By Lo Wing Keung; translated by Yixing Li
Greetings. I am honored to share my work experience with all of you. Let me begin with a brief self-introduction. When I was 20 years old, I joined Hong Kong TVB as a screenwriter of variety shows, writing scripts for comical skits, television series and movies, and later wrote Cantonese lyrics as well. In the 1990s, I shifted to Mainland China and worked in film and television production in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing for more than a decade. From 2003 to date, I have been part of China’s original animation industry. I am not an animator, as I can’t draw; neither am I a director. I am just a storyteller who is willing to mortgage my house to the bank to fund my animation career.
Since I was young, I loved comics and animation such as Mickey Mouse, Superman and Doraemon. I had a deep emotional connection with animation. After I started working, I realized that none of the animation series broadcast by Hong Kong television was made in China.
From 1993 to 2003, China’s animation production was a mere 46,000 minutes. Converting that to 10-minute episodes, it is equivalent to 4,600 episodes, which is an average of about 460 episodes per year. That is a very low figure. At that time, most animation companies in China worked on orders from Europe, America and Japan. 3000 Whys of Blue Cat from Hunan was almost the only original Chinese production.
After 2000, cartoon channels and children’s channels emerged all over the country, but there was still a shortage of original Chinese animation works. There was almost nothing to broadcast. In 2003, I discussed with my colleagues whether it was possible for us to create an original Chinese animation work using the production method of sitcoms and to sell it to the television channels. Everyone was intrigued by the idea but was also aware of its difficulty. I went to Beijing along with a few colleagues and sought advice from a specialist who worked on Japanese animation. He told me that it costs around RMB¥12,000 to produce one minute of animation, which amounts to ¥120,000 for a 10-minute episode. As soon as we heard that, we knew it was impossible for us to meet this budget.
After we returned to Guangzhou, a friend suggested that we consider 3D animation, as it would be a trend in the future. We looked into it and found that just one 3D animation software cost about ¥30,000 to ¥40,000. We could not even afford the software. Just as we were about to give up, we learned from a friend that the animation of the Powerpuff Girls was made with another software, Flash. We bought Flash and started playing around with it. We made a small segment of animation first, followed by a short song, a script for an episode, and a full sample. We were excited to finish it and were convicted that we could produce animation on our own.
The next question was how we could transfer the Flash animation onto videotapes so that we could complete the dubbing and sound effects. In 2003, post-production studios could only do it on BETACOM videotapes. Ripping image files from the computer to the videotape was something hardly done even by television stations with advanced technology and equipment. The few of us had to ask around constantly and experiment on our own in order to overcome this challenge.
In 2003, with my limited earnings from film and television production, I led the film and advertisement team to produce our first 40-episode original animation series, Happy Family, using Flash. When we took the samples to the television station, the experts found them a little odd. Flash was mainly used for text effects when designing websites. When we used it to portray characters and stories, they differed from traditional 2D animation. For example, our characters could only move from left to right or right to left, not backward and forward, as Flash did not have this feature at the time. Although the experts felt that our animation was neither 2D nor 3D, they gave the green light in the end and allowed it to be broadcast on television. The method of distribution was called “advertisement exchange.” The television station did not pay me for the animation series, and instead gave me one or two 30-second advertisement slots, which I could in turn sell to clients or advertising companies, earning my income. In the end, the 40-episode series was distributed to more than 30 channels and earned me a few hundred thousand, which was only around 25% of the production cost I invested.
After the broadcast of this series, we gained some valuable experience. First, we had come to understand how to run the production of an animation series, from scriptwriting to animating. Second, the merchandise companies gave feedback that our next original animation series should use animals as characters, as the dolls of familial figures were not popular. Third, the series gained a big viewership across more than 30 television channels, giving us confidence in continuing to make animation with Flash.
However, we also faced financial difficulties. I had run out of funds and could no longer support future productions. Fortunately, in 2004, we met an investor and a major shareholder through the introduction of a friend. Our team founded Creative Power Entertaining to prepare for the next original series.
I divided the team into several groups and asked each group to put forward a proposal. The proposal had to meet the following criteria as I had suggested: the story must be a comedy, and the characters should reflect an obvious dichotomy of good and evil. Following these guidelines, my colleagues came up with many different pairs of characters. Apart from the wolves and sheep, there were also elephants and ants, tigers and rabbits, and so on. In the end, we chose the wolves and the sheep, and created Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf (2005). We signed a contract with the television station with the sample of our episode. The contract stipulated that we were to provide half an hour of original animation every day from Monday to Sunday between 3pm to 6pm. Our annual production rate was to increase to 250 episodes from 40 episodes. Many colleagues, including friends from the television station, were concerned about whether we could complete the task. If our production failed to keep up and the television station did not have anything to broadcast, the contract would automatically be terminated. Therefore, we faced a very high pressure in the following year.
