Building Chinese Animations with International Vision
- An Interview with Leo Lee, Director of AXEL2:ADVENTURES OF THE SPACEKIDS

Leo Lee, Chairman of Versatile Media, has risen to fame and success in the advertising industry after years-long struggle and accumulation. However, he particularly likes his new role as the director of animated films, saying that “it is the most tiring to be a director, but I like it the best”. In an interview with CFM, Leo shares the stories behind the production and distribution of AXEL2, and stories behind the direction of the animated films and his keen opinions on the current status and future trend of China’s animation industry.

AXEL2:ADVENTURES OF THE SPACEKIDS, a 3D animated science fiction film, will come soon in the Chinese Mainland in July 2017. It is the second long animated film of the Kunta Series to be launched by Versatile Media and Director Leo Lee with four-year painful creation and refinement after the release of AXEL: THE BIGGEST LITTLE HERO in 2013. Kunta is an animated figure which Versatile Media has elaborately designed and started with a big film and also an animation intellectual property with a very broad international vision. Now, Versatile Media has initiated the roadshow at home and abroad for AXEL2:ADVENTURES OF THE SPACEKIDS. In mid-June, Versatile Media will make a debut of this film in a high profile at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France. So far, Versatile Media has promoted the animated film more smoothly in the international market, benefiting from the foundation which the first film has built. Leo Lee discloses that Versatile Media has signed the contract on the overseas agency of this film.

Leo Lee, Chairman of Versatile Media, has risen to fame and success in the advertising industry after years-long struggle and accumulation. However, he particularly likes his new role as the director of animated films, saying that “it is the most tiring to be a director, but I like it the best”. In an interview with CFM, Leo shares the stories behind the production and distribution of AXEL2, and stories behind the direction of the animated films and his keen opinions on the current status and future trend of China’s animation industry.


AXEL2 Has Realized Comprehensive Upgrade

CFM: After coming on the screen, AXEL1 has been generally acknowledged for fine picture and technical application. Yet, the film has also displayed some problems in script, figure, marketing and other areas. Then, how will you do better to promote the second season that will come soon?

Lee: AXEL1 was our first animated film under the Kunta Series. At that time, we had to overcome many difficulties, so the film does leave much space for improvement. Restricted by fund and time, we have finally cancelled one act and produced the film with only two acts. This was crazy. For the second season – AXEL2:ADVENTURES OF THE SPACEKIDS, we have worked to improve the story and structure a lot. First of all, we emphasize the integrity of the story and try to tell a story with well-knit structure. Therefore, we have spent a lot of time on designing the logical structure of the story. The Kunta Series renders a virtual world view as the background, so it should be all about imagination. However, it is truly very difficult to design and create a virtual world. The story needs to be repeated scrutiny and make logical plots. In general, the story is very impressive. In addition, we strengthen the emotional line in order to establish an emotional connection with real life. So AXEL2 is not only show the exquisite production, also the story is very exciting.


CFM: In 2013, you already started distributing AXEL1 in the overseas market. How has the overseas market reacted to this film so far? How will you adjust the promotion and marketing strategy for the second film in the overseas market?

Lee: We believe the design of characters has to be globalization if we want to promote the film in the overseas market, otherwise we would suffer a hard time. In fact, we Chinese people make those creative works, the soul inside is the Chinese culture. But the works need for an international packaging to make those Chinese culture more easy to be understood. Our character design, with more international images, is no obvious national properties. So the first AXEL films was quite successful from this point of view. When the film is dubbed with English, nobody feels that it is made by a particular country. The audience only feel that it is an international thing. This will actually help overseas distribution and make buyers easier to accept the film.

As for the second film, we have refined the story structure, targeted the audience at an older age and made the entire story more enjoyable and stronger in rhythm. Therefore, AXEL2 has won an overall good response in the overseas market. Now, we have signed an agreement with the overseas distribution agent, which will assume overall responsibility for the overseas promotion and marketing. Two theater chains has been signed for cooperation in two countries. We are trying to increase the exposure of AXEL2 through various channels. We participated in Annecy 2017 with our another animation movie THINDOOM which is under the production right now. we hope that more overseas buyers and audience will see the quality of Chinese animations with an international style and see a complete change in the inherent impression of Chinese animations. We really hope that the Kunta series and our follow-up films can be released to more countries.


