From Pixar’s Toy Story to its recent blockbuster Brave, animated stories have a ready-made audience in Taiwan. Yet few would suspect that the Emeryville-based Pixar Animation is also rich in Taiwanese talent. In fact, Brave, the recent box office hit, had five people from Taiwan working in its production team.
Pixar creativity with roots in Taiwan
Benjamin Su and Bruce Kuei, the animators responsible for drawing the protagonists of Princess Merida and King Fergus in Brave, told Taiwan Insights that “the job of the animator is like an actor in the movie. After discussions with the director about how to present the character, it is necessary for the animator to personally simulate the action of the character.” In order to simulate the walking posture of King Fergus with a wooden prosthetic limb, Kuei physically went through the motions of falling several times.
After graduating from Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School in Taipei, Frank Tai came to study in the US before working as the set’s technical director on Brave. In order to present the heavily misty Scottish countryside, he painstaking researched the different natural landscapes in Scotland. Thus, the forest scenes in the animation were presented so vividly that the audience felt like they were in the highlands of ancient Scotland.
Aaron Lo also worked on filling in the background by computer generating the crowds in his role as the technical director of the simulation division. Fond of painting since childhood, Lo was nevertheless discouraged by his parents from becoming an artist. Instead, he studied in the Information Engineering Department at National Chiao Tung University (Taiwan). Upon graduation, he did not follow his classmates into jobs at Hsinchu Science Park (Taiwan’s Silicon Valley). Instead, he went on to study computer graphics at Carnegie Melon University, and then joined Pixar. While at Pixar, he also worked on the production of the Academy Award-winning Toy Story 3.
Working at the opposite end of the animation spectrum is Hsu Wen-chin, who was the lighting technical director for Brave. Her job was to put the final touches of light and shadow effects into the animated movie. Hsu graduated from Tunghai University (Taiwan) majoring in social work. She then interned at children’s cancer wards in Taipei. While there, she observed how much the children responded to such films as Toy Story and realized she too wanted to have a hand in creating animation of that caliber. With this in mind, she began studying computer graphics and then relocated to the United States so she could continue her studies. After honing her skills at different animation companies, she accumulated a resume worthy enough to enter the elite ranks at Pixar.
All these animators made their mark in the highly competitive field of animation before joining Pixar. Even though they now work for the world’s leading animation company, they are still concerned with the animation environment in Taiwan, and hope to contribute to the promotion and development of the island’s animation industry.
The rise of Taiwan’s animation industry
The development of Taiwan’s animation industry parallels the overall industrial development on the island, starting from being an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for foreign companies.
Taiwan’s animation industry can be traced back to 1954 with a 10-minute black and white animation piece called Wu Song Fights the Tiger. Yet, due to insufficient capital and a lack of talent, Taiwan only produced a few short animated films at this time. During this period, Japanese TV animation boomed, and it gradually moved some part of its production to Taiwan, where labor was cheaper. This began the animation OEM industry in Taiwan.
In 1978, Wang Film Productions Co. Ltd. – Cuckoos NEST Studios was founded to mainly undertake OEM orders from American animation companies. In the late 1980s, Taiwan became the largest cartoon production exporter in the world. During that time, roughly 70 percent of American TV cartoons were produced by Wang Film.
Taiwan’s OEM experience with Japanese and American animation films would deeply impact the development trend of the island’s animation industry over the next 30 years.
Taiwan’s animation OEM production not only has occupied an important position in the world, they have been constantly upgrading their technology and capabilities. This can be seen from the earlier 2D OEM animation-based Wang Film Productions established in 1978 to the 3D animation-based CGCG Inc. Established in 1988, CGCG is now one of the largest 3D animation studios in the world. CGCG played a very important OEM role in the production of George Lucas’s first Star Wars series of 3D animated movies screened in 2008. . CGCG completed the entire high definition animation video of the film within 10 months, when the usual pace to produce a 3D animated film was at least three years.
Still, animation makers in Taiwan lacked the experience to plan and market at the pre-production period, so they were simply ghost animators instead of brand builders who directed and produced films.
Although there have been some excellent Taiwanese-made animated films that have been successful since 2000, they were all collaborative efforts with the US, Japan or China. These partnerships included the creative planning, capital funding and joint marketing.
Success despite restrictive parents, teachers
Chen Chieh-ying, a professor at Feng Chia University, said the OEM experience of Taiwan’s animation industry has limited Taiwan’s international marketing and distribution experience. He noted that the animation departments in Taiwan’s colleges tend to be more focused on hardware investment and technology training, instead of developing creative thought and cultivating marketing talent.
