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Tom Sito Goes to the Beijing Film Academy

Tom Sito recounts his thoughts on visiting the Beijing Film Academy, giving a Western view of the education process in the East.

Located in the Silicon Valley of Beijing, the Film Academy is constructing a newer, larger building that will bring all their facilities under one roof. All images courtesy of Tom Sito.

Located in the Silicon Valley of Beijing, the Film Academy is constructing a newer, larger building that will bring all their facilities under one roof. All images courtesy of Tom Sito.

Recently, my wife, Pat, and I were invited to Japan to lecture to the Japan Digital Animation Festival held in Nagoya. While planning this trip, I was contacted by the Beijing Film Academy. They said that since I would be on that side of the Earth anyway, perhaps I would want to come out to China to lecture their students? Mao Tse-Tung had said a person who has not seen the Great Wall has had an incomplete life, so I accepted. After the JDAF/Nagoya 2005 ended we winged our way to Beijing.

Beijing is a big sprawling metropolis reflecting a society in rapid transition. Shanghai and Hong Kong have up to now been considered the Chinese cities more amenable to modern convenience. But Beijing is coming on fast as it prepares to play host to the world for the Olympic Games in 2008.The capitol is dotted with new construction everywhere.

The east is red, but you wouldnt know it for all the new corporate offices for Microsoft, HP and Haagan Daaz that rise up all around the city. There is now a Starbucks coffee shop within the walls of the Forbidden City. The old Mao caps and blue padded uniform coats are gone, replaced with designer fashions and MP3 players dangling from lanyards. The number of autos purchased locally has gone up 400% in the past two years. Streets that once teemed with bicycles now are jammed with cars all honking and screeching furiously. Some taxi drivers hang a red-tasseled medal of Mao Tse-Tung from their rearview mirrors as a charm to ward off accidents.

A highlight of the Sitos visit was the lectures they gave to the student body and faculty. Tom (above left, at the microphone) delved into storytelling while Pat discussed digital production and the changing role of women in animation.

A highlight of the Sitos visit was the lectures they gave to the student body and faculty. Tom (above left, at the microphone) delved into storytelling while Pat discussed digital production and the changing role of women in animation.

The Beijing Film Academy is in the Haidian District northwest of the Forbidden City. It is called the Silicon Valley of China. Pat and I were warmly greeted by the students and faculty. My translator, Jenny Yue Sun, was a graduate student of mine from USC. Fight on! She did a great job translating all my blather into fine Mandarin. She also schooled us in the art of haggling in Chinese markets. Jenny is now on the faculty of the BFA. The program director is Professor Sun Li Jun, a great filmmaker in his own right. I met the director of the 3D courses and the 2D courses. We had a number of fascinating discussions about animation over banquet lunches of pork bone soup, rutabaga root and potsticker dumplings.

The Beijing Film Academy is housed in a complex of small buildings and sheds. There is housing on campus for students and faculty and restaurant and theater facilities. The older sheds housed individual projects, stop-motion studio and carpentry shops for making puppets and maquettes. Studio Lab director and filmmaker Huang Yong toured us around the set of a stop-motion childrens program starring a family of chickens. A newer, larger BFA building is already being built next door that will bring all their facilities under one roof. It is scheduled to be dedicated next year.

The Beijing Film Academy has about 5,000 students and the animation group numbers about 250. I saw some foreign faculty and students from Scandinavia, Spain and Korea. The Academy has about 150 Maya workstations as well as facilities for stop-motion and 2D. I saw many well-made student films, some cartoony, some clearly inspired by Hollywood animation, some inspired by Japanese anime and manga. But many other films reflected uniquely Chinese imagery. One film of a bird and a frog near a small pond evoked the high period of Chinese brush painting. Another short film promoting the school had some fun with the classic Soviet realist art of the Chinese cultural revolution of the 1960s. Smiling workers and peasants, glowing with health and prosperity, shouldered an obvious animation pegbar or flipping bond paper. At the end the young hero marches home proudly touting, not a kalashnikov rifle, but an Oscar.

BFA program director Professor Sun Li Jun (second from right) was among the faculty to welcome the Sitos.

BFA program director Professor Sun Li Jun (second from right) was among the faculty to welcome the Sitos.

We left the school and toured a commercial animation studio attached to the CCTV television stations. They were making programming for Chinese daytime TV. CCTV is the Chinese state television agency. At one time it was one channel, but today CCTV is 16 channels and it has just launched a new one just for childrens programming.

Later we got to visit the Great Wall, the tombs of the Ming emperors and the Forbidden City. The meals were wonderful. We had Peking duck at Quanjudes, a restaurant where that dish has been served since 1864. We checked out the Well Street shopping area, where marketers had been selling goods since the time of Kubilai Khan. Then in the interest of being culturally well rounded, we visited the McDonalds near Tianamen Square.

Back at the Beijing Film Academy we lectured in the morning to graduate students and in the afternoon to undergrads and faculty. We were also interviewed for local television. In my talk I discussed the use of storytelling through movement, rather than relying solely upon design and dialog. Pat talked about production issues in digital film and the changing roles of women in animation. Chinese animators told me they loved my work in Beauty and the Beast and Roger Rabbit, but I must warn my old colleagues back in Burbank that they had some interesting critiques of Mulan!

At one point I showed a clip from Walt Disneys Dumbo. It was from the scene where Dumbo visits his mother in jail and after a tender reunion they must part. It demonstrated the power of such a classic film that even after all these years and in such a different environment it could still inspire strong emotions. It is hard to believe it was all once blank paper. I grew misty eyed when I thought how I would no longer be able to tell my old friend Joe Grant how his film had wowed them. Disney artist Grant, who had co-written much of Dumbo, had died at age 96, shortly before I left for China.

Tom Sito was presented with an honorary faculty certificate by Professor Sun Li Jun on the last day of his visit.

Tom Sito was presented with an honorary faculty certificate by Professor Sun Li Jun on the last day of his visit.

After my main talk we had a question-and-answer period. We discussed how a mainstream commercial film can have appeal to other countries yet stay true to its national origins the way Triplets of Belleville is very French and Spirited Away is uniquely Japanese. My impression of the young Chinese animators is that they are very proud of their countrys heritage and are excited about the potential for the future. Many are itching to show the world their China through the universal medium of animation. I left feeling that perhaps I had met a future Hayao Miyazaki or Brad Bird, but this time a Chinese one, at the BFA.

On our last day Professor Sun Li Jun presented me with a certificate honoring me as an honorary faculty from the Academy. He also gave me a bottle of Himalayan Brandy. I gave them some goodies from the new DreamWorks film Madagascar and a Local 839 Hollywood Animation Guild pin. Workers of the World Unite!

It was a wonderfully unique experience. Xie-xie or many thanks to Professor Sun Li Jun, the faculty, students and staff of the Beijing Film Academy for making Pat and I feel so welcome. We wish them all good fortune in their future endeavors. I look forward to seeing exciting new films from China in the future. Wo ai Beijing!

Tom Sito, animation director and co-owner of Gang of Seven Animation, is completing his first book Drawing the Line: the Untold Story of Animation Labor.

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