Gigi Hu reports on the current attempt by the island nation to bolster its fledgling animation industry.
It is often said that the Singapore economy is run by a paternalistic government, which has been in power since 1965. Foreign media often associate the Island's economy with the tag name "Singapore Inc." Singapore Inc. or not, there have been salient changes in the broadcasting sector since the early 1990s. Amidst lawsuits and warnings against foreign press interference in the domestic politics of Singapore, the government was not shy about stating its objective to develop the island city as "an information and media hub." These developments were crystallized at the recent MIP Asia Exhibition held in Hong Kong, a premier Asian broadcasting exhibition event; the Singapore Pavilion was noticeably represented by 13 media companies. Two of them were animation companies, namely Animata and Animasia.
Singapore's technocratic government has always shown a penchant for engineering or IT-related industries. Computer animation seem to fit the high-tech picture. Having attracted companies to set up shop on the hardware side, i.e., production and post-production facilities, including satellite uplink and transmission capabilities (the country now boasts of being home to some 15 satellite programmers using it as a regional beaming base), the infrastructure is now ready for more adventurous nurturing.
I say "adventurous" because animation deals with content production, and it is also closely related to art and design. Such areas have traditionally been given a low priority. Singapore can never be a second Philippines, which is well-known for her pool of talented artists and animators. Virgilio S. Labrador, Marketing Manager at Asia Broadcast Centre, said that, "Up to today, our best selling medium is still the Komics, which we [have been] acquainted with since early childhood. It is an expressive society, basically. Singing, drawing, believing in romance and adventure--this is part and parcel of our visual culture." His view is also shared by fellow Filipino, David Patanne, a full-time animator based at Animata, "due to our economic background and structure of society, paper and pencil are the cheapest materials we can lay our hands on. We simply draw ourselves into college."
In the Singapore context, investing in high-end computers and software is not a financial problem, provided that it justifies public spending. In August 1996, Alias/Wavefront, the American animation software company, set up an office in Singapore. Its Senior Asia Sales Manager, Alex Kelly, reiterated a key fact, that the "government and the education segment" is growing rapidly in Singapore.
Indeed it is happening in the polytechnics. In the first quarter of 1996, Nanyang Polytechnic launched its three-year, full-time Diploma in Digital Media Design around the time when GCE "O" and "A" Levels results were announced. It was a fast bid to attract young people into the barely formed industry. The polytechnic has more than 35 SGI machines ranging from Indy to Onyx, and other Mac and PC-based workstations. The course aims to provide professional training in creative and IT skills. To help accomplish this, it signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with Sheridan College, bringing in Canadian expertise and the transference of artistic skills and knowledge.
I had the privilege of visiting this "hottest course in town." Indeed, Sheridan College is exposing the Nanyang Poly students to classical animation first, a step-by-step approach that is the both basic and necessary.
Over at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, recent developments include the establishment of a sophisticated "Digital Effects Studio" at the Department of Film and Media Studies. Like at Nanyang Polytechnic, the necessary heavy investment comes from the Economic Development Board, a government statutory board. Both polytechnics are entrusted the tasks of not only training the current cohort of full-time students, but to also conduct courses to upgrade the skills of television and multimedia professionals. Temasek Polytechnic, which had initiated and co-organized the first Animation Fiesta in Singapore in June 1996, is also in the process of revamping its media design courses to meet new challenges.
Strictly speaking, there are only a handful of animation companies in Singapore, namely Animata, 25 Frames, VHQ, Animasia, ID Imaging and Garman Animation.
Though there are not that many to speak of, each has its own niche. Among them, Animata Productions is the oldest, with 15 years of genuine 2D animation work, which has been slowly progressing from commercials to educational programs, feature films and animated episodes of sitcoms. I first met Mogan Subra (Animata's founder and Creative Director) and his staff in 1994, when they spoke of the medium with passion and optimism, their struggles to get jobs, and at the same time educating funding bodies of the medium's potential.
Subra's award-winning short film, The Cage, is of penetrating substance and social meaning. On the commercial side, Animata had also won international awards. The company had also produced Singapore's first animated feature, a 75-minute film on The Life of the Buddha. Their in-house dream project, a series entitled The Adventures of Hardy Driftwood, has also taken off. Two-and-a-half years in the making, Animata has finally found a sponsoring partner, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank who has adopted it as part of their corporate campaign, "Care for the Nature." The series is currently shown daily locally on television on Premier 12. Each 4-1/2 minute episode is created especially for young children and preteens. Launched in November 1996, Hardy Driftwood has gone on a roadshow from school to school, and a merchandising package of a poster, coloring book, T-shirt and comics is also being marketed.
Presently, it is on the way making a 23-minute per episode animated series of Si doel, a popular sitcom in Indonesia. By the end of 1997, the 13-episode show will be seen on 5 TV stations in Indonesia.
Animasia is also launching its own character animation series, called Losers in Life, at this month's NAPTE Convention in New Orleans. Created by Glen Kennedy, it stars two down and out spies in what is characterized as a rock `n roll comedy in the spirit of The Simpsons and Looney Tunes.
