In the age of CGI, veteran animated filmmaker Neco Lo Che-ying still holds out hope for local industry
Neco Lo Che-ying, veteran of the hand-drawn days, says Hong Kong's young animators have the talent to excel, writes Mathew Scott
As Neco Lo Che-ying starts talking about the past, the people filling the Mong Kok coffee shop tables around us are fixated on the right here and now.
Heads are buried in smartphones and tablets, and images flicker across screens in constant motion as Lo recounts the days when he first entered the animation industry.
"It seems hard to imagine now," the 53-year-old says, "but we really had no computers. We did it all by hand - and it took a very long time. New technology means you can make your own animation with just one PC or a Mac - and it allows more people to enter the industry."
Sadly, though, the animation market in Hong Kong has not kept pace with such advances. It's hard enough for any regular filmmaker to turn a buck, let alone those in the often-laborious process that might bring an animated world to the big screen. You can count local animated success stories on one hand, and maybe even have a few fingers to spare.
But Lo is keeping the faith. The filmmaking veteran says he remains inspired by the young animators our city keeps producing, many of whom have adapted quickly to market needs by giving up on their feature filmmaking dreams - for the moment at least - to work in the worlds of commercials and promotions.
It's a matter of survival, and Lo says the most positive aspect is that opportunities are presenting themselves. Support is still coming from the likes of the Hong Kong Animation Association, for which he acts as secretary general, and government-sponsored initiatives such as Comix Home Base.
"It's still not that easy here," says Lo. "If you look back on the history of animated feature films in Hong Kong, there are just a few productions even now. The market is so small, investors are worried. The first animated feature was Colour Old Master Q in 1981 - they made three of them. Then it was already the 1980s and then we had a gap to 1997 and A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation. So it has been tough, but we can't give up."
Lo was raised on the diet fed to most Hong Kong youngsters throughout the 1970s, when broadcasting hours were filled with mostly international programming from Japan and the United States. But it was animation that caught his eye then and the medium has held his attention ever since.
"When I was young, I liked to draw, watch animation on TV and read comic books - anything that was animated I was interested in," he says. "On TV at that time we had a lot of Japanese animation and TV series from the United States, plus all these animated films in the cinema from Disney and the like. I was fascinated with the concept of moving pictures, of moving art."
Lo saved until he had enough money to buy a Super 8 camera and set to work trying to make his drawings appear to move. "It was simple, but it was enough," he says. "I just played around during my holidays, making my own animation. It's not that easy, you know. The Super 8 had a one-shot function, but it took a long time. Still, I found I could enter some competitions with my work and get noticed - I still think that is the best way today. Do your work and enter competitions."
Lo's first official job as an animator was with RTHK and he worked in those studios for 17 years, while at the same time slowly developing a relationship with feature filmmakers such as Cinema City, which was turning to animation mainly for work in special effects.
"I'd work at RTHK during the day then drive to the studio and work until 1am," says Lo. "The '80s were the golden days of cinema. It helped develop my own skills and helped me to learn how animation was developing, but much of the work was on effects, working by hand."
Lo also found time for his own projects: he was the driving force behind The Blue Moon (1979), Night of a Sleepy Writer (1980) and City of Suicide (1991) - independent shorts that helped push the boundaries of local animation - while helping programme animation screenings for both the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
The Arts Centre has recently been hosting "19 Years of Independent Short Film & Video Award (IVFA) Animation", a programme Lo helped piece together thanks to his long association with the awards. He says his work there keeps him in touch with new generations of animators - and keeps him hungry.
In October, he will travel to Taipei to help run a government-sponsored retrospective of animated work that will cover the past 60 years across all media. He hopes it will inspire those who want to try their hand at the art form.
"But yes, the problem is the market," says Lo. "It hasn't really grown here. And competition within the industry everywhere is high as countries all over the world are into animation production."
But he still believes there is hope.
"I have been trying to use my experience to help younger people and encourage them, and the situation is promising in Hong Kong at the moment. We have support from organisations such as the Arts Centre. Even the government now is supporting the Comix Home Base, which showcases this art form.
"Animation is everything. If you are a person like me and like watching movies, you like comic books, you like music, dance, theatre, then animation can be all those things. It is a combination of all these media or art forms. It's just unique and it is always exciting."