National Library Board – Design Talks: Singapore Animation – David Kwok, Mark Wee and Cartoons Underground
Last week, Cartoons Underground Co-Founder and Festival Director Vicky Chen spoke at Design Talks: Singapore Animation at Library@Orchard with David Kwok (the CEO of Tiny Island Productions), Michael Lim (the Founder of the Singapore Visual Effects and Animation group), and Mark Wee (Independent Animator) about the fundamentals of IP creation, current trends observed in the animation industry, and essential lessons for both aspiring and seasoned artists.
The talk was led by Vicky Chen, who welcomed 40 odd audience members to actively participate during the session. The speakers then introduced themselves through a simple slide show which can be found here.
Based on your experiences, how do you think the animation industry has evolved, and where do you see it going?
DAVID: I started working in the animation industry in 2000. I graduated with a degree in computer engineering from the UK, and came back to Singapore to work with the government for five years. In 2007, I decided to start my own company, and my dream was to create an environment in which artists can pursue their passion, as well as make a decent living in Singapore.
Moving forward, just like the manufacturing sector, Singapore cannot focus on production alone. Asia is catching up, and with the rising costs of operation, we have to move up to a higher value chain. In the long run, we have to focus on IP creation. Although it seems relatively new, it has been around for quite some time. In the coming years, it is important to start bringing ourselves out. Singapore must learn to advance to the next level, in terms of our craft and technique. We shouldn’t depend on foreign investment alone – we should start building our own SMEs. We should go global – not stay local.
MICHAEL: I started my career in Fox Studios Australia in 1999, and returned to Singapore in 2001. I was involved with education, and helped other companies with their service work and IP production.
In terms of IP creation, you need to be a storyteller first. Even if you aren’t one of the primary scriptwriters, and/or are in a junior position, you should have a say in a film’s creative process. If you’re just starting out, absorb all the information that you can. Don’t expect to master the craft, or to measure your success according to how long it will take you to reach a senior level. Your progression is not a time-dependent process. It depends on your own experiences and choices. It’s a creative journey.
MARK: I began my journey in 2004. When I graduated from secondary school, I needed to choose where I wanted to start my tertiary education. Although I was rejected by the Junior College that I applied to, I found a new pathway in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. However, it wasn’t until I got into NTU that I decided to devote all of my time to animation. I began my course as an independent filmmaker, and decided that I wanted to make films for the rest of my life.
People are becoming braver, and they dream of more than a job in a big studio. Although working for an established corporation is not a wrong idea, I would like to reiterate David’s point, and I’d like to emphasize the importance of making our own IP. In the future, that’s the way that things will turn out to be. Students will be brave enough to fail, and to learn from their mistakes. Many more people will have their own ideas, and will aspire to convert them into stories.
VICKY: My experience with animation was from my older sister who was also the first batch of Animation students in NTU, I observed that there was more emphasis on technique than storytelling, and that people weren’t as ambitious to create independent animation shorts. Over the past few years, I observe that younger people are getting more involved with the animation industry, and as a result, it is growing exponentially — the success of an animated film extends beyond government funding or sponsorship. People are getting braver, and this courage will spearhead their success.
What are the challenges that you faced?
MARK: The Animals started off as a graduation piece. Time was a huge factor, and I had eight months to shoot the entire thing. I’ve also discovered that stop-motion animation is harder to make than 3D animation. I couldn’t rely on technological methods to animate my film. Thus, not only was my time limit (of eight months) a challenging factor, but so was my chosen medium (stop-motion). In addition, I chose to work alone, as most people naturally gravitate away from stop-motion. This was a challenging and exhausting endeavor.
MICHAEL: My greatest challenge, and most important lesson, was learning to be fearless. I intended to make films in the 1980s. During then, few creative activities were happening in Singapore. When Singapore’s film festival started in 1987, my brother took me along to an ILM seminar. It was there that I met Warren Franklin, my first industry contact.
Being fearless is really essential. School is an incubator, as your colleagues and teachers are all there to help you. When you’re on your own out there, you have to find the strength and courage (which you should learn in Film School) to continue making stories. This lesson is pertinent to those who are working in Singapore, as well as overseas. I’ve worked in the UK and Australia), and have discovered that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Due to this, I’ve discovered that we need to be resourceful, and to make the best out of what we have.
DAVID: I’ve a whole list of challenges! Firstly, it’s difficult to manage a team of artists, technical experts and business managers altogether. Getting into the West is a challenge. We have to do that as Singapore’s industry is relatively small as compared to the West’s. China is a huge market and it will be our next biggest challenge.
