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The studio drawing in world-class animators

Funan: The New People is based on the director’s mother’s experiences under the Khmer Rouge. Denis Do
Funan: The New People is based on the director’s mother’s experiences under the Khmer Rouge. Denis Do

The studio drawing in world-class animators

Cambodia’s animation industry is only in its infancy, but with a local studio working on the country’s first big-budget, full-length animated feature, it’s hoped the Kingdom will soon be ‘bringing pictures to life’ for productions from all over the world.

Inside a bare room in Phnom Penh this week, a small group of young adults were silently doodling around a long table, frequently looking up at a screen playing Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s classic anime Spirited Away (2001). On a white board was scribbled some reassurance: “Don’t be scared. We will go slowly”.  

The youngsters – aged between 18 and 22 - are trainees undertaking a year-long animation program run and paid for by ithinkasia, a social enterprise and, currently, Cambodia’s top animation studio. Five days a week they come for three and a half hours to learn how to draw, construct characters, devise stories and use animation software.

“Before, we didn’t know how to animate. But now we love it,” said trainee animator Chhuon Peng, a second-year university student. “I want to get a job!”

Justin Stewart’s studio ithinkasia trains local animators.
Justin Stewart’s studio ithinkasia trains local animators. Athena Zelandonii

Ithinkasia is run by Justin Stewart, 42, a genial Australian with a thick beard and a stated commitment to producing animation “at the highest standards”. The studio and training lab, which normally produces commercials and short cartoons, has just landed its most important project yet: animation work on a $6.7 million film by acclaimed French-Khmer director Denis Do.

The full-length animated feature, Funan: The New People, is based on Do’s mother’s experience under the Khmer Rouge. For Stewart, Funan is more than a business opportunity. He believes the film (set for a 2017 release) might provide Cambodia’s nascent animation industry with some much-needed street cred.

“It’s such a significant job for us and for Cambodia and the industry in general. It will lead to bigger and better things,” he said. Director Do agreed. “With Funan, Cambodia will step into high standard quality animation film . . . I have no doubt that this experience will bring a bright future for Cambodia’s animation industries,” he said from France.

Compared to elsewhere in the region, Cambodia has few animation studios. Most are small, expat-dominated outfits, though there are exceptions. 1000Hands, a studio in Battambang under the Phare Ponleu Selpak arts school, trains young Cambodian animators, though they produce mostly local content.

Stewart’s studio, started here in 2010, takes a similarly charitable approach but aims for large jobs with international clients. “We don’t want a small, boutique studio,” he said.

Trainees at ithinkasia study everything from drawing to animation software.
Trainees at ithinkasia study everything from drawing to animation software. Athena Zelandonii

They operate upon a social enterprise model, in which selected Cambodians attend year-long training programs free of charge. Trainees come in with virtually no skills – some cannot even draw – and exit, in theory, as world-class animators.

“My aim is to train and employ Cambodians into international work,” Stewart explained, adding that he pays “well above average salaries”. The studio currently employs five Cambodians and six trainees, with plans to bring in six more.

There are five full-time foreign staff. Some come for temporary work. Patrick Pujalte, a former Dreamworks animator, will be coming to work on the Funan project. Pujalte has worked with ithinkasia before, both in animation and in a training capacity.

“The level of animation [in Funan] is of a very high standard. This movie will most certainly be a strong international release, having award-nominated voice actors and producers,” he said.

The work will be challenging. Typically, said Stewart, seven minutes of animation amounts to one month of work: character design, background art, rigging, storyboarding, scene preparation, compositing and editing; animation is a “longer medium”. A feature length film can take from four to eight years to bring to fruition, said Stewart.  

Deadlines can be punishing. For Joe and Jack, an Irish children’s series that ithinkasia worked on two and half years ago, Stewart and his animators crunched out 10 seven-minute episodes in just three months, an exhausting feat doable only through regular night shifts. “We had no animators in Cambodia that we could hire,” Stewart said. But he intends to change that.  

“The reason why we’re pushing into animation so hard is that we can employ more than five or 10 people, we can have 200 or 300 staff and become a competitive choice for foreign studios within the region,” he said. “It’s not an easy industry. It requires experts.”

Within the developing world, animation as a career is increasingly popular. Over the past decade, places like South Africa, Indonesia and China have made major strides in their animation industries, sometimes with help from foreign giants like Disney or government assistance.

In Jamaica, a government-backed animation certificate program supported by the World Bank has been helping the country raise crippling youth unemployment rates since 2014. In China, a local cartoon industry is booming due in part to favourable government policies. An industry representative in Thailand recently estimated that its animation industry, the most successful in Southeast Asia, was growing at 10 per cent per year.

The reasons for the boom lie mostly in technology. Compared to other digital services, which involve extensive schooling and technical expertise, the barriers to entry in animation are low, and with standardised, widely available software, it requires few resources to get things going. Moreover, even in the poorest countries, the internet has exposed most would-be animators to Hollywood standards.  

After a year at ithinkasia, trainees are hoped to be competent computer animators.
After a year at ithinkasia, trainees are hoped to be competent computer animators. Athena Zelandonii

It is a good time to get a start in the industry. According to a 2016 Research and Markets (R&M) report, animation remains a fast-growth industry, nurtured largely by increased internet access and cable TV penetration. Top markets for animated content include the US, Canada, Japan, France, Britain and Germany. Demand is predicted to grow.

Asia has been particularly blessed by the cartoon boom. Countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others where labour costs are low, are increasingly landing outsourced production work from North American and European studios, mostly with 2D, rather than 3D, content (though ithinkasia plans to do more 3D work).

A stunning 90 per cent of all US television animation is produced in Asia, according to an R&M report on the Asian animation market. But Cambodia has yet to take a major bite out of the animation pie.

Jose Encinas, founder of Minus36, a mostly one-man studio in Phnom Penh for 14 years, said that while Cambodia is growing as an animation hub, “[it] still has a long way to go to compete with other ASEAN countries”.

Still, business is good. For the next seven months, Encinas said, he is fully booked with clients, most based in Europe and the US. Senior editor and colourist Hanglee Leang, 29, has been at ithinkasia for four years.

Justin Stewart, founder of ithinkasia, hopes Funan will take Cambodia’s animation industry to the next level. Denis Do
Justin Stewart, founder of ithinkasia, hopes Funan will take Cambodia’s animation industry to the next level. Denis Do

Before coming in to do translation work, he had never done animation. But he learned quickly. It took him three weeks to get a grasp on the animation software. Most he learned from coaching on the job.

“I learned many things just through work. Every project brings a new step,” he said. And things are going well for him. In a few weeks, Leang is going to be flown to Singapore by Blackmagic Design, a leading software company, for a training session.

Leang said that he has come to love doing animation work. “You can bring a picture to life,” he said, by way of explanation. He was optimistic that more Cambodians would join the industry. “Cambodia is really new to animation. But I hope it will grow bigger,” he said.

Back at the training session, Corrine Tan, the art director who selected the trainees, explained her recruiting standards. “I wanted to see how people worked as a team, because animation is teamwork,” she said. “I was testing for if you would be a good employee one day.”

“It’s quite a lot of work,” said Tan, or, to students, bong Corrinne. “But, so far, they’re doing really good.”

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