Came across this rather entertaining and flashy Vietnamese animated commercial.
I thought this was produced by Vietnamese. To my dismay, an Ad agency called JWT commissioned a New Zealand animation studio to produce video advertising dairy products to Vietnamese kids. Most animations shown on Vietnamese TV are produced by foreign studios or by studios in Vietnam under foreigner's supervision. Vietnamese kids rarely get a glimpse of animation from their own country made by their own people. The lack of exposure to local audience is only the tip of the problem that prevents Vietnamese animation from growing. The other big issue is quality, in which a noted Vietnamese animation director bluntly says, “…the best Vietnamese 3D animation can hardly compare with the work of US university students.” That’s a pretty freaking depressing thing to say about an industry! But it’s kind of true though. This is very disappointing considering there is a decent history of Vietnamese animation reaches back to the early 60s. Let's dig deep and take a look.
The Proud and Humble Beginning of Vietnamese Animation
Starting in the early 60s, a group of Vietnamese traveled to its sponsored empire, the USSR, to study animation at Soyzmultfilm studio, most likely under the tutelage of renowned animator Roman Davydov, best known for The Shareholder and Adventures Of Mowgli cartoons. Upon their return, the government opened the first animation studio called Hanoi Cartoon Studio. The animators were put in charge of the operation. Among them were Truong Qua and Le Minh Hien, who also served as the first instructors.
Here is a documentary on the history of Vietnamese animation. (Sorry, it's in Vietnamese with no English subtitles)
In 1959, the studio presented its first animated film, a fable called Đáng đời thằng Cáo. There are countless English titles for it: The Deserving Fox, The Fox that Deserves it, There’s to You Fox, etc. Personally, I like calling it The Fox That Got foxed! You can see it on Youtube.
Eager to learn and to impress Davydov, the fledgling animators experimented with different techniques such as puppets and cutouts. The 1st puppet animation directed by Nguyen Tich was the 1960's Chu Tho Di Hoc (Little Hare Goes to School). I can't find this anywhere online or offline. Anyone know how to get a glimpse of this let me know.
During the war years, the studio relocated to the country side to avoid excessive American bombing attacks. The first location was in a village named Noi Dong. Here, the animators had to work with many constrains including the lack of electricity. However, these conditions yielded some of the most effective propaganda works.
Directed by Ngô Mạnh Lân, the most prolific of Vietnamese animators, 1965's Mèo Con (Little Kitty) won the Silver Pelican Award at Mamaia Animation Festival in Romania. Has anyone ever heard of the Mamaia award?
By the same director, 1967's Con Sáo biết nói (The Talking Blackbird) is a satire poking fun at GI's. It pits big muscular American soldiers against a sly black bird. They end up having ants crawling all over them.
This is a two part interview with Ngô Mạnh Lân recently.
Phan Nghiêm, an engineer and technician of film processing, managed to streamline the process of creating color animation. Their first colored work was Carved in the Rock, directed by Truong Qua. The studio thrived on making animations and their output were high quality films that won local and a few international awards.
1971's Cô Bé Và Lọ Hoa (The Little Girl and A Flower Vase) directed by Nghiem Dung, won a highly coveted award at the Moscow International Film Festival.
One of the most celebrated film and perhaps the finest film produced by the studio was Chuyện ông Gióng, Legend Of Saint Giong, directed by Ngô Mạnh Lân in 1970. The film I think is an elaborate puppet masterpiece depicting the life of the legendary hero Giong. There were many special effects needed that have never been done before in Vietnam, such as fire, smoke, puppet armies, flying objects, and complicated backdrops. The team had to figure out those challenges on their own. Giong won top prize at the international animation festival in Moskva, Russia. Another communist award.
Chuyện ông Gióng (directed by Ngô Mạnh Lân)
In the early 70s, a number of animators from the studio made a foray into television. They contributed to making new programs of animation on national TV. This allowed Vietnamese animation to reach a wider audience than was before.
Những Bông Hoa Nhỏ (Our Little Flowers), was a variety TV show for children. The show had a mixture of live performance and animation that had educated and captured the imagination of Vietnamese children for years. It was aired from 1970 to 1995, the time when Vietnamese TV was starting to be saturated by foreign contents. The show was revived in 2012.