The Making of IP Requires Particular Skill

CFM: At present, most of Chinese animated films target young audience and must depend on resources and audience bases of the TV channel. What new ideas and different strategies do you have to promote an IP like AXEL Series?

Lee: If we have the resources of the TV channel, I think this will be a very good thing. However, the TV channel also involves a high cost. In my opinion, an IP can rely on the TV channel to rise to fame at the early stage, and this will be a very successful way. Then, the studio can make this IP independent after years-long accumulation. However, from the perspective of IP itself, does TV play come before IP or vice versa? I don’t think we should answer this question with only one standard.

If we select the TV channel, I think his will involve a high comprehensive cost. The first is the time cost, as you will have to experience a prolonged accumulation before you can select the TV channel. The second is the actual production cost, because you will have to produce so many episodes, which will demand a high actual cost, considering there is no very ideal way to recover the cost. If we select the TV channel, we will have to take 5 or 6 years first to validate the operation of this IP before producing a big film. If we estimate the annual comprehensive cost at RMB10 million during this period, we will have to spend RMB70 million, RMB80 million or even more. Considering this factor, I think it will be also an option to directly produce a big film and control the cost well. We have also seen that a big film will possibly gain a far higher market influence than a teleplay, because a big film will cover an even bigger audience. I think they are two different options, and it is also a way to build an IP with a big film. Our experience shows that this mode will possibly involve a lower comprehensive cost.


CFM: How will you devise the derivatives from the Kunta IP?

Lee: Actually, almost all animated films don’t have many derivatives, which are limited to toys, apparels, foods, offline amusement parks, games and mobile phone games. We have already designed these derivatives. However, we’re now rather cautious to select these derivatives, because an IP must be protected when it grows up and excessive development will possibly deliver an adverse impact on the IP. In particular, licensed derivatives will possibly run out of control in actual operation and tend to damage the IP and the brand. Therefore, we will treat derivatives with caution and control the progress before our IP grows powerful.


CFM: Do you have any plan to produce any further films after the trilogy of the AXEL? What projects and plans are you now implementing, besides AXEL Series?

Lee: The trilogy tells three tasks, and after completion of these three tasks, different roles in these films can derive different series of stories in future and unique backgrounds. In future, we will still focus on big films and possibly produce TV episodes, just like the Star Wars Series.

Besides AXEL Series, we’re now developing the IPs of two animated films. We’re now producing “A Kingdom of Garbage”, which will come on the screen next summer. We have not finalized the name of the other project which had already entered the preliminary design stage.


Forging Industrialized Flow Management Mode

CFM: You have mentioned in a speech that your company has spent one year adjusting the flow. Could you please your adjustment strategy and the final flow?

Lee: Animation is an industry, It is difficult to maintain quality and control costs without good processes. Before we streamlined our flow, many projects much depended on individual ability. The work flow is too dependent on one of the powerful members. It is impossible to establish standards as industrialized production and realize pipelining. The frequency of modification and adjustment will increase, while the cost will rise and the production cycle will not be controllable. It will be difficult to optimize those links. Because of few gifted experts, you will not find how to optimize the work flow, because you can rely on one person to deal with the problems, if any, quickly and well. However, such gifted experts can’t be duplicated. Powerful individual will become the obstacle of restricting and efficiency under the industrial production. The completion and quality of the project depends on few staff whose ability can’t copy. The quality standards are too personal, and this model is called the workshop model.

From the perspective of industrialization, only a high-level flow management mode can assure the quality of all work up to uniform standards. When redesigning the process, we introduced many production tools, including those we developed in house. These tools convert some good methods that have been validated in practice and fixed to assure that anybody in the position can use the same method to complete the work and maintain the same working quality. The entire assembly line contains many such steps that are closely connected with one another to assure automatic operation.

