Hong Kong Animation History Revisited

Winnie Fu

Hong Kong animation has a unique path of development, which contributed to its scattered but significant achievements in the past 50-odd years. Its multifaceted developments are linked to the dedication—even obsession—of a group of motivated animators who had successfully created world-acclaimed productions and continue to add to Hong Kong’s list of missions impossible made possible. What’s worth noting is that Hong Kong animations remain in close connection with its culture, and young animators find new energy in topical issues and local sentiments as their source of inspiration. Many animators are in fact telling unique stories of the city and their works deserve in-depth cultural studies.

It is a well-accepted fact that Hong Kong’s animation history is much under-represented and underrated in the global academic platform. Local industry people matter-of-factly blame this on the comparative absence of eye-catching feature-length animations, while the emerging young animators are quite comfortably working without thinking about leaving their marks in history.

This cultural and historical gap needs to be filled, especially considering the last publication with comprehensive research on Hong Kong’s animation history, titled Frame After Frame, was published 13 years ago.[1] This publication, of which I was curator cum editor, was an oral history record of around 10 animators from different generations, interviewed between 2005 and 2006 under the auspices of the Hong Kong Film Archive.[2] Since then, the scene has undergone tremendous changes, with many new developments in terms of content, aesthetics, and in the many aspects of production and technology.         

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Hong Kong Animation – A Strong Heritage

Following the advice of veteran animators Neco Lo, Keeto Lam, and Yu Man-fai, Frame After Frame structured the research on Hong Kong animation according to four key areas of production: (a) commercial animations, (b) independent hand-drawn works; (c) television programs done within TVB or RTHK; and (d) feature ­films produced since the 1980s, starting with Old Master Q (1981).

A total of three Old Master Q feature fi­lms were made in the 1980s, based on Alphonso Wong’s (i.e. Wong Chak’s) well-known Old Master Q comics. Thanks to the joint effort of local filmmaker Wu Sau-yee and Taiwanese animator Tsai Chi-chung, the first Old Master Q film had the titular character take on a Bruce Lee fighter look to defend against street thugs while learning the essence of Chinese martial arts. The first film was a great success, leading to the production of two sequels in the subsequent years.

With the invention of new computer animation software such as Softimage in the 1990s, Hong Kong fi­lms and commercials became increasingly digitalized, and as a result, application of 3D animation became more prominent.[3] When Chris Lau Ting-kin of Media Graphics Limited announced the production of the animated feature ­film Cyber Weapon Z (1997) in 1995, everyone had high hopes for the future of digital animation.[4] Being Hong Kong’s first-ever 3D animation, Cyber Weapon Z remains an important milestone in Hong Kong’s animation history.

Commercial and Advertising Applications

In the commercial and advertising arena, there are a few pioneer animators whose names must not go unmentioned, including Dick Wong, John Kay, and Chan Ting-chung who started at the China Paint Manufacturing Company around 1962 and 1963. Other companies active in the sixties are Wu Sau-yee’s Hong Kong Animation and Cheung’s Animation, while John Sinarwi set up his Quantum Animation in 1986.

In the 1990s, advertising and special effects companies such as Centro Digital Pictures Limited and Menfond Electronic Arts & Computer Design Company established their own film special effects and animation production departments, contributing to the production of special effects-laden ­films such as The Storm Riders (1998) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004).[5] The 1990s witnessed a big aesthetic change in mainstream film productions as more and more films incorporated CG post-production, creating impressive images in both action and drama features.   

Since the handover of Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997, the Hong Kong government has been very supportive of the creative industries. Furthermore, Create Hong Kong, an agency set up under the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, has been offering fi­nancial support for production and festival travel to many animation production teams through two schemes: the Hong Kong Short Film: New Action Express (NAE) since 2011 and the Animation Support Program since 2014.

Hong Kong Arts Centre’s ifva Awards also introduced the Animation Category in 1995 to promote the production of independent original animation works, which has generated a galvanizing effect on the development of Hong Kong animation.