Much like Lo, Su started his animation career without parental support. While selecting his college in Canada, his father (a banker) wanted him to go to business school. Instead, Su secretly picked Sheridan College, which is famous for its animation department. After a year of family opposition, Su’s parents finally relented.
Since 2005, Hsu has returned to Taiwan to teach and lecture every year, sharing her experience and encouraging other students to hold on to their animation dreams. Now she finds there are more and more animation departments in Taiwan’s colleges and students are really enthusiastic. She said, “I think Taiwanese parents and the industry are more supportive now, and students can pursue their dreams without hesitation and worry.”
Familiar with the animation industry in Taiwan, Hsu noticed an increase in teachers at Taiwan’s animation departments, but not necessarily a translation towards improved quality. She attributes this to teachers who study animation in US schools without gaining much practical experience in the field. Hsu also feels that Taiwanese animation firms pay workers low wages, and expect them to do everything.
Pixar as industry model
One of the things that Tai admires about Pixar is its professionalism and its attention to detail. He acknowledges that the capital and financial resources of most of Taiwan’s animation companies cannot match the fine tuning at Pixar. He stresses that Taiwanese animation firms are intoxicated with 3D, which requires costly high-tech support and highly trained personnel. Taiwan’s animation market just cannot afford to shoot a high-quality 3D animation. In fact, the Taiwanese animation industry should make more 2D or take advantage of the available stop motion techniques. They can shoot low cost TV specials, but struggle with full-length feature films.
Su used India’s strategic planning as an example of another way to grow Taiwan’s animation industry. A few years ago, India started to recruit animators from Hollywood with creative, production and marketing experience. Su believes that the Taiwan government should work with foreign animation companies to set up a good animation school so that they can make full use of Taiwanese talent by outsourcing, while this animation talent can learn and adopt international standards. “These animators who have now had the work experience are brave enough to start their own companies and develop their original ideas.”
Jimmy Chen, who works in the animation industry in Taiwan, agrees with his Taiwanese counterparts at Pixar. He believes that the multimedia departments in Taiwan’s colleges do not divide the animation field into more specific sub-divisions, and do not know what kind of talent the industry needs. Therefore, most of the graduates do not meet the industry’s expectations, resulting in graduates having a difficult time finding a job after graduation and businesses not filling openings.
Better English, government incentives needed
Chen also points out that the English speaking environment in Taiwan is not as good as in India and Singapore. Taiwan’s animation department requires students to maintain an English proficiency threshold at graduation in order to understand English information in the future.
Meanwhile, Chen lauded the creation of the Digital Content Institute by the Industrial Development Bureau of the Economics Ministry, whose goal is to train animators. But he believes that there are still many things the Taiwan government should do to help the animation industry’s development, such as incentive programs for promoting investment in animation, creating a market demand (like in China), or to increase the foreign presence to set up production companies (as in Singapore). A good model to follow is that of the New Zealand Government, which extended assistance to the filming and production of the sequel of Lord of the Rings, successfully building a film industry chain in New Zealand.
New hope for Taiwan’s animation industry
Some of Su and Chen’s dream seems to have already been partially realized in Taiwan.
Following the steps of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., the largest incubation center in Asia, George Lucas now owns a 43 percent stake in CGCG Inc. Also, Rhythm & Hues Studios, a special visual effects company in Hollywood, is expected to set up a visual effects center at Kaohsiung’s Pier 2 in March 2013.
The Liberty Times reported that R & H, one of the world’s top five film visual effects companies, which had a hand in producing The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hulk, X-Men: First Class and other Hollywood movies, will invest NT$6 billion (US$200 million) to set up a Hollywood special visual effects center in Taiwan. The company has reached a joint venture with Chunghua Telecom and Quanta Computer to set up a computational center of visual effects aiming to enter the Hollywood market. R & H will recruit 600 animation employees within three years, and will employ visual effects experts to train Taiwanese animators. The company will also subcontract special effects work to local special effects companies in Taiwan, and take orders from Hollywood movie firms. Kaohsiung’s Pier 2 Art District is starting to make a name for itself as Taiwan’s 3D animation research and development center.
The OEM opportunities for Taiwan’s animation industry have gradually been lost to China, Korea, the Philippines, India and other countries since the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Taiwan’s animation firms started to invest in China’s coastal cities Suzhou, Wuxi and other places where you can easily see the influences of Taiwan’s animation industry. Today Taiwan’s animation industry is standing at a crossroads of OEM or cultivating a brand name. It is a serious issue for the government and businesses alike to rethink how to use international cooperation to make a breakthrough in OEM cultural limitations, and to pursue much-needed transformation and development.