New York Times - December 1, 2004 - Used With Permission
China Hurries to Animate Its Film Industry
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
HENZHEN, China - Seen from outside, there is nary a hint of the Magic Kingdom about this ambitious young animation studio nestled amid magnolias and palms on the campus of Shenzhen University.
A glimpse inside one specially secured building, accessible only with a smart ID card that one swipes through a reader to gain entry and move about inside, soon gives up the game. The first clues are the Hollywood posters that hang from nearly every wall: "Star Wars," "Godzilla," "The Lost World," "The Matrix," "End of Days." Down one hallway, heavily air-conditioned computer rooms hum with the kind of processing power one might find in a high-tech laboratory. The giveaway is the army of artist-students slouched over their flat-screen monitors in one dimly lighted production room after another, drawing thousands of pictures for feature-length films.
Early next year, Global Digital Creations Holdings, a fledgling animation studio that has mostly labored in anonymity, is aiming for the big time with the worldwide release of its first 3-D feature film, "Thru the Moebius Strip," a science-fiction adventure about a determined boy's time travel to another galaxy to rescue his stranded father.
France's most famous comics artist, Jean Giraud, whose nom de plume is Moebius, came up with the story, which draws on elements of Jack and the Beanstalk and the breadth of science-fiction history from Jules Verne to "The Matrix," and joined with G.D.C. to develop it. Moebius, who broke new ground in comics art in the 70's with his magazine Métal Hurlant, the precursor to the American publication Heavy Metal, had worked on effects-heavy films like "Tron," "Alien," "The Abyss" and "The Fifth Element." Frank Foster, former vice president for multimedia at Sony Pictures Imageworks, is also on board as one of the producers, and Glenn Chaika, who was an effects animator on "The Little Mermaid" and directed "Tom Thumb and Thumbelina," is the director. Dazzling color, three-dimensional imagery and fast-paced drama were on display during a recent screening of several minutes of film at the studio here in what was a mere fishing village on the edge of Hong Kong as recently as 1979. It has since grown into one of China's biggest, richest and most modern cities, the hottest hot spot of Chinese capitalism.
In manufacturing, this country already rules the textile world, the production of computer parts and countless other items that Americans all but take for granted. Now, with the sophisticated images coming out of this studio, China seems to be serving notice to the Disneys and Pixars of the world that its day is arriving in the lucrative business of 3-D computer animation.
But G.D.C. executives, who have invested heavily in computer animation, a business notoriously difficult to crack, say that no matter how the global market treats their first feature-length foray into 3-D computer animation, commercial success is not the most important thing.
"This film is more of a calling card for us," said Anthony Neoh, the Hong Kong-based chairman of the company. "Our goal, within 5 to 10 years, is to be much less involved in the production side, and much more on the creative side, in order to really get this industry off the ground in China."
Low costs almost guarantee the Chinese a major impact. "Thru the Moebius Strip," for example, required a mere $20 million to make, according to Ellen Xu, a studio manager, and much of that cost included the creation of a studio from scratch. By comparison, she said, Pixar's films cost an average of $80 million to make, while "Final Fantasy," which was a major disappointment at the box office, cost a reported $120 million.
China is far from alone among fast-developing nations eager to pursue a piece of the lucrative animated film business by marrying their mastery of advanced computer technology with low labor costs. Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines have been ramping up animation production for several years, while many experts consider India to be the biggest recent comer in the field.
"I have no doubt that the technical skills in China are beginning to rival those of Hollywood or Europe," said John Lent, a professor of communications at Temple University, the editor of the International Journal of Comic Art and the author of "Animation in Asia and the Pacific." But he added: "One of the problems I hear coming out of China and many other places in the Far East is the storytelling. Zhang Yimou, the director of "Hero" said himself that when they have a good story they want to make a motion picture out of it, not an animated film.
Chinese investors in the new movie studios exude confidence about their chances, as the animation industry braces for its global takeoff.
"India has had continuous cultural development, while we, because of the Cultural Revolution, have had interrupted development, and are therefore much more open to what is happening in the world," said Mr. Neoh, who shares senior managerial duties of G.D.C. with his brother, Raymond.
"If a film doesn't have song and dance, it isn't an Indian film," he said. "We are making films with international appeal. They may not have been very good so far, but very soon you'll be surprised."
Yet for all of the disruption of the Cultural Revolution, which plunged this country into severe political turmoil and international isolation from 1966 to 1976, China is not so much coming from way behind in the animation business as it is reviving a long vibrant tradition.
Since the 1920's Shanghai has been the center of the country's animation business, and in a nod to that tradition, even G.D.C. is planning to relocate there. The industry was pioneered by the Wan brothers (Laiming and Guchan), followers of the Disney school, whose 1941 film, "Tie Shan Gong Zhu" ("Princess Iron Fan" ) was reputedly the first feature-length animated movie made in Asia.
The business industrialized in the 1950's, centered around the state-owned Shanghai Animation Film Studio, which became renowned for its artists, but suffered badly along with the rest of the sector during the Cultural Revolution. "Before 1993, whatever you made was decided by Beijing," said Jin Guoping, the Shanghai studio's director. "The government decided how much product you would make and how much income you would have. They didn't involve themselves too much in content, though, because animation was basically for children then and the government didn't feel so concerned." By the late 1980's perhaps as much as 90 percent of America's Saturday morning cartoon fare came from Asia, with China capturing a sizable piece of that technologically rudimentary market.
Today, like its private competitor, G.D.C., the Shanghai Animation Film Studio has moved considerably upscale from simple cartoons, and is developing full-length features that its leaders hopes will travel and sell well overseas.
A brochure for one such film due out next year, "Pursuit," an adventure set in the grasslands of Mongolia, reads: "Think 'Braveheart,' 'High Noon,' 'Crouching Tiger.' "
Mr. Jin, the studio's director, speaks not of conquering the American market but of first building strong franchises in Asia and then Europe. "Chinese animation has not become strong enough to block out foreign competition yet, but in the future it will basically be the consumer who decides," he said. "I am very confident that at the level of art and design quality, our films have reached the international level. Time will tell whether our storytelling will appeal to a Western audience."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times
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