In the world of animation, China may not exactly be the first place that enters your mind. Ask a local over there on their favorite animation and they may give the same response too. Beijing-based animation studio Magic Dumpling is on a mission to change this snub attitude and show the glory of Chinese animation, not just in its own country but to the world as well. On the forefront of this movement is Kevin Geiger, a former CG supervisor of Walt Disney and co-founder of Magic Dumpling & producer of the studios' debut animated feature film Road to Home. Kevin was kind enough to send us the developmental teaser our way and also take part in an interview on ScreenAnarchy. From reading his blog site, it became immediately apparent to me that he possess a strong understanding on the business side of animation and with this extensive experience, I'm sure it will prove very handy in guiding the studios' first film on the right track. His thorough article entries on marketing and on the current state of Chinese animation are a fascinating read so its evident that we're instore for some lively insightful discussion. The topics covered ranges from his animation background, details on Road to Home, the status of the Chinese animation industry and his future plans.
In a world of conflict between humans and wolves, a young girl named Vivi, desperate for the approval of her village chief father, ultimately earns it through a friendship with the "enemy" - a wolf cub named Dumpling. Vivi's ill-conceived mission to return the lost cub to its home of Snow Wolf Mountain places her in the midst of stunning landscapes and dangerous opponents. Together with a band of fellow misfits including Gugu & Lulu - a delusional pair of kung fu fighting sheep, a shy beast of burden named Yaki, and his hedgehog "girlfriend" Cottonball, Vivi finds something much more important than the approval of others. Vivi finds herself... on the "Road to Home".
You'll find the complete interview and developmental teaser below after the break.
AY: Let me start off with the cliché introductory question. Can you give me a little summary about your past experience in the animation industry and how a westerner like yourself started Magic Dumpling from Beijing, China?
KG: I've worked in the animation and special effects industry in Los Angeles for 14 years, including 12 years with Walt Disney Feature Animation. In addition to my work for the majors, I've also produced my own independent work. My experience on both fronts led to speaking engagements overseas. These trips intensified when I left Disney in 2007 to work as an independent animation consultant. I've traveled to over 12 countries. Some, like mainland China, I've visited numerous times. My offsite consultation on "Road to Home" from Los Angeles led to an offer to work as an onsite consultant to the project in Beijing, and ultimately as its producer. Magic Dumpling is being incorporated as a domestic legal entity in China to cover the creative content that we develop, including "Road to Home".
AY: Can you talk about "Road to Home"? What is your role on "Road to Home" exactly?
KG: "Road to Home" is a wonderful original animated feature film being developed in China by a talented young creative team. Most of what I can say publicly about the project is already in your post, so I won't repeat it here. In addition to being the president of Magic Dumpling, I am the producer of "Road to Home". As an independent producer, I am responsible for shepherding creative development, devising the business plan, acquiring funding and resources and talent, handling promotion, pursuing distribution, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. In short, my job is to support the creative team and make their film possible.
AY: I imagine your experience supervising at Walt Disney for high profile production like "Chicken Little" must have given you a solid know-how in animation on a technical and artistic level. What are the important experiences, skills or understanding you gained at Disney that you transfer and apply to this production?
KG: I came up through the ranks at Disney, starting as a junior artist and leaving as a supervisor. Two years prior to my departure, I began inviting every producer and executive I could think of to lunch. The cumulative animation business education that I obtained in the course of those conversations was priceless. On "Chicken Little", my team devised a complete CG animation pipeline from the ground up, and implemented production efficiencies that fully leveraged the talents of our artistic crew. So I know something about how to maximize available resources. I also had the experience of working at Disney during some fairly interesting times. 1995 to 2007 saw (in no particular order) four different Feature Animation presidents, two company CEOs, Katzenberg's departure and lawsuit, the competition of Dreamworks, a shareholder revolt, the opening and closure of The Secret Lab, the opening and closure of Circle 7, the shuttering of Disney Animation studios in Paris, Florida and Australia, the "death" of 2D, the "rebirth" of 2D, the partnership with Pixar, the near loss of Pixar, the acquisition of Pixar, and the gradual reduction in Feature Animation staff from over 2000 to under 600. I've not only seen it all, but I've had to keep my eye on the ball in the midst of it all. That, more than anything else, is the "trial by fire" that serves me well as I now attempt to produce an independent animated film here in mainland China.
AY: What kind of animations or movies do you like? Is there any particular animated film that influenced you?
KG: "Luxo Jr." is what got me into the business. I had never seen anything like it. At the time I couldn't even wrap my head around how it was created. It seemed like rocket science to me. Subsequent investigation showed that it was indeed akin to rocket science in certain respects, but that it was also something that I could do. My taste in movies, both animated and live-action, is pretty eclectic. I like art films, I like blockbusters, I like brain food, and I like eye candy. I think that good films cross these boundaries, and speak to the head and the heart. This past week, a director at the Shanghai International Film Festival said that a successful film must be entertaining, but it must also be resonant - meaning that it stays with you and hopefully inspires you to see it again, and to tell others about it. My favorite animated film of all time, which only grows richer with repeat viewings, is Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away". Truly a masterpiece!
AY: As you are probably aware, imported animation is dominating the market in China. A prime example is Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda" becoming the highest grossing animated film in China. The positive reception has led people within China to question the quality of their own animation. For an outsider to produce a film based heavily on Chinese culture and "steal the show", it must've been a slap to the face to the local animators. Can I get your take on this? What do you think the Chinese animation industry must do to win over its own audience and avoid getting overshadow?
