Updated: 2011-03-04 11:05
By Matt Hodges (China Daily European Weekly)
Chinese digital media company bets on joint management system, creative daring
The company that pioneered an online version of the World Expo last year is now working on special effects for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, as it aims to plant a Chinese flag in the realm of creative visual animation.
Crystal Digital Technology used the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo as platforms to go global and convince European clients that a Chinese company can get the job done bigger, better and faster.
Its creative heads flashed their credentials two years ago at the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium by conjuring up a gigantic animated ink painting for director Zhang Yimou's stunning curtain raiser.
Last spring, they hammered home the point by creating an animated scroll version of one of China's most famous paintings, Zhang Zeduan's Along the River During the Qingming Festival, which became the main attraction at Expo 2010 inside the China Pavilion.
"The scroll projection didn't use the most cutting-edge technology, but what is significant is what it represented creatively for China," says Belgium's Pascal Deseure, the company's Shanghai-based international business development director.
"It's not like you can walk into the Louvre and they'll ask you to make an animated version of the Mona Lisa."
Crystal launched in 1995 and set up a London branch - Crystal CG International - in 2007 to focus on sports-related projects. It will open a representative office in Paris this year targeting future World Expos and visual realization projects for the medical industry.
Getting a foot in the door in Europe is hard work for any Chinese company, but Crystal seems to have found a way. One of the keys to its burgeoning success in a fiercely competitive international market is its blending of Chinese and European management styles.
"When we talk about the Chinese management style abroad, it's not that it's bad, it's just not compatible. But we combine West and East to offer the best of both worlds," Deseure says.
"There's always this Chinese skepticism among the general public, but now enterprises within this industry are looking at us and saying, 'Wow, a Chinese company did this?'" says the 39-year-old, who will head up the French office. He has worked at China's leading digital animation company for four years.
Overseas managers keep things in balance and hope to succeed where other Chinese companies have failed in terms of networking in entrenched industries that are hard to penetrate. Chinese entities that make it often do so by buying up foreign companies, a strategy Crystal avoided.
Its London operation is managed by France's Gilles Albaredes, who has a policy of mostly hiring Europeans. Back in Beijing and Shanghai, bilingual US-born Chinese are slotted in between executives and programmers to serve as "facilitators" who create a "communication pipeline".
Last year, Crystal Digital's Expo Online convinced the Bureau of International Expositions to make this online component a permanent fixture for World Expos from 2017. Meanwhile, the company's Qingming scroll looks destined to become a part of history due to its prominent placement within the Shanghai-based Expo Museum, scheduled to be finished in May. The museum is likely to represent all Asia-held World Expos.
The company continued experimenting on New Year's Eve by making Shanghai's old music conservatory "come alive" through a combination of optical-illusion wall projections that evoked Disney's Fantasia as fireworks erupted around the city.
One of Crystal's assets is undoubtedly its size: 2,600 staff spread across 12 Asian offices and another in Los Angeles, including many highly experienced and niche-market programmers who can churn out projects at lightning speed. Another is its derring-do.
"I've become a completely new kind of salesman since I started here," Deseure says. "Before I would tell clients, 'Oh sorry, we only focus on architectural projects and this and that'. Now I say, 'No problem. We'll build a new department'."
He says Chairman Lu Zhenggang's approach to building the business outside China involves taking risks and jumping in at the deep end by "throwing money at new offices and tweaking later" - Chinese characteristics that have paid off and given Crystal a special kind of confidence.
The company is exploiting its niches in the sports and expo markets to build a name for itself overseas, but refrains from biting off more than it can chew. It does not expect, for example, to be able to win over carmakers like Mercedes in Europe, although it does their animation work in China.
One of the problems of the Chinese educational system is that it pumps out technically gifted programmers lacking in imagination.
"I've got many guys who can model and render better than anyone in the world, within seconds," Deseure says. "But if someone asks them to create a certain feeling, they come unstuck."
As such, Crystal is creating its own talent pool courtesy of training academies in Beijing and Shanghai that can lead to internships and a place on the team. But foreign oversight is still crucial to sidestep cultural and linguistic misunderstandings that threaten to scare off overseas clients.
"I remember a Swedish architectural firm once asked us to add some trees into a 3D scene and our designers produced palm trees," Deseure says. "I've never seen palm trees in Sweden. Of course, the client never saw that."
Deseure says he expects some hiccups along the way, but the biggest obstacle to future expansion in Europe is the financial black cloud hanging over the continent.
"Next we'll be looking at countries like Kazakhstan, because a lot of our clients are architectural firms and these are new hot spots," he says.
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