At the peak of the studio's power, the 2nd highest ranking officer Truong Chinh and their mentor, Roman Davydov made visits.
After the war in 1975, the studio opened a branch in Ho Chi Minh City and began producing mostly short works for children with a focus on traditional values, Vietnamese legends, and educating children on modern topics. During that time, the studio was the only game in town and completely owned and operated by the state. Each year the state would provide funding and quota on how many minutes of animation needed to be made.
The Modern Era (Doi Moi)
At the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union, Vietnam entered into an open market economy. Foreign investors were allowed to have businesses in Vietnam to exploit low labor cost and its fresh pool of eager talents. A group of Japanese animators opened their short lived studio near Long An and trained many local workers who would later brought their experiences to other studios. Jacques Peyrache established Pixibox at the heel of the Japanese. Pixibox went on to hire hundreds of Vietnamese to churn out 2D projects for international companies and became one of the biggest foreign studios in Vietnam at the time. Today, its sister company, Sparx, is the biggest foreign studio in Ho Chi Minh City, with high profiles clients in North America and Europe. At the success of Pixibox, a dozen more companies made investments in Vietnam. They were US's Morgan Interactive, South Korea's Hahn Shin, and Australia's Energee Entertainment.
The influx of foreign investment shifted the dynamic of the industry away from Hanoi Cartoon Studio. Vietnamese animation industry became an outsourcing service provider for foreign companies. Not only did foreign companies offered more wages, they were willing to train their staff with more advance technology. From 1991 to 2000, Hanoi Cartoon Studio struggled to stay relevant due to lack of talents, outdated equipment, and no distribution system. No one wanted to see their animations anymore.
Desperate to hang on, Hanoi Cartoon Studio was renamed Vietnamese Animation Studio (VAS) and became a limited liability company to protect itself and for securing loans easier. Some of the strategic steps that the company took were to open the 1st all animation theater called Thanh Giong Animation, broadcast contents online, and self distributing DVDs. Other changes were updating equipment, renovate facility, intensify training, and have more effective government oversight.
However, I think these improvements are not enough. Currently, the quality of animation from the studio can’t compete with those from its neighboring countries. The 2014 Animation Summit took place in Hanoi and showcased the latest highlights of animated projects from the region. They were from various Asian countries except Vietnam. I don’t know if Vietnam had entered any projects or not but regardless, it should be a great opportunity to know what kind of standard is out there.
I’ve read many publications on the issues of Vietnamese animation. Some say because of its absence of creativity, witty humor, fleshed out script and character developments. Others blame it on financial support, censorship, audience's taste, little distribution, and lack of time. There seem to be two main issues. One is that there is a lack of distribution therefore it can’t build an audience. The director of VAS, Dang Vu Thao, says that TV stations are less interested in domestic cartoon produced by state own studio because no one want to see them. Most cartoons produced by VAS are shelved after just a few screenings and never be seen again. One the other hand, TV networks and movie theaters point the finger to the low quality of Vietnamese animation. Brian Hall, director of Megastar Theater Chain in Vietnam, indicates that there is a place for Vietnamese animation. However, the quality of Vietnamese animation makes it less appealing to audience in that market compare to foreign animation. It looks like the relationship between the producers and the distributor has gone sour. They blame each other. The two needs to kiss up, do their parts, and take more risk for the future of Vietnamese children.
Vietnam Animation Studio (VAS)
Right now VAS is the biggest studio that produces Vietnamese animation. In my opinion, their animations are decent but can’t be compared to cartoons from Disney or contend with the popularity of Anime in Vietnam. Frankly, they’re just not there yet. They have the modern technology and the people who know how to use that technology. The foundation is available. I’ve seen most of the animations by VAS. Check out their website.
