Shanghai-based studio, known for its radical reinvention of Batman, Catwoman and Bane in Cartoon Network’s 2012 DC Nation shorts ‘Batman of Shanghai,’ is one year into production on its first feature-length project.
Chinese animation doesn't enjoy a good reputation either from a narrative or visual perspective. No Chinese-created animated feature has ever made much of an impact abroad, and anyone that has seen the domestic “hit” movies will have been unimpressed by the low production values, slapdash storylines, and cheap, childish content. While all eyes are on the handful of big-money studios scrambling to find the magic formula for making a movie of genuine quality, a killing at the box-office, and a change of local and international perception of domestically produced animation, some really exciting creative output is set to come from a much less obvious source.
Ask any Chinese animation lover which is the local studio making the coolest films, and almost invariably the answer will come back “Wolf Smoke.” The three-person Shanghai studio, formed by Cloud Yang and writer-artist Clover Xie, has been creating slick, uber-stylish, manga-influenced 2D animation since 2006. They are best known for their radical reinvention of Batman, Catwoman and Bane in Cartoon Network’s 2012 DC Nation shorts Batman of Shanghai, and the frenetic, witty and beautifully animated eight-minute short Kung Fu Cooking Girls, along with a series of exquisitely hand-drawn shorts and trailers.
After eight years of passionate struggle making films in an environment unsupportive of indie animation, Wolf Smoke Studio is currently a year into the production of its first feature, an adaptation of Kung Fu Cooking Girls. If the short is anything to go by, the movie will be something truly special, and not just because it is from a Chinese studio. Dan Sarto and I caught up with the dynamic duo (sorry, couldn’t resist) in Shanghai to talk about local talent, the challenges of making animation in China and producing their first feature film.
Dan Sarto: Is your film being produced just for the domestic Chinese market or do you plan to get international distribution as well?
Clover Xie: In China it’s weird because it doesn’t depend on how good the movie that you’re making is. It depends on the marketing or if you have movie stars. But we’re making animation and we don’t have movie stars. It’s not a small amount of money so to get a return we have to go to the overseas market.
DS: How are you financing the movie?
CX: A sponsor found us and they are financing it. They want to help us to grow and produce longer films. Just two of us cannot make a full movie, unless we want to spend ten years doing it.
DS: Are you building your own team to produce the film or will you have another company handle the animation?
CX: We have almost all the in-house staff members that we need. We recently took on an American artist who has come over and joined us. She’s helped us a lot. Actually, we often receive resumes from other countries, but due to language and cultural issues we don’t want to hire too many foreign staff for now - except exceptional candidates. We insist that Wolf Smoke should always remain a small team to stay flexible.
We tried to find a good animation group inside China but it’s very, very hard. If you know just a little bit about the Chinese animation industry, you’ll know how difficult it is to find a group, or even individuals, who can achieve your standard. Every company we know is short of good people. The main production of our movie is being outsourced.
DS: There are hundreds of thousands of animation students and recent graduates in China and yet you can’t find anybody that meets your standards. Why is it so hard to find good people in China?
CX: That’s a big question and there are so many complicated reasons.
Five or ten years ago China was a big place for outsourcing for Disney or for work from Japan, but they only gave the in-betweens or the color or the lines - they didn’t give the main part of work to China. So there was no chance to train yourself to improve. Cloud [Yang] worked for outsourcing companies for years but he found it was very limited for learning. You had to learn everything by yourself.
These days the animation industry in China is going downhill - all you can see is Pleasant goat and big big wolf - so even if you have patience and passion, once you get inside you find there’s nothing interesting that you can learn. It’s very low level because everyone wants to get money from the government. The goal is totally wrong. It’s totally the wrong direction.
That’s why we just focus on doing short films. We have to raise the standard, the level, the quality, and we have to keep it. You have to keep your brand for years -- even if you don’t get bigger. We’ve had a lot of chances to get bigger over the years. People come from other industries and want to invest money in this industry, but they don’t understand how it works, how the game is played. We don’t want that kind of money. If you give me $1 million USD this year and you want $2 million back next year, that’s impossible. The sponsor has to respect what we’re doing and know how the industry works. He has to risk losing. If you’re not prepared to take that risk then I don’t suggest you invest. That’s why we’ve waited until now to get a sponsor.
