Batman and Robin of Shanghai animation heading for the big time
Two Chinese artists who make up Wolf Smoke Studio are working on their first full-length feature film, Kung Fu Cooking Girls, after making several well-regarded original short films
There are few partnerships as ingrained in global pop culture lore as Batman and Robin. Their shared vision, mutual trust and complementary skills set make them a highly successful team - the Dynamic Duo.
The partnership of Cloud Yang Hancheng and Clover Xie Xianhui shares similar traits, and that has allowed the Chinese artists to work together to take Batman and Robin off the streets of Gotham City and into the heart of the Bund district in Shanghai.
Yang and Xie are the founders and main staff of Wolf Smoke Studio, a small animation house in Shanghai that's been producing unique - and, by Chinese standards, high-quality - animation. In the studio's eight-year history, they've created several well-received original shorts, but it's their 2012 work Batman of Shanghai - featuring reimagined, oriental versions of the superhero in 1920s Shanghai - that's attracted the most attention and given them their current opportunity: creating their first full-length animated feature.
Yang and Xie are somewhat of an odd pairing. At first glance, they don't look like they have much in common. Yang, 34, grew up with, in his words, "very common blue-collar folks" and didn't set out to be an artist - he stumbled into the industry in 2000 while working as a lifeguard.
"I wasn't doing much with my life at the time, and one day I bumped into an old school friend," Yang recalls. "I think he felt sorry for me, so he suggested I work at this studio he was working in."
Yang knew next to nothing about the industry at the time, but took the advice and began as a low-level production worker at the now-defunct studio.
"I was just cutting cels and learning all the basics," he says.
Xie, on the other hand, grew up in an artistic household and was expected to follow in the family footsteps.
"I'm a third-generation artist with a painter father," she says. "But very early on, in primary school, I fell in love with comics and decided to pursue that type of art. The family was very much against it at first."
It wasn't until she won a few illustration awards in secondary school that her father showed signs of approval.
When it came time for university, Xie was dismayed to learn that almost no school in China offered a major in comic art. She ultimately settled on studying animation at a Beijing university - around the same time Yang was learning the craft at his job.
But while Yang was enjoying the experience of creating animation - "I particularly love the pre-production aspects, doing storyboards, concept art, planning direction," he says - Xie realised she didn't care much for it.
"I just didn't have that big an interest in animating something - to make something move. I wanted to just draw."
By 2005, after working for two studios, Yang was increasingly yearning to create his own content. But more a storyteller and production man than an artist, he needed a partner.
Xie, meanwhile, finished her degree and had an illustrating gig with a video game production company. The artist was looking for more creative freedom, too.
"That's when fate brought us together," recalls Yang. "We met on an internet forum after noticing that our usernames were based on characters from the same manga."
The two hit it off right away and realised their skills and interests fit together like a puzzle - Xie is a natural illustrator but doesn't want to deal with animation; Yang loves animating but can't quite draw.
"Between the two of us, we covered every aspect of making an animation," Xie says.
One of their first major productions was the short Mountain Shu (2008), an animated take on the Legend of Zu series of fantasy novels, which was popularised by Chinese director Tsui Hark in his 1983 film Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.
The action-packed two-minute clip was well received, with its anime-style art and action getting particular praise from online fans.
Offers came in for the duo to do more anime-inspired action work, but they declined. "We wanted to do our own thing," Yang says. "To show off our identity and what we can do."
They did just that with their next three shorts, each a radical departure from the last.
Full of Cats (2010) is a light-hearted comedic short, drawn in flatter, more old-fashioned style (think US cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls) that told the story of a school made up of feline students. A year later they released Little Big War, an explosive 100-second cyberpunk short set in a Ghost in the Shell-like futuristic world.
Then came Kung Fu Cooking Girls - which depicted the struggle between two groups of female chefs, one Chinese and the other white - who all happen to know martial arts. It was created using more than 10,000 hand-drawn cels, an unusually high number for an eight-minute short (a typical animation uses 12 to 15 frames per second).
"We wanted to show off our technical prowess with Kung Fu Cooking Girls," says Yang.
It took Wolf Smoke Studio nearly five years to complete four shorts. That's not a fast pace, but the two partners couldn't care less.
"We aim to be a house of ideas, not a production factory," Xie says. "Making an animation is a marathon, not a sprint."
In fact, Yang thinks the Chinese entertainment industry, despite its undeniable growth, isn't heading down the right path.
"China's blind support of the film industry is more about quantity rather than quality," he says. "We don't want to get caught up in that."
To pay the bills, both Yang and Xie held side jobs during Wolf Smoke's first few years - Yang worked for other studios while Xie stayed with the video game company. While they say they would have been happy to keep Wolf Smoke Studio mostly as a passion project, Kung Fu Cooking Girls changed everything.
"In late 2011, we received a call from Warner Brothers Animation," Yang says. "Their vice-president had seen [ Kung Fu Cooking Girls] and they were wondering if we wanted to help them do a one-off Batman story set in an alternate reality."
Warners granted them a surprising amount of creative leeway, which was at once empowering and intimidating, he says.
"We were dealing with such iconic characters, and we were changing them to our liking," says Yang. "But we just took the idea and ran with it."
Batman of Shanghai, released online and shown on the Cartoon Network in the US in 2012, introduced Wolf Smoke Studio to an international audience. Offers began pouring in, including some from the US, says Yang, but they ultimately accepted a proposal from Guangdong's Alpha Animation.
"Many offers wanted us to do someone else's work, but Alpha offered funding for us to do what we want," says Yang. "And we decided it was time to expand on one of our shorts."
The pair would not disclose how much Alpha was putting into their Kung Fu Cooking Girls feature, although Yang says "for a 2D animation, it's quite big".
The jump from making animation lasting a few minutes to a full-length feature means Yang and Xie can no longer go it alone, so they spent close to a year attempting to find staff for their project - to no avail.
"In the end, we had to outsource production [to Japan] because it was so difficult to find good Chinese animators," says Yang, who blames various factors, including the government's lack of support for artists and the money-driven Chinese culture.
"To create an original animation takes years. How many young Chinese are willing to do a job that long without a set income?" says Yang. "To correct the situation, we have to start with education and culture. Universities have to commit to nurturing artists, and people in the industry have to look at their work as a craft that requires technique."
As creators and artists in China, they face another challenge: potential censorship.
"There is a limit to the stories you can tell in China," says Yang. "But in a way that's a good challenge. We have to figure out how to tell the best story possible within what is allowed."
With its glamorised look at arguably Chinese culture's two most popular exports - food and martial arts - and a decidedly patriotic tone, it doesn't look like Kung Fu Cooking Girls will be in danger of incurring the wrath of censors.
Wolf Smoke Studio isn't sure when the film will be finished. "With our demand for quality, I'm afraid it might be a bit of a wait," says Yang.
However, they hope it will eventually make it to the big screen. "If not, video-on-demand or a DVD release is a possibility," he says. "We'll worry about that later. First, we have a story to tell."