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Former refugee an industry pioneer for Khmer-language 3D animation

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A screenshot of a Khmer folktale Rabbit Races Against the Army of Snails. SUPPLIED

Former refugee an industry pioneer for Khmer-language 3D animation

When he was living in a refugee camp in Thailand, Phat Sophal had no idea that what he was studying there would end up forming the basis for his career and become one of his passions.

Nor did he realise what a rare skill in his homeland it was to be able to create 3D animation like he was learning how to do.

Sophal and his family members were among the tens of thousands of people who fled to Thailand from Cambodia and who ended up at the Sa Kaeo I and II Refugee Camps – first when the Khmer Rouge came to power and then when the genocidal regime was overthrown.

In 1991, Sophal was nine years old and lucky enough to be studying computer animation with a foreign teacher in his refugee camp despite the difficult surroundings he had to overcome.

“I could study drawing with a French teacher who told the students in the camp that drawing was fun and everyone could learn to do it. He said ‘please take this skill and use it to help your nation’,” he says.

Those words resonated with Sophal and it became his dream to help his nation by working in the field of animation and providing educational content.

“After that he showed some French cartoons to us and then my dream began to grow and it was like a lamp shining brightly to give me a guiding light through the darkest places in my life, because at that time there were no schools and when we came back home we were living in very poor conditions,” says Sophal, now 40.

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Sophal draws a rabbit, an animal that plays the part of the scholar in traditional Khmer folktales. SUPPLIED

With his sister, Mao Khuoch, they travelled to seek jobs as workers in the neighbouring country to save money to buy a computer and pursued their studies in animation.

“It wasn’t until 2003 that I could afford to buy a computer for myself. It cost $120 and we bought it with our savings from working as construction workers in Thailand.

“But there were no schools, no one had what I needed. I travelled from one computer shop to another looking for animation software. Then in 2007 I finally found a copy of Autodesk 3DS MA X – and I have been using that to draw cartoons ever since,” says Sophal.

One of Sophal’s cartoons stars a rabbit, an animal that plays the part of the scholar in traditional Khmer folktales and symbolises wisdom. The rabbit introduces younger viewers to all 33 consonants in the Khmer language and script in batches.

The rabbit-scholar announces to the children watching what consonant is about to arrive before the letters fall onto the screen and then a bird uses them to write ‘Kor’.

There are millions of educational videos on every topic imaginable no matter what age the child is or what their ability level happens to be – but they are all available in English. Comparable educational resources for kids are almost non-existent for the Khmer language and Sophal is working to change that.

Veha Entertainment is a Khmer animated production studio founded by Sophal just recently in the Covid-19 pandemic era.

They have started out with their first two five-consonant parts episodes starring their scholarly rabbit and are doing another line of videos with Princess Jenna Norodom.

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The Veha Entertainment Production team is doing another line of videos with Princess Jenna Norodom. SUPPLIED

Sophal tells The Post: “The production was launched to develop knowledge of our Cambodian children through cartoon including folktale, short stories, Khmer alphabets and kids’ songs.”

Veha Entertainment Production has four members to produce 3D animated videos for YouTube and Facebook including his sister Khuoch and his two daughters, Phal Chivon and Phal Somesa.

“Now we have finished making the first three episodes of the Khmer alphabet videos with 10 consonants covered and we’re working on the rest of them right now.

“One batch of five Khmer letters that runs about 50 seconds takes between one and two weeks for the animation to be completed and we may need time about two months total since we have to draw the different characters representing all 33 letters of the Khmer alphabet,” Sophal says.

Sophal has finished animating one Khmer folktale called Rabbit Races Against the Army of Snails and several more stories are in production.

“Since each Khmer folktale has several characters with different scenic views, we need a longer time to complete them, but for short comedy stories there are fewer characters and that’s why we can finish them faster,” he says.

Aside from 3D animated videos, Khmer folktales, promotional videos and several animation design lessons in Khmer, there are many more educational animations about the dangers of Covid-19.

The rabbit plays an important role in the Covid-19 videos once again by educating other animals to wear face masks, wash their hands and other objects with alcohol and telling them to stay safe in their shelters.

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The first five-consonant batch of Khmer alphabets. SUPPLIED

Sophal tells The Post: “When I began working with animation during the Covid-19 outbreak, I faced some challenges. Even though it is sometimes a struggle, I still pursue my work with a strong determination because I love what I do and it’s my dream job.”

Sophal had previously been working for Hang Meas television station for five years and then decided to quit his job to pursue his dreams of establishing his own production company.

“Because I want to produce 3D animation for children, I resigned from my TV job and created my own business so that I could focus solely on doing that,” says Sophal.

His YouTube Channel “Cartoon Veha” has about 7,000 subscribers, which he says is still too small of an amount to make money from, but he hopes this will change as he adds more and more content to the channel.

He says the Khmer-language educational animation work so far has been funded by the revenue from teaching animation to others and making 3D videos for other clients.

“Aside from producing cartoons for children, I have plans to make a big screen animated feature film to help develop our local Khmer-language film industry with 3D animation technology,” he says.

Making high quality animation requires time and team work, Sophal says, adding there are very few local animators and the equipment they work with isn’t the most highend or cutting edge technology available currently.

He tells The Post: “We can do motion capture, the process of recording the movements of real people and objects, which can be transformed from that into cartoons that viewers find very realistic.

“Since there are limited resources, I chose a design level that is suitable for us. But we are also preparing to modernise to catch up to the world in technology.”

Sophal says those who want to work in this field must have some basic design and computer knowledge and if they can draw by hand as well that will make it easier for them to get started with computers.

For more details and to view Sophal’s Khmer 3D animations, visit ‘Cartoon Veha’ on YouTube or their Facebook page @VehaEntertainmentProduction


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