In 1986, UNICEF, in cooperation with the Czechoslovakian National Committee for UNICEF, organized the first training workshop for local artists in Kathmandu, Nepal. Two artists from Kratky Film Studios in Prague helped to train 12 Nepalese artists in the techniques of film animation. As a result of this two-week workshop, a short animated sequence promoting Oral Rehydration Therapy as a remedy for diarrhoea was produced. It was the first locally produced animation ever shown on Nepal television.
The idea of exposing local artists to the skills of animation came from observing local talent and estimating what might be achieved. Artists are rarely supported by international development agencies or NGOs to go overseas for training. When it comes to the media arts, there have been very few attempts to promote an international exchange of ideas and standards.
However, in Nepal, UNICEF found a body of artists whose traditional skills matched many of the needs of animation. Local "Thanka" painters were no longer satisfied with taking six months to complete their Buddhist artwork, and had set themselves up in workshop production lines: one painting the flesh color on the Buddha's face, another the background, and so on, until the last in line paints the fine gold embroidery. These paintings are now mass produced for the growing tourist market, and although they are a poor imitation of traditional Thanka, they nevertheless contain a considerable amount of collective artistic skill. The procedure that had been set up to produce Thankas is very similar to that needed to produce animated film. Classic cel animation involves, more than anything else, the dedication and painstaking labor of a group of artists.
In countries like Nepal which have only recently obtained video parlors and introduced television, the artistic community has only partly responded to the challenges and opportunities which these new media provide. Many artists do not fully understand how to apply their talents and work to the art of animation. There is much mystery surrounding cartoon animation production, and it has the reputation of being very expensive. Animation can, however, be low-tech, requiring equipment as simple as a second-hand 16mm camera or a video camera and an editing deck.
In Nepal, television has caught on so quickly that community viewing halls are being set up to increase coverage to rural areas. It is estimated that up to 65% of the Nepalese people have access to a television set. With current literacy rates only 40%, television and video are likely to become the main sources of information to the rural majority. It is safe to predict in Nepal that soon more people will have access to television than have access to a convenient water source or proper sanitation facilities.
Armed with the latest scientific information on preventative health measures, the Nepali artists who participated in the 1986 workshop were prepared to start thinking out their entertainment storylines and plots. At the animation workshop they created a local character called Shyam a small boy at the service of society. With enough creative skill, imagination and support, Shyam could become Nepal's equivalent of Mickey Mouse. Just like Mickey Mouse, he has the potential to transcend class, caste and cultural barriers in a way that live footage would be unlikely to achieve. In a small way, he could help to put many development problems well and truly in the can.
In 1987, four of the best artists from the Nepal workshop were given 6 months training in film animation techniques at Kratky Film Studios as a follow-up to the 1986 workshop. This was the first real effort from UNICEF at building local capacity in the medium of film animation. Production in animation has since continued in Nepal's main art college, helping to make it self-sufficient in funding.