By Jingyi Zhang
The beginning of the millennium was important for Chinese animation. It not only began the rejuvenation of the Chinese animation industry, which embodied “the promise of the modernization of Chinese visual culture,”[i] but also saw the creation of a surprising range of works that can be categorized as independent animation. Additionally, it was a significant period for Chinese animation education. In January 2000, the Beijing Film Academy separated the animation major from the Art School, forming an independent Department of Animation. This change signals the rise of professional animation education in China in the 21st century. Since then, animation departments and institutions have gradually been founded in many universities and provinces, including the School of Animation and Digital Arts at the Communication University of China (CUC). That department in particular has trained and inspired many young animators who contribute to the commercial and independent films in Chinese animation industry. Scholars have conducted many studies in Chinese animation, yet they rarely consider the important field of student films.
In this paper, I investigate student animation created after 2000 in China, focusing on those works directed by the students who graduated from CUC. I argue that student animation reflects the ongoing changes within Chinese animation, changes that will alter the industry, and make important breaks from the characteristics of the 20th century. The student films exhibit a variety of narrative, visual styles, and techniques. They not only are influenced by the development of digital technology and global animation and cinematic culture but also indicate the trend of reviving traditional visual styles and telling indigenous narratives. Moreover, the young generation of filmmakers have gone on to enter the industry, often while keeping their personal, auteur styles. With the new talents, new technology, new producers and a new reputation on the world stage, I keep wondering whether we are witnessing a new wave set off by the young animators in Chinese animation history.
THE CONTEXT: THE BEST TIME FOR CHINESE ANIMATION?
During the past twenty years, Chinese animation has undergone rapid economic and organizational restructuring, driven by political, sociocultural, and technological transformation.[ii] Today, the influence of globalization has shifted the ideology to a socialist-political discourse. Weihua Wu points out, the Chinese Communist Party has loosened the regulatory framework. In the meantime, the emergence of digital technology and “a commodified form of individuality” also has influenced Chinese animation.[iii] The universities have seized the chance to educate and provide a new generation of filmmakers to the industry. Animation studios try to create original intellectual properties to compete in the local and global market. In turn, the government has seen the potential of Chinese animation to promote the national identity and cultural brand worldwide. The past twenty years have become the start of a rich new era for Chinese animation.
Since 2001, Chinese art and film institutions have encouraged and assisted student production in various ways, which helped attract the public and government’s attention and/or support to the animation industry. Animation departments encourage students to create short animations and distribute them on the Internet. The Animation School of the Beijing Film Academy held its first Academic Awards in 2001 in order to showcase student works. Following that, the first international student animation festival in China, AniWow, was authorized by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in 2006. As a result, scholars, professionals, and students have provided technical and creative inspiration that helps mainstream media update their visual effects skills and promote the idea that animation is “a serious and legitimate form of cinematic expression.”[iv]
Another important step was taken on August 13, 2008, when the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China (changed to the Ministry of Cultural and Tourism in 2018) issued the document, Opinions on Supporting the Development of My Country’s Animation Industry, to encourage original animation and comics creation. The document recognizes the rapid development of the animation industry in recent years and admits that the current development status does not satisfy the people’s needs. To increase the amount and improve the quality of the animation works, the government decided to support national originality in animation and improve the ecosystem from production to distribution. Meanwhile, the document points out the significance of educating professional animators and broadening theoretical research in the field.[v] Issuing the guidance to support animation production and education reflects that the government has identified the importance of animation as a cultural practice. Animation was thus on its way to becoming a significant medium to develop the core values of socialism in the country and promote the national style and identity in the global marketplace. Some critics may consider the government guidance as transformed censorship and believe it may undermine the freedom of creation. However, it is essential to recognize that, as a result of these new government directives, there is loosened regulation and incentive for new investment in the animation industry.
