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Sketching a Future for Animation in Taiwan—Filmmakers Join Hands with Government and Academia

The eight-day Kuandu International Animation Festival includes talks, forums, and screenings of wonderful works.

The eight-day Kuandu International Animation Festival includes talks, forums, and screenings of wonderful works.

 

Each autumn, Taiwan’s animation world comes alive. With the Tai­chung International Animation Festival, the Taiwan Ani­cup competition, and the ­Kuandu International Animation Festival, it is a time for outstanding animation to shine. Meanwhile the Ministry of Culture provides various avenues of support for creators. Through these efforts, Taiwanese animation has begun to bloom.

 

Taiwan Anicup is more than just a competition. It also promotes international exchange in animation, creating fireworks in the process. (courtesy of Taiwan Anicup)Taiwan Anicup is more than just a competition. It also promotes international exchange in animation, creating fireworks in the process. (courtesy of Taiwan Anicup)

On an autumn afternoon, the Taiwan Ani­cup com­peti­tion begins at the National Taiwan University of Arts cinema in Ban­qiao, New Tai­pei City.

Taiwan and Japan take turns

The Taiwanese and Japanese teams have each prepared five short animated films, and after each one is screened the audience is given five seconds to give their judgment in the form of applause. Next, the opposing team chooses which of its films it wants to put up against the one that was just shown. After each round, the teams are invited to share their creative concepts, and then the judges vote with glowsticks, blue for Taiwan or red for Japan. Between the judges’ votes and the audience applause, the results of the competition are quickly deter­mined amid a tense, fascinating atmosphere.

After each round of screening of short films from the Taiwanese and Japanese teams, the judges raise their glowsticks to indicate their votes. With the competition judged so immediately, the atmosphere is tense and exciting. (courtesy of Taiwan Anicup)After each round of screening of short films from the Taiwanese and Japanese teams, the judges raise their glowsticks to indicate their votes. With the competition judged so immediately, the atmosphere is tense and exciting. (courtesy of Taiwan Anicup)

For the audience, it is not only a unique viewing experi­ence, but also a chance to witness a number of interesting, innovative, and experimental works of ­anima­tion.

The head-to-head Anicup finds its origins in Japan, where it has been going since 1989, pitting CG animated works from across Japan against each other. However, with the competing works drawn exclusively from Japan, the competition was little known in Taiwan. The man behind bringing this fascinating format to Taiwan’s shores is Weikalossu Lin (Lin Wei-lun), chairman of the Taiwan Future Films Development Association (TFFDA). Lin spent several years living in Japan, and in 2012 he was invited by Kyoto CMEX (an industry‡academia‡public collaboration for the digital content industry led by the Kyoto City Government) to help organize Kyoto CMEX’s first international CG animation contest.

Originally only entrants from Japan and Denmark were to take part, but with Lin’s assistance, five original Taiwanese shorts were also included, marking the start of what would become Taiwan Anicup.

Weikalossu Lin, a lover of animation, set up the Taiwan Future Films Development Association to bring creators together. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)Weikalossu Lin, a lover of animation, set up the Taiwan Future Films Development Association to bring creators together. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

In 2014, Lin felt the time was right to make his move. With authorization from Project Team DoGA (the competition’s Japanese organizers), and a judging panel that included Te­tsuya Na­ka­take, a producer on the ­anime Attack on Titan, and Yu­taka Ka­mada of Project Team DoGA, Lin launched the inaugural Taiwan Ani­cup.

Taking Taiwanese animation global

While it may look like just a competition, Taiwan Ani­cup is really about the exchange of ideas. Past ­judging panels have included animation directors from Japan and even a character designer from Pixar, and in addition to the competition, there are also talks and chances to share experience. All of this aims to help foster international cooperation.

In 2016, Lin worked with the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Taiwan Cultural Center in Tokyo to organize the “Taiwan Future Short Films Week in Tokyo.” With original Taiwanese animated shorts included on the schedule, it was a chance to bring Taiwanese anima­tion to an overseas audience.

Weikalossu Lin hopes to help boost the visibility of Taiwan’s short film creators, and by inputting their informa­tion into the TFFDA’s joint entry system, these creators are able to have their works submitted to over 30 different festivals. This is a huge time-saver for the creators. “My goal is to effectively and efficiently dispatch Taiwanese works internationally,” says Lin. “The creative energies of Taiwanese creators can’t be left to languish after the end of college. We need the world to see what they can do!”

Jack Shih has high hopes for the Taiwanese animation world, continually creating and working to cultivate new talent. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)Jack Shih has high hopes for the Taiwanese animation world, continually creating and working to cultivate new talent. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

An international film festival on the Guandu Plain

The ­Kuandu International Animation Festival (KDIAF), organized by the Animation Department at Taipei National University of the Arts, has been held annually since 2011, with the number of entrants growing each time. 2018 saw over 2,200 entries come in from 89 countries. “Evidently it’s become a world-­renowned inter­national animation festival,” says festival director Jack Shih, who chairs the animation department at TNUA.

After numerous discussions among the department faculty, in the end 83 films were chosen to compete for awards and a further 54 were chosen to screen out of competition.

Animation obviously needs characters, and to serve as the mascot of the KDIAF, Shih designed Kuan­Dog. Not only does Kuan­Dog adorn materials about the fest­ival, he has also, since the third festival, served as the model for the awards handed out.

The Kuandu International Animation Festival brings international speakers to Taiwan to hold workshops.The Kuandu International Animation Festival brings international speakers to Taiwan to hold workshops.

