Chinese Animation: In Search of a Style | Video Essay

This episode is sponsored by… Skillshare It has been a good year for Chinese animated films Yes, I’m eating my own words And it’s oh so delicious I’m super excited, and a little bit ashamed Because, for decades at this point Chinese animation has been struggling… Hard Cynical people like me have already given up hope I mean, just look at this! Little did I know The industry has been growing Sprouting And in 2019, it bloomed Not once, but twice! Today, we are going on a journey Through the history of Chinese animation See its rise and fall And talk about the industry’s everlasting struggle In the search of a style we can call our own And maybe Just maybe I can convince you to give it a chance The same way the industry has convinced me Our journey begins in the 1950s While there were animations made before this Much of it has been lost to history You know, with WWII and things So Chinese animation didn’t really begin Until the founding of Shanghai Animation Film Studio A studio largely founded by the government With the intent of creating works of art that represent Chinese culture We can see this intent right from one of the studio’s earliest works The Proud General A quick glance, and the film looks undeniably Chinese The character design The color palette The movement And the music are all heavily inspired by Chinese opera But also pay attention to the weirdly shaped horse And characters curvy, flowing line work Even the general, who’s supposed to be very masculine Is very curvy, with almost no straight lines That is, until you realize that is a look taken from Tang Dynasty paintings With works like this The studio quickly proves their talent and worth And in 1956, the Chinese Government began the Hundred Flowers Campaign A campaign in which the state heavily supported And promoted the development of arts Which ushered in the Golden Age of Chinese animation The influence of the golden age cannot be overstated During this time Shanghai Animation Film Studio pushed the boundaries of animation To places unseen in the rest of the world On one side, we have Pigsy Eats Watermelon Yes, it’s actually what it’s called It’s the first film to utilize the unique visual of paper cutout animation Reminiscent of Chinese shadow puppetry On the other end, we have A Clever Duckling The first folded-paper animation Even in a stop-motion animation The filmmakers managed to compose the frame In the style of ancient Chinese ink paintings But perhaps the most striking work in this period Is Where is Mama and its stylistic successor The Cowboy’s Flute These two animations are, without exaggeration Some of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen It’s Chinese ink paintings come to life It oozes classical Chinese beauty The serene, pastel look With spots of vibrant colors It takes my breath away Look at those gold fishes and their translucent body Such masterful work All of these artistic developments culminated to Arguably the highest achievement in the history of Chinese animation Havoc in Heaven An adaptation of a story from Journey to the West Havoc in Heaven mastered the Tang Dynasty painting landscape And the opera style character designs and movements With its vibrant color And grand scale It is a treat for the eyes Everything from the shape of the clouds The angle of the mountains The manes of the horses To the ribbons on the gods Are all stylized to be filled with Chinese iconography It’s traditional Yet radical Much different from western animations from the same period This came out in the 1960s I was born in the 90s And I still remember watching and loving this movie A true testament to its timelessness Sadly, the golden age didn’t last long 1966, China entered the period of Cultural Revolution During this time, animation productions were practically non-existent And the few films that were produced Were highly propagandistic Gone are the traditional elements of Chinese visuals and stories The films look… safer While they nevertheless look beautiful It’s hardly a progression for the industry Things didn’t go back to normal until 1976 With the fall of the Gang of Four Came the end of the Cultural Revolution And the studio, once again, produced their masterful works 1979 saw the release of Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King The traditional folk tale elements return And so do the landscape and character design It’s also interesting to see that Nezha’s design sticks closer To the more realistic style seen in propaganda films Changing from this To this I quite like it, actually In many ways This film is a spiritual successor to Havoc in Heaven And its legacy is also very similar To this day, this remains the definitive version of Nezha to many Chinese people Myself included Another spiritual successor is Feeling from Mountain and Water A 1988 film that continued the legacy of Chinese ink painting animations In this story of an old guqin master passing his art to his young apprentice We see the film’s visual style become even bolder and more abstract Often, large sections of the frame are left completely white And objects like this boat are barely detailed enough to be recognized These techniques can be traced back to Song and Yuan dynasty landscape paintings Where the composition aims for a mood that is often beyond words It’s mesmerizing And breathtaking On the surface, this seems like a return to form for the industry Some may even call it a Silver Age I, cynically, disagree While the quality of the films from this era is undeniable To me, it feels like but an echo from the yesteryear One last outing from the golden age Trying to be relevant Nearly 20 years had passed between Havoc in Heaven And Nezha’s Triumph Very little stylistic and technological advancements were made One year after the release of Feeling from Mountain and Water Disney blew everyone out of the water with The Little Mermaid And Japan took over the world with Dragon Ball Z China was lacking way… Way behind Our story brings us into the dark ages of Chinese animation Awaiting for a hero to save the day And, what if I tell you YOU can be that hero? No, seriously The director of the highest grossing Chinese animated feature Is a doctor turned self-taught animator And with Skillshare You can do that, too! Skillshare is an online learning community with thousands of inspiring classes to help you achieve your goal Be it creative writing Film & video Or, of course, animation I recommend starting with this lesson on creating a walk cycle It may sound simple But it teaches all the fundamental techniques of animations Like designing and rigging And with oh so many other classes available You can easily find classes that fit both your schedule and your skill level Not to mention, it’s affordable A annual subscription for skillshare is less than 10 dollars a month! Click the link in the description to get 2 free months of Premium Membership and explore your creativity So, join now And make 2020 a year to explore new skills Towards the end of Feeling from Mountain and Water The old master passes his instrument down to his young apprentice And the old masters from