KG: That's a great question... and a BIG question. I certainly can't speak for all of China, and opinions vary in a nation of 1.3 billion, as you can imagine. But I can touch upon some of the conversations I've been party to. "Kung Fu Panda" certainly has caused a lot of soul-searching within the animation community in China. Many ask, "Why didn't we do this here?" or "Why can't we do this here?" I don't just mean technically and artistically, but conceptually and culturally. Most of the animators with whom I've spoken see "Kung Fu Panda" as more of a motivation than a "slap in the face", as you put it. They enjoy the film, and have the lines memorized. The dean of the Animation School of the Beijing Film Academy even made it recommended viewing for his faculty. Sometimes, the outsider sees and appreciates things in a way that the native doesn't, and at other times the native has an understanding that the outsider can never hope to achieve. To my mind, the best results come from a marriage of the two. I've lectured and blogged extensively on the direction of Chinese animation, and it's far too complex of an issue to do justice to here. In short (and in my opinion), Chinese animators must move past the didactic and derivative qualities that have characterized much of their recent animation, and return to the heritage of innovation that saw Chinese animators like the Wan brothers on a pace with Walt Disney in the early part of the last century. Those remarkable accomplishments were handicapped by the Cultural Revolution and then flattened by the regional dominance of Japanese anime. China's State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) is attempting to support the domestic industry in part by imposing quotas on foreign animation imports, but it's debatable whether this ultimately helps or hurts Chinese animators. To draw an analogy, boxers improve themselves through competition, but if you take on the champ before you're ready, you could be hurt or killed. I think the key to success for Chinese animators is really the same as for any animator: to create heartfelt, entertaining stories centered around compelling characters who audiences can relate to.
AY: What is it about your film that uniquely set it apart from other animation produced in the US and Japan? Is there a distinct style or quality to call your own?
KG: "Road to Home" seeks to define a style of animation that is to China what anime is to Japan - that is to say, an approach to style and story that is representative of the native country, but also appealing to international audiences. This may sound presumptuous, but it's our goal - and we're not alone. Many other Chinese animation companies currently aspire to the same thing. The next five years will be very interesting ones in the Chinese animation industry. Time will tell who rises and shines, and who crashes and burns.
AY: Why did you choose to do this film in CG rather than traditional animation? Or is it a mixture of both? It seems like your using a hybrid of 2D painted background and 3D characters. The background looks gorgeous by the way.
KG: Thank you, we are fortunate to have some very talented young visual development artists. "Road to Home" is being planned as a CG film primarily for the cinematic possibilities, but also in order to take advantage of the stereoscopic market and to leverage 3D production assets directly into associated game development and ancillary product design. The painterly look is certainly something that we aspire to. That doesn't mean that the characters have to be covered in brush strokes, but if audiences can accept the conceit of flat 2D characters against painterly backgrounds, we should not be afraid to attempt inventive visual approaches in 3D, provided they are compatible with the story and budget-friendly. In fact, a simple background painting is often faster, cheaper and better looking than a simulated 3D render. It's remarkable how often on CG films that we forget the fundamental moviemaking principle: if it looks right, it IS right.
AY: How much does the developmental teaser visually represent what it will be like? How far along in production is it right now?
KG: The development teaser is our first attempt at representing the look of "Road to Home" in 3D. It was created in a very short period of time by our friends at Xing Xing Digital under challenging circumstances, and we're happy with it as a starting point. But given that it's quite early, you can expect the final result in theaters to be an order of magnitude improvement over what you see before you. Regarding our production cycle, "Road to Home" is still in development. We hope to start pre-production soon and begin full production this fall. It all hinges on the completion of our funding.
AY: What is the tone you're aiming to achieve in this film? Who is the target audience? If I'm not mistaken, you're making this not just for the locals but also the international audience in mind.
KG: "Road to Home" is an action/adventure/comedy. Based upon the tone of the development teaser, you might think the film to be overly dramatic, but it's actually quite funny. Much of the humor springs from characters who we have intentionally chosen not to reveal publicly at this early stage. Our target is the family audience, and we're hoping that families in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa enjoy the film just as much as families in China and the rest of Asia. On this note, we're very encouraged. The original Mandarin script has had early Chinese readers laughing and crying, and the English translation has drawn similar reactions from our Western advisors. One potential distribution partner called the English version "wonderful", and was impressed to learn that it was from a Mandarin original. These are good signs, in my book.
AY: Do you plan to release the film internationally? Are you planning to take the film on a worldwide festival tour?
KG: Our business plan calls for international distribution through a strategic co-production partnership.
Do you have any other projects line-up after this film? (Question from ScreenAnarchy reader Cpa314)
KG: Magic Dumpling has various projects in development, ranging from animated feature films to television shows and internet content. Our company's business plan outlines an initial slate of properties extending through 2015.
Do you have any plans to collaborate with Shanghai Animation Film Studios? (Question from ScreenAnarchy reader Cfensi)
KG: I understand that this question came from one of your readers. Magic Dumpling is a development company. Our business model is to create original animation content and then partner with various studios to produce the final work. For example, we have an agreement with Xing Xing Digital for "Road to Home", and are currently discussing a couple of our other projects with various parties. Creative focus, diversity and low overhead are the hallmarks of Magic Dumpling. It goes without saying that Shanghai Animation Film Studios has a remarkable past and formidable present in the Chinese animation industry, and we would certainly be honored by the opportunity to work with them at some time in the future.
AY: Thank you for answering our questions. Any final words?
KG: It's an exciting time for the Chinese animation industry, and the results should be quite entertaining to watch. Thank you for the attention you've paid so far, and stay tuned!