For many people the name “Phare” brings to mind visions of the renowned circus in Siem Reap with its incredible performances that are a mixture of circus arts, narrative story-telling, dance and more. What they may not realise is that – in addition to the circus – there is also the Phare Visual and Applied Arts School (VAAS) in Battambang as well as the Phare Creative Studio (PCS).

PCS was founded 10 years ago as a vocational programme for animation and graphic design. Over time, with some additional inspiration and experience, it transformed into a social enterprise operated by Phare Performing Social Enterprise Co Ltd.

Phare Creative Studio is working with a group of talented artists trained at the Visual and Applied Art School (VAAS) with an ambition to help Cambodians discover their innate creativity. The studio is being developed in Battambang city – home to the parent organisation for all of these ventures, the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association.

“Phare Creative studio is rooted on the campus of the award-winning NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak. The studio was nested in the very heart of the visual arts school when it began back in 2007. At that time, it was called ‘1000 Hands’ and served as an animation training hub for the students as one of the artistic vocation opportunities offered to them.

“The idea of including animation in their curriculum was inspired by Phare co-founder Veronique Decrop, a humanitarian worker who had put together the drawings made by the children from Site 2 – the biggest refugee camp along the border in Thailand – into animated images in the 1980s in order to testify to the trauma of war. Some of those children later co-founded with her the multi-faceted arts organisation we know today,” communications and marketing consultant for PCS, Morgan Darasse, tells The Post.

PCS contributes its revenues back to the non-profit school to support the younger generations of Cambodian artists and creative professionals in a “virtuous circle” that encourages development and their talented staff can turn any client’s ideas into powerful awareness-raising creations: videos, animation, graphic design, illustration and sound design.

PCS pursues several complimentary social missions such as providing gainful employment, personal and career development for young creative Cambodians, contributing to the rebirth of Cambodian culture and arts and providing support to the VAAS and the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association.

Dara Huot, executive director of Phare Performing Social Enterprise, holds an award. SUPPLIED

“Phare Creative Studio’s portfolio of the past few years has clearly positioned us as the go-to production house for social and behaviour change creative media. The work that the team has done is very meaningful and I believe it has brought positive social impacts to the Cambodian population reached through their works, and triggered changes in their everyday life. I couldn’t be more proud of the team, their dedication to excellence and their long-term relations with all our partners,” says Dara Huot, executive director of Phare Performing Social Enterprise.

Dara says the strength of the young team at PCS is their capacity to constantly learn and perform new skills and tasks due to their professional curiosity and their appetite to gain new knowledge.

After learning animation techniques, the team began to learn about filmmaking and post-production as well as sound design and after years of learning experiences and exchanges as a team their creative abilities have grown and multiplied in a way that has them mixing styles and mediums and following a bolder way of thinking.

Freedom is a Summer Blossom was a video made for the US embassy in Cambodia to celebrate the US holiday of Independence Day or the Fourth of July and PCS was given total freedom in its conception and design.

“It was an amazing opportunity for us to unleash our potential – and in that case, have the pleasure to work together with many of the other talents of Phare like acrobats and dancer – who also benefit from being featured in our videos.

“This project inspired us to dream bigger and do further collaborations and cross-disciplinary creations between performing arts and visual and digital media arts. The PCS team hopes to continue to create more original and fresh content like Freedom is a Summer Blossom,” says Dara.

Team member works in the PCS studio. SUPPLIED

In order to create their videos, Darasse says that the first requirement is professional level technical skills in film and editing, which the PCS team has acquired through VAAS and from work experience as well as other important but more intangible traits.

“We encourage everyone on our team to develop their leadership skills and creative thinking. It can be a lot of pressure and back and forth until the final submission of a work and we need the confidence and trust in each other to move forward,” says PCS project supervisor Pagna.

The work PCS has been contracted to do has included a lot of awareness-raising videos and animations to foster environmental and social progress in Cambodia. They’ve also done videos focused on healthcare for NGOs that explain diabetes or tuberculosis to communities and how to prevent them.

Other topics they have tackled include sustainable agriculture, child protection, family planning, nutrition, water and sanitation.

PCS will be participating in a panel discussion on March 20 at the French Institute about its co-production project The Khmer Smile. The project is a full feature-length animated film suitable for cinemas in Cambodia or around the world.

The animated film tells the story of an adopted child and the film’s director Fabrice Beau’s travels to Cambodia to discover the land where he was born on an adventurous journey filled with emotion that feels like it’s occurring somewhere between dreams and reality.

The Khmer Smile is a French - Cambodian co-production between Animalps Productions and Luchafilms from France and Phare Creative Studio in association with Jacques Guichandut in Cambodia. The panel discussion at the French Institute will involve the film’s director Fabrice Beau, Dara Huot of Phare Creative Studios and the co-producer Guichandut.

“This will be an opportunity to talk about the origins of the film and show the first exclusive images. Additionally, the exhibition Cases Départ at the Institute will dedicate a space to the ‘work in progress’ on the film for everyone to come and see until May 21. This is our first feature-length film project and it uses traditional 2D animation with 24 animated frames per second of film. The studio is drawing all of the movement from the sketches to colorisation,” says Dara.

Concept sketch by project supervisor Pagna Chan. SUPPLIED

The film has been a long-term project for the studio and they consider it the first historical co-production of this scale in Cambodia for an animation and something that their young team should really be proud of.

“Once this film is released we hope that it shows the capacity and creativity of Cambodia’s pioneering animation talents and their ability to reach a world cinema standard,” he says.

Dara says that in terms of future plans their young team has an ambition to develop an animated short film and get it screened at international festivals.

“It’s been a very long way from the refugee camps where the first idea triggered an inspiration to create, which gave birth to a drawing school, which opened new vocations by enriching its curriculum with specialisations such as animatio to finally host a professional studio alongside the schools of visual arts and performing arts, the education and social support programmes at Phare. Our team has thus accumulated a very unique, solid experience and we hope to keep evolving in the future,” says Dara.

Though the pandemic held back many of Phare’s ventures such as their circus, by contrast PCS has been busier than ever in large part because they don’t depend on tourism.

“Given the situation, we are trying to support the whole Phare network with our income – but it isn’t sufficient on its own to cover all the costs. We also cannot predict what the future will be as we often depend on work doing projects from NGOs. But we remain hopeful,” Darasse says.

“We are hopeful about what the future will bring for all of the artists in the Phare family and we plan to emerge from this Covid-19 challenge stronger and more experienced as a team than ever,” Dara adds.

For more information visit their Facebook: @PhareCreativeStudio