By Ann Y. Y. Leung
The world-renowned style of Chinese ink-painting animation emerged in 1960 with the release of Little Tadpoles Look for Mama, produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. In terms of art style, this animation studio released a similar animated short film, The Herd Boy’s Flute in 1963, and then Deer Bell (1982), and lastly the Feelings of Mountains and Rivers in 1988. All these visually stunning Chinese ink-painting animation films have made Te Wei (1915-2010) and Qian Jiajun (1916-2011) recognized as the founders of the Chinese ink-painting animation industry and their co-workers as the pioneers in this highly acclaimed animation genre.
In 1978, some of these Chinese ink-painting animation directors and animators started moving to Hong Kong. They included Fung Yuk Sung (1940-), Tu Jia (1945-), Fu Shishen (1938-), and Wu Qiang (1927-). Many of them used to work for Radio Television Hong Hong (RTHK), which housed one of the main animation studios in Hong Kong at the time. By 1982 or 1983, Fung Yuk Sung and Tu Jian left RTHK and helped to establish the Hong Kong Animation Production Limited. Accordingly, Wu Qiang joined RTHK in 1982. In 1984, Fung Yuk Sung moved to Taiwan. All these well-experienced animators from mainland China helped the animation development in RTHK to flourish since most local animators in Hong Kong at that time were not trained in animation filmmaking before they joined the industry.
The Secret Book of Animations in Hong Kong
Wu Qiang was one of the film directors of Deer Bell (1982) and he moved to Hong Kong shortly after the film’s premiere in the same year. Wu first worked for the SFX team under the Shaw Brothers Studio, but soon joined the RTHK and stayed there until his retirement. According to Mr. Neco Lo, who joined RTHK between 1978 and 1993, many animators from RTHK regarded Wu Qiang as a friendly mentor because Wu was assigned to produce primarily character animation for RTHK. Wu had spent numerous after-office hours sharing his work experience at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, mentoring hours which indeed enlightened Mr. Lo and other young local animators on how the Shanghai Animation Film Studio operated and produced different types of animation films. Mr. Lo elaborated that Wu was very well-organized and always prepared a theme together with some handouts to share and discuss with his fellow animators in RTHK. As a result, many of these former RTHK animators now do their own unique version of The Secret Book of Animations, which is a photocopy from a master copy of the manuscript – a step-by-step guidebook on animation filmmaking. Mr. Lo believes that the very original transcription was used as training material at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, and these senior animators from mainland China recompiled them for sharing and training the local young animators in Hong Kong, just like what Wu Qiang had done. Thus, The Secret Book of Animations is not a single publication, but different versions of the manuscript organized and compiled by local young animators who put together whatever they had as their individual records.
“Mr. Wu Qiang shared many experiences through his ‘stories’ in Shanghai,” said Neco Lo. There were no technical training involved but mostly casual conversations, sometimes in-house screenings. Mr. Lo recalled these happy moments as their “informal meetups” after work, led by Mr. Wu, where they in fact learned a lot about the art of animation. Mr. Lo explained that the original manuscript he owns was handwritten by Seto Yeung Hin (also an animator in RTHK) in use of the handouts from Wu Qiang. Mr. Lo and his colleagues then simply made photocopies, devised their own way to do the binding, and designed their highly unique book cover. The Secret Book of Animations can be seen as strong evidence of how mainland China’s animation production has influenced Hong Kong animators.
On the other hand, the creation of Chinese ink-painting animation used to be an enigma held by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio due to the State Secrets Protection Act enforced by the Chinese government. As such, people were curious about how those ink gradation and diffusion could be emulated on celluloid sheets. Considering that all these immigrated animators from mainland China could not disclose any information, it is probable to assume the general public had no idea how these conventional Chinese ink-painting animations were produced. Despite the State Secrets Act, Mr. Lo suspected that the secret was broken to the animation world around 1985 through a Japanese magazine article, because that year, he was attending the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in Japan and saw the article himself. Mr. Lo believes that by the early 1990s, many experienced animators could have heard of or realized that the production of Chinese ink-painting animation was in fact a painstaking process, added after film processing. Hence, few studios could afford such production overheads and not many local animators had the motivation to produce one by themselves.
