At the crossroads
Updated: 2012-05-04 08:49
By Shi Jing (China Daily)
Shrinking creative talent base a major concern for Chinese animation industry, experts say
There is an air of excitement in the animation studios of the Yangtze River Delta, as several recent happenings have indicated that China is finally ready to open its animation market for foreign investment. Two big-ticket global names, DreamWorks and Disney, have recently indicated their interest in China's animation sector, clearly showing the domestic market potential and its integral role in the nation's initiatives in building an innovative society. At the same time, the animation industry is also caught in a warp as it faces an acute shortage of creative talent amid an over-supply of technicians.
According to data provided by the Shanghai Cultural and Creative Industries Promotion Conference, the added value of the cultural and creative industries in Shanghai was about 194 billion yuan ($31 billion, 23 billion euros) last year, a 15.8 percent growth over 2010.
The two industries have also set a target of reaching an added value of more than 200 billion yuan this year, and to account for 10.6 percent of Shanghai's GDP by then.
The Yangtze River Delta, especially Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, are among the most economically developed regions, and together account for more than 22 percent of the total animation industry in China, which stood at 47 billion yuan by the end of 2010.
In the last two years, the animation industry has seen a sea change with the focus increasingly turning toward originality and creativity, rather than outsourcing for global studios.
Not surprisingly, it is television programs that account for more than 45 percent of the business for most animation studios, figures provided by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences show.
Adjacent to Shanghai lies Suzhou in Jiangsu province, one of the earliest places in China where the animation industry took root. Most of these firms were engaged in outsourcing work for European and US companies.
In 2005, an animation-training center was established at the Suzhou International Science Park. In 2006, the training center started teaming up with other domestic universities and colleges to nurture more animation professionals.
In 2011, 1,817 new animation professionals passed out of the training center, up 9.6 percent over the numbers in 2010. But even then the industry is still starved of original and creative talent, experts say.
California-based DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc, the creator of Kung Fu Panda and Shrek, has decided to team up with China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group (SMG) and Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd to form a joint venture called Oriental DreamWorks.
With an initial investment of $330 million (251 million euros) in the joint venture, the Chinese companies will hold a 55 percent stake in the new company, with DreamWorks Animation taking up the rest.
Disney, one of the most famous brands in the world, is believed to be in talks with Chinese Internet giant Tencent for a possible tie-up in the animation sector, with media reports indicating that the two companies may form a joint venture later this year.
DreamWorks Animations' chief executive Jeffery Katzenberg has said the new joint venture company will produce and distribute animated featured films and TV series and roll out its first product by 2016.
According to Katzenberg, the joint venture is looking to be the leading family-branded entertainment company in China.
Song Yuefeng, director of Shanghai Paladin Max studio, says the entry of DreamWorks will reshape the animation industry in Shanghai.
"The real positive of the deal is that it will help regulate the industry," Song says. Explaining his point, he says that while the top-end segment of the animation industry is in a poor state, the overall industry is riddled with bubbles.
"At present, the industry is in urgent need of product, software renovation. DreamWorks has come in at the right time. It is here to set an industry standard, which will do more good than bad," says Song, whose work Baizi Welcome the Special Olympics won the PSA award of the Shanghai Special Olympics in 2007.
He says Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, produced by SMG, has been one of the few successes for Chinese animation, and it has helped to explore and expand the market.
CG, or computer graphics, the technology that Song's company specializes in, may sound unfamiliar to most movie-goers. But it is the core technology used in 3-D blockbusters like Avatar and Transformers.
"CG is the renovation of tools. It is the trend of the future as government policies also support the development of this technology. But somehow, animation producers have misunderstood these policies and are rushing to develop CG technologies of their own, thereby creating an over-supply of technicians and a shortage of theme production and marketing talent," Song says.
"Most of the animation companies in China are still surviving on outsourcing orders from overseas companies. There is still a huge gap between China and Western countries in core and sophisticated techniques," he says. "It would be better for Chinese animation companies to consider purchasing technologies from Singapore, Thailand, or Europe, or look at more ways to bring overseas professionals to work in China."
Contrary to people's expectations, the creative ability of the animation producers in Shanghai is much weaker than those in Jiangsu or Zhejiang as there was initially hardly any support to promote creativity, Song says.
He says the gap between Chinese animation producers and the giants such as Pixar and DreamWorks lies in the market environment. In the Yangtze River Delta region, which is already taking the lead in China, the soil is still not fertile enough to harvest world-class animation talent, experts say.
Zheng Xiaofeng, deputy general manager of Jiangsu Wanglushen Ewesoft Co Ltd, a Suzhou company that specializes in original animation, says that the talent shortage will become more acute after the entry of big names like DreamWorks and Disney.
Ewesoft was one of the first animation companies to invest in original animated productions from China.
"When we started in 2005, most of the companies in Suzhou were doing outsourcing work for overseas companies. Very few had shown creativity, which is essential for culture-related companies," he says.
With works produced totally on their own, the company has often been following a roundabout way to its market. Zheng says his company has been selling animation to Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries and regions with an eye on the Chinese residents in these regions.
The company also toyed with the idea of entering the European and US markets, but did not do so due to the vast cultural differences.
"We should try and put more efforts in the international market and get some valuable international exposure. This will make it easier for us to expand in the domestic market," Zheng says.
Further south from Shanghai, there are thousands of small animation companies in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Not surprisingly, the foremost problem here is also the lack of creative talent.
Xia Lie, deputy director of International Ani-com College of Hangzhou Normal University, says creative talent has been shrinking steadily in China since the 1990s. The prestigious Shanghai Animation Film Studio saw its golden days end in the 1980s and has not recovered.
"Many animation producers preferred to do outsourcing work for overseas companies to make quick money. After 20 years of such work, we have a great number of technicians who are excellent in techniques but without any originality or creativity," Xia says.
"The college students who are studying animation now are mostly young people born in the 1980s or 1990s. The situation is not good for them as they are unable to find teachers who can hone their creative knowledge and skills. Many students feel that their thoughts are not fully exploited and their abilities to tell stories in the right way are always inadequate," he says.
"It is crucial that we build a bridge between the Chinese and the Western experiences. But here comes a more in-depth question: how to seek the soul of Chinese animation or how to discern the Chinese animations from the American or Japanese ones."
Looking through the current animations shown on screen nowadays, it is easy to notice that very few of these works are themed around current topics.
"We have such a huge inventory of literature, but sadly, little has been successfully transformed into animation works. Very few of the animation producers have the habit of reading and hence most of them cannot tell the stories properly," Xia says.
He believes that Hangzhou is doing a good job in terms of promoting the animation industry as the local government is pushing it aggressively.