Someone needs to re-skin the site and give it a new theme. The red and black color tone is too depressing and definitely not very appealing to young kids. Also the site can be a lot more Mobile Device responsive. Plus, the web developer needs to have an English version of the site to bring in global visitors. Simply put, Vietnamese animations are not as cinematic. They’re just too rigid. The camera angles are very formal and some of the editing is too damn confusing. They need better editors and storyboard artists. Let me nitpick here. One of their most popular animations is Đuôi của thằn lằn (The Tail of The Gecko), no pun intended here. It begins with the gecko trying to catch a bird standing on a tree branch. After some fruits fall on his head and he gets dizzy and fumbles, the bird hovers way close by the branch. The gecko then does a really high jump trying catch the bird but the film cuts suddenly to the bird really high up in the sky. What the heck? How did the bird get all the way up there when we just saw it hovering next to the branch. There should have been a cutaway shot of the bird shooting up to the sky. It destroys the continuity of the sequence for me. Exaggeration is a great tool in animation but the syntax of cinema is still needed in order tell a story correctly.
Similarly, the incoherent editing is seen in Khoảng trời, another popular cartoon. First we see some kids wondering in the rice field. Cut to a wide shot of a fisherman retrieving this net, then to a close up shot of the net coming up with the kids' astonished faces in the background. I wish there was another shot showing the kids actually spotting the fisherman to establish their spatial relationship before cutting to the net and the kids in the frame together. Right after this, we see them getting scared and running away. Why are they running away? This is confusing to me. I don't why kid all of a sudden they run away when they seem to be very joyful at seeing the catch in the net by the fisherman.
Great animations are not made by animators; they are made by great filmmakers. All the elements that constitute a a great piece of animation are there. It just that Vietnamese animators need to utilize them correctly.
I don't know. Maybe they need an independent movement or something. The talents and the resources are there. It’s possible to make some great Vietnamese animations and even start a new wave of animation style.
Perhaps Vietnamese animation needs to establish a unique style that is instantly recognizable. Maybe they need to also have exclusive themes and characteristics separating them from other types of animation. For example, with Disney, it’s the realistic movement of the animation combined with their fairy tale storytelling, and with anime—the blend of minimal movement, adult themes, and impeccable framing of each shot that optimize their storytelling. Vietnamese animation needs to stand out. Right now, it’s rather rudimentary and generic looking. There is a lack of details that makes them more like student films instead of professional works. The edges are kind of rough. The characters don't look very attractive. You can clearly see the lingering influence of Russian Animation, especially from Davydov in recent animations made from VAS. I believe it's time to let that go and adopt something new.
There are venues that try to encourage this Avant Garde way of thinking. Hanoi’s Doclab held a screening to show works from early American underground experimental animations that were prominent during the golden age of Disney and Fleischer studios.
It should be a great inspiration for up and coming Vietnamese animators to know how these oddball styles of animations thrived and influenced mainstream animation in America during that time. Also note the stories that were portrayed by these revolutionary techniques. With Vietnamese’s turbulent and dramatic history and artistic culture, it should not be hard to come up with the right stories for the right techniques.
Other animators that I can think that might be great sources of inspiration for Vietnamese animators are:
Chris Landreth, for this revolutionary 3D computer generated experimental works. His characters literally bare their souls and the visual perfectly captures their complex psyche.
William Kentridge for his historical and expressionistic take using animation and the process of deconstruction.
Alexander Petrov for his fairy tale magical quality and surreal and tedious animation technique.
And check out Japanese great Yoji Kuri’s darkly humored cartoons.
Water puppetry plays a huge part in Vietnamese culture so I think this can translate nicely into animations. So is origami.
These artistic expressions can be pollinated into multi media. While many young animators work for foreign studio for income and to learn advanced techniques I hope they will also apply their knowledge to create home grown works and experiment with an animation wave changing the outlook of the industry, fostering a unique style of Vietnamese animation for the world to see. Until then, Vietnamese animation is too timid and institutional to express their unique culture. I hope that local Vietnamese artists will be able to contribute their talent to expressing Vietnamese culture through animation in new captivating breakthrough. Vietnamese culture is rich with the tradition of arts and crafts. They have “Pho” and "Banh Mi". There’s already an animation about Banh Mi.
Pretty slick huh? Well, to all young Vietnamese animators. Go and do one about Pho!!!!!! Channel Švankmajer’s Meat Love or put this Roof Sex masterpiece on repeat and let your sickest imagination take over!