Malaysia: An animated journey

In the short space of a decade, the Malaysian television animation industry has gone from basic to vibrant. Who are the players that colluded to perform this transformation, what are they up to and what do they have in store?

Three decades ago, when television in Malaysia was limited to the main channels operated by the stateowned Radio Television Malaysia (RTM), animated programmes were almost exclusively foreign – Saturday morning cartoons from the US and (poorly) dubbed properties from Japan. The first, and for many years sole, local animated content was a series of five rudimentary two-frameper- second edutainment shorts based on fables – Singa yang Haloba (‘The Greedy Lion’) and Sang Kancil dan Monyet (‘The Mousedeer and the Monkey’) created by animator Anandam Xavier in the early 1980s. As the television landscape in Malaysia evolved, adding private stations and pay-TV, local animated content was still sparse. Even the critically acclaimed Kampung Boy animated series, based on the endearing childhood of artist Lat, was conceived by Malaysians but executed by studios in Los Angeles and the Philippines. to be produced entirely within the country was ‘Usop Sontorian’, which ran from 1996 to 1998 on the state-owned RTM TV1 channel. The content was basic but earnest, produced by Kharisma Pictures. The series debuted at a time when Malaysia was busy preparing to jump into the digital age, but despite the government’s push to embrace digital media, the domestic animation scene only truly took off in 2007 when the animated series Upin dan Ipin launched on TV9, quickly rocketing to become the second-most watched animation on Malaysian television, behind only Doraemon. Upin dan Ipin, two mischievous twin brothers, heralded a new age. Today, the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS) estimates that out of the 1,000 plus creative industry companies in the country, 20 per cent are animation production companies. Most are located within the Klang valley, in the rough geographical area known as the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), an initiative aimed at spearheading Malaysia’s digital revolution. The roots of the growth date back to 2006, when the Malaysian government launched a concerted effort to develop the national entertainment and media industries, designating FINAS, MDeC (Multimedia Development Corporation) and SKMM (Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission) to lay the groundwork for both promotion and development. It was this push that led to the formation of Les’ Copaques Production, responsible for Upin dan Ipin, and the brothers’ subsequent 3D feature film production Geng: The Adventure Begins that grossed more than RM 6.4 million (US$$ 2.1 million) at the box office, a threshold typically reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. Other animated successes soon followed. “The Malaysian government has recognised that the animation industry can be a great financial and creative endeavour and because of this, Malaysian studios are getting more support than ever,” says Andrew Ooi, the Managing Director of Inspidea, the studio responsible for Boo & Me, about a baby orang-utan and his two surrogate parents (who happen to be children), commissioned by children’s entertainment network KidsCo and dubbed in 18 languages, as an example of how Malaysian animators have gone from local to international in a short space of time. “We (the studios) can now apply for direct funding, incentives and tax breaks. The local colleges and universities are also ramping up their animation and creative arts facilities. The industry has definitely been booming over the past few years.” Leon Tan, Executive Director of Tripod Entertainment, agrees. “We as a fledgling animation industry had a pretty small foundation to build on due to the fact that our education system over the past 30 years did not emphasize nurturing arts, writing and media-related talents that are the building blocks of a globally competitive industry. As a result, we skipped a generation and whatever semblance of an industry today was forged by pioneers driven by passion and self initiative. Despite this, we are now on the right path as government support has turned to this industry over the past few years, but we still face a Herculean task.” With intriguing upcoming programmes, Tripod Entertainment is an example of a Malaysian animation outfit expanding beyond borders. Founded by Tan, Mike Bloemendal and Joe Pearson in 2007, the neophyte studio also attracted investment from MAVCAP, the Malaysian Ministry of Finance’s venture capital company. Although its productions are animated, Tripod does not have an animation studio of its own. Instead, it is a productionand- IP management company, project managing its IP and directing third-party animation teams in South Korea and the US. It is an example of a Malaysian company breaking out of the traditional mould of animating for the local market or as an outsourced studio, jumping onto the higher-value rungs of the industry. Operating a studio also has its incentives. Animasia, founded by Edmund Chan, Raye Lee and Wong Kuan Loong (aka Ah Loong) started off with a small team of seven local animators in 2005. Teaming up with RTM to produce the popular series ‘Bola Kampung’ and ‘Supa Strikas’, both of which were picked up by the Disney Channel Asia, Animasia now boasts a team of more than 130 creative personnel. Commenting on the level of creative talent in Malaysia, Animasia’s Managing Director Edmund Chan says, “We see talent of great quality in Malaysia but these jewels are unpolished. Therefore we wanted to gather these talents and provide a platform to create good intellectual properties that will open up Malaysia to be a potential destination for content creators.” From a very basic primordial soup a decade ago, the ecosystem of Malaysian animation is today busy