We already established very complete process system with our own style. We can greatly improve the quality and efficiency of the entire production. Our advantage is that the performance-price ratio is quite high.


Technical Problem Is the Reason Behind Poor Stories of Chinese Animation

CFM: It is a heated topic to tell stories in the Chinese film industry, and the Chinese animation industry also faces the same problem. What resources have you allocated to address this issue? How to tell a good story in an animated film?

Lee: People usually infer the structure of the animated film by using a successful animated film with its story, and discuss its rhythm and the emotional curve of the entire animated film. Of course, these data are very good and useful, and can enlighten us with some ideas. However, all these elements must be realized in practice, which will be not easy. Now, we work hard on how to change all emotional curves into stories.

Hollywood has invented the drama structure, which is definitely a very good method, after years-long accumulation. It is a guarantee and basic demand for a story. However, we can also see that many generally accepted classic films don’t always follow the structure, and only a breakthrough will be fresh. Such experience should not become a rigid doctrine.

To tell a good story, I think this will depend the most on whether the main controller of film production – producer and director – see this thing as the most important. If they understand the story as the most essential element of a film, I think they can solve this problem, because as long as you’re willing to spend time, nothing will be insolvable. But it needs patience, not with time of making one film but a few films.

Another evident problem is that an animated film is different from a true figure film, because an animated film has no actors and purely depends on the creation of animators to complete the performance. Therefore, animators’ understanding of performance is actually a very important thing. A script may be only one sentence, but an actor will possibly have to perform it with 5 minutes. Performance is a more vulnerable element for an animated film. Because most of our animators have no educational background about performance but graduate from computer or art discipline. They lack of performance part with their educational background

People say Chinese animations or films are not good at telling stories. Instead, I don’t think it is the thing of only the director and screenwriters, but the problem of all expression methods. For example, even if the script is the same, different people will interpret it with different results. A director or producer always faces the pressure from time and budget, and he can’t focus on the thing without limitation. Therefore, we will definitely compromise between cost and quality, and the extent and method of compromise have influenced the current status of the Chinese animation industry.

Now, people say that the Chinese animation industry no longer has the technical problem but has a problem to tell stories. I think this opinion is one-sided. If we analyze in depth, we will find this will still be attributable to our technology and the expressive force of our performance, which will cause a problem to tell a good story. How to tell a story in a film? We must depend on actors and performance, which actually means technology for animation and depends on how to express the emotions of characters through technology. Without those fine emotional expressions, including trembling of facial muscles, how can we perform a role to strike the audience? Therefore, all these details added up are one of the reasons that Chinese animations can’t tell stories perfectly. If you know this industry in depth, you will find the overall bottleneck of the Chinese animation industry still lies in technologies, which shouldn’t be simply understood as narrow or simple technical applications, but those containing the performance element.

For example, if a developer designs an expression system but he doesn’t know about performance, how can he set those parameters to reasonable ranges to render a role? The animated role can move, but it does not mean the real performance with emotions. The job needs the trans-boundary ability.

Animation production is an integrated art. The problem the Chinese animation industry needs to solve is to combine technology and performance in depth and combine technology and art. If we strike a balance between these two points, I think we can well solve the ability to tell good stories.


CFM: Just now, you have mentioned many problems, which possibly can’t be solved in the short term. Then, if you meet with such problem during creation, how will you solve it?

Lee: One is to stick to the problem, to find various similar performance references, over and over again, that is to say, we will not give up until realizing an expected effect. In particular, we spend a lot of time to realize very important elements of the film in order to meet the requirement of expressive force. Alternatively, we will also see whether we can use other methods or skills to bypass some difficulties. For example, if some fine performance details of an animated figure are not as satisfactory as we want, we will look for other solutions. For example, we can apply some shots or other methods to adjust emotions of the figure and push those emotional parts.


CFM: The first AXEL film has applied the new cloud competing technology and made a very good effect. What long-term plans do you have for technical innovation and application?

