JUICE Hits Up DigiCon6 in Tokyo

Recession, layoffs … pah! With an invite from MDeC, JUICE jets to Japan for DigiCon6 and discovers an exciting platform for digital content creators and how outfits like Moon FX and Rhythm And Hues are making this one of the most exciting fields to date for design grads.

On the streets of Tokyo, digital content is not so much a revolution as a way of life. Kids here watch TV, download the latest tunes, read the latest manga, play games and watch anime shorts on their handphones as they shuttle about the city on the Metro. With all that, it’s no wonder the Japanese think the iPhone is like something from the last century.

Digital design is about as big as it gets in this neon-fuelled cyber city and late last year JUICE paddled its canoe across the oceans to be a part of DigiCon6, Japan’s leading digital design talent search. Organised by leading TV network Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS), over the last 10 years DigiCon6 has become one of the most important events for the country’s animation industry, attracting thousands of applications, and each year serves up a fresh crop of talent that are quickly snapped up and devoured by the dozens of studios and game manufacturers producing shows like TBS favourite Dragon Zakura.

Unlike Malaysia, where we’re still only beginning to develop a digital creative industry, in Japan anime alone is a multi-billion dollar industry. Mega-franchise Mobile Suit Gundam from Sunshine Inc is said to be worth around RM2bn, and anime and manga stars are bigger than movie stars, spawning spin-off toys and dubious ‘endorsements’ that include adult ‘novelties’. From pachinko parlours to fast food joints, a bizarre array of barely clad, wispy females and dreamy boys with improbable wedge haircuts look down at you from every corner. And it isn’t just the characters themselves that are revered: at the Digicon6 after-party judge Kazuo Umezu is mobbed like a rock star. In his seventies Umezu is regarded the godfather of the Japanese horror comics scene (Orochi aka Blood) as well as for creating popular shonen manga character, Makoto-chan, and Umezu causes a great deal of laughter at the awards ceremony by waving a large cardboard hand around (it’s the trademark of Makoto-chan). More impressive: when he does an impromptu sketch for one Japanese prize winner the audience reacts as if they’d just seen Da Vinci at work.

But even though the rest of the world may seem to lag behind Japan in terms of support and infrastructure, the digital revolution has spun into other realms. For most of us MP3 has replaced CD. DVDs are replacing TV and we’re looking online for everything from knitting techniques to Flash tips. In the Hollyhood, CGI based flix like 300, Aeon Flux and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow have shown the way forward and while shows like The Simpsons have outsourced animation to outfits like South Korea’s AKOM Production Co for years. If this is what you can do with a green screen and a couple of over-clocked computers we reckon it’s time to get rid of all those over demanding me-me-me actor types while we’re at it; make the designers and the writers the stars while the actors slope back to their real lives of waiting on tables and dreaming of being professionally good looking. ‘Cos in the same way that cheap PCs and freeware have help to fuel the boom in Malaysian dance music, so the same combination is pushing a new wave of local design talent that is bringing its wares to your computer and TV screens. Which is why JUICE got asked to be on the judging panel that chose the Malaysian entry.

While we were bowled over by the Malaysian Preliminary Selection Round’s winning entrant Saladin (more on that later), special mention has to go to Moon Fx Studios’ Blue Karipap (www.bluekaripap.com); if we were a cartoon that’s the cartoon we’d be. Over-sized graff artists, midget basketball players, demented aunties and our favourite mute wannabe DJ, Dexy, all work and hang out at the Blue Karipap Café when they’re not out finding fun on the streets. One too many toilet gags aside, this is one of the funniest things we’ve seen, and with 17 episodes behind it is crying out to be made into a larger feature. “We felt the local animation scene could use a fun, silly and youthful series that didn’t take itself too seriously or went out of its way to be too wholesome or safe,” says Sidney Tan, Moon FX’s Animation Director. “We also dreamed of selling merchandise but who would want merchandise of a fat Malaysian aunty and her balding middle-aged ah-pek husband?”

What also sets it apart is the pro-level music score from WASP Studios, the guys behind epic local hip hop and soul productions for the likes of Reshmonu and Ferhad. According to Moon’s Sid, WASP got involved because “we hijacked [the studio] for a month and forced them to add sound to our pictures. We took pictures of them at BB-gunpoint in baju-kebaya and threatened to post it online. They still hate us but the music single went to no.1 on the local charts for 2 weeks.” “It was something creative and new for us and a lot of fun,” explains WASP’s Creative Director, veteran UK sound engineer and record producer Paul Morrison. And as they’ve since worked on ‘three international animated TV series and one feature film’ it’s becoming an increasingly large part of WASP’s business.

