The third feature by Beijing start-up Light Chaser Animation combines old and new to tell a universal tale of love, growth, and airborne hijinks.
As China’s box office began to hit unprecedented heights in 2013, Light Chaser Animation emerged amid the hype declaring its intention to build a world-class studio capable of producing Hollywood-quality animation, only at a fraction of the cost.
It was a highly ambitious project, particularly in an immature market like China. Four years on, though, the Beijing start-up founded by Gary Wang, Zhou Yu and Yuan Ye has delivered on many of its promises.
Light Chaser has assembled a team of 170 passionate young Chinese artists, developed a suite of proprietary production tools, and released, on schedule, three technically and visually accomplished CG-animated features in a little over two years. The latest of those releases, Cats & Peachtopia (2018), was screened out of competition at Annecy this year, Light Chaser’s second film in two years to be presented on the world’s biggest animation stage.
The Tyranny of the Market
Despite the company’s considerable technical accomplishments, however, box office performance has been well below expectations. After a modest gross of RMB78 million (US$11.4 million) for their debut effort Little Door Gods (2016), ticket sales have declined with each subsequent production. Cats & Peachtopia was released in China on April 5 and earned just RMB 17.75 million (US$2.82 million) in its first week, with little hope of climbing much higher.
That reality poses serious questions for a studio whose stated target has always been the domestic market. The decision to focus on China was partly a desire to tell “authentic Chinese stories that will touch our hearts,” as Wang said at Annecy in 2017, but was also based on the recognition that they couldn’t compete on an international scale against the likes of Pixar, DreamWorks or Disney.
While more realistic, focusing solely on China was still a challenging undertaking. After years of subpar, childish content, the domestic audience had grown jaded and skeptical that a homegrown studio could produce quality animation for the whole family. With this in mind, Light Chaser set a maximum budget of $12 million per production, less than one-tenth the cost of a typical Disney feature.
That cautiousness was counterbalanced by Wang daring to write and direct the first three movies, despite having no prior experience in either discipline. Indeed, while many large studios in China look overseas for experienced creative guidance, Light Chaser is resolutely powered by homegrown talent. Wang places particular importance on culture and language. “The very minimum requirement is to speak Chinese fluently. If you work in L.A., you have to speak English. In France, you have to speak French. That’s a very big barrier, especially for artists.”
‘Home and Afar’
For Cats & Peachtopia, as with Little Door Gods and Tea Pets (2017), Wang has penned an original story set in China, employing distinctly Chinese elements. Co-founder and executive producer Zhou Yu says, “Gary was inspired by the cats in his house, and by the concept of ‘home and afar.’ It’s a father-and-son story, about growth, adventure and dreams.”
Cats & Peachtopia tells the story of father and son cats, Blanket and Cape, living a carefree life in a tower block in the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing. Curious about the outside world and longing for his deceased mother, Cape sets off in search of the cat heaven Peachtopia. Blanket goes after his son and adventures ensue.
The official press kit elaborates further on the film’s themes and goals: “Fathers plays an important role in cultivating their child’s social development, self-awareness, and sense of security. We hope this father-son adventure can alert people to the importance of fatherly love and accompaniment, so fathers can care more for and spend more time with their children.”
The entire film was produced over four years by Light Chaser’s in-house team in a converted warehouse on the outskirts of Beijing. They used the studio’s own rigging system, hair tools, large-scale building auto-modeling system and vegetation systems. The image quality is characteristically high, and the attention to detail impressive. The city scenes were modeled on actual street views and effectively capture an authentic Chinese city.
Light Chaser engaged Xi’an rocker Xu Wei and old school Taiwanese pop star Emil Chau to pen theme songs, and worked with Skywalker Sound and a local studio for the sound design. Zhou also mentions that, in an effort to maximize audience appeal, the studio held more test screenings for Cats & Peachtopia than it did for previous productions.
The Road Ahead
Many more contenders in China’s current animation feature film gold rush are set to emerge in the coming two or three years. Companies including Tencent, Enlight Media-backed Coloroom, and Huayi Brothers are making significant investments in talent and small studios in an effort to produce the next Big Fish & Begonias. Yet Light Chaser’s plight offers a warning about the uncertainty of the domestic market.
Longtime Nanjing animation studio Original Force has encountered comparable financial difficulties with its debut feature Duck Duck Goose, reaping just RMB 37 million (US$5.9 million) in its first month. Meanwhile, the biggest domestic animated film successes in China in the past two years remain those based on established TV series (the latest Boonie Bears movie made RMB 523 million), online comics (One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes 2 took RMB 131.7 million) and online games (the sixth film of the Seer series, Invincible Puni, made RMB 101.6 million).
Despite the continuing challenges, Light Chaser is forging ahead with its fourth feature, a fantasy love-story prequel to the well-known Chinese Legend of the White Snake. Developed in-house by the Light Chaser team and skewing to a young adult audience, it is scheduled for release in early 2019.
Right now, Light Chaser is looking forward to seeing how the international audience at Annecy responds to its latest effort. If Cats & Peachtopia is the hit they hope it will be, they may have to reconsider their belief that only the big American studios can compete in the world market.
This article originally appeared in the Special Annecy 2018 Edition of ANIMATIONWorld Magazine.
Chris is a writer & producer based in Shanghai. He’s the founder of the China Animation & Game Network, encouraging communication in the industry via live creative networking events.