New trailer for Beijing studio’s debut feature marks a significant moment both for founder Gary Wang and China’s burgeoning animation industry.
Light Chaser Animation is arguably the most high-profile animation studio in China, largely thanks to the reputation of Gary Wang, founder of video-sharing site Tudou.com. After selling the company to competitor Youku for over $1 billion in 2012, Wang re-emerged in March 2013 to launch the new animation studio. His vision is to create world-class, domestically produced animation aimed at the rapidly growing Chinese market. He has cited the improving environment for movie distribution, promotion and copyrights in China as the main reasons behind his decision.
Wang, who has assembled a strong roster of talent, largely hand-picked from studios around China and Asia to make up his 190-person staff, has taken on the role of screenwriter, director and producer himself. In June 2014 the studio closed a $20 million second round of funding and now has the money in place for four movies.
The quality of animation from China has, until now, been lagging far behind the West. Following the release of the first trailer for their debut feature, Door Guardians, it’s time to ask how Light Chaser’s animation quality compares to global standards and to assess their significance within China’s domestic animation industry.
On the evidence of the Door Guardians trailer and their 2014 seven-minute short Little Yeyos, Light Chaser’s production quality is indeed on par with the major world players. Wang has been unequivocal since the company’s inception just over two years ago that quality is their main concern. As he told the BBC last year, “Pushing for the very best in what we can achieve with current CG technology, and at the same time exploring and expanding the boundaries of technology-driven entertainment experience - this is what Light Chaser is all about.” This dual focus sets Light Chaser apart from many of its domestic rivals. VFX Supervisor Han Lei explains, “[Light Chaser] is trying to do something different. Most Chinese animation companies are from either a 2D animation background or live action feature films. Gary is from a technology background, so we look at the early time of Pixar, a technology driven company, for inspiration.” While impeccable production quality is assumed with movies from the West, this is far from the case with much of China’s output. Dedication to high-standards is a refreshing development for the Chinese industry and a much needed example for others to follow.
Whereas previously, ambitious Chinese animation professionals would have headed to the US or Europe to pursue a top-level career, Light Chaser is offering them a viable option at home. Wang has assembled an international studio team, bringing in talent from the US and Asia, as well as luring talented Chinese expats back to the Middle Kingdom to lead the teams of promising young locals. Chris Bremble, CEO of Beijing VFX powerhouse Base FX, sums up the promise of the Light Chaser team, “[They] have a bunch of key creatives that are Chinese, went to the US and are now coming back with a sense of how to tell stories, what an audience is looking for with, I wouldn’t say Westernized but, a globalized perspective. Most importantly, they've opened up and seen other ways of thinking. These people are going to do really awesome things.”
It is particularly notable that while the big US studios routinely spend over $100 million on their annual releases, Light Chaser claims to have achieved the same standard for only $12 million. This raises obvious questions. If equal quality can be created in China for a fraction of the cost of comparable international productions, will we begin to see the major Western studios start to divert more of their work to the East? As DreamWorks just closed Northern California’s PDI studio, laying off 500 staff, Oriental DreamWorks in Shanghai continues to recruit aggressively.
Though Light Chaser is a frontrunner in the race to be the first studio to produce a domestically-made animated feature of genuine quality, the challenge is pretty formidable, given the expense, the risk and the extremely high bar continually set by Western studios. Other contenders like Mili Pictures of Suzhou and Nanjing’s Original Force are showing promise but rely heavily on story and development being handled by American teams in their LA offices. Oriental DreamWorks has yet to reveal their movie plans, while Kung Fu Panda 3, with only a fraction of the production being done in Shanghai, can hardly be described as domestically produced. It’s too early to know if Shanghai’s Hippo Animation will be able to compete, while Fantawild’s current box-office topping Boonie Bears franchise, while improving, still has ground to make up in quality. Wolfsmoke’s Kung Fu Cooking Girls may surprise people, but is not set for release until mid-2016. Perhaps the most serious challenger is Beijing studio B&T, who will finally release their much-anticipated Da Hai this autumn. If the hype is to be believed then that may capture the spotlight and make the waves that Light Chaser is aiming to generate when they release Door Guardians a few months later.
