One of my most memorable experiences with the Chinese animation industry occurred my first day on-the-job. It was the summer of 2014 and I was at an animation production facility in Suzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province.
I had been brought to China to work as one of the directors on an upcoming film “Ping Pong Rabbit,” which was being produced by a Shanghai-based animation company, Mili Pictures. Some of the main characters of the film had already been designed by a team under my direction back in Los Angeles, but there was still a lot of work that needed to be done.
I like to get to know the artists I will be working with before beginning a project, so I asked to meet with the group who would be designing and working on the backgrounds, the sets, the props, and the remaining characters before starting production.
One of the first things that struck me was how young the staff at Mili were. Many of them were barely into their 20s and very few were over 30. This was completely unlike my experience at large animation studios in the United States, which are typically filled with staff members who have been in the industry for 20, 30, and sometimes even 40 years.
I asked to see their portfolios to try and get a sense of how capable they were as artists and designers. I wanted to see the stuff they were proud of — what they carry around to show to prying eyes like mine. I’ve always thought that it’s really important to become familiar with the personalities and skills of the artists that you’re working with to get a sense of their abilities.
They showed me their work and blew me away; these were amazing artists! I’ve seen my fair share of great paintings and sculptures — I actually went to one of the top art schools in the world, the Rhode Island School of Design, but the young artists I met that day in Suzhou were as good as anyone I had met in Rhode Island.
I felt inspired. It became immediately clear to me that China’s animation industry, stuffed with young and eager talent, was poised to do great things.
Since then, I have had my expectations exceeded time and time again in China. The young people I have encountered have amazing energy, talent, and are hungry to learn. They’re open-minded and just want to absorb as much as they can. I love their attitudes.
The popularity of the animation industry in China is exploding. In the summer of 2014, Mili’s “Dragon Nest: Warriors’ Dawn” was released. In it, a group of warriors travel through a fantasy realm to kill an evil dragon.
At the time, many Chinese film critics considered it to be the best locally produced computer-generated imagery (CGI) movie to date. With a tiny budget of around $22 million, Mili did an excellent job. To compare, “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” also released in 2014, but by DreamWorks Animation, had a budget of around $145 million.
Although the box office earnings for “Dragon Nest” were disappointing, considering it was Mili’s and the entire production cast’s first feature — including Song Yuefeng, the director I am currently working with on Ping Pong Rabbit — it was a remarkable achievement.
One year later the animated movie “Monkey King: Hero is Back,” based on the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West,” was released by a production company in Beijing. Grossing $100 million within three weeks of its release, the movie broke records as the highest-grossing China-produced animated film, and critics began calling “Monkey King” the best Chinese CGI film of all time. The local industry is thriving and only seems to be gaining momentum.
The only place where I think improvement could happen is in animation, specifically in the way in which the characters move. An animator has to be an actor — they have to intimately understand facial expressions and posture to best express the emotion of the character.
Many of the young Chinese animators I’ve worked with were originally interested in computer gaming. They loved video games and were technically savvy, so they thought they would try their hands in animation. But storytelling is a skill in itself — it requires much more than just technical knowledge of how to animate.
Empathy and involvement with the characters onscreen is what makes an audience emotional. It’s what makes us really love a movie. This is something I stress to the young animators at Mili every day — you can’t simply take a character from point A to point B, but instead you have to understand the emotion of the scene and find the best way to express it.
When I think about Chinese animation, I always think back to that first day, when I saw those amazing portfolios. It’s only a matter of time before Chinese animated movies become as popular around the world as movies from Pixar and Dreamworks.
(Header image: A promotional poster for ‘Ping Pong Rabbit.’ Courtesy of Mike Johnson)