Everyone we hire locally needs training. They must be trained for years. For animation you have to wait and wait and wait for three or four years until you can earn money, whereas for games the standard of work is lower and you can get more benefits more quickly from that. Even if you just graduated you can enter a game company and get a lot of money.
Chris Colman: What needs to happen to improve the situation?
CX: Actually, I think the situation is already changing. People are leaving the industry, to go to games, to design, so there are only a few people left. Now these few people are more valued, and those people find that animation can make money too. In two or three years people will gradually come back, but it will take time.
DS: Have you experienced any practical restrictions or censorship on the type of stories you want to tell?
CX: Yeah, you’ll find there’s limited stories you can tell in China. But for what we’ve been doing, for short films, it’s different. For feature films you have to face all ages of people, so you can’t make a film that only you like. But for a short film you can try all kinds of different styles, crazy stuff. For the feature, we want to make something that all ages will like.
DS: The perception in the West is that, in China, there isn’t the history of auteur, director driven animated works and consequently, no matter what degree of technical or artistic skill the Chinese animators develop, they haven’t yet established the mindset of storytelling. Is that accurate?
CX: Cloud was not taught by any school. The box is what you impose on yourself. Of course China does have limits, but you still have every chance if you try your best. You can see all the good stuff from outside online. But talk is cheap. The feature film will be a good explanation of what we want to do.
DS: Where do you draw your inspiration as artists and filmmakers?
CX: Actually we don’t care about which medium we use for telling stories, it’s just that we are familiar with animation. Maybe we will try comics, or even novels, or live-action movies. Animation is not the only thing we want to try.
Have you seen Jin Roh? It’s Cloud’s favorite because it’s more like real people acting than animation. It’s talking about real things, not fantastic things. Like war, or the relationships between people, or the feeling of killing someone else. It’s not for children. I think most directors have a dream like this but the marketing doesn’t allow them to do it. That is the direction we want to go in, but maybe not for many years. Once we have money, when we don’t have responsibility to others, we’ll make films like that. But it’s not a movie with a very happy ending [laughs].
DS: That’s why short films are preferable, they allow you to say what you want without worrying about the audience.
CX: Yes, but short films are limited in time. It’s hard to tell a complicated story. That’s why I’m also doing manga and comics to tell a longer story, in case we ever have a chance to make it into a longer feature.
DS: What does creating comics provide for you as an artist that you can’t get in film?
CX: In China, people still think animation is only for children. It’s hard for people to understand that it’s about the story, whether it’s told by animation or live action. People just care about the medium. The parents think they should take their children to see animation.
Animation is not just Pixar and DreamWorks. We love those films but I think in the old days Japan was going further away, experimenting and taking risks. Recent Japanese animation looks more monotonously alike. We want to tell stories in different ways. Like for example, the meaning of death. How can you make an animation movie about the meaning of death? People won’t give a shit about that. The Chinese government doesn’t want to see people kissing in animation, or a lot of blood, but it’s what we want to change. People are already changing, little by little, but it takes time.
DS: What are proving to be the biggest challenges in producing your movie?
CX: Cloud will stay at the outsourcing studio for years [laughs]. But there are no other good solutions. We will still have a studio here [Shanghai], but that is just focusing on pre-production and producing the ideas. We will need more than 100 people to produce the film. We won’t take the risk to do something like that in China. Nowadays, even in Japan or Korea, they are facing the same problem. In Japan, the good animators are all very old or dead. In the old times you had to work hard for over five years to become an animator but now it only takes half a year because they are short of people. The situation is the same all over the world, even in America. America can’t produce an entire 2D animation all by themselves. We have many friends working for Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon but all they are doing is the story or the storyboards. After that it goes somewhere else.
DS: When I interviewed Miyazaki he said he thought that his studio had gotten too big. As soon as your studio is too big then you have to make films, to make the money, to support the studio. The studios make too many films – you should have a smaller studio, make fewer films and have longer to make the films.
