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China's superhero factory

By Zhang Kun in Shanghai | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-06-09 11:26

Formerly a prolific studio responsible for creating iconic characters well-loved by Chinese audiences, Shanghai Animation Film Studio

is now looking to regain its past glory with a focus on originality and innovation

Before Chinese children discovered Batman and Wonder Woman, their idols were the Calabash Brothers, a team of seven superheroes, each with his own special ability, on a mission to save their grandfather from evil monsters.

There was also the Sheriff Black Cat, an expert at cracking criminal cases in a Zootopia-like realm, as well as cartoon characters from Chinese folklore and classic literature such as the legendary Monkey King.

The animated form of these fantasy characters were created by Shanghai Animation Film Studio (SAFS), the longest-running animation studio in China that celebrated its 60th anniversary on June 1.

The studio's earlier masterpieces such as Baby Tadpoles Looking for Their Mother, The Nine-colored Deer and Feelings of Mountains and Waters received global acclaim, winning prestigious awards at film festivals in Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

"We've experienced two creative peaks in China's animation production, first in the 1960s, then in the 1980s, earning ourselves acclaim in the international animation scene," said SAFS director Zheng Hu during a forum celebrating the studio's 60th anniversary in Shanghai.

History of animation in China

China started producing animations as early as the 1920s when Wan Laiming and his three younger brothers created Uproar in the Studio, a film about a mischievous paper man messing up an artist's studio. In 1940, the quartet created Princess Iron Fan, the first animation film that had dialogue. When SAFS was founded in 1957, the brothers were among the most important artists in the studio and they set the goal of creating uniquely Chinese animated stories by exploring diverse styles and expressions from traditional Chinese art.

Among these artists was Yan Dingxian, who after mimicking the facial expressions of the Monkey King in a mirror decided to design the character with a peach-shaped patch of red in the middle of its face. Yan, who is 81 years old today, recalled that in 1960, when the studio kicked off the Monkey King project, renowned artists were invited from Beijing to create the prototype designs for the characters and settings. The studio had even gotten Peking opera artists to illustrate to the cartoon makers how they played the Monkey King on the stage.

Yan and his colleagues even learned and practiced fighting techniques using the red stick the Monkey King wields so as to better understand the movements which they would later translate into animation.

Today, the original edition of The Monkey King ranks among the top 100 Chinese films on, one of the leading film and reading portals in China. The Monkey King that was designed by Yan is still one of the most iconic cartoon images in the country and can often be found on bank cards, T-shirts and even fast food meal packages.

Determined to find a distinctive Chinese style of their own, the staff at SAFS experimented with using ink painting in the production process, recalled artist Duan Xiaoxuan.

"Our rich Chinese culture provided endless resources for creation. We were intrigued by ink art because it was the most distinctive expression of Chinese aesthetics," said the 83-year-old.

It took Duan and her colleagues 30 days to create the first 50 ink-style animation frames. The team would go on to create the first ink-style animation feature Baby Tadpoles Looking for Their Mother which was released in 1961. Duan added that ink-style animations by SAFS have won 18 international prizes in the past.

However, China's animation industry went through nearly a decade of sluggish development starting from the 1990s, losing audiences to Japanese and American cartoons. While leading animation studios in the world would invest millions of dollars in the making of a new film, China's animation sector suffered from a lack of funding and talents, as well as weak support from administrative departments, said Li Yang, a veteran voice actor who rose to fame for his portrayals of Donald Duck and the Monkey King in Mandarin.

In the 2000s, however, SAFS started combining the techniques and styles of established artists, such as Qi Baishi, Li Keran and Cheng Shifa, which it had been using all the while, with CGI technology and started to regain its luster as an animation outfit. Its efforts had not gone unnoticed as it was later commissioned to create short films for the World Expo 2010 held in Shanghai.

The quest for originality

During the forum in Shanghai, Zheng encouraged the studio to continue abiding to the principle of "not copying others, nor repeating ourselves," and to work with the same dedication as the studio's predecessors.

"We'd rather spend four years of hard work on a masterpiece, which will be remembered in 40, maybe even 400 years, than produce a film in four months and have it played in the cinema for no more than four days and then forgotten," he said.

"We have seen how American cartoon characters are paraded in Disneyland and how children cheer at the sight of their favorite superheroes. We are determined to revive past glories of Chinese animation and have more children grow up watching our cartoons," he added, referring to how SAFS still has much to do to make their characters more prominent to consumers in China.

The studio recently announced a series of new film projects for the coming three years. Among them is The Girl from the French Fort, which is based on a book series for children by Chinese writer Hong Ying, who is best known for her novel K: the Art of Love and her autobiography Daughter of the River.

At the forum, Hong Ying introduced The Girl from the French Fort as "a story about a child's growth that is rooted in China's ancient culture," and a "collision between two civilizations". Davide Bianca, an Italian creative director, has been appointed as the visual designer for the animation.

"China's youngsters don't need Toy Story or Harry Potter," Hong Ying said. "Rather, we have our own stories, and with adequate investment, China's animation studios will create our own Harry Potter and superheroes."

Bianca recalled how he would watch the Chinese cartoon Sheriff Black Cat on television and said he hopes that The Girl from the French Fort, which will feature a combination of the latest technologies available in Europe with his extensive experience in Hollywood filmmaking, will win popularity with Chinese audiences and achieve success in the international film scene.

In the past decade, a large number of private animation studios have emerged in China, with many being commissioned by established film studios in Hollywood or Japan. Han Meilin, an internationally acclaimed artist who used to work at SAFS, said that this was a good sign for the Chinese industry.

"China used to be good at processing other people's creations. But it is time we started to created our own cartoon images - forget about globalization, art is all about individuality and independence," said Han.

"SAFS has created countless iconic characters that have been loved by generations of Chinese audiences. By sticking to the predecessors' principle of not copying others, we can once again create new masterpieces and showcase our national identity."

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