Chinese Ink-painting Animation Created in Hong Kong
However, Neco Lo revealed that he witnessed a couple of his colleagues in RTHK conducting private testing to develop ink painting style animation but he assumes the testing failed because the audience in Hong Kong didn’t see any Chinese ink-painting shorts produced by local animators until Buck Mok and Roger Ho performed many private tests and finally published their experimental short film Farm Boy Azhi in 2002. This short animation can be considered the first Chinese ink-painting animation created by local Hong Kong animators, but they used a locally written software tool called “Creature House Expression” developed by Alex Hsu.
According to Roger Ho, who also retired from RTHK, Wu Qiang described that there was a team of animators in Shanghai Animation Film Studio devoted to studying Disney’s first feature film Snow White (1937) frame by frame. They even redrew the film frame-by-frame to come across their interpretation of the “principles of elastic motions” (the expression used by Ho) in animation filmmaking. These principles apply to animating many different objects not limited to humanoid characters. Ho added that another major formula for producing Chinese ink-painting animation during the 1950s in Shanghai was to apply camera tricks and film development techniques in the filmmaking process. Unfortunately, this workflow was not considered by Ho and Mok for their independent short animation project. They instead focused on studying and researching traditional Chinese painting, and this is how Buck Mok came across the idea of creating several short animations around the theme he called the “Chinese artist series.” Buck then decided to embrace the Qi Baishi style for the first episode. Ho and Mok found Alex Hsu’s “Living Cels” feature from his “Creature House Expression” software fitted their production criteria.
Buck Mok continues to create “ink-wash style” (expression used by Mok) animated films since he directed Farm Boy Azhi (2002), and he has won many awards with this animation production practice. Mok recalled it was a public seminar at the Hong Kong Arts Center on an ink-painting animation topic where he met Roger Ho. They became acquaintances and produced some short films together. Farm Boy Azhi was funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council so he could work with Roger Ho and Alex Hsu together with other animators to experiment with creating their own ink-wash animation film. This short film earned credit as the first CGI ink-wash animation produced in Hong Kong and it won the Hong Kong Digital Entertainment Association (HKDEA) silver award and was shortlisted for screening during the 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2003.
Two years later in 2005, Mok and his colleagues from his production house “Animation Workshop” released the second episode of his “Chinese artist series,” which conveyed the childhood story of Mei Lanang (1894-1961). This “ink-wash” animation was called Mei, The Stream from Heaven and they applied “Living Cels” again but integrated traditional cel animation techniques this time. The animators adopted the motion style of Richard Williams (1933-2019), and it was successful. This film was screened at the 2005 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival for which Buck’s team fulfilled developing their unique animation style – the ‘ink-wash’ style. In 2011, Mok’s third ink-wash animation short film Wu Song Diary – Wu Song Kill Tiger was released. It is a comedy short film written by Prof. Poon Wai Sum. They purposely incorporated some Lingnan School of Chinese painting elements into this film’s art direction. This film went on to win the silver award in the 15th Incubator for Film and Visual Media in Asia (IFVA) as well as in the 11th Digicon6 award. This film has screened in Shanghai, Taiwan, and St. Petersburg, and it received a Hong Kong ICT Award (HKICT) in 2009 in recognition for its use of ICT in animation production. Mok is currently working on a feature-length animation project focused on the story of Wu Song.
An Overview of Hong Kong’s CGI Ink-painting/Ink-Wash Animations
Mok is very humble, and he considers his creative approach to producing animation is toward the “natural forms Art” principle, which means to let the production style drives its art form. Thus, Mok keeps denying his award-winning animations are Chinese ink-painting style because he believes he could never reproduce the very rigorous and orthodox Chinese ink-painting canons in his animation films. Instead, his ink-wash animation films present another art form that contains delightful sentiment and brings joy to the audience. Although Mok has never worked for RTHK, he holds a copy of The Secret Book of Animations and shared with me what he learned by studying his exclusive edition. Mok personally finds those animation masters from mainland China have had slightly different interpretations of the “rhythms in motion” compared with the well-known “principles of animation” from Disney’s Nine Old Men. Such nuance difference has drawn attention to Mok, but, nevertheless, he emphasises both styles are exclusive! I believe Buck Mok has his interpretation of the differences between Chinese ink-painting animation, the Disney style animation, in contrast to his ink-wash style animation. Towards the end of the interview, Mok shared how he defines animation: “Animation is only a ‘means’ for animators to express, and it has room for heterogeneous expression styles.”