Many films that go on to earn Academy Award nomina­tions have won awards at KDIAF, leading Shih to jokingly call them “Oscar’s advance guard.” The Chi­lean animated short film Bear Story, for example, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2016. Two years earlier, director Gabriel Osorio had won the Best Animated Short Film award for the same film at KDIAF, going on to win similar awards at various international festivals between then and the Academy Awards. Invited back to speak at the 2016 KDIAF, Osorio commented on how much it meant to him and said that it felt like coming home.

In addition to screening submitted films, the festival also works with international curators to organize a variety of spectacular themed sections. The most recent festival, for example, included a section focused on the British Animation Awards, featuring a number of nom­in­ees and winners from the 2018 awards.

The Kuandu International Animation Festival brings international speakers to Taiwan to hold workshops and share their animated productions.The Kuandu International Animation Festival brings international speakers to Taiwan to hold workshops and share their animated productions.

Sowing the seeds of animation

“There’s not a lot of domestic demand for animated films, and it takes a long time to prepare them and even longer to shoot them. And with investors usually looking for returns within a year, animated films don’t look like a good investment to them.” This is one of the big challenges facing Taiwanese animation, says Shih, himself a director of animated cinema. Even so, giving up has never occurred to him. “If we just stop developing talent because the economy isn’t good or conditions look bad, then where are we going to find that talent when things pick up?”

Animation camps for children are one way of setting down educational roots for the form. Led by students and faculty from TNUA, children from rural elementary and junior high schools have the chance to participate in workshops and watch a selection of shorts from the KDIAF. “The animated works that Taiwanese kids watch mostly come from America and Japan,” says Shih. “The animation clubs in senior high schools and universities overwhelmingly focus on Japanese-­style works too, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just those kinds of things. Other countries also produce great experi­mental animation!”

Ting Hsiao-ching is full of optimism for the development of animation in Taiwan and has helped the government become a valued source of backing for creators. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)Ting Hsiao-ching is full of optimism for the development of animation in Taiwan and has helped the government become a valued source of backing for creators. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

Exposing children to original animation from around the world, and to forms from claymation and paper cutout animation to hand-drawn cartoons, is one way to help them develop an appreciation for and interest in animation. “We see it as like planting seeds,” says Shih. “We don’t know if they’ll necessarily grow, but we’ve given the kids this gift, and now we just have to see what happens.”

A helping hand from the Ministry of Culture

The birth of an animated film involves many discussions and much brainstorming in the planning phase, only entering the production stage once a basic storyline has been developed. From there, a massive amount of manpower needs to be invested in creating an outstanding film. Faced with the technology-intensive nature and high production costs of the animation industry, “the ministry considers it very important that we have a two-track approach, offering help both through investment and financing, and through grants and subsidies. Grants alone will not drive the creation of a real industry,” says Deputy Minister of Culture Ting Hsiao-­ching.

In the past, subsidies for animation mostly focused on production, but a strong story and good writing are the real keys to drawing in audiences. With this in mind, in 2018 the Ministry of Culture launched a “forward-­looking development plan” of its own for the animation, comics, and gaming industries. By investing resources at the preproduction stage, the ministry aims to help support creators in preparing better-quality work.

At the same time, Ting also encourages creators to learn to deal with banks. Compared with most other countries, Taiwan offers an unusually large range of government grants to the content industry. Take a look at Japan. A couple of years ago animator Ma­koto Shin­kai broke out with the box-office hit Your Name, but few among the general public realize that this came only after his having toiled in the industry for some 16 years.

The KuanDog Prize, featuring the eponymous dog atop a stack of cels and a lightbox, has after many years of effort become well known among international film festival awards. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)The KuanDog Prize, featuring the eponymous dog atop a stack of cels and a lightbox, has after many years of effort become well known among international film festival awards. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Throughout that whole time, Shin­kai received a total of only ¥5 million in grants from the Japanese government. His main source of funding was bank loans that his boss helped him secure, which had to be repaid from earnings after each work was completed. He barely broke even each time. All of this borrowing and repayment helped Shin­kai gradually build his credit score, which ensured he could continue to secure funds for his work.

In 2018, the Ministry of Culture’s Office of Professional Assistance in Cultural Investment and Financing began helping creators successfully obtain working capital from banks through a commissioning contract system. In the past, banks felt that contracts with creators had little value, but in the content creation industry, such contracts function as guarantees of completion. If banks can provide assistance with working capital in the early stages, then once the film is finished they will get their money back.

Business in the front, government in the back

Government grants can be a double-edged sword, though. While they come with the good intention to help creators do better work, if creators become overly reliant on them, then they will almost surely find themselves left behind by the market. The issues that need to be addressed to lay the foundation for long-term success are how to create world-class films and how to make the best use of government support mechan­isms.

To help actively establish brand recognition for Taiwan’s content industry, the Ministry of Culture has worked with the Ministry of Science and Technology to create the “Taiwan Digital Asset Library.” The library includes digital 3D models of landmarks like Taipei 101 and historical sites like the now-demolished Zhong­hua Market. These are provided to creators to help them set out virtual shooting locations, greatly reducing the cost in both time and money of scouting and studying locations. These assets will help create a distinct­ively Taiwanese brand of spatial, visual, and cultural aesthetic.

Excellent animation needs a platform to be seen and an audience to support it. Only with both good films and a good market can Taiwanese animation look forward to a bright future.