Lotus Lantern and the Making of the First Commercial Animated Feature Film in Mainland China──An Interview with Animator Chang Guangxi

By Amber Xu

The 1980s, an era of reform and opening up in China, witnessed unprecedented predicaments and challenges for the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and Chinese animation at large. One crucial change was that animated filmmaking at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, a state-owned enterprise during the socialist decades (1949-1976), had to go into the free market and face fierce competition from foreign animated films with global commercial appeal. In order to adapt to this new situation, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio experimented with making its first commercial animated feature film, Lotus Lantern (Baolian deng, 1999)—a project that faced numerous challenges and controversies. As the director of this film and also as the former president of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (tenure 1991-1993), Chang Guangxi (1942-) shared his own personal experience of making this film and his insights into the issues of commercialization in Chinese animated filmmaking. The following essay is a brief summary of my interview with him in April and August 2017.            

Coexistence of Morass and Opportunities

According to Chang, the brain drain (the loss of animation talent at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio) and transition into the market system plunged Chinese animation into unprecedented crises in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When China opened up to the world in 1978, many joint ventures and wholly foreign-owned animation studios sprang up in southern Mainland China, in places such as Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Guangzhou. They offered a monthly salary of RMB 1000 yuan, which was ten times the monthly salary (RMB 100 yuan) of an animator at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, and lured away many talented animators from Shanghai to the South. At these partially and wholly foreign-owned animation studios, Chinese animators mainly worked on animation projects outsourced (jiagong pian) from Japan, the US, and other countries due to the relative cheap labor in China at that time. This kind of work had little to no originality to speak of, as though these talented Chinese animators were working on an assembly line.       

In addition, the post-socialist transition to the market system forced Chinese animators to face commercial pressure. Before the reform and opening-up in 1978, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was under a planned economic system, and everything was taken care of by the state. Chinese animators did not have to worry about the distribution and profits of their animated films, which were art films with the purpose of educating children. Their major task was to focus on the creative parts by producing high quality animated films and making the most of the aesthetic, cultural, and educational values of the films. In the 1980s, however, Chinese animators were pushed into the free market and had to consider the commercial values of animation and issues of profits in order to survive in the market.

Of course, there were some instrumental policies supporting the Shanghai Animation Film Studio to help them ride out the storm, but they were less effective. For instance, the Shanghai government refused the requests of some Sino-foreign joint animation ventures in the South to relocate to Shanghai, thus alleviating competition for the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. And more importantly, in 1995, Shanghai Television, a TV station based in Shanghai that had a more successful transition to the market-oriented economy, integrated with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Although this institutional merge brought new funding, new opportunities, new management, and a new way of thinking for the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, there were still some tricky problems for animators to shoot a commercial animated film. It was in this context that the Shanghai Animation Film Studio decided to make their first animated film blockbuster Lotus Lantern in 1995, which was finally completed in 1999. 

Meanwhile, the animated feature film classics produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, such as Uproar in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 1961-1964), Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (Nezha naohai, 1979), Legend of Sealed Book (Tianshu qitan, 1983), and Monkey King Conquers the Demon (Jinhou xiangyao, 1985), disappeared in the market and were seldom screened in theaters in the 1990s. The Shanghai Animation Film Studio also had not produced any new signature animated feature films suitable for cinema screening from the late 1980s onwards. In addition, animated films from Japan and Disney flooded the Chinese market and attracted the attention of Chinese children. In order to revitalize the domestic animation industry and revive the lost glory of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, Chang Guangxi was appointed as the chief director for the making of Lotus Lantern, which would serve as a milestone film marking the studio’s expected successful transition to the market economy. As Chang recalled, commercialization was the only way out to further develop Chinese animation at that time. Chinese animators should learn from the successful examples of foreign animations, but they could not appropriate the foreign model of animated film making blindly. He reiterated that they should stick with the philosophy of “Chinese motif, Chinese story, universal language, market-oriented pattern.”

Chang maintained that, although the Shanghai Animation Film Studio still adhered to the tradition of making art films in the 1990s, it was also imperative for contemporary Chinese animation to explore the commercialized model of animated filmmaking and chart the domestic and even international market. Moreover, the older generation of animators could now watch many foreign animated films through movie projectors and DVDs. Chang himself was inspired by advanced animation ideas and production methods from abroad. Every department at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, such as cinematography, soundtrack recording, screenplay, and composition, supported the overarching grand project of Lotus Lantern unreservedly. Because the film was an experiment in the studio’s transition to commercialization and the market economy, no one could predict the outcome. During our interview, Chang spoke frankly: “While preparing and making the film, I barely thought about the question of whether it would be successful or not. If the project was suspended in the middle, we could just regard it as a tentative exploration.”

 To Be Innovative & To Be Traditional 

As an innovation in 1990s Chinese animated filmmaking, Lotus Lantern was successful in the market and is gradually receiving more and more attention from film scholars. According to Chang, Lotus Lantern had to be finished in 1999 because it was a film dedicated to celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of socialist new China (1949-1999). In addition, if Lotus Lantern wanted to earn a high box office record, it had to be released in the summer to target children and young people in their time off school. The making of this animated feature film was time-consuming, ultimately taking four years to complete. There were three aspects of making Lotus Lantern that Chang highlighted in the interview.