and bustling. The value chain may be nascent – FINAS estimates that the value of the domestic animation industry, from advertising and music to films and video games, is worth RM 16 billion (US$5.2 billion), a far cry from Japan’s estimated worth of US$150 billion and the US’ $500 billion – but it is varied and strengthening. Animation studios run the gamut from Vision Animation, which produces content for major networks including BBC and the Sci-Fi Channel, to Les Copaques Production’s indigenous productions, to KRU Studios, a juggernaut in the Malaysian industry that tends to focus on CGI (Computer Generated Images) and visual effects for motion pictures. All that requires talent, which says a lot for the Malaysian pioneers who aimed to elevate the industry up the value chain, but the government deserves credit as well. Mahyidin Mustakim, Director General of FINAS, elaborates: “Malaysian production companies are fortunate to be able to take advantage of the many government-driven grants and incentives. The eContent fund is one of the funds that have financed co-production deals for Malaysia companies, including Animasia, Vision Animation, Shock3D! and Backbone Entertainment. In all, there are over 70 funds and grants available to the industry in terms of creative technology acquisition, financial support, incentives and tax breaks.” The private sector is also getting in on the game. Pay-TV broadcaster Astro, funds and coproduces animation series, including the seminal Kampung Boy series and Inspidea’s popular Mat Kacau [see page 39], as well as developing IPs of its own. The future, therefore, seems bright. A whole host of exciting animation projects helmed by Malaysian outfi ts are on the horizon; some extensions of established IPs while some attempt to stake out a brave new world that are not necessarily limited to television. Tripod Entertainment, for example, is hard at work on its first two features – Zoorocco, a children’s animated TV series envisioned and owned by Tripod that the company is currently pitching and discussing with potential partners in Europe and North America, as well as the ambitious War of the Worlds: Goliath, feature film, which Tan describes as ‘a homage to classic (HG Wells) sci-filiterature’ using hybrid 2D-3D animation. “It is also Malaysia’s first stereoscopic 3D movie, so we’re pretty pumped about that. It showcases Malaysian talent in pre-production, especially the designs. All the audio and visual post-production, including the stereoscopic 3D, is Malaysian. Malaysia’s talent is present and potentially world-class and it requires projects like War of the Worlds to bring that to life and onto the global stage,” he adds, to outline Tripod’s full scope of ambition and aspiration. Animasia is hard at work in bringing its Bola Kampung series from the small screen to the silver screen with Bola Kampung – The Movie, while collaborating with Cartoon Network on two other projects, Roll No. 21 (which stars the Hindu Lord Khrisna as a teacher) and cricketthemed Balla Bowl [see page 38]. Inspidea has a slew of new major productions, including the quirky Johan, Mustang Mama and Happy Together, as well as its international collaborations Boo & Me season 2 and Pet Squad (a three-way collaboration between Inspidea, the UK’s Darrall Macqueen and Canada’s March Entertainment starring superhero house pets). Ooi also lets slip that the studio is working with a French studio on a potential CG animation project. Silver Ant, a studio started up by Goh Aun Hoe in 1999 which has worked with Nintendo on producing videogame cinematics and famous for its work on Saladin: The Animated Series (conceived and produced by MDeC) will soon be ready to debut Seefood, an incredible-looking CG movie backed by Al- Jazeera’s Children’s Channel. With many projects in the pipeline, it is easy to see a rosy future for Malaysia’s animation scene, not just because of the volume of work, but also the quality and content, that shoots for the moon and, even if its misses, remains in orbit. So where does the industry go from here and what else can be done to accelerate it? “Everything is moving on well and heading in the right direction. Many of our clients now see us as a solution provider rather than just a pure service provider. Our margins for outsourced projects aren’t high but we try to add value to the project by giving creative input,” says Chan of Animasia. Ooi of Inspidea agrees. “We are lucky! Our industry has been strongly backed by the government recently. We’re financially prudent but because we also create and own our IPs, it’s both a future revenue source and our creative contribution to the animation world.” Tan of Tripod, however, is more cautious. “You need a multimedia mindset today for animation. And animation perse isn’t enough. We need to have pre-production and post-production skills, which are crucial. We ignore these elements at our peril; otherwise we will only be good at taking on outsourced work and not be able to develop our own titles. That window is good for five years, maybe less, and then we’ll lose out to India, China, or even neighbours like Vietnam and Indonesia. But in that respect, the government is certainly realising these needs and planning ahead.” In the short space of a decade, the Malaysian TV animation industry has improved by leaps and bounds. Evidence from the studios and production houses operating in Malaysia show a vibrant scene that caters not just to a specifi c market and overseas contracts, but one that strives to be internationally recognized in terms of subject, essence and calibre. There should be no resting on laurels, of course, but the stage has been set for a healthy industry. And, certainly, light years away from the days when Anandam Xavier toiled away to create a simple, flat-shaded edutainment cartoon that is the genesis of the industry today.

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