Creating a IP, and learning how to monetize it, is a new chapter for us. Tiny Island needed to create a product that could sell – not just something that we like. When we started, our mission was straight forward. I had to ensure that my artists had jobs. Now that these people are married, and have families of their own, we need to do more We need to have a bigger vision to build an enterprise that sustain the crew.
My journey doesn’t end there. There are bigger things, and every day holds its own challenges.
I’m reading up on what Jack Ma does and how he builds his company. Like he said, being an entrepreneur is all about experience. It doesn’t matter whether you fail or succeed – any experience that you have will be an asset for your life. Don’t be afraid to fail – you have to fail in order to succeed.
VICKY: Cartoons Underground faced its biggest challenges during its first year. I realized that it was difficult to manage my emotional attachment to this project, and that it was difficult to excite our audience especially as a concept that is so new. Initially, Cartoons Underground was a non-profit event, and any monetary complications (finding sponsors) were difficult to manage. In order to excite our audience, we had to find ways to make each annual festival different and exciting for our audience. In order to secure sponsors, we persuaded companies to promote their brand during our festivals, and to showcase their work.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
MICHAEL: I’d like to complete the projects that I’m currently working on, and I intend to foster a stronger sense of community in the industry. I would also like the general public to appreciate what we’re doing.
We’re entering a different age, and we’ve evolved in terms of changing career paths – this is observed in both the creative and corporate industries. If we develop a greater appreciation for our local brands, it will help us transform them into international concepts. In addition, we have to nurture our audiences (both foreign and local) through our stories.
MARK: Eventually, I hope to transit into the commercial industry. I intend to create short content. I’m easily tired with my ideas, and I feel that shorter content allows me to experiment slightly more. One day, I’ll find a style that I can find myself in. In the meantime, I’m not done experimenting. In the foreseeable future, Singaporeans will continue to change, experiment, and produce new types of content.
DAVID: I want to retire. Ha ha I started my company in 2007 with no investors. We built up a strong production team over the years. Since then, we’ve developed Tiny Island Productions and Dream Defenders, and we continue to grow the entities. Eventually, I hope to license or sell the IP, and to build a 3rd company that focuses on IP consutations, distributions, licensing and merchandising. In 5 years time, I hope to let my team take over the company. I’ll take a back seat, and will focus on sharing my experiences on a global scale.
Recently, I went to Indonesia to share about my experience in IP creation. I’ve discovered that their artists are passionate and talented. However, many do not understand how to globalise their IP. I hope what I share will help them in a long run to build a future for themselves.
VICKY: I want Cartoons Underground to be an international festival, and to take Singaporean animation to international countries.
The Internet enables us to create and share content to a large audience. What are your thoughts?
VICKY: I agree with your statement. Many international animators have submitted their films to Cartoons Underground over digital channels, and we have promoted their work over our social media platforms. In addition, we’ve devised crazier schemes that make full use of the Internet. For instance, we’re exploring the possibility of a partnership with YouTube, and to host an online festival.
MICHAEL: Yes, and no. Although the Internet allows us to promote our content to a larger audience, this generates a lot more content for our audience to sift through. Thus, it is important for our content to be curated.
We can get audiences to decide what shows should be made – this is facilitated through crowd-funding. From animated series to books, more creative projects are developed through crowd-funding over the last couple of years. Although Singapore hasn’t latched on to crowd-funding yet, there is a lot of money in our country. Hopefully, we can channel these funds into crowd-funding campaigns, and to develop more Singaporean projects.
MARK: There are animators who create interesting IP, and have promoted their content over YouTube and other platforms. However, I personally feel that you’ve lost your IP once you promote it online. It’s difficult for you to claim ownership over your IP, as your ideas are now available (hence, claimed) by your audience.
However, I don’t think it’s that bad to lose ownership of one’s IP through free online video sharing platforms like YouTube. It is a different publicity strategy that animators can choose to get their work out into the market and get noticed.
DAVID: Currently, I’ve observed that TV and Cable business seems to be declining , and it will continue to regress over the next few years. Over the Top players (OTT) like Netflix and Hulu are slowly taking over because more people are using handheld devices, and are watching less TV.
If you aren’t aware of that, you’ll lose many opportunities. In the past, investors could simply buy a show in bulk at a low price. If they do not show it at prime time slot, or put in effort to promote your series, the series’s ratings will be affected. Everything is under their control. Now, with OTT, producers are able to carry out their own campaigns to promote their shows. With social media platforms, there is a lot you can do to build your own fanbase.
