Lost In Animation

Once again, JUICE darts across the continent to the super-tech, monster-proof city of Tokyo for Digicon6, Japan’s leading digital design talent search. After days of endless animated eyecandy, we discover why animation will always be a part of us and how Malaysia is gearing up for its chunk of the global digital pie.

Images Ben Liew

In a country where everything runs like clockwork, you have little time to waste. Even less when it comes to entertainment. On subway trains throughout the sprawling city, kids and adults fixate on their handphones while waiting to reach their destinations. They stream TV shows, download the hottest J-pop hits, play games with friends halfway across the country, read Manga and watch anime. It’s this technologically-dependant way of life that fuels their booming digital content market.

The Japanese are especially proud of their animation sector, which thankfully is not just technically advanced but also artistically individualistic. Anime has inspired millions around the world, and has broken an otherwise impenetrable language barrier with lovable characters and engaging plots in movies, games and on TV. Seriously, you don’t have to be an otaku to appreciate Doraemon, Ultraman or the freaking PlayStation.

And it’s with this in mind that prominent broadcasting network Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS) created the DigiCon6 platform. Over the past 10 years, DigiCon6 has become a hallmark for animators local and abroad, attracting over 2000 applications for just last year alone. The digital design talent search has seen contestants from China, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India, Taiwan and Jordan in the past, and is responsible for dishing out new talents that get snapped up equally fast by international studios.

In Malaysia alone DigiCon6‘s local partner, the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), received an encouraging 95 entries. JUICE was invited over as a panel judge to painstakingly shorten that list to 5. Trust us, it wasn’t easy. But we found that the best entries were not solely from established studios, but also from college students like our top pick from One Academy. Led by Koh Chong Cheng, the team’s animated 3D short Still Alive was done for their final-year college project, and shows how far you can go with just a few Macs and a lot of patience.

So one minute we’re picking entries and the next, bang! We’re centre stage with Koh at Inter BEE (International Broadcast Equipment Expo) sharing our “experience” of the local animation industry with international delegates and media reps. As part of the DigiCon6 experience, we were brought to this huge expo to witness the next step in broadcasting technology. 3D broadcasting cameras, mobile recording studios in Toyota vans and techno-coloured lighting of all sorts, this was for the big boys of the industry! Once you’ve seen a blue whale coming at you from a hall-sized transparent screen, you’re not going to check your bank account to see if you can get one.

Nevertheless, talks given by the director of groundbreaking sci-fi anime Vexille, Fumihiko Sori, and CEO of Polygon Pictures Shuzo John Shiota were enlightening and cast a broader net over the subject of Computer Generated Imagery or CGI. With the remake of the popular Astro Boy to boast, Polygon Pictures’ Shuzo discussed how CGI helped to recreate scenes for period drama The Summer Of The Bureaucrats in which trains, cars and buildings were artificially drawn in.

Of course TBS recognised the need for CGI, and other 3D and 2D animation facilities and know-how. And that’s why they started Oxybot, an affiliated studio that does animation work for them as well as third parties. On a tour of this studio, we were showed how blood was added to a particular samurai movie, making the slashing realistic while saving a lot of money on ketchup.

The highlight of the trip was the awards presentation where the top animations were shown. Although Malaysia did not snag Best Animation, we were really blown away by the diversity of it all. Animation is a living art form based on cultural locality. And if anime was Japan’s stamp of quality, what was ours?

A month after Japan, we’re sitting in the banquet hall of the Royal Chulan Hotel at our own version of Digicon6. The Kre8tif! Digital Content Conference saw international speakers the likes of John Stevenson (Director of Kung Fu Panda), Eric Rollman (President of Marvel Animation) and Sue Erokan (Supervisor of Character Animation, Dreamworks) who gave talks over a 3-day seminar, and presented awards to our local animators and designers. With a huge stage and a snazzy, glittering setup, it’s hard to believe that this was the first time Kre8tif! was organised. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the government was behind this edgy awards presentation.

The Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) comes under the government’s MSC initiative. Its primary goal is to develop the local digital content industry. That means if you’re a digital artist or entrepreneur and need some help in any form, then these are the people to see. Apart from mentoring, providing funds and industry hookups, organising events and researching the global market while pushing our products overseas, they’ve also set up MAC3 (MSC Malaysia Creative Content Centre).

At the ridiculously low price of RM50 per workstation per month, small companies that specialise in digital content and animation can set up office at MAC3, and get access to facilities and workshops by local and visiting experts in the field. Virtual reality studios, multimedia labs, supercomputers for rending, game development tools and a flashy hallway await all newbies willing to venture forth.

This year will also see the debut of the highly anticipated Saladin series, which won the Encouragement Award at 2008’s DigiCon6. Spearheaded by MDeC, the project, which is based on the life of the Islamic hero, will be broadcast on the Al-Jazeera network. MDeC even got into the music biz, recently tying up with ex-Meet Uncle Hussein vocalist Azlan & The Typewriter for his create-your-own-music-video contest.

And as far as youth goes, those who are thinking of picking up animation as their tool of trade, MDeC Senior Executive Vernon Fernandez has this to say: “Awareness comes at 2 levels: educating the kids that this is a professional career that requires discipline, long hours and meeting deadlines while people are breathing down your neck; and enlightening the parents that it’s more than just drawing cartoons.”

Back in 1978, Malaysia had its first animation Hikayat Sang Kancil. The hand-drawn tale of the cunning mouse deer was followed by an equally mythical talking crocodile and a monkey who ate one too many chillies.

Fast forward a good 3 decades and Malaysia is now home to the latest studio of LA-based Rhythm & Hues. The multiple Academy Award-winning film production house that specialises in visual effects and animation (The Incredible Hulk, Alvin & The Chipmunks, The Cat In The Hat, Fast & Furious 3 & 4) has only 2 other studios in India that contribute to its output. Meaning animators here handle a significant amount of its Hollywood projects.

On the enormous gaming front, Britain-based Codemasters (with Malaysian partners Vision New Media) opened its first Asian branch here with the government spending RM44 million to fund the joint venture’s first project, TOCA 4 for the PS3 game console. Another RM36 million from the government was allocated for Codemasters’ sequel to the popular rally racing game Colin McRae: Dirt, which sold over 1.3 million units worldwide.

In terms of boutique studios, they’re popping up like pixels on a hotwired screen. Stamping our own brand of local animasi, Les’ Copaque Production (which started as a 3-man crew and grew into an 80-plus creative force) has scored big time at the movies. Their 3D-animated feature film Geng: Pengembaraan Bermula collected RM6.31 million in ticket sales, becoming the second-highest local box office hit of all time. Main attraction Upin & Ipin is also one of the most popular icons in Malaysian ‘Toonland with a hit TV show and a successful merchandising range to boot.

From slick commercials of robots at the Olympics by Sliverant Studio to stylised 2D cartoons exported to Cartoon Network and Disney (Animasia Studio and Inspidea), our animators’ global reach seems to be stretching out further than ever imagined. But what else can you expect from an industry that capitalises on the gift of imagination? So if you ever visit Japan and find yourself talking to a local about anime, you know what to say. And to think it all started with a talking mouse deer…

DigiCon6 was held in Tokyo from 20 to 22 November 2009. MDeC will be open for submission for this year’s DigiCon6. For updates and more info, visit www.mscmalaysia.com and www.tbs.co.jp/digicon/index-e.html or e-mail [email protected] Checkout JUICE‘s favourite animations at DigiCon6 here.