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The Footprint of Hong Kong Animation 

Animation production in Hong Kong has been around roughly for sixty years. It is not until recently that it has been recognized and appreciated as a respected industry.

By Keeto Lam

Editor’s Note: Film critic and historian Keeto Lam did a presentation at the 60 Years of Hong Kong Animation event and was kind enough to provide AWN with a great synopsis of the history of animation in Hong Kong.

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Animation production in Hong Kong has been around roughly for sixty years. It is not until recently that it has been recognized and appreciated as a respected industry.

As early as in the 20’s, when movie making was just emerging, the four Wan brothers of Shanghai had already been considering making an animation film. In the 40’s, Wan lai-min and his twin Wan gu-chen came south to Hong Kong to look for filming resources.  They used their animation "Princess Iron Fan", released in ’41 in Shanghai, as part of the Hong Kong film"Father and Son" which was directed by Shuen Wei in 1953.  The “Movie within movie” format made the record as the earliest animation in Hong Kong.  Until 50’s to 60’s, Hong Kong animation pioneer Mr. Lo kei-ping used self-developed special animation  technique to produce the early special effect films such as"The Buddha's Palm"in ’64(a series of seven films). A lot of animations were hand drawn onto the film stock, without optical synthesis.  Those “hand drawn” film copies were extremely precious.

During ’64, the founder of US animation company UPA, Mr. Steven Bosustow, came to Hong Kong and formed an animation company with Mr. Lin Jie of The China Paint Company, with the intention of making an animation title "The Red Child".  It fostered people such as Au Ching, Dick Wong, John Kay and Chan Ding Chung. Although the project was turned down finally, they adopted one man band practice and produced quite a lot of popular animated commercials.  Adding animated TV commercials produced by Hong Kong Film Company, a company founded by Woo shu yue in the 70’s, it had made great impression to all the Hong Kong people at that time.

In the mid-70’s, a group of movie enthusiasts established The Phoenix Cine Club, which promoted making independent short films.  At around that time, the Extramural Studies of the Chinese University started a short workshop in animation.  Its students produced many independent animation short films.

The creative atmosphere in making short films in Hong Kong in the 70’s was hot. A lot of such creators emerged. Most of them used super 8 for production. But still quite a lot of them used the more expensive film type of 16mm. Later on, a lot of independent filmmakers joined the animation team of TV station and became the core members of professional animators in the early days.

Independent animation in Hong Kong fostered one-man-band animation creative characteristic. The animator built his own style independently.  When they were part of a large organization, due to the industrial system was not yet in place, they were able to have the special roles of sole creators.

In 1976, the Art Department of RTHK and TVB had started their own animation team. They produced many self-made titles for drama programs, and animation clips for News reports.  In ’79, Mr.Lee Shum taught an animation production course for Hong Kong Film Culture Centre.  It was also the first time in Hong Kong a certificate course in animation consisted of both theory and production.  Between ’79 & ’82, TVB and RTHK showed a lot of influential animated short films.  Youth program "The Banana Boat Show" and "430 Space Shuttle" in ’82 were some of the major programs that consisted of many animated shorts in every episode.

Hong Kong’s first animation organization, Single Frame, was founded in 1982. Its objective was to liaise and promote animation in Hong Kong and overseas.  At the same time, it organized animation show on a monthly base, published magazines and implemented animation promotional activities.  These animators growing up in the 80’s, especially growing from creative independent into animation professionals such as someone like Neco Lo, Keeto Lam, Roger Ho and Aaron Yeung were professional pioneers who established the characteristics of Hong Kong animation.

The 4 to 6 panels comic "Old Master Q", by cartoonist, Mr. Wong Chak, had been popular since the 60’s.  It had then been adapted and used real castings for six movies.  In ’81, initiated by Mr. Woo shu-yue, three"Old Master Q"feature animations were made by joining forces with Taiwan animators.  It showed that Hong Kong did have creative animators, but not production talents.  It had been the problem of Hong Kong all along.  It was due to the fact that Hong Kong’s education then tended to overlook the nurturing of art.

In the 80’s, a bunch of mainland animators came south and became a new force among animators in Hong Kong.  In 1982, Mr. Lee Shum founded an animation company called HK-Animation.  He intended to introduce Taiwanese animation processing factory to Hong Kong but was not successful.

In the same year, big budget special effect movies had also emerged.  We had movies such as "Star Crazy" and "Zu: Warriors from the magic mountain" were all due to the popularity of the Hollywood movie Star Wars.

In 1986, Mr. Run Run Shaw formed Jade Animation Ltd. in Shenzhen and produced the first TV animation series in Hong Kong, they were "The animated Idiom"and "Little Monkey King". He made use of China factory to solve the problem of shortage of manpower in Hong Kong.  In the same year, film director Tsui Hark established special effect department CINEMAX. It specialized in making movie special effect, such as optical animation, special model effect and special effect make-up.  It went on to become an influential special effect company in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The appearance of" Jurassic Park" in ’94 brought visual media into the digital technology era.  Centro digital pictures and Menfond were formed and become major forces in digital special effect in Hong Kong lately.  Some of their well-known production included "Shaolin Soccer", "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Old Master Q 2001", etc.

Entering millennium, the popularity of computer animation programs had turned 3D animation into a sunny industry.  Many young people entered it, even one-man company appeared.  Nowadays, a lot of colleges have animation and comic courses.  We encounter many student works in 3D animation every year. Mainland TV animations have many Hong Kong people participated in its creative process.  Launched in 2001, "The Life of Mcdull" had proved that even having extremely tight budget and man power, one could still produce good quality feature animation in Hong Kong, this film had won many awards in Hong Kong and abroad. "The secret of Bo Wu Lo" was jointly produced by Walt Disney company, mainland China investors and Hong Kong, it also won that year’s Best Children’s Film of Golden Rooster Award in China,"Astroboy", a production of Imagi Studios, its 3D animation technique had reached international standard.  In the meantime, a lot of mainstream film directors had joined the animation industry.

Up until 2007, the data shows that there are 260 digital entertainment production companies in Hong Kong. Among them, 30% are into animation, 45% are in the business of Game Software. Adding those one-man companies and freelancers, there are over 5000 workers in digital animation/comic industry. On top of that, independent animation field produces a lot of new forces every year, as well as new stars.

This is the full blooming stage of 3D animation.  We animators in Hong Kong will also move from 2D to the new era. We look forward to what is in store in the future!

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