1. Localization of Commercialization: No Assembly Line Production

In the 1990s, assembly line production based on meticulous division of labor in different animation departments within a studio or even outsourced to other countries was very popular in the world. Disney had adopted this kind of production method since the 1930s. In contrast, Chang believed that a director should work closely with other animators together in a room—which was the tradition at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. After brainstorming with major animators, the studio held a national job fair to hire a dozen young talented animators. “Creativity is something I would like to emphasize tremendously,” said Chang while recalling the process of making Lotus Lantern. There were many discussions between the director and other animators regarding screenplay, characterization, and image design. When every original drawing was finished, it had to be reviewed and commented upon by peers—a process that could help animators to get more inspiration and creative ideas. This kind of traditional workshop style was very time-consuming, and naturally under the market-driven system, the studio inclined more towards the assembly line production method. Under such circumstances, it was quite unusual for Chang and his colleagues to produce the first commercial animated feature film using the traditional workshop style.

2. Theme Song and Dubbing

The theme song is the soul of a film. In line with this thinking, Chang and his colleagues made the decision to invite contemporary superstars of Mainland China and Taiwan to sing the theme song. Of course, this would cost a lot of money. Due to their limited budget, Chang and his team chose to cooperate with Sony Corporation, a company that spent money to invite Liu Huan, Coco Lee, and Jeff Chang to sing the songs. The copyrights of the songs belong to Sony, but the rights of authorship belong to Lotus Lantern and the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. This cooperation method was different from the style of Disney, where specific theme songs were written for the specific plot. Sony provided a list of unpublished songs from the three singers for Chang and his animation team. Coco Lee’ Missing You in 365 Days and Jeff Chang’s Love is Only One Word were chosen by the animation team. The two songs did not specifically express the love between mother and child, which was the theme of the film, but Chang and other animators thought that as a universal theme, love could be elaborated and used in different contexts. Different from the two songs, the third theme song, entitled Heaven and Earth in My Heart, was first prepared by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Liu Huan liked the draft of the song very much and revised its lyrics and melody before he sang it for Lotus Lantern.  

Furthermore, utilizing prescoring was a significant breakthrough in the making of Lotus Lantern. Prescoring means that dialogue, sound, and music should be recorded first, and then based on the soundtrack, animators design characters’ actions, movements, and features. Prescoring was rarely used in Chinese animated filmmaking before, because it was very time-consuming and demanding. For Lotus Lantern, many famous Chinese actors and actresses, such as Jiang Wen, Ning Jing, Chen Peisi, and Xu Fan, worked as voice actors without any payment. They played the voices of the characters without watching the animated film. 

As an experimental work, Lotus Lantern was dubbed by Dolby Digital sound technology, although it was made with cinema film technology. It was the first time a Chinese film, animated or otherwise, adopted the Dolby system. To better enhance the sound effects, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio invited Zhan Xin, a celebrated sound engineer specializing in dubbing for live-action feature films, to join the animation team.    

3. Student Volunteers and Screening

Before the 1980s, the distribution of the animated films produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio relied on China Film Distribution and Exhibition Corporation, which took one third of the box office earnings. The Shanghai Animation Film Studio and the theaters took one third of the box office revenue respectively. However, under the market-oriented system, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio had to release animated films by themselves and be directly responsible for their profits. The planning department of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio made an audacious decision to use college students for the distribution of Lotus Lantern, and no one objected to this proposal. The Shanghai Animation Film Studio hired college student volunteers attending universities in Shanghai, who were expected to screen Lotus Lantern in their hometowns during the summer vacation. Their volunteer work was taken as an internship program and was given course credit by their universities. These select student volunteers received training provided by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in topics including basic liberal arts education, the process of animated filmmaking and production, knowledge of film issuing and intellectual property, and others.

Prior to the completion of the film, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio negotiated directly with the affiliated local film distribution companies of China Film Distribution and Exhibition Corporation in more than 20 provinces and cities. These distribution companies agreed with this experimental issuing method, and accepted the contracts for film screening from the Shanghai Animation Studio. When Lotus Lantern was completed, college student volunteers brought film prints to their specific cities after contacting local related issuing companies and theaters. Next, based on the cinema market, they took film copies to every movie theater for screening without any complicated handling procedure. According to the issuing regulations, student volunteers must be on the spot at every screening to prevent the film copies from being lost, reprinted, or pirated. Issuing methods like this had never taken place before in history of Chinese animation.

In general, the screening theaters, the local issuing companies, and the Shanghai Animation Studio divided the box office earnings equally. Lotus Lantern reaped over 25 million RMB at the box office, which was the first time a Chinese animated film reached this box office record. The traditional workshop style of animated filmmaking, the unconventional way of making theme song and dubbing, and the organization of the college student volunteers in Shanghai and elsewhere, created a unique model of animated filmmaking and distribution in post-socialist China.

By the end of the interview, Chang concluded that Lotus Lantern was a film with both wins and losses. In the market-driven world, everything is measured by money, and if one wants to pursue pure art, one would have to pay a high price. “Why is the Chinese school of animation so renowned in the world?” Chang answered that animation, a foreign art form, should be combined with traditional Chinese art style to make Chinese animation distinguishable and respectable. As for Lotus Lantern, there were still many imperfections according to Chang. For instance, the artistic style was not very impressive due to their limited time. Also, they hurried into the stage of storyboarding before the film script was even finalized. Despite these shortcomings, Lotus Lantern reaped high box office revenues and successfully led contemporary Chinese animation into a new epoch of commercialization and marketization.   


Amber Xu is a research graduate student in the Department of Chinese Culture at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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