In his studio, Chang Yung-chang (張永昌) makes big advances in special effects, including the first application of motion-captured acting in a Taiwanese 2D and 3D animation. Back at home his young daughters are unimpressed.
“Right now they are interested in Frozen,” said Chang, who is known in the animation industry as Kent (肯特) of the studio Kent ADIP.
“Every day it’s about Let it Go,’” he said, referring to the film’s hit theme song.
Chang makes original Taiwanese animated films, which unlike Disney movies and Japanese anime has yet to cement a devoted global viewership.
“In the market today there isn’t much of our stuff, and the consumers’ preference tends to be for imported art and effects,” Chang said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Taiwan’s animation industry thrived on handling subcontract work from Japanese, US and European companies, completing titles like Tron (1982) and Wind in the Willows (1987).
But in the early 1990s, rising domestic labor costs prompted an exodus of subcontract work to China and the Philippines, and without the big clients, Taiwan’s industry has stagnated.
“If I asked the average person to name any Taiwanese animation he might be able to recall Grandma and Her Ghosts (魔法阿媽), but that came out 16 years ago,” he said, referring to Wang Siu-di’s (王小棣) 1998 film about a boy and his ghost-busting grandmother.
Today, some in the dormant animation industry are pinning their hopes on original productions.
Chang specializes in original animation, though not just any original animation: His have high-tech and often unprecedented special effects, which he believes will help Taiwan’s animation industry build an internationally recognized brand and eventually attract loyal followers of its own.
In 2000, he released Taiwan’s first original 3D short Tai Chi Hsing Mao (太極星貓), an intriguing romp featuring cats.
Last year, he and his studio completed Mida (夢見), a feature-length animated film about five disabled teens who discover they can meet in their dreams.
This NT$50 million venture is the first made-in-Taiwan animated film to blend 3D and 2D images with motion-captured performances, footage of actors against a green screen that is then digitally altered.
Released last November, the revenue so far is “only okay,” Chang said, adding that Taiwanese animation is often unprofitable because there are so few buyers.
Currently no law or regulation reserves a set percentage of television airtime for domestic animation; therefore, distributors tend to pick up imported titles, which will pull in more viewers and boost ratings.
“For Taiwanese animators, the go-to buyer is Taiwan Public Television (公共電視台). The children’s channels — 25, 24, 23 or 22 — either have a low interest in buying or can offer only bad time slots,” he said.
If his studio makes a season of 13 episodes and manages only to sell it to Taiwan Public Television, that’s NT$100,000 earned from a NT$10 million investment, which is a very poor return, he said.
Even with the disappointing returns of Mida, Chang takes the long view, noting that the feature could bring other benefits as a calling card.
“This month we’re taking it to China for an exhibition, and we’ll go from Xiamen to different areas to let people see that Taiwan has great animation techniques in 3D,” Chang said.
“We’ve worked quite hard on this film. In the industry, there are other animators who have been trying to make it for over 20 years. We hope that Taiwanese animation can be as big as Hollywood and that people can be encouraged to notice us, too,” he said.