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Local animator previews master plan for studio with Khmer historical fiction focus

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Screenshots from The Legend of Khema – a student project by Meng Judisak that he hopes to expand to feature length with his new studio. SUPPLIED

Local animator previews master plan for studio with Khmer historical fiction focus

Meet Khema: He’s about 20 years old with big cow-eyes and thick arched eyebrows with dark hair and brown skin. He wears a krama on his head and a blue-green shirt along with a pine green traditional kben. He carries a gem in one hand as he clambers over obstacles on his way to a distant triple-spire temple.

His mission is to bring back to Vihear Neang Neak a glittering stone left by the Funan Empire. He’s confident that he’ll complete his mission in style without breaking a sweat … But it’s not going to be as easy as he thinks.

If you haven’t guessed already, Khema isn’t a real person. He’s a 3D character from The Legend of Khema, an animated clip set during the time of the Khmer Empire that its creator wants to expand it into a full film or series. Khema is an orphan who lives among the Khmer Mons deep in the Cambodian jungle.

Khema and his friends are all Buddhists who worship the spirit of Sauvali – a God who provides protection and keeps them isolated from the empire’s ongoing wars.

In a short clip from the film, we see Khema run, jump and flip over rolling logs through a lush forest to arrive at a majestic temple. It’s only a minute long but the animation is polished and action-packed, leaving viewers curious to see the rest of Khema’s story.

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Judisak is a recent graduate of the 3D animation programme at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney. SUPPLIED

“This was actually originally an assignment I did for school while I was studying at university in Australia. For our final project during our last semester the university required all animation students to produce a one-and-a-half minute clip in order to graduate,” says Meng Judisak, the man who created Khema.

While he was studying at the University of Technology Sydney as a design and 3D animation student, Judisak says that in May the university assigned him the project wherein he would produce a cartoon to be screened at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

“So I thought of a story I wrote few years ago about a character named Khema living in the Jayavarman II period and I went ahead and produced a 3D animation about him for my final project,” the 22-year-old Judisak tells The Post.

The resulting Khema clip received high marks from his professor and that plus all of his other classes and credits earned him his degree from the school.

Beyond Judisak wanting to bring a character he’d written a story about to life, he says he was motivated by the desire to create an animated character that would be up to western standards in terms of quality but looked Cambodian – both the character’s ethnicity and the style of animation.

“Though this was based on a story I wrote, I didn’t necessarily want to follow the plot I’d written previously. I just wanted to test out how a Khmer character might look because 3D animation is heavily influenced by western animation styles and I want to create something with an authentically Khmer style,” he said.

“So to finish the whole story I will need more time to research and plan,” said Judisak, who spent his last semester studying online from Cambodia due to pandemic restrictions.

The one minute and eighteen second clip titled The Legend of Khema – which Judisak took between four and five weeks to produce – was created to comply with the demands of the university and was focused on demonstrating the various animation skills he was supposed to have learned while getting his degree rather than creating an immersive story.

“The month I spent on the project went by pretty fast because I was working alone. While I was doing it I decided I wanted to do an animated Khema film to release here in Cambodia,” says Judisak.

The newly-minted graduate says that as the producer and writer he needs to research more and get further into the details of the historical period though the Funan and Chenla period doesn’t have a lot of sources available, so he may have to fill in some gaps with his imagination or with educated guesses.

“Through the story I wrote and with this animated film I want to create a fantasy world that is based on our history and inspired by animation from Europe, China and Japan and how they tell stories where they integrate their actual history with fictional characters or events to make it appeal to viewers,” Judisak says.

Judisak may be on to something. Works of historical fiction set in the distant past have maintained a consistent popularity in cultures across the globe. Many periods of European history are already well-represented by TV series like Vikings, Rome or The Tudors, not to mention films like Gladiator or Braveheart. Why not Cambodian history?

“I think that history-based fiction and animation will impress people and have huge popularity. It will help boost our nation’s pride and teach our younger generations about where they come from more effectively than classes or non-fiction books can because many young people find it boring when presented that way,” he says.

The plot for Judisak’s story has Khema helping King Jayavarman II – who is an important figure in Khmer history – but less is known about him than other kings as far as the historical record goes, which he feels gives him some additional freedom to create an original story.

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Judisak admits that it’s an ambitious goal for him to attempt to produce a full 3D animated story at his age and that he’ll need time to work on his plans for it and he’ll probably need to recruit additional help, but he says he’s up for the challenge.

“I have just graduated and I don’t have a team yet. I haven’t contacted any artists to join the team yet, I’ve only worked alone. I don’t know many artists in our country but I’d like to meet some if there’s any out there looking for a challenging project,” he says.

The Legend of Khema is the first step that Judisak has taken towards building his own animation business called Lakhon Studio.

“I want Lakhon Studio to become part of a new Cambodian Hollywood. I want to see Cambodia build its own Khmer-speaking entertainment industry up and for my part we’ll focus on doing VFXs work and 3D animation. That is my larger goal,” says Judisak.

He says he has always loved watching movies from all over the world whether they’re Japanese, Chinese, American or European. He says he’s learned important lessons from all of them and they all have their own stories to tell.

When he was ready for university, Judisak thought that he might be interested in studying something like graphic design and that’s what he had in mind when he went to Australia but he quickly focused on 3D animation once there.

“My first year I studied architecture but the last three years I took 3D animation courses. Since I didn’t have a design background they had me take classes that taught design skills [like architecture] prior to moving into animation,” he said.

Judisak is unsure whether he wants to tell Khema’s story as one long animated film or if it would be better as an episodic series streamed via one of the subscription services or online.

“I am not sure how to broadcast it – if it’s a movie then it’s usually screened in theatres. But if it’s a series then they’d need to be streamed online like Netflix. I’m not sure which would be better so I’ll need to research it,” he says.

Judisak says that if he were to just follow the existing Khema story as written on the page it would probably take three or four seasons worth of episodes to cover all of it.

“I want Cambodian films and media to be strong enough to compete head-to-head with content produced in developed countries like anime from Japan or Marvel Studios in the USA, which are both globally popular,” says Judisak.

For more details and to view a short clip of The Legend of Khema visit Lakhon Studios Facebook page: @lakhonstudio or website: https://studiolakhon.wixsite.com/lakhon

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