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    ‘Princess Iron Fan’: The Height of Modern Chinese Animation

    Inspired by Disney’s “Snow White” in 1937, the Wan brothers created the first Chinese animated feature film — still a timeless classic today — during the hardship of World War II.

    This following excerpt is taken from “Silver Light and Beautiful Images: A Study on the Art of Modern Chinese Cinema,” and tells the story behind the creation of the 1941 Chinese animated feature film “Princess Iron Fan.”

    On Aug. 13, 1937, the Battle of Shanghai broke out. The intense fighting in the city forced the Wan brothers, animators by trade, to abandon their work. Three of the four brothers relocated to central China. Despite their continued efforts to create propaganda animations to support China’s war effort, they were dissatisfied with the results and eventually returned to Shanghai in pursuit of better opportunities.

    Eager to capitalize on the success of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and backed by China United Film Company, the Wan brothers embarked on creating their own animated feature, “Princess Iron Fan.” By this time, the brothers had nearly replicated Disney’s production process, but the huge painting workload caused repeated delays in the film’s release. While the movie eventually achieved significant success, the unstable situation at the time meant that it also marked the end of the Wan brothers’ animation career.

    Making a feature film

    With several years of experience in animation, the Wan brothers had developed the necessary skills to create a full-length animated feature film. However, the Battle of Shanghai disrupted their efforts. With film companies in the city forced to shut their doors, the brothers decided to pool their resources and open a photography studio.

    Wan Guchan, the second-eldest brother, accepted a job as an animation lecturer at the Jiangsu Provincial College of Education and moved to Wuxi. Meanwhile, word reached Shanghai that Chinese film studios sought to produce anti-Japanese propaganda films, and so Wan Laiming, the eldest brother, and Wan Chaochen, the third-eldest brother, went to Wuhan in the central Hubei province. However, the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese, who began advancing on Wuxi, forced Guchan to evacuate with the college’s teachers and students, resulting in him meeting up with Laiming and Chaochen in Wuhan. This left only the youngest brother, Wan Dihuan, in Shanghai to oversee the photography studio and support their remaining family members. From that point, the three elder brothers took up the mantle of continuing their animation work.

    In Wuhan, where Japanese aircraft sporadically harassed the city, the three brothers worked for China Motion Pictures Studio, primarily creating anti-Japanese animations. Realizing that Wuhan was at risk of invasion, they followed the studio in moving southwest to Chongqing. However, the environment there was less than ideal. From time to time, they would receive letters from family in Shanghai, from whom they found out that some film companies in the then International Settlement, a foreign enclave in the city, had resumed business. They began contemplating returning and resuming their animation careers.

    The decision of the three brothers to return to Shanghai would inevitably be met with criticism from their acquaintances in Chongqing. Eventually, Chaochen chose to remain in Chongqing after accepting a position at the Agricultural Education Film Studio, while Laiming and Guchan returned to Shanghai on the pretext of visiting relatives. The two brothers traveled first to Guiyang in the southwestern Guizhou province, then to Kunming in the neighboring Yunnan province, before passing through Vietnam and finally sailing from Hong Kong to Shanghai. By the time they arrived home, it was already fall 1939.

    In late 1937, Walt Disney Productions released the world’s first full-length animated feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which became a global sensation. This success created promising prospects for animated feature films, providing a foundation for Laiming and Guchan to attract investors. With plans to create an animated film of “Uproar in Heaven,” they quickly secured the backing of a cloth manufacturer and published a newspaper advertisement on March 8, 1940, looking to recruit students as trainee artists.

    However, as their preliminary work was nearing completion, the price of film stock began to steadily rise. Stockpiling film seemed more appealing than shooting, and their investors wanted to terminate the contract but were unable to. As such, they continually interfered with the brothers’ work, ultimately forcing them to abandon the project and resulting in the loss of more than 600 painted stills. The brothers’ first attempt to produce a full-length Chinese animated film had to be put on hold.

    At this critical juncture, Xinhua United Film Company sent director Fang Peilin to negotiate with the Wan brothers, who showed them a completed script for “Princess Iron Fan.” The story was based on a tale from “Journey to the West,” involving the Monkey King borrowing a plantain fan, and the princess in the title paid homage to Snow White, known as “Princess Snow White” in Chinese. The company set up a special animation department, appointing Guchan as its head, while Laiming started working part time in its cartoon department.

    Imitating Disney

    Under the guidance of film producer Zhang Shankun, the Lilac Garden Film Studios constructed a spacious workspace capable of accommodating 300 workers. The brothers wasted no time putting together a team of illustrators, and Xinhua Film Company advertised for staff in March. Around 500 people applied in total, and after two days of interviews, the first batch of 60 trainees were hired.