The escalating emphasis on consumer-based commerce in the Chinese Economic Reform Era has led to various funding and investment opportunities in animation from government, commercial enterprises, and private investors. As a result, this variety is leading to a wider range of production practice beyond educational or propaganda purposes. Hence, varied visual and narrative forms of expressions across industries are adopted to attract various targeted audience groups. On the one hand, there are animated series like Chinese Poem Club (2015-2018), funded by Jiading Propaganda Department, that feature a traditional ink-painting style and tell stories based on Chinese classic literature. On the other hand, commercial enterprises like Beijing Enlight Media and Youku invest in commercial films and online series. Beijing Enlight Media has invested in, co-produced, and distributed several animated films, including Fish & Begonia (Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, 2016), Nezha (Jiaozi, 2019), and Jiang Ziya (Cheng Teng and Li Wei, 2020). In 2021, Youku announced a new plan called “One Thousand and One Night” to boost cooperation among several studios and universities and to help promote the young generation of directors. Crowdfunding also becomes a financing form and practice of contemporary Chinese animation.[vi] One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes (Henry Lu and Li Shujie, 2014), Monkey King: Hero Is Back (Tian Xiaopeng, 2015), and Big Fish & Begonia (2016) were funded entirely or partially by crowdfunding. The visual forms of the animated films sponsored or supported by private companies and crowdfunding reveal various styles from 3D CGI films to 2D digital animation. The resulting narratives and visual styles also differ from one another and do not necessarily have to focus on classic literature or folktales in order to turn a profit.
The development of digital technologies is also infusing new energy into the animation industry. With the advancement of CGI, personal computers, and the popularity of the Internet in China, the new millennium has witnessed the emergence, formation, and multidirectional exploration of Chinese commercial and independent animation and nurtured a young generation of animators.[vii] Jiaozi, Nezha’s director, taught himself Autodesk Maya, the professional 3D animation software, in his third year in college. His first short animation See Through (2008) was directed and created in Maya by himself. This 16-minute animation depicts a war comedy that features efficient character models, smooth figure performance, and flexible camera movements. Many animation programs, in additional to standard 3D software, have brought varied aesthetic results into Chinese animation, including 2D animation and video editing tools like Flash platform in the 2000s, Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, Premiere, and ToonBoom. Some animators combine 2D and 3D techniques when creating animation. The Legend of Hei (MTJJ, 2019) was created with hand-drawn and digital 2D animation that depicted an expressionist style in character performance.
Globalization is also responsible for the newly flourishing industry. On the one hand, global cinema and animation are imported to China, broadening the young talents’ creative horizons. Students not only learn techniques and tactics from international competition, but are inspired by them as well. In many young generation animators’ works, we can find influences from various countries and their cultural products, including Japanese anime and manga, American and European animation and cinema, and gaming culture. Furthermore, international festivals have become an opportunity for animators to gain experience and expand their own reputation on the global stage. Since 2004, Chinese student shorts have been entered into the highly visible venue of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. The animators whose works were nominated or won awards gained experience and confidence to continue creating animation and developing their unique styles.
In the meantime, animation education prepares new talent for the industry. Animation in higher education institutions was not completely new to the 21st century in China. Beijing Film Academy founded the animation major in Art School in 1952. However, since entering the millennium, animation education’s objective has changed compared to the 20th century. Animators were not solely working in government-related studios. This change happened because the schools were not solely government-funded anymore. According to CUC’s Income and Expense Report in 2019, the school’s income only partially comes from government funding. Other sources include business profit, subsidiary income, and private funding.[viii] To cooperate with the change in the industry, universities and institutions shifted their objectives and curricula to prepare young talents to become professional animators. Additionally, to react to the increasing demand for CGI and digital animators from the industry, the universities gradually added majors focusing on 3D animation, 2D digital animation, and special effects. Some schools also cooperate with private companies and foreign institutions to provide students with an industrial and global point of view.
The development of the Chinese animation industry is not affected by one but multiple factors. The political, economic, technological, global, and educational influences are all responsible for the renewal. In a word, the first twenty years of the 21st century may have witnessed the start of the best age for Chinese animation.
STUDENT FILMS: A REFLECTION OF CHINESE ANIMATION INDUSTRY
In this section, I investigate short films and propose that student films reflect Chinese animation’s characteristics nowadays. The animated shorts exhibit a variety of narratives, visual styles, and techniques. They not only are influenced by the development of digital technology and global animation and cinematic culture but also indicate the trend of reviving traditional visual styles and telling indigenous narrative. To analyze these characteristics, I examine several student films directed by students from CUC. As one of the earliest animation departments founded in China, the School of Animation and Digital Arts in CUC has provided many talented animators for the industry and has further established its reputation through its students’ successes, including multiple nominations and awards in the international animation festivals, such as Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Ottawa International Animation Festival, and Toronto Animation Arts Festival International.
When investigating the student films produced in the past twenty years in the CUC animation major, I found that the student films fall into a variety of genres, themes, and subjects. Some filmmakers were interested in adventurous stories and rooted the narrative in fantasy. Others created serious dramatic shorts or allegorical narratives. The films are not limited to educational purposes or targeted only at a young audience, as in the past. Instead, some explored heavy and traumatic subjects such as divorce and death. Moreover, more and more students showed their interests in telling indigenous stories originating from individual experiences.
