Singapore Animation Fiesta '98

Singapore's Animation Fiesta is making a unique place for itself after just two events. Mark Langer describes this exciting newcomer.

Jubilee Hall. Photo by Mark Langer.

I settled back into my seat on the flight to Singapore, happily anticipating the second Animation Fiesta. The previous Fiesta was the first international animation festival to be held in South East Asia. Singapore is a movie town, and the event had been a success, with enthusiastic audiences. But with the dramatic downturn in Asian economies, would this year match up to the high expectations created by the last festival?

The Singapore economy might be languishing, but you'd never know it from attending Fiesta `98. Most shows were completely sold out, with the restored turn-of-the-century Jubilee Hall venue in the historic Raffles Hotel filled to the rafters with locals and animation professionals from around the world. As many as five programs a day were presented at this three-day event, although only a few of the highlights will be discussed here.

Screenings and Lectures

The Animation Fiesta is distinguished from most animation festivals in its policy of accompanying almost all screenings with lectures, giving programs more substance and context than the norm. The festival began on Friday, June 19 with a program of Warner Bros. animation presented by Kathleen Helppie-Shipley, senior vice president of Warner Bros. Classic Animation. Helppie-Shipley talked about the impact of television, video, CD-Rom, cable, theme parks, etc. on Warner Bros. animation since the films were first broadcast on television, accompanied by examples of Warner animation from early theatrical cartoons to recent commercials and other productions. Helppie-Shipley ended her presentation with samples of other animation divisions' work, such as the Feature Animation and the Television Animation divisions.

Kampung Boy was shown. Kampung Boy is based on the work of Dato' Mohd Nor Khalid, who is better known as Lat. For over 30 years, Lat's comic books and cartoons have been wildly popular in Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere in South East Asia. I began to catch on to the fact that this might not be a completely Malaysian project when I noticed producer Frank Saperstein and animator John R. Dilworth's names in the end credits. Kampung Boy is a co-production using talent from several countries, including the United States, which has had some effect on the series. One audience member wondered why the Malay family depicted in Kampung Boy seemed so much like The Simpsons. According to Saperstein, distribution in the U.S. market is encountering difficulty for reasons of culture as objections have been made to the use of traditional Malay costume and locales. This is unfortunate, as Kampung Boy easily rivals anything shown on American television and would be a welcome alternative to most TV fare.

Cultural problems were the subject of comments made in a later session on Asian animation by Ram Mohan, the "father of Indian animation." Mohan's career goes back to the late 1950s with the Cartoon Film Unit, Government of India Film Division, where he received training from Disney animator Clair H. Weeks. Mohan's major interest in animation is as a tool for social development. His films done for international agencies, often in co-production with other countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines, deal with such topics as the value and dignity of women. Mohan was also co-director (with Roichi Sasaki) of the Indo-Japanese feature film Ramayana - The Legend Of Rams. In his talk, Mohan acknowledged that animation is one of the most competitive industries in the world, but cautioned Asian filmmakers about forsaking their cultural roots in the rush to international markets. He called for the establishment of indigenous animation industries taking advantage of "rich cultural traditions with many stories to tell" and referred to his Ramayana as an example of how Asian countries can co-operate with one another in this respect. Mohan's talk was followed by samples of animation from Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea, showing the diversity of production done in the region.

Ram Mohan. Photo by Mark Langer.

Day Two Dawns

The next day began with director Kunihiko Ikuhara presenting a program of his work on Sailor Moon and La Fillette Revolutionnaire, Utena. Ikuhara gave an overview of Japanese animation history, starting with the beginning of animated television series and the shift from imitating what he called the "Disney style" to the manga style of expression. According to Ikuhara, manga has created a unique animation culture in Japan, with its own expressive traditions. This was demonstrated during a Japanese/American co-production about ten years ago, where there was a difference over a shot lasting about five seconds. The Japanese staff wanted the only movement to be the character's mouth, while the Americans wanted physical gestures. Ikuhara claims that American animation is always intent on generating greater audience appeal and thus, creates characters in constant motion, accenting the fantastic and differentiating animation from live-action cinema. The Japanese are influenced by manga, where a character is shown in a still image while the reader reads the dialogue. Ikuhara then went on to discuss his work on Sailor Moon and Utena, which differs from traditional "girl series" in that fighting, rather than romance, is the central premise. Ikuhara also outlined the importance of merchandising to Japanese animated series, where story lines are devised to introduce new products, such as the best-selling Sailor Moon pendants, modeled after those in the series used by the characters to transform themselves. The high demand for such series has created a shortage of properly trained workers in some job skill areas, such as the use of digital technology, as over sixty locally produced animated series are screened in Japan each week.

Left to right: Frank Saperstein, Kathleen Helppie-Shipley and Karen Goulekas at the Singapore Animation Fiesta. Photo by Mark Langer.

Next, I introduced a program of recent animation from Canada, ranging from films and ads from Dynomight Cartoons and Cuppa Coffee Animation, to high-end computer generated productions from Mainframe Entertainment, Nelvana and Alias/Wavefront. This was followed by a discussion of local Singapore animation, and then a presentation by Karen Goulekas, former Digital Domain employee who most recently supervised Visual Effects for Godzilla. Goulekas, tanned and rested from a month-long vacation in Thailand after finishing Godzilla, spoke of the difficulties resulting from coordinating the efforts of different production teams (animation, CG and effects, lighting and rendering, compositing) and using incompatible software programs to create the effects on the film. The highlight of her presentation was a detailed account of the Brooklyn Bridge sequence, which Goulekas characterized as "the sequence where we pushed the envelope." The goal of the special effects animator, said Goulekas, "is to seamlessly mix models, live-action and CG." What lies in the future of computer animation? Said Goulekas, somewhat tongue in cheek, "Photo-real humans--you'll scare the shit out of all the actors!"

The author, Mark Langer, on the left, with Jean-Michel Blottiere. Photo courtesy of Mark Langer.

Our Final Day

The final day of the festival began with a combined program by Jayne Pilling, who discussed European avant-garde in terms of how the films differ from mainstream animation, and Jean-Michel Blottiere, the director of Imagina, who presented the most recent winners from this European computer graphics and animation festival and spoke about current developments in computer animation internationally. Ricky Orellana, of the Mowelfund Film Institute, presented a fascinating look at Philippine animation, revealing an active independent scene in a country better known as an inexpensive labour outsource for American television production. The final presentation was by David Flack, vice president of Creative Services of MTV Asia, who showed highlights of international production from MTV's local Singapore service.

These presentations were punctuated with other screenings throughout the Fiesta. The most notable was a hysterically funny program done for the U.K.'s Channel 4 called Gogs, depicting the imbecilic antics of a Stone Age family in stop-motion clay. As at the last Fiesta, extraordinary hospitality was shown by the organizing staff (including Wahidah Jalil, Ben Cowell and Ernest Paul) to guests, with frequent breaks for tea at the Empire Room, receptions, and an intimate atmosphere that encouraged schmoozing. This, combined with the wonderful Singapore audiences who stayed to talk with guests after each screening, has made the Fiesta a favorite among festivals, and well worth the effort to attend. Mark Langer teaches film at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and a programmer of animation retrospectives.

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