Voices

What is working in China's animation industry like?

By Christopher Colman

30 March 2017 - 16:49

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.

What can you say about creativity in China?

The spotlight is on China now because there is a relatively sudden demand for content, plus a lot of money potentially available. But this change has come so quickly that the quality and purity of creative vision isn’t necessarily flowing as freely as it might. It would be great to see more experimentation, adventurousness and risk-taking in animation.

Censorship continues to play a role in diluting ideas. The authorities have historically been inscrutable in their decision-making. This has led to uncertainty among creators, who are reluctant to take risks that might jeopardise the chance of their show being broadcast, which would be financially disastrous.

Conversely, the lack of a clear set of codes, standards or practices has actually also led to some dubious children’s content slipping onto the air, including characters smoking, extreme violence and story lines about corruption. This is beginning to change, because parents are complaining about the shows their kids are being exposed to. For example, there was a tragic case a couple of years ago where a child tied two other children up and set fire to them, emulating something he had seen on the cartoon show Pleasant Goat & Big Big Wolf.

What do you predict the next big development in the animation industry will be?

I don’t think there is going to be some seismic moment where everything changes, and Chinese animation suddenly becomes a world-beater. It’s going to be a long and gradual process of little improvements and small breakthroughs. You’re going to see a wave of Chinese animation movies coming out in the next three years, which are the products of this new age of Sino-American collaboration.

My hope is to see creative Chinese auteurs, directors and writers emerge who strive to realise a vision and express their voice. We’ve already seen that in the director Tian Xiaopeng, who fought for eight years to make Monkey King: Hero Returns (one of the highest-grossing animated films in China), and Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun who spent 12 years realising the epic fantasy Big Fish & Begonias.

What role will virtual technology play?

China is doing well at putting virtual reality, or VR, in the hands of the public, with kiosks and experiences everywhere. There is and will continue to be collaboration between VR and animation and game studios. But although tech may be involved in China’s quest to tell compelling stories, I don’t see it as the key. That’s going to come from nurturing uninhibited writers and directors. I’d urge readers interested in the China VR situation to look at former Disney executive Kevin Geiger’s blog on AWN.com, which sums it up well.

Should non-Chinese animators consider China for their next career move?  

Even though there are more foreigners coming to live here and work in this market, I think a lot of people still have a negative impression of what China is like. The headlines give the place a bad rap, meaning relatively few people want to move here, especially senior professionals with families.

I came as a fresh graduate, which was good for me at the time. London and other major animation hubs can be tough places to get a break, with a lot of freelancing and not knowing where your next job is coming from. China is a great place to come for a few months or years to get solid experience working on real shows.

For more senior pros, if you’re up for emigrating and like the idea of China, there are a handful of good studios that will pay well enough and are making some high-quality shows. They’ll be happy to hear from you: talent is always needed here.

What would you say to someone thinking about working in animation in China?

If you are considering a move, my advice would be to ask a lot of questions. Talk to the studio where you would be working, and to people outside who know the studio and the industry. Make sure you feel 100 per cent comfortable communicating with them. Lay out all your requirements clearly from the outset, and don’t assume anything. If you do all that and it still looks good, I would say go for it. Besides the job, you’ll discover so much in China.

There are huge opportunities to build a network. People here are trying to make things happen, so they will be open to hearing from you. Show your enthusiasm, and it will be infectious. An international, outside-the-box perspective is valuable in the creative fields in China, so if you end up here, use that, push it, and make yourself stand out.

Do animators earn more in China than they might in the US or UK?

It depends. Early-career professionals make less than they would in, say, London, but there are more full-time positions in studios here compared to the UK, where shows are primarily staffed with freelancers. Senior talent can earn well with the big studios here.

Why should UK nationals seek experience of China?

Everyone, no matter what profession or stage of life, can benefit from living in a new country and culture. China, especially Shanghai, is an incredibly dynamic place, where there is a huge amount of potential. It’s the next global frontier of film-making, so if you want to be at the forefront of that, then you need to be here.

For foreign producers looking to work with Chinese partners, it’s worth noting that to achieve something more meaningful, you’ll need to put in the time. You should forget any ideas that China is the promised land, where money flows freely and deals can be done over a meeting and one baijiu-soaked meal. It’ll take multiple visits and probably months or years to forge the relationships and trust needed to start doing business. 

Chris Colman is an animation writer, designer and producer, based in Shanghai since 2011. Find him on LinkedIn.

The Generation UK: China Network is a professional network of UK nationals with experience in China, across a wide range of industries. Find out more, including how to join the community on LinkedIn

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