Suddenly, there has been a boom in animation in Singapore with a equally sudden demand for animators.. But Singapore is not alone. The region is opening up its broadcasting industry. Barely started, with a few home-grown individual animators and companies like 25 Frames have decided to relocate to Kuala Lumpur. Like Indonesia, Malaysia, by early this year, will have a total of 6 terminal TV channels, 8 cable channels and 20 satellite TV channels.
Quek Siew Liang, Client Servicing Manager at Animata, stated that, "the region is hungry for programs." David Shaw, Senior Animator, at ID Imaging, feels that "the region is in an awake mode; there are opportunities and the environment is more open." (Incidentally, Shaw was recruited from Australia through the Internet about one-and-a-half years ago.)
Singapore is susceptible to foreign influences. Independence Day, The Rock, Toy Story--such movies have exposed the population to the wonders of special effects. Jonathan Ang, Senior 3D Designer at VHQ, a company known more for its one-stop post-production services, noticed that advertising agencies and their clients are now better acquainted with the capabilities of digital design for which there is a growing demand.
But one of the challenges he faced was the time factor. Clients are generally ignorant of the time needed to do animation and expect these jobs to be completed in a couple of weeks. His experience is shared by Shireen V. Pinto, Director/Administration at ID Imaging (a company which specializes in computer animation), said that, "Clients expect us to cater to last minute jobs. They didn't realize that a 15-second animation job, depending on its complexities, can take up to 2-1/2 months involving four persons' work."
Garman Herigstad, American animator cum animation software trainer, who has extensive experience in Asia, finds Asian clients "tend to want it quick and cheap." Having worked in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and China, he finds that perhaps art skills are not a prized possession in Chinese society. Now, with the onslaught of computer technology and heavy investment by government in digital media, he cautioned about the inadvertent production of computer technologists and information animators in the long run.
Interestingly, Animasia is also developing along these same lines, but its niche is clearly different. Part of the Wuthelam Group, a multinational corporation, it has recently merged with Kennedy Cartoons, in Manila, the studio wants to explore all forms of animation. Just one-year old, it has already gotten several commissioned projects: Kleo the Misfit Unicorn, a 24-episode series for Stanfield Animation in Vancouver and Chucklewood Critters, a 13-episode series for Los Angeles' Encore Enterprises. Canadian Glen Kennedy, the owner of Kennedy Cartoons and an experienced animator (mainly with the major American studios based in Manila like the Hanna Barbera's Fil-Cartoons), noted that "the word got around that Singapore wanted to develop its computer animation industry." He frankly stated that he is attracted by the financial backing of Wuthelam. The company has already installed $750,000 worth of equipment and is actively looking for animators and is employing experienced Filipino animators.
As an animation scholar and a video/filmmaker, I welcome this overwhelming explosion of interest in animation. For one thing, Singapore's young people now have more choices of training courses and broadcasting personnel have more opportunities to relearn and upgrade their skills. If all goes well, Singapore may meet the expected demand for 2,500 digital media design producers by the year 2000.
Albert Lim, Coordinator at Nanyang Polytechnic's Digital Media Design Centre, puts it clearly that, "Singapore is attempting to create an animation industry, we are at the training people stage. Our ultimate goal is to help contribute to the media hub of this region." I could not disagree. It does make sense that, with the country's strong IT infrastructure and a general nontechnophobic populace, Singapore can contribute to the world's animation arena as Philippines has. However, I just wonder whether the higher authorities are aware of the nature of this medium. Donald Duck will quack and strike unreasonably if you try to make him conform; look what happened to Michael Jordan at the Toon City in Space Jam and the in the Japanese cult film, Akira, which is superbly rebellious in both its storytelling contents and techniques.
Can animators been mass-produced? Lilian Soon, animation teacher at Temasek Poly's Videographics and Photography Course, said that, "For last year, out of over 20 students, I was lucky to have 3 who were committed to do an animation work for their graduation project." Recalled Ngee Ann Poly graduate, Juan Foo, for their batch who graduated in 1995-96, only four were keen about studying the medium further. Their enthusiasm, though, did lead them to a subsidized trip to Yoyogi Animation Institute in Tokyo, where they attended an 8-week crash course on cel animation. Juan will never forget his Japanese counterparts' fervor, "Oh, they draw while queuing or waiting for classes." It was an eye-opening experience for him.
Two foreign speakers who attended the Animation Fiesta in June observed that, "the country needs more Subras, the kind of The Cage productions." In short, animation that "breathes," emotions sublime or expressed.
Well, the machines have arrived, foreign companies have moved their base to Singapore and sponsorship is not lacking. It will be interesting to further monitor Singapore's attempt to develop a computer animation industry and how it will help contribute to the government's overall objective of turning the island republic into Asia's broadcasting hub.
Gigi Hu is now a Ph.D. student based at the University of Hong Kong, Department of Comparative Literature. Prior to this, she was a media and cultural studies lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, School of Design, Singapore. Last year, with Lilian Soon, she organized Singapore's Animation Fiesta.