Local animators told: raise your game

The international landscape is changing in the visual effects industry, says one Hollywood player, and Asia needs to raise its game to compete

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 5:40am

If Asia wants to become a major player in the world of big-screen animation it needs to nurture its own creative talent, says a leading visual effects expert.

Richard Chuang should know. He has been in charge of visual effects for 16 Hollywood productions and oversaw the making of the hugely successful Shrek trilogy.

The 58-year-old pioneer of the computer graphics and digital effects industry co-founded Pacific Data Images, now part of DreamWorks Animation, producer of blockbusters Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon.

The American said while he had seen animation studios mushrooming in Asia over the years, they seemed to enjoy only moderate success by offering technical support to overseas productions, while attempts to make 3-D animated films of their own had very often turned into disasters.

"They make many CG [computer graphics] films, but no one knows about them," Chuang told a Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum held in Hong Kong last month.

He said many studios approached the task as if it were easy, and did not understand the challenge of producing creative content.

"It's like what happens in a kitchen," he said. "Somebody may have worked as a chef in a chain restaurant. But it's very different from being a chef making original dishes."

One of the many studios he referred to was Imagi, which he helped set up in Hong Kong in 2000. Its production of TMNT, an animation based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series and movie, won plaudits. But the excessive cost of making Astro Boy drained the company, forcing it to lay off hundreds of staff and close down its Hong Kong studio in 2010.

Previous failures often discouraged new attempts, especially in Asia as "a fail is labelled as a failure for a long time", Chuang said. But as people hesitated, the international landscape was changing dramatically. Competition was now much fiercer in the visual effects industry. Heavyweight visual effects company Rhythm & Hues went bankrupt even after the movie Life of Pi, which it helped to make, earned four Oscars including one for visual effects.

Industry veterans cited competition from Canadian studios, which enjoy tax incentives, as a reason for its demise. The Australian government also invests directly in Hollywood productions, making it hard for studios in other parts of the world to win projects.

Chuang said that in order to survive and thrive, Asia had to move up the food chain from providing technical support to making original content. The growing appetite for local content in the region, especially on the mainland, could support the industry, he said.

This is where Hong Kong could make its mark. While some might think it would be cheaper to make an animation on the mainland, this was not the case.

"We are a technology-driven field and it's changing quicker than before," he said. "A feature film used to cost US$300,000 to US$500,000 per minute … now it's about US$1,000 per minute.

"In China, consumer expectation is outstripping studio capacity. They are no longer satisfied with low-cost productions."

Chuang said in a global market only the best ideas would win and they would only come from people who could think outside the box. "We must invest more in people. We should focus on providing an education system and environment that supports creativity and innovation."

Studios should also step up their distribution channels to embrace the digital age, making content playable on any platform, including computers, smartphones and televisions.

In 2008 Chuang quit DreamWorks and founded Cloudpic, a cloud-based production platform for digital artists and studios to produce digital content from anywhere they call home.

Instead of building a big studio in one country, linking artists across the globe would allow a more flexible structure which adapted quickly to change, he said.

"You can't only think of Hong Kong any more. You have to move content fast enough and cost effective enough to reach the global audience."