Sunday, February 21, 2010

China's Animation Growing Pains

Found this recent article about the Chinese animation business, which details some of the obstacles the industry has faced and some of the measures taken by the government to promote it's home grown cartoons while limiting the exposure of foreign imports.

Surprisingly, this article does not mention Imagi at all, in spite coming off the heals of recent shake-ups at the company. What is mentioned, however, is a very interesting fact that I was not previously aware of. The 1980's Astro Boy anime was one of the very first foreign produced cartoons granted entry into China. Here's a video I found of the Chinese Astro Boy theme music.

I always knew that Astro was a popular and important character with Chinese people but now it really makes sense. Of course, this was a double edged sword because it opened the floodgates for Japanese animation in China but at the expense of the country's own cartoon business. Now, such things are highly regulated by the government and China's animation industry is trying to catch up.

I love cartoons and I really enjoy going through the rich history of Japanese anime but I know next to nothing about Chinese animation. I would like to learn more and I think that all animation can only benefit from being shared and allowing new cultural influences while still exploring a cultural identity.

You can read "Growing pains of China's animation movie" at or by clicking the link below for an archived version.

Growing pains of China's animation movie
by Wu Chen

BEIJING, Feb. 15 (Xinhua) -- Freelance writer Wang Xin watched James Cameron's new movie Avatar in December during her visit to America. She was moved by the story and amazed by the 3D effects of the half-animated movie.

The film reminded Wang, a 29-year-old cartoon fan, of a Chinese-made animated movie The Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf she watched at the beginning of 2009.

The film told the story of several goats who were fighting their enemy, the Big Big Wolf, who covets fresh mutton for his family.

It cost 6 million yuan to produce and fetched more than 80 million yuan (11.76 million U.S. dollars) at the box office.

In addition to children, many white-collar workers liked the film. "How to marry a husband like the Big Big Wolf" became a hot topic on the Internet.

The singer, Yafeng, made a song about the desire. He explains why the wolf was worthy of love. "I love you more than loving myself... although I'm very hungry, I will let you take the first bite when I catch a goat..."

There were at least eight domestically-produced animated films last year in China, making it a "blowout" year for China's cartoon films according to critics.

Yin Hong, professor and director of the Center for Film and Television Studies of Tsinghua University, said the production scale of China's cartoon industry has been expanded to more than 140,000 minutes of animation this year, which formed the foundation for many films.

He contributes the growth to the continuous efforts of the government, which set up supporting policies to boost domestic animation industry.

In 2000, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) required local TV stations to get approval from the administration and set quotas for imported cartoons to air on TV.

In 2004, it issued another regulation, stipulating that at least 60 percent of cartoon programs aired in any given quarter had to be domestic.

In September 2006, the SARFT banned all foreign cartoons from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Last February it extended the ban to 9 p.m.

Additionally, the Chinese government has made an annual investment of 200 million yuan in the animation industry since 2006.

Last July, the Ministry of Finance and the State Administration of Taxation jointly issued a favorable taxation policy to support the development of comic and animation industry.

It seems the measures have started to pay off.

China currently has some 6,000 companies making cartoons and comics. According to a report from the Ministry of Culture (MOC) last March, the industry now employs more than 200,000 workers and yearly production of animation was up to 130,000 minutes in 2008.

However, besides the lucky "Happy Goat" and the Mainland-Hong Kong co-production McDull, Kung Fu Kindergarten, other animated films, including The Magic Aster, Happy Running, and the 3D Prequel of the Monkey King didn't do so well at box office.

A poll done by the China Youth Daily in November 2008 showed that only 14.2 percent of the nearly 3,000 people polled liked Chinese cartoons the best.

By contrast, 62.4 percent of respondents said their favorite animated films were U.S.-made. Another 45.9 percent favored films from Japan.

Chinese animation germinated in the 1920s with Uproar in the Studio a 12-minute cartoon made in 1926. The first animated feature length film called "Tie Shan Gongzhu," or "Princess Iron Fan," was made in 1941.

Before the 1980s, China made a lot of animated films. Many of them are still thought of as masterpieces today by fans, including The Monkey King, Secrets of the Heavenly Book, and Nezha Conquers the Dragon King. These were adapted from Chinese legends.

The first foreign cartoon introduced to China was Japan's Astro Boy series in 1981. Since then foreign cartoons have flooded into China. Because of their more entertaining stories and better business model, they rapidly took control of the market. That was a low point for the Chinese animation industry.

From 1993 to 2003, China only produced 46,000 minutes of animation. Jin Cheng, a director with the Guangzhou Animation and Cartoon Association, said the main reason for these Chinese films' failure in box office was poor preparation and too much focus on success and money.

"Some animation companies made a film in 9 months. They never paid attention to first-phase layout, not to mention delicate polishing," Jin said.

Many of these films, launched with high expectations and great public relations campaigns, got an indifferent response from the market after hitting the big screen.

To Wang Xin, the movie version of the Plesant Goat was a simple cut-and-paste from its original TV series. "The idea, images, and technology were terrible compared to foreign cartoon movies. The film even didn't have a full storyline," she noted.

She said that today's Chinese-made animation lacks the human touch that earlier Chinese cartoons had.

Many producers prefer to add hot social topics, such as the financial crisis, or popular Internet topics to their movies.

"I feel no sincerity from local animation producers toward their audience," Wang Xin said.

Yin Hong said, under current circumstances, it's reasonable for local producers to avoid competition with their foreign counterparts in terms of technology, special effects and other hard conditions.

"The gap between them is too wide," he said.

Wang Xin blames the gap on the protective policies. "These companies won't make progress without competition. Instead, they will lower the taste of domestic audience as they can only watch low-grade animation. It's a vicious circle," Wang said.

Lu Ming, a cartoonist who publishes his comic books in European countries, said the supporting policy, which regulates how animation producing companies get subsidies according to the time length of their productions, damages the artistic and cultural purchase of producers.

"They became total businessmen, and cartoons were only a tool for them to make money," Lu said.

He used his own experience with his book as an example. Even with well-connected storylines, complicated images, and Chinese cultural relevance, he could not find publishers in the domestic market. He had a stable group of readers in foreign countries.

Yin Hong said at the first stage, the policies did stimulate the expansion of the scale of domestic animation industry, however, the policies only emphasized quantity.

He said the direction should be shifted from competition on cost to competition in quality.

"Instead of getting money from just making out an animation, the producers have to consider more about market response, which will force them pay more attention to improve the animation's quality," he said.

He also said policies should encourage the integration of companies and the development of brand and reputation.

As they develop the quality of domestic animation, they will attract larger audiences. As the market grows, local producers will have more space to focus on creativity, Yin said.

"That will be a favorable circle," he said.