Storytelling in the form of pictures has been around since the first cave painting by prehistoric man. Fast forward through Egyptian murals, phenakistoscopes, silent cinematography, the popularization of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, stop motion, the introduction of CGI animation, and you arrive at today’s animation climate: increasingly virtual, complicated and realistic.
Recent animation movies from “Kubo and the Two Strings,” which grossed almost $70 million worldwide, to Walt Disney Studio’s most recent feature “Moana,” which has grossed almost $452 million to date, indicate that consumers are willing to spend money to watch good animation production.
“We’re seeing a big transition and interest toward animation movies, and the industry is getting bigger,” says Harley Zhao, president and CEO of Original Force, Ltd., a multiplatform digital animation studio. “Several years before, we only had a small market penetration. Now it’s growing bigger and bigger, and I think that China’s role during this growth has been important because of its sheer size.” The vast consumer market in China is a growing force that is feeding this appetite for animation.
“The main focus of our studio is to encourage and develop original ideas,” says Zhao. “We opened our studio in the United States because we value the existing talent, culture of innovation and technology developments that are happening.” With another Original Force studio in Nanjing, Zhao has laid out the groundwork for his studio to become a major player in cross-border animation production. “I think China needs to leverage partnerships with Western companies to come up with better content,” says Zhao. “There’s greater skill and talent here [in the U.S.] who can tell more compelling stories.”
"We opened our studio in the United States because we value the existing talent, culture of innovation and technology developments that are happening."
Bob Bacon, CEO of Alpha Animation says it is “paramount” to find the best talent to generate relatable stories. He adds that it is necessary to do so, in order to feed China’s “growing taste of animation.” He continues, “We’ll also be creating a more inclusive story development process that will take into account the cultural nuances that we could include in some of our upcoming content.” For Oriental DreamWorks, the entire content development team is based in China, under the belief that being wholly immersed in the culture helps generate ideas that are better suited for the country. “The most unique and interesting content conversations are coming out of these teams of people, and their creativity is really refreshing, as a result of living in China,” says Melissa Cobb, head of studio and chief creative officer of Oriental DreamWorks. “Hopefully, they turn into projects that are exciting, carry a unique voice with local appeal, while still being able to connect to a wider global audience.”
Zhao is also optimistic about the future of animated content for Chinese consumers. “There are a lot of Chinese folktales and legendary figures that we could tap into,” he says. “Take ‘Mulan’, for example.” Amongst the many projects being put into motion, Original Force is currently working on a movie called “Duck, Duck, Goose,” which will feature many Chinese elements within the story.
Phantom Dust video game trailer created through the collaboration of Original Force and Microsoft
“‘Toy Story’ really inspired me as an animator and made me want to find a way to connect with people,” says Zhao. “For me, it really showed a human element and emotion that was relatable.” Other animators like Bailey Monty, lead character modeler at DreamWorks Animation, also drew inspiration early on from animated movies. “I’ve always loved watching animation, and the first one that really motivated me to become an animator was ‘Monsters, Inc.’,” she says. “Being an animator combines both artistic and technical skills, and there’s a bigger demand now for people with this talent.”
In addition to feature films, the popularity of animated television shows has also skyrocketed. To give a glimpse into the growth, Monty says, “When I started at Dreamworks almost four years ago, I was the seventh or eighth hire for Dreamworks Television. I’ve been here from the very beginning and we started with only three television shows: ‘Veggie Tales,’ ‘All Hail King Julian’ and ‘The Adventures of Puss in Boots.’ Now, there are 22 shows and about 700 new hires since I started.” With a slew of tight deadlines and quick turnarounds with many moving parts, Monty and her team actively work on six to seven animated shows at a time, with a new episode cycling in from writers every two weeks.
Animation content continues to skew toward being more family-oriented, but adult undertones in features such as “Shrek” are highly popular as well. “We’re predominantly targeting a family market, but we’re also trying to capture the older, teen audience, especially in China,” says Cobb. “’Warcraft’ [based on a video game] is a great example of an animation feature that was targeted toward an older, game-savvy audience.” Worldwide, the film grossed $433 million, with the highest amount of dollar-spending coming from China, which generated more than $220 million.
“We’re really trying to crack the story code that will allow us to find content that’s rooted in human elements, while also being tied to current events,” says Cobb. Without any creative limits in the animation world, animators and studios have the ability to transcend cultural biases, language barriers and geographic hurdles that most other stories would have to address.
From a sales standpoint, Zhao still believes that animation is fundamentally most appealing when members of all ages are able to participate. “We’re looking to find ways to reach a broader audience without increasing costs,” says Zhao. “I think focusing on family-friendly content is something that everyone can understand.”
From a content standpoint, Monty explains, “Animation doesn’t stick harshly to one specific cultural standard. They’re free-forming in their own creative world, and I think that’s what helps the story become relatable to the general audience—precisely because there are no boundaries, rules or standards that animation has to adhere to.”