Besides Mok and Ho, many local animators in Hong Kong contributed different executions producing CGI ink-painting or CGI ink-wash animation works. This includes Vincent and Ein Yeung from the Hong Kong Productivity Council as they jointly produced A Hero Who Commands the Sky (2005). Their objective was to apply motion capture (MoCap) and “Non-photorealistic rendering” (NPR) technology to represent authentic Chinese kung fu. It was a very short film with a beautiful backdrop of Chinese ink-painting scenery.
In parallel to conventional animation projects, CGI ink-painting animation was applied for the first time in 2005, creating Hong Kong’s VFX shots for a live-action movie when the Chinese Tall Story, directed by Lau Chun Wai was released. Audiences could see two Chinese ink-painting VFX shots in that movie – the “South Heaven Gate” scene and the “Four Heavenly Kings” head portraits shot. These two shots were produced by the Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design Company and primarily handled by one of their senior animators from the “Research & Development/VFX team,” Mr. Ken Lee. Lee revealed that since the movie’s storytelling was adapted from a great classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West (written by Wu Cheng’en during the Ming Dynasty), Menfond eventually decided to apply a locally invented 2D ink-wash simulation engine created by Dr. Nelson Chu: “Moxi.” Lee worked closely with Nelson Chu for months where Chu finally developed several custom-made features for the MoXi’s beta version at that moment. This proprietary tool managed to fulfil all the requirements according to the movie’s production design, Lee explained.
Lee recalled how he worked together with the movie’s production designer, Bill Lui (a famous art director and production designer in Hong Kong), who was responsible for designing the ink dispersion effects for the shots. Additionally, there was a team of about 40-50 people from both mainland China and Hong Kong who worked collaboratively to deliver the final VFX shots. Lee had tried using commercial software programs, but he commented that MoXi could deliver a better “look and feel” for the ink breeding and dissolving effects. He asserted that the MoXi simulation engine achieved a smoother blending between the ink-painted scenery to their live-action footage although the commercial software performed decently at times.
Despite the production challenges, this project has marked a milestone in adopting a proprietary simulation engine to generate Chinese ink-painting VFX sequences and it took place in Hong Kong. Moreover, the importance of the project is in how CGI assisted in generating visually compelling Chinese inking and ink-wash effects for large-screen movie making. This project has proven that a Hong Kong software developer is capable of inventing powerful tools in this regard.
Then in 2012, when Ken Lee served as a lecturer at the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), he had the opportunity of handling another Chinese ink-painting animation project but this time it was a commission from the “Xu Beihong Arts Committee” through the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups for their Xu Beihong Grand Horses Animation sequence production. Lee led 30 students from the Design Institute who were studying the “animation and VFX stream” in the Digital Media Design Department. This project lasted for four months, and they only applied commercial software tools. They finally delivered 30 seconds of “full-CGI” animation film that successfully simulated Xu Beihong’s representation of horses’ movements. This animation sequence was publicly screened during the official Xu Beihong’s art exhibition held in Hong Kong at the City Hall in 2012. It was screened again at the Book Fair that same year, and at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum about a year after the grand exhibition.
This animation sequence has earned much appreciation from both professionals and the general public. Lee shared that he led the students to carefully examine up to 13 pieces of Xu Beihong’s horse paintings and particularly Xu’s genuine “bone method” (a traditional brushwork technique in Chinese ink painting as well as for Chinese calligraphy). In like manner, they also studied Xu’s “dry brush” style during the preproduction stage. Further, they went to the Tuen Mun Public Riding School and took notes on how living horses move. Their final execution focused on conveying a tranquil sentiment about Xu’s horse ink-painting with injected convincing animated movements.
Regarding a more conventional 2D animation production, Kwai Bun and his colleagues from ManyMany Creations Ltd. were determined to use 3D animation software to produce a sequence about the Along the River during the Qingming Festival shot inserted in the 2D animation movie McDull Kung Fu Kindergarten released in 2009. Kwai Bun disclosed that they intended to adopt a meticulous fine brushwork (gongbi style) to convey the “realistic” and 3-dimensional visual impact within the 2D McDull animation movie. Their treatment was to apply “shader effects” to fake the gongbi brushwork and employed a false 3D perspective to create a flattened representation of space in the shot.
Another milestone project happened in 2019, which involved the latest “real-time eastern water colour program” developed by Dr. Nelson Chu again. This software program is called “Expresii,” used for the animated feature film project titled Red Squirrel Mai, but somehow the project took a new approach eventually. However, the lead animator, Angela Wong continued her experiments with Expresii and has been working closely with Nelson Chu after her initial hands-on with MoXi during the 2016 SIGGRAPH Asia event, where she first experienced the potential of an ink simulation engine, invented by Hong Kong software developer Nelson Chu.