the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Also passed the torch to the younger generations It was the 90s The economic reform was in full swing And China opened its gate to the outside world Almost immediately, the Chinese animation industry Found itself crushed between two giants The Disney Renaissance And the booming popularity of anime Like many of you I also grew up with The Lion King And Digimon Chinese animations? Not exactly a big part of my childhood Mainly because Disney had cornered the animated feature market And Japan took over TV After a decade of stagnation China simply could not compete I mean, which one are you going to watch? This? Or this? But the main issue is… The parents… Look, I don’t want to blame the boomers, but it is true! People who were born and/or raised around the Cultural Revolution Did not grow up with animations… And if you are my generation You know how much our parents dislike cartoons It’s common for animation to be stigmatized as a medium for children But Chinese parents don’t just believe that Many parents actively shun the viewing of cartoons The act of viewing anime is seen as a sign of laziness So the industry’s achievements The beautiful ink wash animation The abstract bold cartoons It’s too old school for children And paradoxically, too childish for adults The industry could not compete In a market that didn’t exist Chinese animation was barely kept alive Doing outsourced work for Japanese and Western animations As well as producing low budget TV programs Aimed at extremely young children And I mean toddlers For the next two decades Chinese animation struggled Occasionally, a feature film comes out Trying to rekindle interest in classic style Chinese animation Due to limitations of all kind It usually ends up looking very bland See how much the characters now resemble Disney designs For a long time it seemed like Chinese animation was truly dead Chasing after other popular styles that are more profitable God, I hated this… But then, in 2015… The dead tree… sprouted In 2015, Monkey King: Hero is Back was released And it blew everyone away Which is weird Because the movie is not really all that good The plot is messy The pacing is all over the place The characters, other than the titular Monkey King, are either bland Or annoying But the opening sequence Oh my god, the opening sequence IT’S HAVOC IN HEAVEN The familiar Chinese music The ribbons and the exaggerated proportions of gods The stylized clouds and mountains It’s oh so familiar But now, the action is like… Anime! After 20 years of soul searching My generation finally grew up And we never stop watching animations The stigma went away In the same 20 years The constant outsourced work had trained a generation of artists To handle a wide variety of art styles Their technical competency has always been there And many of those same artists never gave up hope In this one scene, the animators reawaken something inside the Chinese audience A memory We did grow up watching Havoc in Heaven We just didn’t remember it Like the Monkey King returning after 500 years Suddenly, Chinese animations came back at full force 2016’s Big Fish & Begonia is a valiant attempt at merging the Ghibli anime style With a Chinese visual aesthetic The visual is undeniably beautiful That Chinese color palette does wonders But at the same time The Chinese elements are not strong enough To really sell this Chinese fantasy story Each frame looks more anime than it is Chinese The landscape, the mise-en-scene There, but not quite there I suspect that’s why people criticize its story And are willing to overlook the flaws in The Monkey King Its visual and character design don’t quite resonate with the audience One year later The Guardian also aims for an anime aesthetic A bit more comedy driven, this time Right from the opening shot You can see how it brings back the ink painting visual from the golden age Although substituting the monochromatic ink With vibrant watercolor Giving it an identity to stand on its own I’d say it is more unique looking than Big Fish & Begonia, already But the industry pushes forward 2018’s The Wind Guardian And Crystal Sky of Yesterday Are both aesthetically competent Although stylistically kinda basic What’s important Is that unlike Big Fish, or the Guardian These two films didn’t create a world decorated with Chinese elements They actively flaunt about their settings Crystal Sky of Yesterday, for example Depicts the idealized Chinese highschool life wholesale No more lampshading with Japanese high school uniforms With each film It seems like the industry is gaining more and more confidence In depicting and selling its own culture Its own identity All of it came together in 2019 With the release of White Snake And Ne Zha And my god, it is glorious White Snake, in particular, is one of the most beautiful CG films I’ve seen! Using the foundational technique learnt from American and Japanese animations White Snake builds its identity on top The clouds and mountains The graceful, flowing line works The shape of a character’s eyes resembles Chinese religious murals So does the movement, actually Small details like these show that the animators weren’t just making a Frozen clone The film has a well thought out Culturally driven aesthetic That aims to resonate with Chinese audience I mean, if they want to copy Disney They wouldn’t make Ne Zha an imp Oh my god he’s so ugly I love it In fact, Ne Zha’s character design draws a lot of similarities to Havoc in Heaven And even The Proud General The exaggerated proportions and contours And even the movements give me deja vu Not to mention the updated Chinese iconographies They are unique Familiar Yet fresh But perhaps the most significant part of the two films Is the way they adapt existing Chinese stories Unlike Havoc in Heaven or Nezha’s Triumph They are not retelling of same old legend Ne Zha merely uses existing characters to tell an original story Replacing the old story of a son fighting against patriarchy With a more up-to-date moral tale of a young boy fighting against fate and destiny Whereas White Snake is a prequel to the original folk tale Further expanding the theme of human prejudice Adapts and changes The industry isn’t just looking to relive the glory of the old days But is pushing ahead, in search of new identities It has been 30 years But finally Chinese animation has started going forward once more Towards the end of Feeling from Mountain and Water The old master passes his instrument down to his young apprentice What I didn’t realize is that the apprentice was still young at the time It takes time for him to become the next master At the end of the day The industry is blessed and cursed by its history Its fragmented legacy delayed its development multiple times Yet it also gave the industry a much wider range of style to work with In the pursuit of that nebulous ideal of a Chinese visual identity The animators have not forgotten what inspired them But are not afraid to learn from others With this newfound confidence in self expression Chinese animations are looking better than ever And most importantly This is just a beginning


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