A Lessening Dichotomy: China

by Frank Gladstone

The Science and Technology Digital Film Studio is within this building. Photo courtesy of Frank Gladstone.

On August first of this year, I was among about sixty people from the Hollywood film industry who traveled to China to take part in the 2000 Beijing Motion Picture and Television Conference, co-hosted by Legends of China, the China Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers and Kodak China Ltd. The purpose of the Conference was to meet and discuss the movie industry with our contemporaries in China. Ideally, cinematographers would be able to meet cinematographers, costumers with costumers and animators with animators. The public format was to be open panel discussions, with more informal private discussions surrounding the three-day event.

Initially, I was there representing DreamWorks Animation but by circumstance and serendipity, I ended up being the only person directly representing animation, per se, at the Conference. Phil Feiner from Pacific Title, representing the digital services industry, moderated our panel, and our Chinese counterparts also came from the digital or traditional world.

Workstations at the Beijing digital studio. Photo courtesy of Frank Gladstone.

Like many of the panels that occurred during the conference, most of the time was spent introducing each other and going over company history and purpose. This is a significant cultural aspect of presentations in China. Formal statements of past achievements and a listing of company assets are almost a requirement before any discussions can take place. Because of the limited time we had and the need to present these formal pronouncements and the interpretation into each other's language, the panel discussions very nearly always came to an end before any real discussion could happen.

That is not to say that issues did not come up. In several of the presentations, speakers were able to intertwine pressing matters into their narratives. In discussing the question of intellectual property, our Chinese speaker was most forthwith about the problem of piracy, even as he traced its history and possible solutions. Some discussion about royalties, the state of Chinese art direction and storytelling did manage to come through.

More interesting discussions happened outside of the main hall, where the participants could be less preoccupied with formalities. Here, we found our counterparts to be very frank, curious and candid about the crafts they share with us.

Beyond the Conference
But, in the end, it was not the Conference where I really got a look at what China is doing with animation. Yu Lee, the indomitable woman who put the conference together and did her best to keep it on track, realized some of my frustration at not having the opportunity to have more in depth discussions with animation personnel. She quickly arranged for me to visit the digital animation facilities in Beijing and Shanghai.

A little bit of home -- McDonald's are everywhere! Photo courtesy of Frank Gladstone.

Beijing is, of course, the bustling capital city of the People's Republic. The Science and Technology Digital Film Studio, located in a large building that houses several floors of film and film training divisions, seems to have a good deal of governmental support and perhaps a bit of bureaucratic counterpoise as well. The studio is well equipped with SGI workstations, various compositing and animation software (including Maya) and an adequate data center and film recorder. The operation is rather compact, broken into two large open plan areas with somewhere around thirty workstation cubicles in one, and a series of interconnected offices in the other. Part of the larger room is also cordoned off as a training area. Work has been pretty methodical at the studio. Their reel showed some good compositing technique, but all out animation was not yet evident. The studio supervisor, Su Pingbao, was quick to mention that they are getting ready to expand and they are expecting much growth in facilities and capability over the next few years. I showed them some of DreamWorks product. They seemed very impressed and were almost apologetic about what they saw as their own humble efforts. They expressed a great deal of interest in learning more from us.


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