    Although the trainees had not yet reached the necessary standard, the Wan brothers commenced the illustration work immediately after finalizing the designs to expedite the process. As a result, the work of the illustrators fell short of expectations, leading Guchan to provide special training to several workers while overseeing the lines and colors for a significant number of stills.

    The Wan brothers borrowed more from Disney’s experience to ensure the vivid movements and consistency of the animated characters. As reported at the time, for added vividness, the actions of real actors were filmed to create blueprints in line with the method used by Hollywood animators. Subsequently, a sculpture room was also set up, with a model created for each character in “Princess Iron Fan” for the trainees’ reference.

    When the film was finally completed, the Wan brothers couldn’t help but remark on the massive undertaking. “Every day for nearly three years, 200-300 technicians worked tirelessly. If you add up all the paper and pencils used in the animation, the quantity would be truly impressive,” a film magazine wrote at the time.

    As the illustration work came to an end, the process of photographing the drawings began. The process required a special camera that could move up, down, left and right, capturing each drawing one at a time. Following development, editing, voiceover, and other tasks, the film was finally completed. In their efforts to put the drawings on film, the Wan brothers obtained the only device of its kind in China, which was reportedly purchased from an American. “As long as the drawings are below, you can start the machine and it will automatically take pictures,” the magazine wrote. Sections of “Princess Iron Fan” were shot, edited, and duplicated for use as a trailer. Compared to the labor-intensive illustration work, having a camera made this step much easier.

    Animated Swansong

    On Nov. 19, 1941, “Princess Iron Fan” created a sensation when it premiered at the Metropol and Astor Theatre cinemas in Shanghai. Other movie theaters rushed to screen China’s first-ever animated feature film. The resounding success at the box office gave the Wan brothers the opportunity to work on a second feature.

    Unfortunately, the complicated situation at that time dashed the brothers’ hopes of creating more animated films. In the following eight years, the frequent conflicts and political turmoil meant that, while Chinese filmmakers made some progress, the chance to create full-length animated films vanished.

    Upon completing “Princess Iron Fan,” the three Wan brothers began scouting for material to produce a sequel. They believed that the topic should be meaningful and thus issued an open call for stories. They soon narrowed it down to two options: “Zhou Chu Eradicating the Three Scourges” and “Alice’s Adventures in China.” However, they ultimately chose “The World of Insects” by Zhou Yibai and expected to complete the work within six months.

    Guchan recalled that the film was intended to reflect the brothers’ anti-Japanese sentiment, with the locust army in the film serving as a metaphor for Japan’s Imperial Army, and the theme of resistance against the Japanese being more explicit than in “Princess Iron Fan.” However, just as the company sought young actors for casting, the Pacific War erupted. Japanese soldiers occupied the International Settlement and Shanghai fell completely. To avoid trouble, the storyboards for “The World of Insects” had to be destroyed. The animation department of Xinhua Film Company immediately halted work, and the team of animators that had been painstakingly assembled was disbanded. This brought the Wan brothers’ animation career to a temporary standstill.

    During that period, domestic animations outside of Shanghai received a boost. Concurrent with the release of “Princess Iron Fan,” a short animation titled “Farmhouse” was released in Chongqing. The six-minute animation received praise from critics as “technically successful” with “excellent cinematography, featuring camera movements and editing that kept the plot engaging.”

    It was also reported that a Hong Kong company dedicated two years and significant material and financial resources to produce an animated feature film based on “The Legend of the White Snake.” However, the film later disappeared without a trace, likely abandoned mid-project.

    In 1944, Laiming fled to Tunxi in the eastern Anhui province to escape Japanese persecution. After victory in World War II, Chaochen was invited to the United States to conduct film research. Meanwhile, Guchan assumed the role of head of art design at the Central Motion Picture Corporation’s Beijing studio. Later, the Ministry of Education established the Nanjing Educational Film Studio, preparing for an animated children’s literacy campaign, prompting him to move south. However, due to a lack of funds, the animation never materialized. Guchan returned to Shanghai to work in art design, reworking “The World of Insects” in his spare time.

    In 1948, with the assistance of film producers, Guchan went to Hong Kong to negotiate with the Great China Film Company. With the prospect of making full-length color animated feature films in the future, he decided to stay in Hong Kong and work in art design for movies. Shortly after, Laiming joined him, bringing the script for “The World of Insects.” The brothers adapted it into “Grasshoppers and Locusts” and completed the first draft. However, they eventually had to abandon the project due to the escalating budget and lack of technical resources.

    The Wan brothers considered their inability to achieve new artistic breakthroughs in animated feature films one of their biggest regrets. In the end, “Princess Iron Fan” became the pinnacle of Chinese modern animated films that subsequent works could not surpass.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: Screenshots from “Princess Iron Fan,” reedited by Sixth Tone)