Poko’. The gap is evident, and is backed by Zhang Hongjian who is head of Hangzhou’s Department of Publicity and Information. He states that:

 ‘There is a remarkable gap between China’s animation and cartoon industry and that of Japan. In fact, China lags behind at least 10 years in terms of technique and originality.’

Little do we know, as westerners, of Chinese animation and their industry. A lot of this is to do with the political power that Mao had over the country in the 60’s and 70’s. Not allowing China to produce animations, unless having a political stance similar to his own, he basically shut down the industry and forced studios to close if they did not co-operate.

Roughly forty years on however, things have changed. There is a steady growth in the animation industry in China and the figures for industry production value, which includes TV series’, films and internet animation, topped CNY20.8 billion in 2010. This is expected to increase to CNY50 billion in 2015, if economic growth and government-led protective policies are still steady and on an upward trend.

And the trend does seem to be constantly improving, with Xing Xing Studio’s having landed animation work on Madagascar, Fireman Sam and work with Lego. They have also started to be recognised by western companies for their visual effects work and have recently worked on films such as Changeling, Twilight and Tropic Thunder.

By not limiting themselves to just animation, they have expanded into the world of visual effects, gaming and the use of flash animation. The person to thank for this? Lifeng Wang. At 14 he entered the University of Science and Technology of China and also studied in British Columbia, completing his Masters. Starting off with just 5 artists, he now employs over 250 artists at Xing Xing. Lifeng’s understanding of both western and Asian business cultures, has developed the company into a leading company in China at this time.

It is because of people like Linfeng, who have studied in China and abroad, who can really change what the industry is in China. He has brought in a multi-cultural feel to Xing Xing and has many specialist in different areas of the company.

The film Kung Fu Panda might ring a bell to many readers, but did you know that this film and it’s sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2 (funnily enough) are some of the biggest grossing animated films in the region of all time? Kung Fu Panda actually grossed over $100 million!

And the creators of Kung Fu Panda…DreamWorks Animation. Now recently, ie 17-02-2012, DreamWorks Animation announced they are to team up with China Media Capital, with the idea to include Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd. The idea they have? To create Oriental DreamWorks. Their aim is simple, to create high quality Chinese animation and live action, and have it distributed across the globe for all to see. Not only will they distribute Chinese animation and film throughout the world, they intend to build theme parks, live entertainment, mobile and consumer products, within each brand. The enterprise, which is due to kick start later this year in Shanghai, is estimated to be worth $330 million.

With this being announced, I can personally see the Chinese animation and film industry continually growing until it is at the top of the tree. With massive companies such as DreamWorks investing in Chinese companies to produce high quality goods is a great boost to, not only the Chinese economy, but also to the film industry. With Xing Xing also having had visits from Cartoon Network and Pixar, the only way is up for Chinese animation.

Animation in China

In 1918, an experimental short film named ‘Out of the Inkwell’ reached the shores of China. Produced by Max Fleischer, the film introduced the idea of animation to the Chinese.

Exploration of animation in China started to develop with four brothers; Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, Wan Chaochen and Wan Dihuan. They created the ‘Great Wall Film Company’ and released many films between 1920 and 1930. They created short films that were entertaining, but also thought provoking. The designs of these films were uniquely Chinese and also incorporated live action.

Animation is a lengthy process and at the time, trial and error was a huge part in the industry. During World War II, Great Wall Film Company released short films in opposition to the Japanese war effort. These political films touched on subjects such as imperialism, opium and Japanese troops.

Steady growth in the animation industry came in the 1940’s with it sprouting further in the 50’s and mid 60’s. When the Cultural Revolution took full effect in 1967, Mao Zedong promoted Chinese animation, but only if the correct message was put over. The unrelenting force of the Red Guard destroyed anything that conflicted with the values and ideals of Mao, which in turn crippled the animation industry in China. If we cannot have artistic freedom then how can we express ourselves?

I feel the political and educational stance of the majority of China’s animation and film has left them trailing behind compared to foreign films. Sun Lijun, dean of the Animation School of the Beijing Film Academy states that ‘’Foreign productions are far more original and entertaining…’’ Maybe he is right? The wide variety of animations and films that we are exposed to now really does make the market seem daunting from a Chinese point of view.

I think the problem with the Chinese take on animation and film is that they are too interested in creating cartoons or animations aimed more at children. With the likes of South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy and other western animated series, China doesn’t have a globally recognised set of series or characters. Not only this, but they also tend to lack any compelling or original storylines compared to western work.

John Lent, author of ‘Animation in Asia and the Pacific’ states that ‘‘…one of the main problems I hear coming out of China and many other places in the Far East, is storytelling’’. Zhang Yimou, director of the film ‘Hero’, who states that ‘’when they have a good story they want to make a motion picture out of it, not an animated film’’ also backs this up in a way.

In animation, the only real productions that are seen in the west are from Japan and there is plenty of reason for this. Storytelling and technical ability has been allowed to flourish, whereas the Chinese industry has been left to lag behind in terms of originality and technique.

Having said this, with the change in the Chinese animation industry, they are slowly catching up to the standards of Japan and the West. The youth of China today have more creative freedom than ever and they must make this count within the animation industry. The opportunity to release films with more than a basic statement or blatant message is over, and the time of euphemism is definitely in.

I feel that if the animation industry in China didn’t have the revolutionary setbacks that occurred in mid to late 60’s, they would be right at the top of the industry. I personally think it’s a crying shame to see original and historical stories being lost due to lack of technique and exposure to the world.