Animation in China: Tales From the Final Frontier
For anyone thinking of eastern animation, Japan is likely to be the first country to come to mind. The bombastic colours and iconic style of Japanese anime has long been a source of inspiration for animators around the world, and the land of the rising sun remains a beacon for creativity, especially in animation.
But could there be an equally distinctive animation style emerging in China? Gustavo Karam and Chris Colman, partners and ECDs at Final Frontier, are determined to make it so. Having decided to “dig where the ground is hardest” by placing their headquarters in Shanghai, the pair are now charting new territory by challenging the way animation is seen in the rapidly expanding Chinese market.
To get a better grasp of where animation stands in China, LBB’s Adam Bennett spoke to Gustavo and Chris.
LBB> Speaking generally, how have you found Final Frontier's experience in the Chinese market so far?
Gus> It’s been brilliant. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re pleased with the progress we’ve made so far. China is of course a vast, diverse, fast evolving market with opportunities across so many areas and we feel like we’re really just beginning to scratch the surface of it all.
Chris> I think it’s in both our characters to want to dig where the ground is hardest. Part of the reason we chose the name Final Frontier, besides being nerds, is because we want to break new ground. We knew there was an opportunity here, but you never know how things will go. Our attitude was, ‘fuck it, what do we have to lose?’
Gus> We always planned to be headquartered in China, to make sure we would be giving this market the respect and attention it deserves. But the wider APAC region, particularly the work coming out of Singapore, is no less important to us. A fair chunk of our projects are coming from Southeast and East Asia, and we definitely see that growing.
Above: 'The Road to HBL' for Nike from Director Le Cube
LBB> How have both regions differed from where you've worked before?
Chris> I think it’s fair to say that design-driven animation is really just beginning to come in to the general consciousness of the industry here. Historically, brands and agencies hadn’t really thought about animation for their campaigns. In a relatively young industry, there wasn't any precedent of animated campaigns doing well locally, so it’s been seen as a risk to work in the medium. And even if you do want to take that ‘risk’, there hasn’t been the pool of talent locally to make it really great, so you’d have to work with talent overseas, which then opens the door to all the usual fears: language and communication barriers, timezone challenges, general trust issues etc. Or at least that’s been the perception. As the industry internationalises and awareness of the quality work being created elsewhere grows, those ideas are beginning to change.
Gus> Things are changing for sure, but we do still regularly run into this perception that animation is a part of the post production process. Conveying the idea that we are a production company that can bring world-class directors that can work directly with the creatives is a novel idea to some of the clients that approach us. But we anticipated that. It’s all part of the journey in a market that it just getting to grips with animation.
Chris> One practical difference is the use of WeChat [the Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app]. We find that a mixed bag in terms of the role it plays at work. We’re approached a lot about projects via WeChat, which immediately establishes a sort of conversational, familiar tone, which can help to get a dialogue going. On the other hand, it’s so immediate and convenient that there is definitely the potential to be on the receiving end of brain farts. You’re going to be faced with half formed ideas and barely thought through briefs. It takes going through that experience to know which are the leads worth pursuing and which are going to be time drains.
Gus> Again, in an environment where animation is new to many, we need to spend quite a bit of time explaining and educating our clients on the process before we get started. As much as we can we need to confirm and reconfirm and sign off on all the steps of the process, so everyone involved is absolutely on the same page before work begins. That’s always important to do no matter where you are, but we pay special attention to it here.
LBB> What makes Final Frontier unique within the Chinese market?
Gus> It’s the dedication to process. We are unapologetic and uncompromising with our rigorousness toward process. It’s too vital and integral if the objective is to create something brilliant. As I said, before we start any project we do absolutely everything we can to ensure our clients are 100% on the same page with us. Before we opened up shop, there were plenty of people who told us, ‘you have to adapt to China, China works differently’, which I guess is a natural response when you’re bringing something new. I think people are often just trying to offer good-natured advice. But it’s not helpful when what you’re making relies so heavily on things being done incredibly efficiently. We want to set a benchmark on process.
Quality is also important to mention. We said from the start that we are only here to make work we are proud to show our mums. We’ve deliberately set up in a way that allows us to be picky with what we take on, meaning we only choose projects that are creatively exciting, or are with partners we really want to work with. Not every job is going to be a Cannes Lions winner, obviously, but in general that philosophy allows us to avoid the less fulfilling projects.
Chris> I think also that the way we harness our global network is a key thing. Working with talent overseas is not new for China, but I think what FF does is open up a richer range of possibilities, and makes working with talent no matter where it is located all the more straightforward. This is a great moment for China to leverage the experience and creativity around the world to execute the burgeoning, crazy, fantastical ideas coming out of this place. It was the same at Oriental DreamWorks, where I was before FF. They believed in telling authentic Chinese stories but working with the best storytellers and artists, no matter where they are.
