Thanks to Asa Butcher, Senior Editor at gbtimes, for his article on the inception and development of BAN JIN BA LIANG, Disney’s first Chinese TV co-production.
My career in the arts and entertainment has taken me to a number of unexpected places, from The Walt Disney Company to China. In my 25+ years in the business, I’ve worked as an artist, animator, technician, teacher, consultant, entrepreneur, producer and executive. People make various assumptions about my educational background when they meet me, but everyone is uniformly surprised to learn that I graduated with a degree in painting.
The Cleveland Institute of Art’s Painting major taught me to conceptualize, visualize and apply myself in freeform creative situations where I had to rely upon my own instincts and inquiry to move forward. The skills I developed are as quantifiable as those from any design program, and have put me in good stead to handle uncertain situations where I not only need to come up with good solutions but also must determine the real issue. We are increasingly faced with such scenarios in our contemporary, multi-faceted, visually-oriented careers.
As an antidote to the rash of news regarding the exploits of major Chinese entertainment companies and real estate barons, I thought I’d offer insight into China’s creative grassroots with an interview of entrepreneurial animation director Toony Wu, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy who began working in animation in 1999, and is now immersed in augmented reality and virtual reality. In 2007, Toony co-founded what would become known as Dreamspace Media, specializing in 3D and 4D animated shorts and special-venue projects. Dreamspace won various awards for their work, and Toony went on to direct the Chinese animated series DRAGON SUPER CREW (小龙大功夫) for The Walt Disney Company in 2013. In 2016, Toony co-founded Jelly Monster, a Beijing-based animation studio specializing in AR publishing and VR content. I was fortunate to get enough time from this busy creator for ten questions related to his career in animation and his aspirations in immersive… (full post on AWN)
Disney’s ZOOTOPIA made box office history this weekend when it became the top-grossing animated film of all time in China with over one billion RMB (more than $174 million USD), surpassing the reigning champ, DreamWorks’ KUNG FU PANDA 3.
In doing so, the talented folks at Disney Animation Studios have engaged Chinese audiences in a way that their colleagues at Pixar still fail to. Despite being revered by Chinese animation students, and by mainland companies aspiring to be “the Chinese Pixar” (usually without any real comprehension of what that entails), Pixar has an ongoing relevance problem in China (demonstrating that “quality” alone is perhaps not the best business model). Forbes addressed this struggle in an article last October – charting Pixar’s inability to outperform middling flicks such as PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN and THE SMURFS in mainland China – prior to the release of Pixar’s Academy Award-winning INSIDE OUT.
In addition to being a great film by a brilliant director, INSIDE OUT was also a business success by all reasonable accounts: grossing $856.8 million USD worldwide, with $356.46 million USD of that in North America and $500.35 million USD in international receipts. Yet in mainland China, INSIDE OUT only grossed $15.32 million USD: just 3.1% of its international total and a mere 1.8% of its worldwide gross. Only poor BRAVE checks in lower with 0.8% of its worldwide gross coming from China. With Disney’s second-largest theme park about to open in the world’s second largest film market, you can be sure that this resonance gap is a topic of conversation in the Disney board room.
So, what makes China go “Wilde” for ZOOTOPIA? Western studios hoping to appeal to Chinese audiences with the inclusion of superficial “Chinese elements” should note that ZOOTOPIA contains none whatsoever. Based on my observation in Chinese theaters, scrolling through WeChat posts, and conversations with Chinese colleagues, the appeal of ZOOTOPIA in China (and specifically, to China’s young adult females) appears to be: that it is funny but “real” (anyone who has sat all day in a Chinese bank or bureau gets the sloths); Judy is a relatable heroine (particularly with her parents’ pseudo-supportive encouragement to stifle her dreams); and Nick Wilde is a rakishly charming anti-hero (with a wounded heart in need of redemption, no less).
It’s been interesting to see the recent spate of fan art popping up online, depicting a love interest between Judy and Nick (all G-rated, of course – this is China). Nick Wilde appears to have usurped BIG HERO SIX’s Baymax as the ideal Chinese women hope their boyfriends would aspire to. And just as well. Despite earlier online buzz about Baymax being the “perfect boyfriend”, all the ladies in the house should know that Baymax would drive you batty after just a few hours (if that long). Nick Wilde is quicker on the uptake and a lot more fun to hang out with.
Has Disney cracked “the China Code” with ZOOTOPIA? Time will tell. Like most box office successes, the true driving factors are almost always a surprise (if even recognized) and rarely repeatable. In any event, foreign interests will only be allowed a certain amount of success in mainland China. Ever since Chinese media authorities were embarrassed in 2012 by foreign films taking more than 50% of mainland box office receipts, control over global fare has been exerted in increasingly unpredictable and effective ways. Foreign film fortunes will be pegged as a minority percentage of China’s domestic box office for the foreseeable future.
What IS happening is that studios such as Disney are training China’s “cinematic AI”. By way of analogy, Google co-founder Larry Page remarked in 2002 that rather than establishing a search engine, Google was really building an artificial intelligence – one that became “smarter” with your every click and query. Flash forward to 2016, when Google’s “AlphaGo” AI is trouncing human Go master Lee Sedol after being “crowd-trained” via its analysis of 30 million moves from games played by Go experts.
The true beneficiary of ZOOTOPIA’s success is China, who controls the board, controls the players, supports its local teams, and continues to learn and improve with every move. The house always wins.
Congratulations to me old partner in crime, Eamonn Butler, on the announcement of Cinesite’s new animation studio in Montreal.
As Cinesite’s Head of Animation, Eamonn will oversee a 54,000-square foot facility that will ramp up to 500 staff, with plans to produce nine animated feature films over the next five years.
“Drawing on the sophisticated techniques developed over the last 20 years in the visual effects industry, we wanted to build a new creative home for the world’s best storytellers, writers, directors and animators. Whether you are an established filmmaker or an emerging writer, we want you to think of our studio as a new destination where your work can be nurtured and flourish.” – Eamonn Butler, Head of Animation, Cinesite
The article features an interview with the film’s talented and industrious animation supervisor, Aaron Zhou of Beijing-based Big Big Sun, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
The commitment of director Tian Xiao Peng and the contributions of Aaron and Big Big Sun are characteristic of the exciting new wave of Chinese animated feature films, breaking new ground and coming soon to a theater near you.
For a country with no shortage of people, China seems to have a shortage of animation and VFX talent – for reasons different and more layered than you might imagine.
Chris Colman examines the root causes, from China’s production studios to its primary schools and parental strictures, in this enlightening article on SHP+.