The 3D animation studio is doing the bulk of the special effects for a major TV series for US market When American television watchers tune in next autumn to a new 3D animation series, Father of the Pride, they will be watching not only a pride of lions but also looking at the pride of Hong Kong animation. Imagi, a company that only a short time ago was the world leader in man-made Christmas trees, is now a leading 3-D animation studio, with a staff of more than 300. Terry Tse Chi-man, director of corporate development at Imagi, said he was a close friend of the company's founder, and had helped to get the firm started in the animation business two years ago. Formerly known as Boto International, the company became Imagi when the founder's son Francis Kao Wai-ho switched the business from Christmas trees to computer animation. 'Twenty years ago we were the largest maker of Christmas trees in the world, but in 2002 we sold off that part of the business to concentrate on 3D animation,' Mr Tse said. He sees Imagi as the Pixar of Asia. It is just the beginning in the world of 3-D animated full-length films, he said. 'Last year there was only Finding Nemo. This year there are three films.' A few studios in Hong Kong have done extensive work in special effects, television commercials and other areas where computer graphics are used, but for only a few minutes at most. Mr Tse is interested in bigger things. 'We are in the long-format business. We also want to do our own feature films. We created Zentrix, an animated feature about humans and robots now showing in France, Japan and Britain. Recently, we did Digimon, a direct-to-video project for Bandai. We have five people on the ground in the United States dealing with the major studios. Sony has begun ramping up 3-D animation as well. It is a hot area to be in,' he said. Father of the Pride, which will star John Goodman and Orlando Jones among others, is produced by Dreamworks, but much of the work is being done in Hong Kong. Mr Tse said Hong Kong had much to offer, and Hollywood studios were happy to work with local firms. For once, the chances of China taking away jobs from Hong Kong seemed slim, he said. 'In Hong Kong, people want to do their best. They work hard to produce the best results. In China, if you ask them to add another tree or something, they want to be paid more. We also have the language skills, the background, and other factors that give us an advantage. 'Most people in Hong Kong are familiar with western and Chinese culture, so we fit right in the middle. We have a lot of talent here. After Hollywood, we too can produce international films. This is a very open society. We accept all kinds of things here.' To handle the terabytes of data required for Pride, Imagi used the largest blade server configuration available in Hong Kong. Chow Wai-for, a technical director at Imagi, said it took a while to get it all together. 'We started with a couple of PCs, nothing terribly big,' he said. 'Now we have 388 IBM blade servers with two CPUs each. Of that total, 70 per cent are on Linux, and 30 per cent on Windows. For the 3D work, we use Softimage and Maya, and for 2D work we have Photoshop and other standard tools. 'We write scripts to handle what has to be done on our systems, but we do not have to write any applications. 'We went to a number of vendors, including HP, IBM and others. We definitely wanted blade servers. They are easier to manage and take up less space. 'We also wanted to use Linux because of the price. We take care of our software and the installations, and IBM takes care of our hardware. It works out well,' he said. Working for Dreamworks can be a daunting experience, but the procedure is fairly straightforward. 'Dreamworks sends us the 2D images, and we take it from there. We do all the production imaging and whatever it takes to create the 3D characters,' Mr Chow said. Apart from the technical sophistication involved, the work must be carried out with the utmost secrecy. All those involved in the production must be trusted not to give the game away. With Pride in the works, the prospects for Imagi look good. The permanent Christmas tree set up in the conference room may serve as a reminder of where the company comes from, and may also be there for good luck. However, Mr Tse likes to think Imagi's success is based more on hard work. 'Pride is the first prime-time 3D animation programme in US history,' he said.