Lee: Actually, we now have reserved many technologies. As to animation production, we hope our future animation works can be more narrative and easier in operation. I think the future trend of animation production is that we can rely on simple technical operations to realize most of the steps and highly enrich performance effects. Now we have developed real-time virtual shooting technology for animation film production. Combined with our own characteristics, those applications can offer more possibilities to the director, also improve the production efficiency greatly. Again, our advantage is high cost-effective production.


A Good Opportunity for Development of Chinese Animation Industry

CFM: Today, you have released the second mature film after first starting the animation business. How do you see changes and opportunities that have taken place in the Chinese animated film market in the past years?

Lee: I feel the environment is now changing for the better. When distributing our first animated film in 2013, we found very few people were willing to distribute our film. However, when we distribute our new film this year, we find many people are now enthusiastic to distribute the film. Personally, I think that the market is a little overheating now. It seems that many people think it as easy as pie to produce animations and they rush to this area. Actually, it is very difficult to produce animations. By saying that, I mean that animation will need time and patience, rather than you can easily realize it by spending a pile of cash. Animation is genuinely an industry that demands gradual accumulation. You will take a very long time to reserve technologies and talents before you can succeed.

All the films China has introduced are the best films in the world. Actually, Hollywood also produces a large number of B-class films, which we can’t see and are not necessarily better than ours. However, I think it a little unfair to compare our indigenous animated films with those top-ranking works from foreign mature industries in terms of box office. Therefore, The indigenous animated films of China should be better acknowledged in this background. Now, the production budget or equivalent of a Chinese animated film is possibly a match for that of their B-class films. If you compare a film we produce with RMB50 million to a foreign film produced with up to USD500 million and conclude we do a bad job, I think this will be very unfair. Therefore, in this sense, our local market still embodies a vast market. Also how to make cost-effective animated film will bring many industry opportunities to Chinese animation market. Therefore, I think if we worked hard, the Chinese animal industry will create an enormous market potential.


CFM: In the 1950s to the 1980s, the Chinese animation industry created many works in diverse forms and fine quality. How do you look at inheritance and innovation in the Chinese animation industry now?

Lee: I think it is undeniable that the Chinese animation industry had made splendid achievements, because at that time, we mobilized forces of the entire country and assembled the most excellent talents to do one thing. Therefore, China’s animations were very wonderful at that time. However, the technical revolution that appeared later has eroded all of our accumulations at the early stage. The digitalization revolution has overturned the structure of the entire animation industry, and America has taken the lead in this revolution, so they have forged great advantages in this regard.

In my opinion, we have used technologies of others in the past years, so I think we will temporarily lag behind for some time in investment and technology. However, I don’t think money and technology are not terrible, and it is terrible that Chinese animation industry has no self-confidence, meaning that we are not confident in our own things. The animated films produced in the 1970s and the 1980s were not followed, and I think such interruption is attributable to certain extent to our inadequate cultural confidence at that stage. The precondition for inheritance is surely that latecomers will accept values of predecessors before learning and inheritance. If we don’t acknowledge all past things or completely abandon them, or we acknowledge these things in face but don’t truly cherish resonance and pride in heart, I think we will be very hard to inherit our traditional treasures.

We have already lost one generation. At present, the important work is that our current generation must establish our cultural confidence during creation. I always believe that the western world has its cultures and China has its own cultures, and we have no reason to definitely adopt western cultural standards or require the western world follow Chinese cultures. In one word, the west and China have respective way to go. However, it is more important whether we acknowledge the best part of our cultures and have the cultural confidence.

Besides, we must also consider how to make Chinese cultures acceptable to the western world, which I think is particularly important. As football goes, attack is the best defense. As to cultural exchange, we should be brave to launch our own things to the market, allow the foreign audience to see these cultural works from China, allow our cultures and products to have more and more opportunities to display themselves. I think this will be a very long way to go. At least, I personally want to create Chinese indigenous animated films with every effort, bring them to the international market and let more people enjoy our Chinese animated films.

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