JUICE has never been the sort to cozy up to the men in suits but when it comes to this digital design business those suity guys are doing some really hard work in the background. The Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) – part of the government’s MSC project – may not be the hippest sounding joint in the creative cosmoverse but they’ve got some of the best facilities this side of a Star Trek holodeck: virtual reality studios, multimedia labs, supercomputers for rendering, games development facilities all designed to help newbies reduce their entry costs and produce something a bit more flash than Flash. As well as mentoring and making development funds available for new multimedia outfits and projects they also spend a large portion of their time at the world’s media and trade fairs finding out what content buyers want and marketing Malaysia’s wares to them. If you’re a digital artist and need someone to pit you in the right direction, hook you up or trade your wares, then these are the guys to go to. So it’s not so surprising that the idea for Saladin came from MDeC or that the pre-production team of more than 20 artists and script writers is based at their Cyberjaya HQ.

Project leader Mohd Shahrain Jalaluddin has assembled a team of experts that includes Silver Ant (responsible for those metalslick Astro Stadium ads) and motion capture experts Young Jump. It may seem calculating but part of creating the series was to demonstrate to foreign investor types that Malaysia has the capacity to produce an entire feature – with writers, designers, animators, sound producers and so on – rather than just become an animation outsourcing hub.

The result of Saladin showing at DigiCon6 has been a co-production deal that will see the first series of Saladin broadcast on Al-Jazeera’s Children’s Channel in early 2010. Result! And while Radio & Television Hong Kong’s short Hidden Elders bagged the top Â¥500,000 yen cash prize, Saladin won DigiCon6’s Encouragement Award. It’s also attracted foreign attention, and this is one of MDeC’s objectives: to attract major international players to set up creative studios here. Singapore may have been able to woo Star Wars’ George Lucas to set up ILM there but in February Oscar-winning LA based Rhythm And Hues announced they would be opening a studio in KL with up to 250 animators. Specializing in 3D character animation and visual effects, it includes more than 100 blockbusters among them work for Lord of the Rings, Face/Off and Blade. Wicked!

“The Malaysia studio will eventually work on all the stages of the animation and visual effects production for our Hollywood feature films,” explains Prashant Biyyala, Managing Director of Rhythm And Hues Malaysia. “We were very impressed by the potential of the talented artists that we met in Malaysia. There are some good schools with very bright students graduating annually and we wanted to tap into that promising talent pool.” It’s certainly encouraging news for graduating graphic designers and those already plugging away within the industry.

There were around 200 Malaysian entries for last year’s DigiCon6, with new studios like Moon Fx, Evo Pictures, Les Copaque Productions, In-Fusion Solutions and dozens more. And it’s not all corporate talent. The top 10 boasted four students from The One Academy, demonstrating that some of the best talent out there is working ideas out in bedrooms and study breaks, not in commercial studios. The whole scene has also spilled over to the club front where pioneering work by the likes of local boys Altered Image and Motiofixo (www.motiofixo.com) is bringing design to the dancefloor. Over in Singapore visual artist QWERTY has become the go-to-guy for many visiting DJs and live acts and Motiofixo have been funnelling some of their ill-gotten ad industry gains into creating stop motion and cut up style music clips for artists like Ahli Fiqir, Bittersweet and Frequency Cannon.

“We started off doing music videos for underground artists with no rules or limitations,” explains Motiofixo’s Creative Director Ahmad Fariz Hanapiah. “If it had been done before, we trashed it. In Malaysia there are passionate designers and animators who are well exposed to international trends but appreciation of art and design could be better: a small audience means few buyers. But we’re optimistic that things might change soon.” Which brings us back to KLIA on a rainy November afternoon with half a ton of manga swag in our luggage, praying that the customs guys won’t flick through and force us into our ‘it’s art not porn’ routine. J

DigiCon6 was held in Tokyo on November 22, 2008. MDeC will be accepting entries this year’s for DigiCon7. Please check http://cmc.msc.com.my for emerging details or e-mail vernon@mdec.com.my or adam@mdec.com.my at MDeC for further info. Participation is free and your 15 minute or less entry can be made either by an individual or a group and should be in the form of a computer graphic animation (2D/3D), live-action films shot/edited by digital movie equipment, and/or 3D-rendered films (this includes stop-motion and clay animation. It must be submitted along with your entry form, which will be downloadable from the MDeC website, in S-VHS, VHS, DVD or MiniDV.

Images Matt Armitage, DigiCon6, Rhythm And Hues