Between 1997 and 2007, many Hong Kong universities began offering courses in digital media communication, including Hong Kong Baptist University, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Hong Kong Art School. Subjects like “digital design,” “animation,” and “new media” gradually evolved in their curricula. During this period, institutions trained a considerable number of animators and new media artists who were adept at using computers as a creative tool. Two major animators/producers, Kwai Bun (founder of ManyMany Creations) and Miles Cheng (Artistic Producer at Simage), both graduated from the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University with a major in Digital Graphics Communication. The seeds sown in the 1990s soon flourished and found success in the next decade.

IMAGI – the Miracle of TMNT in 2007

Imagi International Holdings Limited’s Animation Studio was founded in 2000. Imagi is a listed Hong Kong animation company, its main business being the production, distribution, and sale of computer animations. Since its inception, it has maintained close relations with Japanese animation companies, toy manufacturers, and film companies. It has overcome many difficulties as it progressed from producing the six-minute animated short Zentrix (2001) to the feature length animation Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2007), which hit the cinemas with major success, topping United States box office charts on the fi­rst weekend and grossing over 100 million US dollars. However, the company’s second production, Astro Boy (2009), did not succeed, forcing Imagi to conduct a large-scale layoff.

The failure of Astro Boy struck a cruel blow to the Hong Kong animation industry. Most Hong Kong animation companies that have sprung up since then are mid-sized outfi­ts that cautiously try to balance between producing commercial jobs and original home-grown works.

New Historical Research on Hong Kong Animation between 2007-2017

Though working out of small and medium sized studios, Hong Kong animation has continued to thrive and develop at a considerable speed over the past decade, with many works receiving the annual DigiCon6 Asia Awards, and animators successfully creating side products and brand licensing.[6]

The aforementioned big commercial companies have been the breeding grounds of the new rising animation stars, such as Matthew Chow and Miles Cheng, who started their animation careers at Centro and Imagi respectively before they joined forces on own production studio – Simage Animation and Media Limited.

In 2017, I was again privileged to be commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Centre to curate and conduct oral history interviews of Hong Kong animators for a project titled Moving Tales of Hong Kong Animation: 2007-2017 Hong Kong Animation Development. It was an exhibition-cum-research project jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Hong Kong Arts Centre, co-organized by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and Comix Home Base. It resulted in  interesting research and analyses of the latest trends in Hong Kong animation, including the creative concepts, styles, technology, and characteristics of works during this period.

A total of 13 companies or animators were interviewed: Matthew Chow and Miles Cheng of Simage Animation and Media Limited, Gordon Chin of Puzzle Animation Studio Limited, Kwai Bun of ManyMany Creations Limited, John Chan of Postgal Workshop, Kong Khong-chang of Penguin Lab, Wilson Chui of C-Major Studio, Lee Kwok-wai of Nine Monkeys Workshop, Tsui Ka-hei, Haze and Tsui Ka-long of Zcratch, Nic Ng and Ivana Lai of Intoxic Studio Limited, Tommy Ng and Lam Ho-tak of Paperbox Creations, Vincent Yip, Philip Kwok, Mak Siu-fung and Wong Ping. 

Passion for Hand-drawn Animations

Even though computer animation and composite software have been around since 1995, many animators are still attracted to the texture and aesthetics of hand-drawn animations.

Despite the fact that Simage is famous for producing 3D animation series, the company chose to use 2D animation effects in their 3D animations like Lo Hong Lane (2009) and Temple Rider (2010). 2D animation techniques and fi­lmic visual treatment were also employed to give a sense of suspense to the characters in independent animation works such as Chill and Shivering (2016), produced by Vincent Yip and Philip Kwok.

Larger companies of over 200 employees such as the Puzzle Animation Studio to smaller independent animators such as Mak Siu-fung and Vincent Yip still consider 2D animation to be a more natural-looking, malleable approach that has a wider appeal.

New Cross-disciplinary Approaches

Early Hong Kong animators’ commercial applications mainly focused on television commercials and movie special effects. In the 2000s, many commercial animated works have expanded to music videos, electronic games, and architectural visualization of real estate projects.

When Simage fi­rst came into being, it was fortunate to have obtained the outsourced job of producing a European TV animated series to sustain their business operation. Later on, the company was successful in producing electronic games as well as commercials for the market of Mainland China.

