In a small studio on the leafy campus of Battambang’s Phare Ponleu Selpak, students are bringing pictures to life.
The school has graduated four students since 2013, and 10 more are still studying. It now receives support from the Phare Creative Studio (PCS), which started producing commercial work in August.
While it’s not the first animation studio in the Kingdom, PCS is the first to be owned by a Cambodian social enterprise, and it promises to train future generations free of charge.
Animation team manager and animator Poy Chhunly, who also founded the Cambodian Animation Studio academy in Battambang, began working as an animator in 2002 after studying painting at Phare. Inspired by cartoons like Tom and Jerry, he was self-taught until he had the opportunity to take part in a month-long French workshop.
“I wondered how people could make each painting moveable, and it was the first time for me to discover animation as an idea,” he says. “I didn’t just want to be a normal painter. I wanted to make my paintings come alive.”
Thanks to the workshop and connections made at Phare Ponleu Selpak, Chhunly eventually earned a scholarship to study animation for three years at Ecole Pivaut in 2010. By then, his skills had been recognised: he won gold at the 2007 Cambofest film festival for his animated piece Kids Drink Dirty Water.
“After I posted this video on social media, many people contacted me to learn animation, but we didn’t have a proper class at that time,” he says.
Although he had started teaching an animation team that year, it wasn’t until 2013 that Chhunly and his team received, through Phare Ponleu Selpak, a four-year aid package from the French Development Agency (AFD) and French development NGO CCFD. They renamed the group Phare Creative Studios and started building the studio.
When Phare Ponleu Selpak originally offered free animation classes in 2013, just four students registered, Chhunly says. Those graduates now need career opportunities, which PCS is there to offer. Chhunly hopes that these first four will share the benefits of their success to support Phare through funds made at the studio. After all, they are linked through the education program.
Phare’s animation program now has four teachers and, like animation itself, their job is one of careful patience. Most of the training is computer-based.
“We use computers more now because it does not waste paper,” Chhunly says. “But to make animation, it depends on professional skills. If the students are professional, they can make it fast, but if not, it takes so long.”
Even with professionalism, “one person can spend two months to animate one minute of video”, he says.
Since 2007, Chhunly has worked with a range of clients including international organisations such as Oxfam Cambodia and Transparency International as well as government bodies such as the Anti-Corruption Unit. PCS is now handling the production of a video for Handicap International, but it is still in the draft phase.
While animation might not be new in many other countries, Chhunly is happy to see the industry take off in Cambodia. “Most [animators] might think the same way as me. If they like animation, they must have high commitment and ambition, because it is just not for fun during the production stage. I am happy if I see more people pursuing an animation career,” he says.
For Chhunly, picking up animation is like going to military school: it requires speed, rigour and discipline.
“If [students] don’t have ambition, they would run away from class,” he says, adding that he hopes the public will see the value of arts such as animation. “I believe that people will value these artistic concepts: performance, painting, or film,” he says.