Angela Wong is currently working with Nelson Chu on her funded independent animation short film Find Find, where Chu has written another proprietary feature “Expresii” and eventually they both found a “procedural inking” utility. Wong showed me the testing of her octopus character, which was rigged in commercial software while Expresii could read the rig’s motion and generate brush and inking effects corresponding to the octopus’s individual tentacles. It became a semi-automated workflow for Angela Wong which I would consider a novel production practice for inking an animated character by cleverly using the software. Since this project is funded, Wong and Chu aimed to explore how to better enhance such semi-automated workflow for producing complex motions.
Besides Nelson Chu, I interviewed another local software developer—a contemporary Chinese ink-painting artist with a computer science background named Wong Chung-Yu. Interestingly, Wong was a student of Prof. Wucius Wong (1936-) when he was a university student and he fell in love with Chinese Art after attended Wucius Wong’s art course. Wong Chung-Yu has been creating digital ink artworks and has always employed a simulation approach to creating his art. His artworks have been published since 2003 and exhibited in both local and international art events. In August 2019, Wong was determined to release his proprietary ink art creation program for free download to everyone. He called this software “Pure Ink” and he emphasized that it was his first trial coming across a full software program. Since he is keen on sharing his passion for “ink art” (expression by Wong), he would do anything to help promote the beauty of ink art. Gratefully, he has showcased four pieces of experimental animation applied “Pure Ink” in his recent art exhibition “Centrifugal Art Force – Digital Ink Painting and Animation of Wong Chung Yu.” Wong explained that he merely applied his software’s diffusion system to produce the animated ink; thus, no keyframes were used.
This research study painted a brief history of Hong Kong’s ink-painting animation development by compiling data collected from 10 interviews, 7 of which were conducted between December 2019 and December 2021. The interviews are Roger Ho and Neco Lo, two retired animators from RTHK; Nelson Chu and Wong Chung-Yu, the software developers for “MoXi” and “Expresii,” and “Pure Ink’ respectively; Buck Mok of Animation Workshop; Ken Lee, a former animator from Menfond who currently performs a lecturer in HKDI; and Angela Wong, the co-founder of Rooftop and Studio Biped animation production house. Three earlier interviews conducted back in 2008 are included since the data are valid.
Hong Kong’s ink-painting animation mainly applied a digital workflow while Roger Ho and Buck Mok’s first ever ink-wash animation production in Hong Kong already involved a proprietary software program. Their approach seems viable to most Hong Kong animators because there are many small-scale projects and “Creature House Expression,” a simple software tool that successfully provided Buck Mok a platform to explore and experiment with different ink-wash production styles. On the other hand, the continuous collaboration between Angela Wong and Nelson Chu demonstrates when an animator adapts to a new software tool, it could trigger a different workflow, and in this case, a semi-automation practice, which made Angela Wong very happy. Most importantly, we need open-minded animators like Ken Lee who was convinced to try out the beta version of MoXi instead of merely relying on commercial software; his earnest cooperation makes room for both the animator and developer to excel. This local “Hong Kong fashion” production practice is, perhaps, establishing a different version of Chinese ink-painting or ink-wash animation for the audience. In addition, Wong Chung-Yu has started creating abstract animations using his own invented “Pure Ink” to explore the possibilities of bridging digital ink art and Chinese ink-painting.
Lastly, I would like to cite once more Buck Mok’s bold statement for animators to conclude this essay: “Animation is only a ‘means’ for animators to express, and it has room for heterogeneous expression styles.”
 思之, 2019.
 They are “The Six Canons,” a.k.a. the “Six Principles of Chinese painting” established by Xie He in The Record of the Classification of Old Painters, written circa 550.
 Disney’s Nine Old Men were the core animators at the Walt Disney Production House who created and directed many famous animation films since the late 1920s. They are Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman and Frank Thomas. Their legacy to the animation world is the well-defined “12 Basic Principles of Animation.”
 思之, 2019.
 The famous Song Dynasty painting was originally painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145).
 思之, 2019.
Ann Y. Y. Leung (aka ann/y, CG/思之) is the founder of Open-Source-MultiMedia.HK (www.osmm.net/) and a slasher – Open-Source workflow consultant / 3D artist / freelance instructor / columnist / independent researcher and her research interests are Artforms of 3D CGI and Self-determined Learning. She performs also as a part-time visiting lecturer at several universities in Hong Kong.