ManyMany Creations, founded by Kwai Bun in 2004, started by doing graphic design and advertising. In 2010, Kwai decided to develop a new computer software that simplified complex and laborious computer modeling and rigging procedures with a one-click process. This development took him five years of hard work, and brought about his newly founded Quantum Human programme, which immediately gained international recognition. It was without doubt a technological breakthrough in the field of animation.[7]

Puzzle Animation Studio, founded by Gordon Chin, started out as a toy production company. It soon set up an animation studio in Shenzhen to produce animated series for Mainland audiences. Since it began operations in 2005, Puzzle has produced Gu Yu Xin Shuo (2006) and Old Master Q (2006) for CCTV and Shanghai Television; in 2007 and 2008, it completed five feature animated films: Sparkling Red Star (2007) and Storm Rider Clash of Evils (2008), GGO Football (2010), Ori-Princess (2011) and World Peacekeepers (2014).

Conclusion

Hong Kong animation takes inspiration from diverse topics, limited not by the animators’ backgrounds or age groups. While many animated works are positive and heart-warming and therefore suitable for families, many others are targeted for adults with themes that try to address deeper philosophical issues, or feature suspenseful stories and dark themes with stylistic story-telling. My upcoming study will attempt to identify specific trends and characteristics of Hong Kong animation, both in terms of aesthetics and techniques.

[1] Frame After Frame is an exhibition, screening and oral history project done by the Hong Kong Film Archive in 2005-2006 with a 160pp catalogue that summarized the research in essays, short bios, interview excerpts, and details of 8 screening programs. For more information on Hong Kong’s animation history from the 60s to 90s, please refer to Frame After Frame, ed. Winnie Fu, published by Hong Kong Film Archive, Hong Kong, 2006. 

[2] Animators interviewed include Dick Wong, Neco Lo, Yu Man-fai, Keeto Lam, John Sinarwi, Roger Ho, Toe Yuen, Frankie Chung, and Mr Fung Yuen-chee. Previous interviews of Tsui Hark and John Chu also included.

[3] Softimage is a now-discontinued high-end 3D graphics application workable on Windows and Linux environments, developed by Softimage Company in 1989 mainly for the film, broadcasting, games and advertising industries to produce 3D animation. The Softimage Company has now been absorbed by Autodesk.     

[4] Media Graphics was a Hong Kong 3D animation company established in the mid-90s. The company collaborated with Chris Lau and Andy Seto to adapt the comic book series Cyber Weapon Z into Hong Kong’s first ever 3D animation film. The making of Cyber Weapon Z can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOfm4aJB_B0.

[5] Centro Digital Pictures Limited, founded by John Chu in 1987, initially started as an advertising company and later developed into a world-famous computer graphics company specializing in special effects in film productions. Centro’s success in films like The Stormriders (1998), A Man Called Hero (1999), Shaolin Soccer (2001), The Eye (2002), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) turned it into one of the biggest post-production houses. Menfond Electronic Arts & Computer Design Company, established in Hong Kong in 1990, is a digital effects (CGI) and 3D computer animation production company, offering computer graphics and post-production services in advertising, film, and computer games. Successful projects include The Twins Effect (2003), A Chinese Tall Story (2005), The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D Version (2006), A Battle of Wits (2006), Secret (2007) and Stephen Chow’s CJ7 (2008).    

[6] DigiCon6 Asia Awards is jointly organized by the Japan TBS television station and the Hong Kong Digital Entertainment Association. It is a large-scale digital content creation competition aimed at identifying and supporting creative talents. The Award is highly regarded in the Asian region and was in its 10th Edition in 2017.

[7] Quantum Human is a software that runs on the Maya plugin, which aims to topologize and rig any arbitrary 3D character model in a single click, thereby facilitating character animation.

Bio: 

Winnie Fu specializes in Hong Kong Film History and media culture, with over 20 years’ experience in curatorial, exhibition management, and editorial projects. During the past 20 years, she has spearheaded the execution of over 100 archival exhibitions of various scales as Editor, Exhibition Coordinator and Programmer for the Hong Kong Film Archive. She has published an edited book, titled Frame After Frame – A Retrospective on Hong Kong Animation, which is a collection of oral histories by interviewing Hong Kong animators active from the 1960s until 2006. Her latest curatorial projects include Moving Tales of Hong Kong Animation – Oral History Project for the Hong Kong Arts Center, which is a volume of oral histories on Hong Kong animations by interviewing animators active from 2006 to the present.

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