From 2004 to 2007, we produced nearly 700 episodes of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf. The distribution started with seven television channels and increased to several dozens. The television station gave us 30 seconds to 1 minute of advertisement time per day in exchange for the 260 episodes we supplied annually. As it is not easy to cash out the advertisement time, our income had always been unstable and cash flow was often short. In order to ensure that the operational level employees were getting paid, the management often got a delayed salary or even no salary at all. By the end of 2007, we experienced another difficulty. Our first animation director left the company, as he could not endure this anymore. The team suffered a huge blow and everyone was worried about whether our animation production could still continue.
Fortunately, we had a new start elsewhere. A publishing house in Beijing signed a contract with us to publish Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf in print. Within a few months, hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. Judging from these statistics, I was convinced that there are a significant number of people who are willing to pay for Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf merchandise. So, I boldly encouraged my colleagues that, despite the director leaving, we were going to produce a Pleasant Goat film on our own in 2008.
I hoped that this film would rebuild the cohesion and foster the determination of the team and wanted to experiment whether our viewership can be transformed into new commercial returns. Indeed, every animator wants to be able to make a full original film. I set a budget based on the resources that the company could use, and we only had ¥3,000,000 for the film production.
In the production process, there were two moving incidents that I still remember vividly today. The team was divided into two units, with one unit working on the television episodes and the other working on the film. Therefore, it was common for us to work overtime. Some colleagues often worked late into the night and even brought their toothbrushes and towels to the office, working throughout the night. One morning, our cleaner found someone under the desk while she was mopping the floor. She probed and pushed him with the mop, but he did not respond at all. She panicked, thinking that he was dead, and called for help urgently. When our administrative staff went back to investigate, he found that the colleague had actually fallen asleep on a piece of cardboard under the desk after working overnight. He was so exhausted that he did not respond to the cleaner when she probed him at dawn.
The second incident happened when our entire film unit worked overtime until 2am or 3am. We found the gate of the office building locked when we were trying to leave. It turned out that the security guard had thought that the entire building was already empty, so he locked the gate and went to sleep. When we went to the security room, he woke up to a few dozens of people surrounding him. He thought it was a case of robbery at first and panicked. After that, he became very angry that we were still in the building at those hours, as it was against the rules. The next day, he approached the director of our company to lodge a complaint. However, when he found out that we were the company behind Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, which his son adored, his attitude took an immediate turn. After that, he would check on us after work every day; if anyone was going to work overtime, we would simply let him know, and he would wait for us to leave the building before he locked the gate and went to sleep. We became very good friends.
We had to overcome many difficulties in making the first Pleasant Goat movie with Flash. Some people thought that we just had to take the scenes and characters from the 500 episodes that we had already produced and rearrange them into a movie, explaining our low budget. However, that was not the case. First, the screen ratio of television and film are different. Second, we had a completely different story for the film, so the full 90 minutes were composed of entirely new scenes, props and characters. I am very thankful for friends from the movie theaters for allowing us to do experiments on their screens after the midnight movies, so that we could test the effect of the Flash animation when it is copied from the computer to the widescreen. We used a projector to test the sample on the screen, checking if there were square corners and color deviations, often leaving the movie theater late at night.
Apart from filmmaking, we also formed our own puppet show troupe in 2008. This is another story, as it was also a brand-new realm. Being a screenwriter and lyric composer, I was not worried about the script and music. However, we had to look for dancers. Naturally, we thought of dance academies in Beijing and song and dance troupes in the northeastern cities, so we went to Beijing, Dalian and Shenyang along with the composers of the musical. However, as soon as the dancers heard that they had to wear heavy clothes and cover their faces for the puppet show, they all turned us down. In the end, we recruited a group of graduates from an art school in Hunan, brought them to Guangdong, and invited teachers from Taiwan to train them. That was how we produced Memory Thieves, which was first staged in Shanghai.
After the performance in Shanghai, we were invited to perform all over China, even going as far as Inner Mongolia. We usually performed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and from Monday to Wednesday we would pack our costumes and props and move to the next city. That was how we completed hundreds of shows in China’s various cities.
Around the fall of 2008, our first film Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: The Super Adventure received funding from Shanghai Media Group and Beijing U’young Media. It was released nationwide during the 2009 Spring Festival, breaking the box office record of original Chinese animation with more than 89 million tickets sold. The children were very excited when “Pleasant Goat” and “Big Big Wolf” hugged them and shook hands with them in the movie theatres.