CX: That’s why we want to keep our studio small, because we want to be quick and smart. We can try different directions. If you have 100 people to feed, you have to make at least 2 movies in one year. We don’t want to have a factory. If we did we would have a shoe factory or a clothing factory, why would we make an animation factory? Pixar or DreamWorks have the same problem, they have too many people, though they still have some space for artists. In China you don’t have any space for that. We want to be an ideas factory, not a production factory - that’s the difference.
DS: DreamWorks is an example of a studio that lives or dies by the success of its feature films. They’ve had to scale up to a certain size so they can maintain a steady stream of film releases. You could say that’s an animation factory.
CX: That’s another reason why we think we have an opportunity. The feature films from Pixar or DreamWorks, to be honest, become more like each other. They have marketing or financial controls that mean they can only go in one direction. If they cross the line, it’s a risk. Maybe the artist will like it, they may think people will like it, but the producer says no because it’s not safe. The technology is becoming better and better, like the clothing or the hair - it’s become perfect. But the stories and the ideas have a box. They cannot jump out of it.
To China, movies like How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda and The Croods, they may seem very fresh. But what about five years later? You have to do something special, you have to do something new. When we show our movies to friends, they will think, “I’ve never seen that before, that’s very interesting.”
We think that China has to keep its own style and its own elements in order to surprise people. That’s what we’re doing on films like Kung Fu Cooking Girls. We couldn’t put everything in the short but when we have 90 minutes we have space. We will show lots of crazy, different stuff that Western people have never seen. That’s our opportunity, because we are different from DreamWorks. The difference is what people need.
DS: What part of your creative process do you enjoy the most?
CX: Cloud prefers pre-production, the beginning of design, the poses, new elements you can put in your film -- everything we consider is interesting. Many Chinese companies may think, “OK, this movie is successful so we’ll copy it and try to get something from it to put in our new film.” We are doing the opposite -- if we see something that’s already been done, we leave it out, or we try to think of something more crazy.
China has such a long history but some people have forgotten. We search for material, from books, to get details to put in our new film. That’s the most interesting part. We will argue about it for many days, but after that we will say, “Wow! That’s really interesting.” You can imagine how the final image will look and what people will think about it.
DS: It seems in China there’s often a desire to be the quickest and the cheapest, regardless of production quality. It sounds like you want to run as far away from that as possible?
CX: If we wanted to do it that way, maybe we would have given up five years ago. We can understand that all people want money quickly. But actually, you see the money there and you run very hard for it, but actually you are running in the opposite direction. At the beginning of the design we don’t give a shit about money. Of course we want money in the end, but first of all you have to give up all ideas of how to make money, how to make people happy. You have to make yourself happy. You have to please yourself first, before others. You have to make it interesting and funny. But we are not the kind of people that only like stylish or artistic style short films - sometimes we don’t really understand what they are saying.
DS: No kidding.
CX: For one minute that kind of movie is acceptable but what about for 90 minutes? You sit there, and you don’t know what it’s talking about. We show our friends the work. We have investors but we are lucky because they admire us and they have said, “Go and do what you want.” We can’t be sure if our movie will be successful. We can’t promise.
DS: I admire your philosophy. There’s a truthfulness to it. There aren’t many people who have that courage to have a vision and to not compromise. It’s hard, unless you have a crazy, rich uncle.
CX: Some of our friends really insist on what they are doing and have kept a studio for years and tried to make short films like us. But they have to make a living and support their staff. So after a few years they start making cheap quality films. After a few years they have no ideas, no chance to pursue their original vision. It’s a pity.
At the start we didn’t want to make a living with animation. We said, “OK, we love it, but we don’t want to live with it.” I still work for a game company for my full time job, so we don’t need to worry about money. We can focus on our art and we can live longer. If you have to raise yourself, take outsourcing work from here or there, it’s different. In animation you don’t earn money just doing your art.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
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. He also handles marketing for the Institute for Animation and Creative Content (iacc), the animation training and production studio of the DeTao Masters Academy in Shanghai.
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.