Category Archives: Retrospective

Life, Love and the Animation Industry

I’m perhaps what you could call a late starter to the animation industry.  It’s been about seven years since I took my first step into this wonderfully strange and dysfunctional world that is the animation and kids entertainment business.

Prior to that, I was an office suit holed up in a cubicle surrounded by diagrams of Internet protocol virtual private networks that I had to sell to corporations. It’s sad that the first job out of university is the one that kills your soul. But of course I found out later that your first job is not meant to be perfect, but to get you that membership card into the club known as ‘working life’.

And the key to ‘working life’ is not about making a living per se, at least not unless you have a family to support, in which case it is rightfully your priority. Everyone’s got a short window of opportunity to find out what is it he or she wants to do, and preferably it’s something they’re good at or have a passion for.

Jobs are like relationships. Each one is a rehearsal for the next one that comes along, and you do better and better each time, until finally you hope to settle on one that will carry you through the rest  of what is a very short time on this earth.

Sometimes people don’t always find what is it they want to do, or are good at. Just like some people may never find true love, sad as that may seem. The difference is that looking for the right job probably relies more on will and determination, whereas matters of the heart, I think, come down to fate much more than to will.  Still, both require a good amount of self-discovery, growth, and maybe maturity. Luck plays a part of course, but I do believe one makes his own luck.

It’s been said that love is like a butterfly – the more you pursue it the more it eludes you, but if you are calm and still it will land on you shoulder. Needless to say, that won’t apply to looking for a job (sorry to kill that romantic imagery). It’s interesting to draw the parallels if only because our work and relationships define largely who we are, how we live and why we are here.

While my early years in animation were largely focused on learning about the business and discovering how cartoons actually get made,  the remaining four years or so also saw me tackling creative development, and sometimes walking that harrowing fine line between art and commerce.

At the suitably balanced age of 36 (whatever that means),  I’m wary enough – maybe even cynical – of the entrapment of naivety or creativity as a self-indulgent enterprise.

But the business of telling stories is really like no other. It’s laborious, frustrating, excruciating, physically and emotionally sapping, confidence shattering, soul crushing, sometimes humiliating, and that could be even before a single frame has been animated. Take it from a development executive. It’s true.

But the reward – or the promise of a reward – if a story has a chance to be told, or a series has a chance to broadcast, or a film has a chance to be screened to an audience, could be so fulfilling that even if such an outcome occurs just once, that might be enough to make the years of hardship that came before worth it. That, in its essence, is what we yearn for in this business, I think.

I don’t think most creators do what they do because they think they’re creative or they know what others want. The best an artist can do is to tell a story that resonates with and moves him as a person, and if he does so with enough truth, empathy and understanding of relationships as only his life’s experiences could provide him, then he will find an audience, even if it’s just one person who might be moved or changed by his tale.

That could well be enough for some of us trying to leave this world a better place than it was when we found it.

“What makes a good story artist? Experience life. Travel. See the world. Learn about relationships. Fail. Have your heart broken. Talk to old people. Understand why people made big decisions that changed the course of their lives. Understand why people sacrifice.”

– Quote from a random Disney artist.

Image above from Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, my favourite animated film of all time.

Blast From The Past: Ghibli Museum

As we dust off the concepts, treatments and story ideas over the last couple of years, laying them out as the team take the first serious steps towards an original animated feature (our first), I thought I’ll post an excerpt from an old blog entry after my visit to Ghibli Musuem, Tokyo in 2008.

Ghibli Museum, Mitaka, Tokyo  24 March 2008

I left Ghibli Musuem in a somewhat sombre mood. I had little to say to my friend whom I went with, and was quiet for most of the long walk back to Mitaka station. It confused me why I was feeling that way – almost depressed. I struggled to find an answer.

My thoughts searched back to the afternoon’s visit. For 2 hours or so I walked the halls and corridors of the museum, passing by Ghibli’s famed creations, concept art, original storyboards and handwriting from Miyazaki himself, seeing the research, dexterity, talent, love and heart that went into making these timeless animated films.

I saw the uninhibited joy of children surrounded by their favourite Ghibli characters, without a worry in the world except how to get themselves on the catbus and go flying with Totoro.  I could see the wonder in the eyes of adults seemingly lost in a world that calls out to their memories, beckoning them to let their childhood return for a few moments, for they have never quite gone away – only forgotten.

As I board the train back to the city, my thoughts return to the present and it struck me: I wanted to visit Ghibli Museum because I love the films and thought I’ll have a good time and be inspired. Truth is, inspiration was never the problem. The effect on me was much more profound. I felt the presence and more significantly, the pressure of true greatness. And It was terrifying.

But as I passed stations after stations, the fear subsided, replaced by a clarity and sense of pride – almost beaming pride – that we’re in the same profession as the magicians and storytellers at Studio Ghibli. The important thing is not that we even contemplate achieving what they have done, but that we felt their spirit and understood their purpose.

If our studio’s film can touch just one person in the cinema the way Ghibli’s works touch a generation, it would have been worth every drop of sweat and tear to make it happen.