The father of Thai animation, Payut Ngaokrachang, tells John A. Lent how he got his start through a set of fortuitous circumstances.
Thai animation owes part of its genesis to a "bug" that laid Payut Ngaokrachang low in 1955.
The boredom that set in while Payut was sick spurred him to animate a cartoon he had been drawing for the newspaper, Lakmuang. A gag cartoon, it was based on a character who roamed Bangkok, taking in the sights. In the particular gag Payut chose to animate in the film called Het Mahatsajal, a policeman directs traffic, swaying to the tune of music in the manner of Thai classical dancers. A woman begins to cross the street when the zipper (a newly introduced fashion accoutrement in Thailand) on her dress splits, diverting the policeman's attention with the result that cars pile up all around him.
A series of fortuitous circumstances guided Payut's career because of this animated skit. A news item stating that Payut did "Hollywood-like" animation caught the attention of the US embassy, which asked to see the "ten to twelve minute short." After that, the embassy gave him $400, his name appeared in the press again (this time with the American attaché), and before the year was out, the United States Information Service hired him. He remained with the USIS for "32 years and 10 months and 18 days," painting and drawing, Payut said.
For training, the agency gave Payut a choice of spending 6 to 8 months with Disney Studios or going to Japan. He chose Japan, where he just "looked around, as animation did not exist there at the time." Payut only made one animated film for the USIS, a 20-minute recounting of the story of "Hanunan," the white monkey in the classic Ramayana. The propaganda element was present in the form of the red monkey, which represented communism. He also created a short cartoon for SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), based on the theme that unity was necessary to combat communism.
In 1976, separate from his job, Payut began to animate the story of one character, "Sud Sakorn," from a famous Thai literary work, Pra Apai Manee, written by internationally-renowned author and poet, Sudthornpu. The tale was a feast of incongruous adventures: Sud Sakorn, the son of a mermaid and a musician, fights on different occasions, an elephant, shark, and dragon horse, and encounters in his meanderings a king, a hermit, a yogi, a magic wand, and ghosts.
Payut's feature, called Sud Sakorn, was 82 minutes long and took two years to finish. It was the first Thai-produced, full-length animated film. Production was plagued with shortages of capital, personnel, and equipment. For the first 6 months, the crew was made up of 75 daytime and 25 nighttime workers, almost all students. By the second year, only 9 remained as the "others could not work without money," Payut explained. He did most of his own work at night since during the day, he was fully employed at the USIS.
Payut is perhaps proudest of how he fashioned the equipment to make Sud Sakorn. According to him, "I made a lot of my equipment from pieces I got from junk of World War II military surplus. I'd find a screw here, a crank there, etc. I used a combat camera and adapted it. I pulled together pieces of wood, aluminum, whatever I could find." He delights in telling about his first meeting with James Wang, president of Wang Productions, the huge offshore animation house in Taiwan.
After Wang had finished his studies at Indiana University, he wanted to come see my studio. That was about 1980. He asked me what system I used--Japanese or American? I said, `I don't understand.' He persisted and I said again, `I don't understand.' Then I told him I used the Payut system, the one I had devised. Wang always admired me for this.
The intense and detailed work on this film seriously impaired Payut's eyesight in that he became "cataract sick." As he put it, "I did all the key drawings myself, even the layout and design. The students helped with inbetweens. I was almost blind from doing that film and now I wear contacts. My right eye is long, my left is short, crooked because of all that detailed work."
In recent years, a considerable amount of Payut's time is spent in the classroom. Working on the premise that unskilled personnel is the biggest problem of animation, Payut, in a given week, is likely to have trained animators at Thai Wang and drawing and illustration students at Rajamonkala Institute, with an occasional seminar (on how to incorporate Thai literature into cartoons, the week I met him) thrown in.
Three days a week he trains animators for James Wang, for whom he also serves as advisor. Payut said he turned down two proposals to serve in that capacity and accepted the third when Wang promised him space in which to work. Already by 1993, Wang had set up 14 projects in Bangkok, 2 of which Payut headed, and had provided 3 training sessions of 14, 7, and 14 students each. He had also brought in much equipment, including 10 cameras, 2 of which were for computer animation. The cartoons resulting from this influx of resources are for foreign clients, mainly those from the United States.
But, it was Japanese, not American, animation which Payut sees as a threat, claiming that Thai cartoonists slavishly imitate the Japanese style. He also pointed out that Thai children favor Japanese over American animation, adding:
The children don't pay attention to Disney; they follow Japanese cartooning even though it is not smooth, in fact, it is very rough. They watch Japanese animation every day and they are used to it--the rapid action. Disney seems too slow for them. Even my granddaughter is this way. Disney spends lots of money to be smooth, but children prefer rougher Japanese animation. Of course, it is more violent too.
Payut made it clear he was not Thailand's first animator, that honor belonging to a blockmaker, Saney Klykuan, who preceded him by a decade. In about 1945, the Thai government, campaigning to get ordinary citizens to wear hats and farmers to wear boots, commissioned Saney to do a one-minute film on the subject. Upon Saney's death a year later, Payut decided he wanted to be an animator, but post-World War II was not an auspicious time for such a career with the shortage of supplies such as celluloid.
At age 17, Payut took his first job, painting backgrounds for play sets as he traveled up country with theater groups. "Sometimes, I'd be put into action to sing a funny song," he recalled. About the same time, 1946-47, he enrolled in classes to become an art teacher, followed by a stint as a commissioner of block printing, where he made etchings, and a longer stay in a company where he did advertising and other work. It was while he was at that company that he contracted the "bug" that changed his life and the destiny of Thai animation.
John A. Lent is Professor of Communication atTemple University, in Philadelphia. He is also the editor of Asian Cinema, the journal of the Asian Cinema Studies Society, which he also chairs, and managing editor of Witty World International Cartoon Magazine.