Thanks to the success of our puppet shows and film, we also sold many licenses. Previously, it was very difficult for us to find even one client who wants to buy our license. From 2009 to 2010, our licensed partners grew from a dozen to more than two hundred, with close to 2,000 authorized products. Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf went international with its broadcast on Nickelodeon Channel Asia, then in Hong Kong and Taiwan. We received high ratings in Taiwan and were well received by many children. Therefore, we also screened the Pleasant Goat movie in Taipei. At that time, it was a milestone for an original Chinese animation film to meet the standards for import and be screened in Taipei. After that, we started discussions with Disney.
In addition to Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, we also made animation series of various themes, such as Cookie Master, Legendary Soccer Kid and Planet of 7 Colors. In 2009, we started working on the Pleasant Goat shadow puppet show. By this time, the entire company could really see the market and potential for original Chinese animation. I started thinking about Chinese ink-painting animation next.
In 2009, I went to the United States to meet Dr. Nelson Chu, who was the developer of an ink-painting software, through the introduction of a friend. I was hoping to persuade him to return to China and cooperate with me on ink-painting animation but was unsuccessful. Dr. Chu told me that his software was meant for painting and not for animation, and was unable to work with me. I had no choice but to come back and put the idea of ink-painting animation on hold first.
In 2016, Dr. Chu came back to Hong Kong from the United States and told me that his software had been completed. I suggested, once again, to use his software for ink-painting animation. Soon after, he introduced three designers to me. When I saw the animated scene of a running squirrel that they made with his software, I was hopeful in the film production. After I managed to secure funding through some hard work, I started the production of Red Squirrel Mai, an ink-painting animated film, in 2017.
However, the production process was an unexpectedly challenging, even an arduous one. In the first year, the three directors and designers spent a long time trying to resolve the conflicts between the ink-painting software and other softwares. With regards to the standards of character and scene design, the directors themselves were often at a loss and could not give clear directions to the designers, slowing down the pace of production. There was also the issue of personnel training and communication between Mainland China and Hong Kong. My original intent was for the Hong Kong directors and designers to train the Guangzhou team to become the first batch of digital ink-painting animation professionals. That was a successful model I had used with variety shows, television drama series and even the Pleasant Goat movie. This time, however, I encountered a setback with Red Squirrel Mai. With the social unrest in Hong Kong and the obstruction of the Covid-19 pandemic, this model could no longer work. Due to the severe delay in production, we had to change the director in mid-2019.
My personal understanding of traditional Chinese ink painting is that every work is composed of different mulberry paper and ink and done by a unique painter. In theory, no two paintings can be identical. However, commercial digital animation requires a high degree of uniformity. In particular, the image of the main character must be unified when processed by different departments and designers. Our creative team, including the directors, chief animators and designers, often find it difficult to reach a consensus when it comes to the dilemma between uniqueness and uniformity. To give a simple example, in a scene of a squirrel running, one director wanted to add a unique style of modern ink painting, presenting a change in the color of the grass, the brushwork and the depth of field under the sunlight. As a result, each designer perceived a different image in his mind. When the director criticized the designs, one of the designers with a more traditional style even flared up and entered a heated argument with him.
The past three years have been a difficult process of exploration. I had once thought that as long as we had the software, the funding and the training, the project could be completed with some hard work. However, in retrospect, there are many deficiencies in the conditions I just mentioned. There is a long way to go in producing modern commercial animation with the traditional art of ink painting. More experiments and discussions are required, as well as greater investment, more capital and more devotion from artists and creators. We must also think about the balance between cost and artistic pursuit, and between tradition and market demands.
I am humbled to say that I do not yet have a full film to present after these three years. I have here a trailer that we have recently completed, our web animation series, and music videos of children’s songs that we made. I welcome your feedback and criticism.
Born in Hong Kong in 1958, Lo Wing Keung is a renowned animation and media practitioner, producer, scriptwriter, and composer. He entered the domestic animation industry in mainland China in 2004 and began to work on Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf in 2005, a TV animation series that became an immediate hit in China, with a view rate that reached as high as 17.3%. He has been dubbed by some media as the “father of Pleasant Goat.” He also produced other animations, such as Happy Family (TV series, 2004), Cookie Master (TV series, 2008), Tale of the Rally (feature, 2014), and many others. Renowned for his expertise in IP industrialization, he has successfully charted a commercial model for domestic creative animation. In 2011, he received his EMBA degree from the Business School of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In 2018, he started to work on Red Squirrel Mai, the first CGI ink-painting animated feature film in China.
Yixing Li graduated from Peking University with a BA in Chinese language and literature and an MFA in creative writing. She is currently a Chinese teacher in the Ministry of Education, Singapore, and a freelance translator.