For instance, in the short film Fish in the Bus (Yue Yulin, 2023), the director Yue Yulin tells a story between her and her father, capturing a piece of memory of her childhood.[ix] The animation starts on a busy bus that’s full of people. The little girl who has a fish in hand is taking the bus with her father. While in the middle of the journey, the little girl gets lost in the crowd because of a sudden hard-brake stop. She becomes scared and anxious because the people around her all look like some scary giants with the exaggerated perspective and depth (see Figure 1). She is so afraid that she moves among the crowd nervously and tries to find her father. Because of the crowd, however, she gets lost in the sea of people like a little fish. Thankfully, in the end, her father finds her and saves her from the crowd with his big hands. Time passes, and the little girl now a college student is taking the bus home from faraway. The city becomes more prosperous. But her father, who now is old and nearsighted, is still there waiting for her. Just like on the bus, no matter how far she goes, her father will always be there for her when she comes back. The story comes from the filmmaker’s childhood and roots in her individual experience. But it is also very relatable to viewers, especially the ones who left their hometown and parents to study or work in another city or even abroad. Many other student animators also find their inspiration in life as well. Happy Anniversary (Cheng Teng, 2011) was inspired by a quarrel between the director Cheng Teng and his girlfriend.[x] Me and My Magnet and My Dead Friend (Liu Maoning, 2018) was inspired by the director Liu Maoning’s childhood life when he was living in his hometown village.
Figure 1. The exaggerated proportion of figures in Fish in the Bus.
Not only the narrative, but the student films also exhibit a variety of techniques with the trend of utilizing digital technology in production. The majority of short films are created with digital 2D and 3D technology. But stop-motion and object animation can also be seen in the works, such as Cake (Du Yuhan, 2015) and Out of the Glass Bowl (Zhang Xitong, 2022). Some animators also mix several techniques in production. For example, Fish in the Bus mixes real photographic scenery with animated characters of the girl and her father in the final credit sequence to show tribute to the director’s father, blurring the lines between reality and the animated world. Prison (2015), a puppet animation made by Li Yameng and Ding Wei, uses 2D digital animation to distinguish the reality and dream world.[xi]
Furthermore, some animators revive the traditional visual style with digital technology. In Cheng Teng’s graduate film, Higher Sky, he combined digital 2D and 3D animation to recreate a hybrid of Chinese ink-painting style animation, showcasing a martial arts battle between the Monkey, the Crane, and the Frog.[xii] The two-dimensional characters are used so that the martial arts battle and the characters’ metamorphoses are not restricted to the laws of physical reality. Their bodies stretch and squash freely to capture the essence of the martial arts, such as the extreme stretching of the Monkey’s body when he attacks the frog with the golden staff (see Figure 2). The scenery of the mountain and sky is created with 3D animation in an abstract form. The tree branches do not have volume cues. Instead, they are created with exaggerated flatness to mimic the ink painting style of shape (see Figure 3). The 3D scenery also allows depth and flexible perspectives and camera angles, creating complex space within the mise-en-scene setting. The 3D background of the black clothes swinging in the cave also simulate the realistic movements of the wind, recalling an atmosphere from traditional ink-painting.
Fig 2: Monkey attacks frog with staff.
Fig 3: Ink-painting-inspired scenery.
When examining the student films, it is not difficult to notice that the national style of Chinese animation is inevitably transnational, especially in terms of narrative and visual styles. This idea is not new. Daisy Yan Du has argued that the history of Chinese animation was international before it became national and that “the transnational border-crossing movements shaped the Chineseness of Chinese animation.”[xiii] She exemplifies the international significance of Chinese animation in early history. She also proposes that the national style of Chinese animation is not a fixed but fluid concept. The national style in the 1960s features the ink-painting animation that distinguished Chinese animation from Japan and the United States and, more importantly, it “articulates nationalistic sentiments and national pride in defiance of foreign influence and dominance.”[xiv] As she notes, the national style of Chinese animation in the 21st century has changed as well. It is still transnational. However, the concept of transnational has dramatically changed. On the one hand, many works reflect the influences of global cinema, animation, and other cultural industries. On the other hand, the narrative and/or styles are inevitably “Chinese,” and are now marketed as such for the global marketplace.