As for crowd-funding, I agree with Michael. Crowd-funding is a viable source of funding. However, I’d encourage you to focus on an international market instead of a local one. Don’t underestimate the power of crowd-funding campaign initiators, such as Kickstarter, as they can be a significant channel for your project’s funds.
There’s a gap between Commercial Animation and Independent Animation. How can we combine the commercial possibilities of Commercial Animation with the emotional content of Independent Animation?
MICHAEL: You should primarily focus on the story, or your content. When you concentrate on the content, you’ll eventually find an audience for the work that you create. Although you’ll have a different sort of challenges, you’ll find a way to fund your animation.
I believe that Independent Animators can learn about marketing – they can learn how to promote their films on a commercial scale. As for big studios, I would encourage them to look at the young, hungry talent that they can employ. They should keep their foundation simple, and focus on their stories. (Big studios can afford to focus on their stories – if their ideas are not good enough, they have the financial and technical capability to throw the entire idea out and start again.)
MARK: The line between commercial and independent animation is blurring over the Internet. The quality of independent animation, which is improving, contradicts public expectation. People expect independent films to be lackluster, but in reality, some pieces of independent animation are commercially competitive (in terms of quality).
DAVID: My focus is to help artists fine tune their concepts. So that it is more commercially viable. Recently, in Miami’s Kidscreen festival (2015), I met one of the story artists working in one of LA’s major studios. I was honored to hear him pitch a concept that he is currently developing. He has a great story. I gave him some tips to improve his concepts that is merchandise friendly. With this, I hope it helps to attract the investors.
Some of the Indonesian artists I’ve spoken to have also developed fabulous animated films – the only problem with some of these films is that they lack commercial elements. As a result, no investors were interested in their films’ concepts. Once you have completed your film, please understand that you’re at the mercy of investors and cinema distributors. You have to convince them to show your movies/shows, and they must also show your media in good time slots. If they don’t, it will hurt your chances at the box office.
Will 2D animation and/or stop-motion animation be revived?
DAVID: From Singapore’s perspective, the success of an animated film does not depend on its medium. It depends on the film’s story and its merchandising opportunity. But due to the talent pool available, as well as cost and productivity reasons, 3D animation is preferred in Singapore.
MARK: 2D and Stop-motion never really did fade away, like many feared in the late 1990s to early 2000s. There isn’t a need for filmmakers to want to “avenge” the traditional technique’s former glory. Filmmakers who use traditional techniques have learned to adapt. And even if they don’t, traditional animation has it’s own charm which i think the lay audiences still appreciate.
MICHAEL: It’s all about technique. You have to balance your time and money with what you’ve got to stylistically create.
The audience is attracted to the characters, and to the story. They may concentrate on a film’s visuals and sound, but they will ultimately forget all that, and will focus on the human aspects of the film. We are all emotional beings with stories to tell. That’s what translates into the final version of a film.
David Kwok is the founder of Tiny Island Productions, an animation company that is currently based in Singapore. Tiny Island Productions specializes in service work for international companies – it was the primary production house for Cartoon Network’s Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens. Dream Defenders, Tiny Island’s award-winning animated series, has been sold to over 60 countries worldwide, and is distributed by Dreamworks . David is also the founder of CGProtege Animation School Singapore, which focuses on industry training. CGProtege works closely with industry players – the government subsidizes 70 to 90% of its courses. CGProtege works closely with the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) and Media Development Authority (MDA), as well as other agencies in the animation industry.
Michael Lim has worked in Film and TV production for more than 10 years. His projects include Oscar-nominated best picture Moulin Rouge! (uncredited) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (credited). His previous clients include Unicef, Sony, National Arts Council of Singapore, Singapore International Foundation and McDonalds. Michael has directed international superstar Jackie Chan for a global Unicef PSA on Avian Flu. Co-founded the first Australian chapter of ACM Siggraph in Sydney. He is the founder of the Singapore Visual Effects and Animation group on Linkedin and Facebook, which has nearly 2000 members, and works closely with the Festival Directors of Cartoons Underground.
Vicky Chen is the Co-Founder and Festival Director of Cartoons Underground. She founded Cartoons Underground in 2012 with the vision to promote independent animation shorts by award-winning local and international animators. Since its inception, Cartoons Underground has grown and transformed beyond a festival and into a platform for young animators to feature their work and connect with industry experts.
Mark Wee is the director of The Animals, an animated film which has garnered both local and international accolade. He is studying for his Master’s at Nanyang Technological University, and will graduate in 2016.
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