Mainland takes on toon ‘Soldier’ project

Chinese gov't initiative aims to boost animation prod'n

BEIJING — Zhang Ga, a fictional folk hero known to millions of Chinese as a stalwart of anti-Japanese resistance, will lead a charge to grow the Chinese animation industry.

“Little Soldier Zhang Ga,” due out in late 2004 or early 2005, is the first full-length modern animated feature produced in China in a unique cooperation between government, academia, and private enterprise.

Film is one of the first fruits born of a Chinese government initiative to boost local animation production to counteract what it sees as excessive foreign influence in cartoons.

The 2-D, film tells the story of Zhang Ga, a young peasant boy in World War II Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, who struggles valiantly against Japanese invaders.

The story is familiar to Chinese people from their mid-20s to senior citizens, says Kathy Luo, managing director of ArtMotion, a privately-owned animation production house, and one of the film’s co-producers.

A dearth of locally produced material led Luo to co-found ArtMotion, which plans to specialize in folk tales and public domain Chinese classics. “Chinese kids don’t have any cartoons of their own. That shouldn’t be,” she says.

Film’s budget of 12 million Chinese yuan ($1.44 million) is entirely from private investors, according to Luo.

The producers are using students and faculty from Beijing Film Academy (BFA) as one way of keeping costs down. The Chinese government is committed to investing up to $240,000 in animation production, says Sun Lijun, dean of BFA’s Animation School.

A driving force behind the growth of animation in China is the country’s state-run broadcasters, and that demand may soon increase. Three animation-only channels could be launched in the next year, according to news reports.

The demand for animators and animation in China today is most obvious at BFA, which has increased enrollment from approximately 50 students in 2000 to 600 in 2002.

The school’s graduates are in demand for China’s booming computer gaming industry, as well as in advertising and film and television animation, says Luo.

Sun says it’s still too early to expect Western animation companies to produce in China, citing a lack of English skills and a continuing technology gap.