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Sinomation: Shanghai Animation Studio -- Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Julie Reinganum and Philip Jhin, cofounders of Prrfect Animation, experienced China hands with over 15 years of creating business on the ground in China, nevertheless saw the potential for producing animation in Shanghai...

The Straw Man Shangai Animation Studio, 198

On a visit to Shanghai, China's enduring leader Deng Xiaoping offered the concept that, it doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, the important thing is that it can catch mice. No, Deng was not making a reference to Inspector Black Cat, one of the most popular cartoon characters on Chinese television. Deng's cat was meant to symbolize the birth of a new China, a China that would once again allow trade and investment, and a limited flow of ideas from the capitalist West.

Today, Shanghai is undergoing a rebirth. Back in the early1920s, the salons, galleries and clubs of Berlin, New York and Paris found their parallels in Shanghai. The city was cosmopolitan, sophisticated -- a gathering place for artists, intellectuals and business tycoons. And with its movie studios, Shanghai was also considered the Hollywood of China.

In recent years, European animation studios were the first to use the resources of the local Chinese animation industry, with the Americans lagging somewhat behind. In dealing with Western companies, though, apprehension soon turned to aversion. An economy and culture that had focused inward created obstacles for China's producers to meet the realities of dealing with overseas markets. Chairman Mao meant more than Mickey Mouse; work was allocated, not chosen.

Happy numbers Shangai Animation Studio, 1984

For over 30 years, Chinese production was driven by a central authority and focused on producing material primarily for the domestic market. Now, in dealing with foreign producers, they were faced with production schedules based mainly on economic demands. Studios in China failed to meet deadlines and the animation did not meet Western standards.

Julie Reinganum and Philip Jhin, cofounders of Prrfect Animation, experienced China hands with over 15 years of creating business on the ground in China, nevertheless saw the potential for producing animation in Shanghai.

The question remained as to how best to utilize the talent and economic advantages offered by doing animation in China, given the problems of differing artistic styles, unreliable studios and an unpredictable political environment.

Reinganum and Jhin's answer: Communication. In 1992, San Francisco-based Prrtfect Animation, entered into a cooperative relationship with Shanghai Animation Studio, China's oldest animation studio. (It dates back to 1949, before Mao Tse-tung had taken control of China.) For its part, Prrfect provided the management and artistic oversight of a Western staff on the ground in Shanghai, complemented by its headquarters staff in San Francisco. By blending Western management and artistic direction with an existing Chinese studio, Prrfect was gradually able to turn out animation that met the demands of Western audiences and producers, while costs remained lower than in other parts of Asia.

The Fox and the Bea Shangai Animation Studio, 1983

Given the studio's long history, Prrfect's approach differed from other turnkey strategies involving establishing a new facility and then going after talent. The studio itself is located on a three building lot near the center of Shanghai. The buildings' architecture tells the studio's history: The main building is a two story art deco structure more suited for South Beach than Shanghai; two five story buildings, rectangular boxes using practical Communist cinder block construction; and a new building, featuring mortar, bricks and glass which is still under construction, echoing the construction boom possessing Shanghai. (A favorite rumor is that 25% of the worlds construction cranes are located in Shanghai.)

The talent was also already there. The Studio's animators were trained in Shanghai's art schools, with the directors and key animators having graduated from the Shanghai School of Fine Arts.

The Little Pig Shangai Animation Studio, 1981

A Variety of Styles and Techniques

The Shanghai Animation Studio, over the years, has turned out a considerable amount of original animation, using a variety of styles and techniques ranging from cutout to traditional cel animation. Content included Chinese folk tales, moral stories and action adventure stories. While many of the titles have a Western feel, like Inspector Black Cat, there are also titles that are particularly Chinese-what can be called Sino-mation.

Grounded in traditional Chinese painting, where empty space is used to depict substance and the striking brush strokes to depict motion, Sino-mation also uses this minimalist approach. Another form of Sinomation is paper cutout animation. As the name indicates animation is achieved by using figures-some with movable joints-cut out of paper. Overall Sino-mation content is low on violence and is focused on didactic themes.

The Studio which was only producing for local broadcast is now busy working on projects ranging from multi-episode TV series to animation for CD-ROMs and the Internet for clients around the world.

The cat must catch mice; the studio produces high quality animation. The outside world, like Prrfect Animation, has much to offer China in ways of efficiency, dependability and quality control. But China, like Shanghai Animation, also has much to offer the outside world in terms of new styles, ideas and talent. Then again maybe Deng was talking about Inspector Black Cat.

Kenneth Hutman is Vice President of Prrfect Animation in San Francisco for the past 10 years; he has had a wide range of international experience that blended both cultural and business activities.

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