My Visit to Oriental DreamWorks – And Why Animation is Booming in China

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Of the 19 million students in Chinese universities in 2009, over 1 million were studying art and design. Think about that number for a moment. One million students studying painting, design and other creative arts. That is larger than the student populations studying chemistry, law, or economics.

Fast forward to today, these students have entered the workforce and are part of an emerging creative class in China. There are now literally millions of designers, animators, and other creative professionals in Mainland China. They are the vanguard of something new, which I call “creative China.”

Creative China is a phenomenon with fascinating implications. One of which is its intersection with entertainment and animation. So in late 2016, I visited the offices of Oriental Dreamworks (ODW) in Shanghai to investigate. I thought it was a good place to look into this and China’s booming animation industry. Plus I think ODW is just a cool company.

My visit to Oriental DreamWorks

ODW’s current offices are in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai. They will eventually move to a new entertainment / real estate project on the Huangpu River. So my first conclusion is that the people behind ODW are pretty good at Shanghai real estate.

At ODW’s offices, I interviewed their creative head Peilin Chou and got a tour. Walking around their offices, you can see their animators (they call them artists) working in teams on everything from story ideas to designing the hair and surfacing of various characters. Overall, it’s impressive – but as a finance creature I find the whole creative process a bit of a mystery.

My discussion with Chou focused on their creative professionals. Where they come from and how they work together to create animated films. ODW does appear to be producing a level of quality mostly unmatched in China for animation. The key to this appears to be how they combine young Chinese artists with Hollywood expertise and experience.

Today, ODW has about 250 staff, with the creative team having about 150 artists and animators. Their artists are over 90% native Chinese, mostly trained at China’s art and design schools. The staff overseeing project development are about 50% native Chinese and 50% Chinese-Americans with Hollywood experience. So it’s a hybrid “best of both worlds” approach.

The first major work by ODW was the January 2016 release of Kung Fu Panda 3. It was the top grossing animated movie in China at that time. And it is a compelling example of what world-class movies, made mostly by Chinese talent, can look like. The characters spoke fluent Mandarin and story was full of cultural subtleties that foreign audiences probably missed. The movie stood out as both high quality but also uniquely Chinese.

The entertainment moguls behind ODW

Two other people to keep in mind when thinking about ODW are its famous founders. There is Li Ruigang, head of China Media Capital. Li is arguably at the forefront of creative China and has long been the “partner of choice” for Hollywood in China.

And there is DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has been consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to China. His launch of Oriental Dreamworks in 2012 was an important first in terms of joint venture studios in China. However, prior to this he was also the person who created Disney’s film Mulan, the first animated movie based on a Chinese character. And prior to that he was the studio executive who approved The Joy Luck Club, the first major Hollywood movie about Chinese-American families. Around the same time, he was also responsible for creating a Disney internship program that brought some of the first Asian-Americans into the Hollywood studio system.

According to Peilin Chou, “Jeffrey[Katzenberg] has always been a visionary who understood that a great story is a great story. And regardless of the culture, audiences worldwide will tune in for a great story. In addition, he has always had a genuine passion and love for China.” Chou, a Hollywood veteran and now rising star in China, was one of the first four interns selected for Katzenberg’s internship program back in 1994.

Art education in China

I am a professor at Peking University so I do have a good view of the education system. And it is impossible not to notice the huge improvements in students over the past five years. They have become much smarter and more sophisticated. And they are shockingly ambitious. So the idea that there are similar advances in arts and culture is not surprising to me.

I tend to see human capital in China as having had three waves:

  • Manufacturing laborers were the first wave. Starting in the 1980’s and 1990’s, millions of factory workers began producing everything from soccer balls to underwear. And this massive population of workers impacted businesses and markets around the world. The world is now accustomed to the phrase “Made in China”.
  • The second wave has been in engineering and, to a lesser degree, the sciences. Over the past decade, technically advanced multinationals, such as GE and Pfizer, have been confronted with how millions of Chinese engineers (and scientists) will impact their industries and business models. You can see their responses in the hundreds of R&D centers being built across China today.
  • I view the emergence of millions of young Chinese artists as the third wave. But instead of impacting manufacturing and engineering companies, this wave is impacting film, television, architecture, video games, and industrial design.

A comment on China’s unusual art education system

In the 1990s, the Chinese government identified a lack of creativity as a competitive weakness for the country. This resulted in a surge in State-supported art departments and art schools. These schools also later expanded into areas such as video game design, animation, urban design, and multimedia.

It is worth keeping in mind art education’s strange position within Chinese state capitalism. Yes, the system is still mostly state-created and state-run. And yes, the wave of Chinese creative professionals today is mostly a result of a state-directed expansion of this sector over the past 15 years.

However, art community itself is also frequently at odds not just with the state, but also with much of modern China’s commercial ambitions. It is a fairly unique and Bohemian community that tends to pride itself on unconventional attitudes.

It also has lots of students who are considered disappointments by their parents. According to Chou, “I have had many artists at our studio tell me their parents are disappointed with their career choice, or that their parents wished they had become a doctor or lawyer instead,”She says this is “crazy ironic given that these are easily some of the best animation artists in all of China.”

What “creative China” means for Hollywood

The rise of creative China and the launch of ventures like Oriental DreamWorks are pretty fascinating. It raises questions for Hollywood’s ambitions for the Mainland. Is the rapidly increasing local talent an opportunity or a threat to studios that continue to operate mostly from Los Angeles?

In this, Hollywood studios will face the same questions that companies like GE and Samsung have long faced:

  • Will having operations and production in China be necessary for winning in China? I suspect it will.
  • Will it one day be necessary for winning internationally? We’ll see.

Thanks for reading – jeff

Reposted from American Chamber of Commerce in China, link here.

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