For instance, Me and My Magnet and My Dead Friend (Liu Maoning, 2019) shows how the Chinese story collaborates with a post-impressionist style.[xv] Liu’s film sets the story in his hometown village in the 1990s, under the influence of One-Child Policy. The voice-over and the saturated-color images unfold the narrator’s childhood story in a slow pace, when his family had to hide the kids because of the policy. Images of the village reflect real life during the period in the village: most people worked in the field to plant crops to make money. The director also put his family photos in the short animation, blurring the real and animated worlds even more. The story is inherently Chinese. The visual style, however, seems influenced by Van Gogh and post-impressionism. The director used the digital brush to imitate the texture of oil painting. The saturated color of the sunflower, crops, and leaves, on the other hand, reminds us of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Wheatfield with Crows (see Figure 4).
Fig 4: Screenshot from Me and My Magnet and My Dead Friend.
CONCLUSION: IS THERE A CHINESE NEW WAVE IN ANIMATION?
To conclude, student films produced in China since the millennium reflect the industry’s new characteristics. The animated shorts exhibit the variety in narrative, visual styles, and techniques. They are strongly influenced by the digital culture and global animation. Yet at the same time, the films are also rooted the indigenous narrative and attempting to revive the traditional visual style, making Chinese animation inevitably trans/national. The student filmmakers have entered the industry while keeping their individual styles to produce commercial or independent films. Cheng Teng and Li Xia co-directed Jiang Ziya (2019), continuing their passion for martial arts animation. Liu Maoning, on the other hand, created his own animation studio and cooperated with other independent animators in To the Bright Side (2021). Their films not only reflect the industry. They have become part of the industry, infusing fresh blood to the history of Chinese animation. All this new talent is indeed pushing China toward a New Wave of animation, building on and surpassing past practice, and grabbing the world’s attention.
[i] Weihua Wu, “The Ambivalent Image Factory: The Genealogy and Visual History of Chinese Independent Animation,” Animation 13, no. 3 (2018): 221.
[ii] Weihua Wu, Chinese Animation, Creative Industries, and Digital Culture (New York: Routledge, 2017), 2.
[iii] Ibid., 2-3.
[iv] Weihua Wu, “The Ambivalent Image Factory: The Genealogy and Visual History of Chinese Independent Animation,” Animation 13, no. 3 (2018): 226.
[v] People’s Republic of China, “Opinions on Supporting the Development of My Country’s Animation Industry” (2008), <https://zwgk.mct.gov.cn/zfxxgkml/cyfz/202012/t20201206_916903.html>, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
[vi] Sergio Jesús Villén Higueras, Xinjie Ma, and Francisco Javier Ruiz-del-Olmo, “Crowdfunding as a Catalyst for Contemporary Chinese Animation,” Animation 15, no. 2 (2020): 131.
[vii] Weihua Wu, Chinese Animation, 145-146.
[viii] Communication University of China, “Income and Expense Report” (2019), <https://www.cuc.edu.cn/2020/0727/c1384a172042/page.htm>, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
[ix] “Fish in the Bus,”<https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1gt4y147Mt/?spm_id_from=333.788&vd_source=91dfae7b20cd17d79c7c5a717cecf2a8>, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
[x] Communication University of China, “Interview of Cheng Teng, the Director of Happy Anniversary” (2012), <https://www.cuc.edu.cn/oldnews/2012/0513/c1842a47837/page.htm>, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
[xi] “Prison,” <https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1Ps411m7Ch?p=20&vd_source=91dfae7b20cd17d79c7c5a717cecf2a8 >, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
[xii] “Higher Sky,” <https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1hW411y7yA/?spm_id_from=333.337.search-card.all.click&vd_source=91dfae7b20cd17d79c7c5a717cecf2a8>, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
[xiii] Daisy Yan Du. Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation, 1940s-1970s (Honululu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019), 2.
[xiv] Ibid., 114.
[xv] “Me and Magnet and My Dead Friend,” <https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV17s4115729?p=30&vd_source=91dfae7b20cd17d79c7c5a717cecf2a8>, accessed Aug 23, 2023.
Jingyi Zhang is an ABD of Theatre and Performance Studies PhD program at the University of Georgia, USA. Her research interests lie in the history of East Asian animation, animation technology, and animation and performance. Her dissertation is on the history and technology of the 21st century Chinese animation. She has presented at several conferences on Japanese anime and Chinese animation, including Southwest Popular/American Culture Association and Society of Animation Studies. Her article on the industrial practice of anime is to be published in 2024. Zhang is also a CG animation practitioner who received her M.F.A. on Dramatic Media at the University of Georgia.