Eye on the future
Updated: 2012-05-04 08:44
By Shi Jing (China Daily)
Above: The 8th China International Cartoon and Animation Festival was held in Hangzhou from April 28 to May 3. Left: Fanxiaodai, a popular character created by student Tao Ji on the Sina Weibo. Li Zhong / for China Daily
Hangzhou takes the lead in animation sector with friendly policies, big-ticket expo
The big platform of the annual China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, has not exactly stirred the creative palette of talents like Tao Ji. Rather than showcase his cartoons at the largest animation exhibition in China, Tao was more content to work on developing new cartoons at his dormitory.
"To be honest, such huge fairs can be of little help to students," says Tao, currently a junior in animation design at the Zhejiang University of Science and Technology. Incidentally, Tao created his own cartoon character Fanxiaodai, or "dummy tomato" last year on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo.
"We went to previous festivals in the hope of seeking a platform and showing our works to animation companies. But to our dismay, only those cartoonists with fame and prestige were invited to showcase their recent works," Tao says.
Hangzhou, where the trade show is held every year, has long been the beacon of hope for young people hoping to make it big in the animation industry. Much of this happened after a national-level animation industry base was set up in Hangzhou in 2004, while the artistic atmosphere was enhanced by the long-standing China Academy of Art and, probably, the breathtaking splendor of the city's West Lake.
"The international animation festival is the best way for the industry to grow and expand," says Weng Lijun, director of the Hangzhou publicity department.
Weng says that till 2004, there were just 10 animation companies in Hangzhou, most doing outsourced work for overseas companies. There were no originally produced animations at that time. But by the end of last year, there were nearly 270 animation companies in Hangzhou that produced 34,606 minutes of original content.
"The amount and quality of animations originally produced in Hangzhou has far exceeded other regions in China for three consecutive years," he says.
About 1,900 companies and institutions from 70 countries and regions have participated in the seven animation festivals so far, attracting some 6 million audiences and managing to finalize deals worth 41.1 billion yuan ($6.5 billion, 4.9 billion euros).
But for several starters like Tao, the seemingly vibrant atmosphere has not been of much help. "First of all, we badly need financial support. Very few companies are willing to finance students like us who have no prior experience and do not guarantee future profits. Second, we ourselves do not see a bright future," he says.
Only four or five out of the 30 graduates in his class have managed to find jobs at animation companies. Most of them lived on meager salaries of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month, Tao says.
He also often faces the difficulty of lack of experience. "On the one hand, lack of creativity is the problem I often come across while designing new facial expressions and gestures for my cartoon characters, to make them more vivid and true to life. On the other, I don't know what procedures are needed to apply for copyrights or patents and neither do my teachers," he says.
Tao's problem is not the only one. Chen Deming, founder and director of Hangzhou C&L Digital Production Co Ltd, has also found that university graduates majoring in animation and even professors have little practical knowledge.
"I met several professors from Xi'an Jiaotong University (one of the top technology-focused institutions in China) during the 2010 animation festival. They studied the samples of our animation works and asked if they themselves could work as interns in our company," Chen says.
"I was astonished to find that these teachers have little idea of the production procedures of an animation work. But, it is not their fault. They are simply teachers lecturing on traditional Chinese or oil painting. But still, they are teachers with responsibility and conscience. At least they want to teach their students something useful," he says.
Shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for its work The Dream of Jinsha, Hangzhou C&L Digital Production Co Ltd started to seek cooperation with local universities long ago, aiming at locating talent with the professional knowledge they need.
"But the result is not always satisfactory. Although universities and colleges have devoted much effort to this emerging industry, there still lies the problem that everything is taught to the students but with no focus or specialization," Chen says.
However, in Chen's opinion, Hangzhou is still an ideal place to incubate animation companies with the policy and financial support given by the local government and the cluster of animation production and manufacturing industries in the Yangtze River Delta region.
"Although it is likely that the arrival of DreamWorks in Shanghai will hamper the development of small animation companies in the region, it is also a great opportunity for local companies to learn from their experiences," Chen says.
"The 3-D technique is so widely used in animation for big screen nowadays. Honestly speaking, I learned a lot from my recent tour to Pixar. I think Chinese animation makers have a long way to go before they can catch up in terms of technology," he says.
"But this does not mean that we should be disheartened. The 2-D animation market is now open to us. Like oil paintings and photographs, 2-D animation will never be replaced," he adds.
But the next question is how to dominate the 2-D animation market. To Chen, building up a brand name in Hangzhou is the first thing to do.
Chen says the animation companies in Hangzhou are of a small scale. Different from other industries which usually grow from quantitative changes to qualitative changes, creative industries such as animation should be the other way around.
"In this sense, the development of animation companies has nothing to do with their scales," says Chen.
"It is true that we are producing plenty of new cartoons here every year. But we have not seen the market mature yet due to the lack of a clear orientation for animations. There is a long-held disbelief in China that cartoons are for children. Adults refuse to watch cartoons and animation and thus the market always remained small," he says.
On the other hand, Disney and DreamWorks have long made it clear that animations are made for the entire family. Therefore, Chen says, the animation companies should look for a bigger market such that related industries can also flourish.
With an investment of more than 80 million yuan and with five years of preparation and creation, Chen believes productions like The Dream of Jinsha have made huge contributions as "it has set a standard for the Chinese animation industry".
"As long as we want to see the animations commercialized, they should follow the ways of producing commercial movies, like having a story framework and then incorporating new techniques or elements into it," Chen says.
Weng says China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) for culture development has worked out the animation festival in Hangzhou as an important culture exhibition development genre from China and an integral platform to showcase Chinese culture.
"We will avail ourselves of this opportunity and build the brand name of the animation festival into something like the Cannes Festival," he says.