How can you build a career as an animator in China? We asked Christopher Colman, a member of our Generation UK: China Network.
What brought you to China and how did you get involved in China’s animation industry?
After I graduated from a character animation postgrad at Central St Martins in 2010, I was looking for two things: a full-time job in an animation studio, and to move to a new country. A couple of years earlier, some graduates from the course had set up a studio in Shanghai. China was increasingly dominating the news, and sounded suitably different from London. So in late 2010, I sent the studio my reel and portfolio, and they offered me a job as a character and background designer. Three months later, I flew to Shanghai. My aim was to do six months, maybe a year, then come back to London. Before long though, I was hooked by the new culture and experiences I was having, which kept me interested well beyond my initial contract.
How did you decide to set up a professional network for animators?
Since that first role, I’ve worked in different disciplines across the animation industry. After a year with the studio, I led the development of a new animation training centre. Part of my job was to build a network of contacts that could translate into clients. The difficulty was that because the industry in China is young, there weren’t established structures and events to encourage communication. So, in order to meet people, find out who was doing what, and start conversations, my colleague Hailan and I started the China Animation and Game Network (CAGN), putting on live networking and creative events in Shanghai.
How is the animation industry seen in China?
The animation art form and the modern animation industry in China do not enjoy a very high status in society. Young people entering a career in animation often face family pressure to choose a more respectable, better-paid career. In lots of production studios, it's likely to be hard work and long hours. So part of CAGN is about celebrating the people who do it. We wanted to start a community (primarily in Shanghai, where we are based) where people can meet like-mined people, share their ideas, and have a good time.
What are you doing now?
Through my industry activities, I got to see a lot of projects and meet many people. I started writing about the studios and creative work that interested me, and consulting for international clients who wanted an insight into China’s animation industry. Besides CAGN and writing, I am writing and producing an animated project.
What is the working day like in a Chinese animation studio?
I can only speak about what I personally experienced, which was a 50-person studio on the outskirts of Shanghai. It was in a very bizarre faux-British town called Thames Town, where statues of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana stood alongside those of Harry Potter and James Bond, and an exact replica of a church in Bristol. I was the only foreigner, so I had to learn some Chinese pretty rapidly. We ate lunch and dinner at the company and I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with rice. At 15.30 every day, the whole company had to get up and do exercises at their desk, before ‘afternoon tea’, which curiously didn’t include any tea at all.
The staff in the studio were mostly very young, probably because young talent is much cheaper and easier to mould than more experienced animation artists, of which there are few in China. They were enthusiastic and hard-working – sometimes they would work all night to meet deadlines. But the tough schedules and inexperience of the artists, combined with an ingrained mentality of waiting for instructions meant creativity suffered.
Personally though, I had a great experience. The design team had a more relaxed schedule, working a standard nine-to-six day, with plenty of breaks and opportunities to wander the green areas around the studio. Everyone was curious about how a foreigner had ended up in such an unlikely part of the world, and they were all incredibly friendly. I feel very grateful for the hospitality and generosity that everyone showed me during that period.
How is animation in China different from in the UK?
As far as animation industries go, the UK and China are as different as they come. The key difference is maturity. The UK film, TV, animation and storybook industry has been steadily growing and evolving for decades. Over that period, the UK has produced countless shows, becoming a global creative leader in the process. Think of all the stories that originated in Britain and then spread all over the world: Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, Wallace and Gromit, Harry Potter, Peppa Pig. There is also a world-class visual effects industry, servicing the biggest movies on the planet. All the structures are in place in the UK: talent, tech, communication, and government support.
After 1979, China became widely regarded as the ‘world’s factory’ and the animation industry was no exception. Shows created in Western countries were sent to China to be made cheaply. That developed local technical skill, but did little for creativity. Nowadays, China has developed economically and become expensive, so the model doesn’t work. But more importantly, China doesn’t want to be the world’s factory anymore.
Why has the industry changed in China?
A crucial realisation for many companies is that, in the long run, the creators and owners of intellectual property are the ones who really make the money, not the service providers (or indeed those who copy someone else’s property, although unfortunately there are still perpetrators).
At the government level, the country has aspirations to become a creator, which has led to a concerted effort on the part of the authorities to bolster China’s creative industries. The aim is to increase Chinese ‘soft power’ on the world stage: namely, cultural products from China that can penetrate the consciousness of people across the world.
Meanwhile, China’s huge audience is opening up, through cinema screens, online channels and highly integrated and evolved e-commerce platforms, where spin-off products like toys, clothes, games and books can be sold. However, as much as the Chinese public enjoys Disney films, they also want homegrown shows created by people with ideas and voices they can relate to.
Plus, in all things, China wants to protect itself, for both ideological and economic reasons. It doesn’t want to allow an unrestricted onslaught of animation from abroad. Just the other day, the authorities slashed the number of foreign children’s books that could be published each year.
This leaves a void, and thus big moneymaking potential, giving rise to something of a gold rush. Hundreds of Chinese companies are trying to create, license, or buy intellectual property. Some are genuine and passionate about animation. Many are in it for the money. Either way, there’s a huge amount of energy and investment going into these endeavours.
What difficulties have accompanied this change?
None of the studios or investors, from inside or outside China, really knows what is going to work with China's huge, diverse and changing audience. The industry’s troubled history has also left a shortage of experienced Chinese storytelling talent.
As a result, a number of the bigger Chinese companies have set up studios overseas to make use of the creative talent and experience that exists there. So you have American creatives writing, developing, and directing many of the current bigger-budget Chinese movies. To try to make these films relevant to the Chinese audience, there is much back-and-forth between the teams in the US and China.