By Qiu Liwei; translated by Yixing Li
This essay reviews the evolution of Taiwan animation, from the golden age of overseas subcontracting in the 1980s, to the creation of original content in the early 21st century, and the market orientation in the current age. The focus of this discussion is the interdependence and balance between two perspectives: the contractor-oriented, skill-intensive production perspective and the audience-oriented, creative perspective.
At a glance, Taiwan animation can be described as the exploration of originality and shaping of a unique style based on experience acquired from subcontracting for overseas production.
Before we expound on the production and the creation respectively, we should briefly discuss the general characteristics of the industry. We observe that the Taiwan animation industry is “labour-intensive,” with a demand for long production hours and ample manpower; it is “skill-intensive,” as specialized skills are required by various stages and styles, such as traditional hand-drawn animation, computer animation and stop-motion animation; it is “knowledge-intensive,” as knowledge is needed in planning, directing, marketing and producing; it is “fund-intensive” as the above-described processes require considerable manpower, software, and hardware.
In addition, animation content is usually not consumed and purchased repeatedly for long-term profits. The success or failure of a work of animation, which may have taken years to produce, is normally determined and revealed within a few weeks of theatrical release. Therefore, the industry is also “risk-intensive.”
The animation industry can be divided into the “Original Content Industrial Chain” and the “Production Service Industrial Chain.”
The Original Content Industrial Chain consists of four key domains, namely research and development, production, distribution, and screening. Key factors include innovation, differentiation, distribution channels and understanding of the market. As creators face the audience and investors directly, their planning, scriptwriting and directing capabilities are put to the test during the research and development stage. While proposing original ideas, they also need to have a deep understanding of the target audience. It is no easy feat to continuously introduce innovative ideas with the changing times. In addition, with the high production cost involved, local and international distribution is also a critical factor in determining the revenue generated from animation works.
The Production Service Industrial Chain, on the other hand, focuses only on the area of production, which involves early, middle and late stages. Key factors at play are quality, price and efficiency. Companies must provide quality work to upstream contractors, reducing the need for amendments and revision; they should be able to harness Taiwan’s competitiveness of sufficient manpower, hiring large numbers of workers and increasing efficiency; they also need to build a steady relationship with upstream contractors such as animation companies, television stations, and animation producers. If they are able to gain and maintain the trust from contractors, they can become stable service providers in the industrial chain and increase revenue from their service.
As illustrated above, Original Content and Production Service are two completely different tracks in terms of mechanism and goals, even though they both pertain to animation production. With this understanding in mind, we shall outline and discuss the development of Taiwan animation.
First, we shall focus on the Production Service. Taiwan’s animation industry was a late bloomer. In the 1970s, Japanese animation developed rapidly. With a sharp increase in demand, Japan looked overseas for middle-stage processing services. Taiwan’s Ying Jen Cartoon Production Center was established in 1970, mainly doing production work for Japan’s Toei Animation. Besides Japan, in 1978, Wang Film Productions also connected with American companies, accepting many subcontracts from Hanna-Barbera and Disney. As Japanese and American animation artists came to Taiwan, Taiwan’s animation technology improved significantly to match international standards, and many local talents were trained during this time. The competitive pricing, quality and efficiency won long-term collaborations with contractors, and Taiwan became the largest animation production base in the world.
In the 1980s, Taiwan’s manufacturing and processing industry blossomed not only in the domain of animation, but also in various fields. The labour-intensive wages made Taiwan an important place for overseas manufacturing and processing. Manufacturers expanded their outlets, with lowered production costs, improved workflow, reduced production time, and enhanced production standards, in order to cater to the contractors’ needs.
However, Taiwan’s economic take-off in the 1990s led to increasing wages, higher production costs, and the loss of the labour-intensive advantage, causing a decrease in overseas contracts. Meanwhile, other countries and regions with low labour costs also joined the competition. Faced with increasing pressures, Taiwan’s animation studios started to set up overseas branches in Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, etc., which became new strongholds of animation production.
Taiwan’s animation industry worked on overcoming challenges such as lowering costs, setting up studios abroad, expanding production capacity, and relocating and assimilating of talents overseas. Meanwhile, attempts were also made to explore the possibility of creating original works. Significant works included Old Master Q (1981), Messy Temple (1983), Bremen 4: Angels in Hell (1983), Zen Taipei Ah-Kuan (1994), Grandma and Her Ghosts (1998) and Kavalan (1999). The production workflow generally followed that of the subcontracting service, and the content was mostly adapted from renowned comic books, classical literature, and native literature.
From a bird’s-eye view, the animation industry consists of four main domains as mentioned previously, and each domain has its core capabilities. Research and development are centered upon market planning, financial evaluation, scriptwriting, and directing. Production is focused on labour, technology and management. Distribution is centered upon advertising, communication with the audience and marketing channels. Screening is concerned with various platforms, such as television, DVD, theatres or modern Over-The-Top media services. During the previous era of Production Service, work was focused solely on production. Hence, despite the maturity and experience in production technology, Taiwan’s animation industry was relatively unfamiliar with frontend work such as planning, scriptwriting, directing, finance, legal affairs and market research, and backend work such as publicity, distribution and marketing channels. Although early original works in Taiwan were created by experienced animation artists and mid-stage directors, the artistic directions, body movement and production procedures still followed the familiar ways of Production Service, with the intent of matching international standards in terms of technology. Therefore, though the original stories differed from those of Japanese and American animation, the style still resembled them to some extent. This is a common phenomenon in regions where Production Service had once prevailed. For example, South Korea, which had also done subcontracts for Japan, mimicked Japanese animation for an extended phase as well.
