What is a childhood without cartoons? A poor one, surely. That’s why Malaysians are passionately getting into the animation industry. The infrastructure is already there, although the hurdles are many.
There is much to see when we look east. As kids, many of us would have wished for a robotic blue cat with a magic pocket, or at least a desk with a drawer that doubles as a time machine. Such sweet dreams are lovingly fuelled by animated series like Doraemon.
With thousands of stories and a total of 50 volumes published, Doraemon is one of the most successful intellectual properties (IPs) in the world. First published as a manga in 1969 in Japan before being turned into an animated series in 1973, the cartoon is still aired to this day in different languages around the world. This is just one example of success in a growing market that Malaysia is missing out on, for structural and other reasons.
The animation industry in Malaysia is nowhere near as old – it had only started to grow around 15 years ago when the government, through the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), dedicated RM1bil of funding to the digital content industry. At that time, the Malaysian animation industry was not known to anyone; today, Malaysian animations like Upin & Ipin and Mustang Mama are found on channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
With support from the government, MDeC plays several roles in growing the industry. Firstly, through funds like the Creative Industry Lifelong Learning Programme (CILL), Malaysians are sent abroad to train in creative fields such as producing and directing, games development, animation, scripting and screen adaptation, and visual and special effects. MDeC also works with institutions of higher learning, namely One Academy, to bring in experts from companies like Pixar and Disney.
Secondly, MDeC has funds such as MAC3, which is designed to help animation companies from preproduction to post-production. The corporation also supports local companies in terms of marketing and “business matching” by bringing them to the big markets in countries like Korea and the US.
With the industry growing at an explosive rate, demand for creative talent has been increasing exponentially.
However, Yang Mee Eng, a senior executive who has been with MDeC for 15 years, thinks there is a disconnection in the support system. At one end, there is a growing concern for the lack of human resource, while at the other end the industry is facing a backlog with increasing production of IPs that cannot be monetised.
A local channel for children
Like Korea, which has a quota of 80% for local programmes, Malaysia should have similar implementable rules and quotas for local TV channels to air local programmes. Yang gives an example of a successful children’s animation programme, Boing, which is coproduced by Malaysia’s Giggle Garage and Korean studios. Boing is a top rating show in Korea but is not aired by our local channels.
Of the many IPs that have been produced in the country, only a handful such as Upin & Ipin, Boboiboy and Bola Kampung have made it. There are others which Yang feels were really good but could not even be sold to our local TV, let alone international ones. “When you cannot sell your IP in your own country and you try to go overseas, the first question they will ask you is, ‘Have you sold in Malaysia and what is your viewership rating?’ For you to be able to succeed and monetise your IP, you need to have a market, and that market begins with the children in your country.”
Juhaidah Joemin, co-founder and managing director of Giggle Garage Sdn Bhd, an animation production house focused on producing TV content for families and children, feels that Malaysia is lacking a TV channel that caters primarily for children. She believes that teaching and sending positive messages from a young age is the most effective in shaping an individual. With a channel that is dedicated to children, we would need the right people to manage it and to make sure the contents are suitable.
In a culturally diverse country like Malaysia, messages on respect and racial harmony can be incorporated more effectively with such a channel. She adds that Korea has a channel especially for preschool children and it is one of the best money-making channels in the country. A dedicated children’s channel would open up a new platform for our local animation as well.
But do we have the manpower to do this?
With the industry growing at an explosive rate, demand for creative talent has been increasing exponentially. The first institution to offer a course in animation and movie-making was Multimedia University (MMU), and later, One Academy, which is now one of the top colleges producing the best animation graduates in Malaysia. According to Juhaidah, the country needs at least 4,000 animators to meet the high demand, but we are barely producing 1,000 graduates per year.
Thailand used to face the same problem more than a decade ago when it had no universities offering courses in this field. There are now about 30 universities teaching the programme, and the country is producing 3,000 graduates per year.
Lak Taechawanchai, vice president of the Thai Digital Entertainment Content Federation, was one of the committee members to develop Thailand’s computer arts curriculum. The president of Imagine Group of Companies and managing director of Imagine Technology Co. Ltd. admits that he had quite a tough time doing it. He was making commercials and films for 10 years before finally stepping up to produce his own IP contents for Thailand’s local TV channels. When his company’s first character animated series won an award, the Thai government began to pour support into the industry, albeit intermittently.
Because Malaysian culture is so diverse and unique, it is difficult for our stories to be successful overseas. To make them sell worldwide, foreign writers have to be recruited. They would have a local concept writer working with the foreign writer to keep the Malaysian identity in the story.