Keeping abreast of Chinese animation developments is no easy feat. Information is fragmented, studios are often either secretive or lacking media-savvy, certainly by Western measures. Press releases that do emerge are often bloated with boasts of being ‘China’s biggest animation studio’ or the creators of ‘magical films’ that hardly anyone has seen or heard of. Domestic animation events tend to be grand, expensive, hollow affairs, puffed up with corporate and governmental pomp, representing only a specific set of interests and a limited insight into what is really happening in the industry.
Light Chaser is a breath of fresh air for the jaded reporter of Chinese animation. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as surprise with a marketing guru like Gary Wang at the helm. It feels like Wang is shrewdly capitalizing on a global curiosity for creative developments in China, where other companies are failing miserably with their overblown PR campaigns. They have replicated the DreamWorks business model by matching the production budget of Door Guardians with a $12m marketing campaign. No other domestic company has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and certainly none can claim to have been dubbed the ‘Chinese Pixar’ by the BBC before they have even released a trailer. Their 2014 short Little Yeyos has received 30 million hits on Youku (China’s Youtube), while the Door Guardians trailer was announced to big fanfare with a major press conference in Beijing. Type ‘Chinese Animation’ into Google and see which company tops the list.
Some critics will inevitably label Door Guardians’ Pixar-esque visual style as just another example of Chinese plagiarism. A fairer assessment might be that this is a studio sensibly observing and drawing inspiration from a proven, globally successful format, thus giving the movie the best chance to succeed. Unlike many other Chinese studios that are curiously unaware of what is successful worldwide, Light Chaser recognizes what they are up against. Doubters would be better off asking why leading Western studios have employed this style for every one of their movies for the past 20 years.
Whilst improving Western perception of Chinese animation will be difficult, an even greater challenge lies in changing the attitudes of the skeptical domestic audience. The overriding assumption in China is that homegrown animation is either for young children, made to sell toys and products, or it is Japanese anime, synonymous with tweens in cosplay and mountains of merchandise. As Han Lei explains, “In China, there isn’t a mature family film market. Chinese cinema audiences are mostly young adults in their twenties who enjoy the Pixar and DreamWorks style films. They feel that current Chinese domestic animation is for very young kids. It’s not for them. That’s why we are spending a lot of time targeting that audience with our marketing.”
The issue here is that these twenty-somethings are much more savvy than the pre-schoolers currently watching Chinese animation and will not accept anything less than the quality standard already available in domestic box-office hits like How to Train Your Dragon 2. The Chinese industry needs something to jolt the domestic audience out of their apathy towards homegrown animation and, to their credit, Light Chaser is taking on the challenge with gusto. Door Guardians and the subsequent follow-up movies won’t change everyone’s ideas, but they will at least start to raise awareness within the Chinese entertainment industry and with audiences throughout China.
Of course so far nothing has been mentioned of the most crucial element of all – the film’s story. Story is a particularly well-acknowledged problem area in the Chinese industry, with most studios employing experienced overseas teams to develop or co-develop the script, or in other cases bringing international writers to China. Light Chaser has combined both approaches by recruiting one of the early directors of Toy Story 2, Colin Brady, as Head of Story. However, Brady has remained in Hollywood working remotely, and in spite of his involvement, Wang is still credited as the sole writer and director. Let’s hope he is as gifted a story-teller as he is a tech-entrepreneur.
The Door Guardians and the studio’s second movie will be aimed squarely at Chinese audiences, featuring traditional Chinese story elements, symbolism and culture at their core. As Wang explained to the BBC, “China is changing from an industrial manufacturing society to a consumption society, and people are looking for things that relate to their experience, not just another American film." US superhero and monster movies continue to do huge business domestically so it will be interesting to see if the populous is indeed as hungry for Chinese themed content as Wang suggests, or whether the movie will feel any more ‘Chinese’ than the US-made Mulan or Kung Fu Panda.
The crucial test for Door Guardians will be to live up to the international standards of storytelling and production quality that it has set itself. It may even represent a landmark moment in the renaissance of the Chinese animation industry, one that sets important changes in motion allowing truly inspiring content to emerge. What is certain is that the when the movie is released early next year the world will be watching, and that is something to get excited about.
Chris Colman is a writer and animator based in Shanghai, China, primarily focusing on Asian animation for AWN.com. He is founder of the China Animation & Game Network (c-agn.com), a national community of industry professionals.
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.