Around the year 2000, digital animation tools emerged, and the study of animation entered tertiary education in Taiwan with the establishment of animation research institutes. Consequently, independent animation artists proliferated, creating diverse and groundbreaking shorts with the experimentation of new media and the combination of traditional skills and digital technology. Elite animation artists created shorts independently or in small teams, earning accolades in local and international film festivals, and attaining remarkable artistic success.
In this era, original Taiwan animation can be divided into two categories: subcontracting production houses and the above-mentioned independent artists.
It is observed that the production houses had mature technology. However, despite attempting to free themselves from the contractor-oriented frame of mind, they were relatively unfamiliar with the front-end process of research and development and the back-end processes of distribution and screening. Hence, they were still struggling to cater to the audience’s needs. In comparison, independent artists had less preoccupation. However, they faced similar obstacles when it came to marketization and audience reception. Furthermore, it was also a challenge to transform their unique and diverse artistic attempts into replicable industrial processes.
Significant animated films of this period included A-Kuei’s Gonna Hammer You (2003), which was adapted from an online animation, Butterfly Lovers: Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (2003) and Fire Ball (2005). Television series included several commendable works, such as the comical Pandalian (2004); The Little Sun (2009), which was adapted from Liang Lin’s essay collection; Traces (2009), a work of fantasy born out of a collaboration by Taiwan and Swiss directors; Barkley the Cat (2010), which discussed rural-urban disparity and environmental protection; Hero: 108 (2010), which was based on the classic Chinese novel Water Margin. However, apart from these, most animation works failed to satisfy the popular demands of the general audience.
After 2010, there was an increase in original animation studios established by the independent artists mentioned previously. This gradually resolved the challenge of industrializing artistic styles. In terms of content, new works deviated from native or classical literature and shifted towards modern themes and science fiction, envisioning the future. As they observed the psyche of the society, they figured out a way to communicate with the audience.
Acclaimed animated television series of this era included Yameme (2012), a comedy featuring the daughter of King Yan (God of death); Weather Boy (2014), which explored time traveling to glimpse the Earth’s past, present and future; My Little Boys (2018), adapted from contemporary writer Luo Yijun’s work; Pigsy Express (2021) discusses the evolving interpersonal relationships in a future where Artificial Intelligence has replaced human labour. Animated films included Memory Loss (2011), a parent-child adventure; The Frogville (2014), a road movie detailing the migration of frogs; Barkley The Cat (2017), which leveraged on the brand of the original animation series, and was critically acclaimed in Taiwan and mainland China; On Happiness Road (2018), a film that narrated coming-of-age vis-à-vis Taiwan’s development; Deus Ex Baryon (2019), a story about robots set in a futuristic Taiwan; Taichi Cats (2019), featuring special forces comprising unique members; City of Lost Things (2021), a bildungsroman; Shiro – Hero of Heroes (2022), adapted from an early Taiwan adventure comic; etc. Original Taiwan animation works gradually caught the eyes of the local audience and were also distributed in dozens of countries and regions globally. Moreover, the annual number of Taiwan animation works has been on the increase. In 2022 alone, it is estimated that around 50 works of animated television series or films are being produced.
In summary, the Production Service industry is mainly catered to overseas contractors, follows the preliminary designs of the director, scriptwriter and stylist, and focuses on mid-stage production, displaying technological maturity. Since it follows the standards set by contractors, the industry is unfamiliar with the preferences of the local and international market and audience, hindering its transition towards the creation of Original Content.
On the other hand, the Original Content industry is audience-oriented, innovation-centered, and strives to be different from existing works. In a global market, besides competing against local and international companies, the Taiwan Original Content industry must also consider how to attract audiences, expand the market, increase the capacity for trial and error, establish domestic and overseas distribution channels and screening platforms, and much more.
Qiu Liwei is an animation director, graduated with a PhD in directing from Beijing Film Academy. He was an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Animation and Film Art in Tainan National University of the Arts. In 2007, he was invited to be an artist-in-residence in New York. His directorial works were featured in various film festivals at home and abroad, winning numerous awards, including the 2011 China International Cartoon & Animation Festival Golden Monkey Award, the 2012 Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival Special Jury Award, the 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2021 Taiwan Golden Bell Awards for Best Animation Program, Best Animated Film at the 25th and 30th Golden Harvest Awards, Best Animated Film at the Amsterdam Film Festival, First Prize at the Taipei Film Festival , etc.; nominations include Best Creative Short Film at the 41st Golden Horse Awards, and Best Animated Feature Film at the 54th Golden Horse Awards. His image installation arts have been exhibited at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing and the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts in New York.
Yixing Li grew up and was bilingually educated in Singapore. She 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 has taught at secondary and pre-university level. As a freelance translator, she has done translation work for essays, subtitles, legal documents and more.