LBB> Do you have any advice that you wish you'd known before starting out in China?
Chris> Honestly, nothing that we wish we’d known in advance, nothing that would have changed anything about how we have approached building the business. We came in with an open-mindedness and humility because we knew we had a lot to learn. We knew it would be hard work. That said, there are certainly ‘interesting’ realities that we have discovered. For example, setting up the company is a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy. It’s a good intro to the market though, as it sort of characterises how everything works here. The cost of sending money out of the country is also somewhat high, and it’s becoming more difficult to get visas for non-Chinese team members. I think that’s why you’re seeing fewer and fewer foreigners working in China nowadays.
LBB> Are there any dos and don’ts for operating within that market?
Chris> We’ve mentioned the ‘dos’: get ready to use WeChat, get ready to spend time educating clients on process. And get ready to spend time on briefs that ultimately will not go anywhere - there is a growing demand for animation, no doubt, but often not the resources or momentum behind those ideas to really make it happen. The big don’t for us is compromise. Life is too short to make things we’re not proud of, or spend time on projects that are needlessly painful. Process, process, process, baby!
LBB> You've been working in animation in China for a while - what can you tell us about the style of animation in that market? What is distinctive about it?
Chris> I’d say the floodgates are opening now, and that is giving rise to pretty much all kinds of stuff, all at once. Shows like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Love Death Robots and Nezha - a massive hit here right now - have all propelled animation to the forefront of everyone’s minds and inspired and emboldened creatives to want to explore the medium. I’ve lost count of the amount of times Love Death Robots has been mentioned as the inspiration for a brief.
Gus> Things move so fast that it’s hard to pin down a trend before it’s gone and been replaced by something else. In the last year we’ve seen a lot of 2D character-driven briefs and a fair amount of 8-bit style stuff coming out. I think the ambition for 3D motion graphics is growing exponentially as well. The all-pervasiveness of WeChat, and the potential for mini-sites within the app, means that H5 campaigns are also common.
3D CG animation is really popular here, but again, it’s often associated with the post production companies. One of our biggest challenges is helping clients to understand the distinction between our very design-driven approach versus the often high-end, but more literal stuff coming from many of the post houses.
Chris> I think in the coming months and years we’re going to see more and more narrative-driven content, that is branded but further and further from pure advertising. Our hope is that from the current reference-heavy melee, we’ll eventually start to see a distinctive Chinese character emerge, something as distinct as anime from Japan.
LBB> Do you have any recent or upcoming projects that you're especially proud of?
Chris> We just did the complete rebrand for CCTV (the national Chinese broadcaster) Children’s Channel. We’re incredibly proud of that one. For one thing, it’s about as Chinese as it gets, which feels like validation for what we’re doing here. I think it also marks a significant moment for the evolution of animation in China somehow. CCTV didn’t need to strive for something world-class, and I think they’ll admit themselves that prior to this that wasn’t a concern for them, but the ambitions for clients across the spectrum are changing. Clients want the very best - and crucially, are open to harnessing talent anywhere in the world to allow them to achieve it. That is what we are here to help them do.
Gus> The other one that comes to mind is Back to the Stars for The Ritz-Carlton. Again, it’s an example of working with international talent, in this case Le Cube, to execute a story conceived in China. It has also won a ton of awards, including a D&AD Pencil, best animation at Ciclope Asia, Clios, One Show etc.
LBB> Looking back at the work you've done in China, is there one particular project that stands out as being especially defining or significant?
Gus> Road to HBL for Nike China I think showed the potential for a mobile campaign here. The ubiquity of smartphones and WeChat allowed R/GA to conceive a choose-your-own adventure idea that was unlike anything I’ve seen before. Also, I genuinely don’t believe any other company could have executed that to that standard in that timeframe. It required us to leverage our global network like crazy, and we learned a lot. I think Predatorverse for Acer was another great example of the best use of that global network. It was a client in Taiwan, agency in Shanghai, with design, animation and live action shooting in Brazil. Again, I don’t think many companies could have brought that together.
Chris> We also have to mention Boxing Cat: First Blood. I mean, a cat vigilante roaming the city assaulting people that drink beer he disapproves of? It’s so un-PC. I’m not sure an idea like that would be allowed anywhere else.
LBB> What first attracted you to living and working in China? Is it something you've wanted to do for a long time?
Chris> On a personal level, it’s an extremely vibrant and exciting place to be. There is a deluge of culture flooding the country, from theatre, to art, to film, animation, and everything in between, both from within and from overseas. Things feel alive here. On a professional level, that is beginning to translate into increasingly diverse and compelling briefs. We can’t wait for the next phase.