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Circus school spawns first Khmer computer animators


Young artists at Battambang’s famed Phare Ponleu Selpak school are going high tech, establishing themselves as the Kingdom’s first generation of computer animators.

Launched in 2007, the animation studio has produced ten educational shorts about health and the environment, screened on local TV channels and shown in villages by NGOs.

Poy Chhunlin, 21, enrolled in the Phare Ponleu Selpak in 2006 to do an art class, but jumped over to the animation squad when it started up. She now works there as a flash animator.

“I didn’t realise that we could turn our drawings into computer animations,” she said.

“But when we started doing it, we began to discover the potential of the form. I like my work so much. It’s an amazing job.”

Computers are usually thought to make things simpler, but when it comes to animation, it’s a long, drawn-out task. The process requires artists to prepare 25 pictures for every second of film, equating to 1,500 per minute.

“My big challenge is drawing speed,” said Poy Chhunlin. “I’m a slow drawer. Sometimes it takes me up to half an hour just to draw one picture. And each picture that we draw has to be slightly different, or it will be jarring when we edit them together into a movie.”

Chem Li, 27, is another convert to animation – though he boasts a speedier drawing rate than Poy Chhunlin.

“I used to draw models a with pencil and paper,” he said. “When I started drawing on a computer, I found it a bit difficult. But now that I’m used to it I feel that drawing in a computer program is easier than drawing on paper.”

According to Chem Li, there are two different types of movement captured in animation: natural and unnatural. The natural movement, made up of our everyday gestures, is quite hard to draw as it has to reflect people perfectly. Being more cartoony, unnatural movements are easier to render.

“To draw facial expressions, I sometimes have to look at myself in the mirror, to see exactly what they looks like,” he said.

According to Chan Pagna, the co-manager of the animation studio, the team has been expanding steadily ever since it formed. While only a few artists were on board in 2007, today there are 15. But they’re all still in the process of learning the tricks of the trade.

“We learned how to animate art from foreign trainers, who were mostly French. They came to our centre quite often to train us in different techniques, like drawing storyboards, drawing action pictures, and dubbing sound. Our last trainer just went back to France last week, and the new trainer will come here early next year,” said Chan Pagna.

When working on a cartoon, the team is divided into groups: some sketch out storyboards, others flesh out the script, and computer-savvy members work on translating the characters and scenery to the screen, using Flash, Photoshop, Premier and Final Cut.

The team is given the general outline of the animation by clients, usually in the government or NGO sector. A one minute movie costs $3,000 and takes a month to prepare.

Norm Phanith, another co-manager of the studio, said that they’ve made animations about healthcare for Calmette Hospital, road safety for UNICEF, human trafficking for Oxfam Quebec, and clean water for the Apsara Authority.

But, as any Penhite would know, working with NGOs and the government can be an even harder task than painstakingly churning out hundreds of cartoon frames.

Norm Phanith said that some clients asked for alterations after production had wrapped. “We can change one second of a movie, but it’s not so easy to change half a minute. It takes us another month.”



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