Lak believes that good policy and support from the government is important. He is looking forward to the reformation of the Thai government, which would include a transformation of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to the Ministry of Data Economy. He expects a big change in the industry with the passing of 10 bills, including that of cyber security and venture capital to boost data economy.
In Malaysia, while the government has been consistent with business support, Yang feels we still have some way to go in terms of storytelling skills. “There is no use for the best technologies and infrastructures when you cannot tell a story,” she says. Juhaidah agrees that we do not have enough good writers. “We always end up working with foreign scriptwriters,” she says.
Because Malaysian culture is so diverse and unique, it is difficult for our stories to be successful overseas. To make them sell worldwide, foreign writers have to be recruited. However, there is a risk that the story would get too westernised. To overcome this, they would have a local concept writer working with the foreign writer to keep the Malaysian identity in the story. Addressing the lack of courses in scriptwriting, Juhaidah stresses that we will not be able to do scriptwriting independently unless we grow our own pool of good writers.
With so many different platforms like TV, Internet, applications and eBooks to market their contents, animators have to not only be creative in producing IPs but also in the way they sell their products. Harry Yoon, vice president of SAMG Animation, puts the animation industry in Korea into three categories: creativity, production and business. While he gives Korean animation a creativity score of only five on a scale of one to 10, because of good production and business skills, the industry is successful in Korea.
“Business skills are something you take from experience,” he says. “You need time for failure and success.” In other words, there is no shortcut. Sharing his expertise in financing projects, Yoon thinks that looking for a good producer should come first and then the money will subsequently follow. To rope in investors, a good producer who can package the idea according to the investors’ tastes is a must. On the same level, Yang thinks that the mentality of our industry players needs to change; they will have to learn how to do the business by studying the market, meeting people and being more proactive.
Yoon, who is also responsible for marketing and selling his company’s animated films, says that there are two ways of making money from animation: through media sales to TV channels and through licensing. In Korea, piracy has become a thing of the past. Besides enforcing strict laws and tracking illegal downloads, Yoon says that downloading original media content has been made so affordable now that people in Korea would rather buy the original; the crime of committing an illegal download simply does not weigh up to a few dollars saved on pirated content. Piracy, without a doubt, hits Malaysia’s local animation industry hard below the belt: according to Yang, the market of licensing and merchandising is enormous – 70%-80% of income comes from this avenue alone, whereas only 20%-30% of the profits are attributable to theatre releases.
But for Yoon, the most important thing that would make an animation product sell is to know the market trend and to create a strong character and characterdriven story that meets this trend. “That’s all you need, really,” he says.
Animation is an industry that is here to stay, and whether we know it or not, many of the movies we watch are animated in one way or another.
As simple as it may sound, predicting trends is no easy task: the development phase of an animation itself takes six months to a year before it enters a six-month financing phase. When these are complete, the studio can then begin production, which would take another two years. For the final product to be successful, they would have to predict the market trend at least two to three years ahead of its time.
At Giggle Garage, Juhaidah takes a lot of input from her team who are mostly under 30 years old. They would take the ideas and test it out on their friends and students to see if they are what the young generation would want to see. To keep new ideas coming, they would hold a programme called Giggle Pitch every six months, where everyone gets a chance to pitch their ideas and the best ones get put into production. For her, success is being able to make a show that the youngest as well as the oldest in a family can enjoy.
Upin & Ipin, one of Malaysia's successful animations.
Moving with the times
With the popularity of video-sharing websites such as YouTube, more independent producers are showcasing their work on the Internet. As opposed to the traditional way of generating income from sales of content through TV and DVDs, money is paid based on the number of views the video gets.
This platform makes it easier for anyone to create a channel and upload their work. However, this also presents an issue with content sensitivity, especially with animation for preschool children. A producer is generally responsible for getting the right writers for the job and making sure the content of the script is appropriate. Some TV stations would want to know that you have engaged a child psychologist in the production before buying the show. With videosharing websites, there is little control over the age appropriateness of the content that is being uploaded.
Because animation draws no boundaries for creativity, more movie directors are incorporating special effects and computer graphics in their movies, making the line that divides animation from live action a blur. Animation is an industry that is here to stay, and whether we know it or not, many of the movies we watch are animated in one way or another.
Ch’ng Chin Chin is a clinical researcher and a travel enthusiast. When she was 10, she made a vow to watch cartoons till she gets old, her favourites being The Land Before Time and An American Tail. She thought she had already broken that promise to herself, but it looks like she has not.