Chinese Dumpling Ventures into the World
- An Exclusive Interview with Chen Liaoyu, Director of FOODIVERSE

Director Chen Liaoyu

Associate professor and master tutor of China Film Academy of Animation, director of Animation Art department, vice president of China Animation Research Institute, a number of domestic animation competitions judges, has high reputation in the domestic animation industry and academic. Representative works: “Good Habits Every Day”, “Black Box” Series, “Gossip” and so on.


With the advantage of genre, the traditional Chinese elements of the role setting, the attractive story and sophisticated design, Chinese animation film Foodiverse has obtained wide recognition in overseas markets.

In the past two years, “Monkey King: Hero is Back” and “Big Fish & Begonia”, the two domestic cartoons’ box office’s harvest have injected a shot into the Chinese animation films. As the director of domestic animation film “Foodiverse”, Chen Liaoyu said:” Two films represented a new stage of the development of Chinese animation film. Chinese filmmakers began to have some confidence to establish their own creative language and styles. “As the Associate Professor of China Academy of Animation, Chen Liaoyu has earned high reputation in animation and academy in China. Currently, he has directed a Chinese animation film “Foodiverse”, which is in the final stage. The film is planned to release in the first half of 2017 in China.

Animation film production is a difficult and complicated process. “Animation film production cycle is at least three years, ” said Chen Liaoyu. From the initial idea getting at the dinner table several years ago, to the current film’s final ending, “Foodiverse” also experienced a long creative process. From the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival, the animated film has been tried to distribute overseas. The film’s producer, chairman of Phenom Films Chang Hongsong said: “We have to do distribution in overseas. From the perspective of return on investment, the animated film in China’s market is very risky. It can only be through oversea, postponed or making derivatives and other means to find a balanced solution, from an investment point of view.” With the advantage of genre, the traditional Chinese elements of the role setting, the attractive story and sophisticated design, “Foodiverse” has obtained wide recognition in overseas markets.  So it is expected to release in the global.

During the interview, Director Chen Liaoyu talked about the creative inspiration, role setting, story and production details of the movie “Foodiverse”. Also analyzed the current market situation and the future  trend of Chinese animation film.


CFM: What is the inspiration for you to think of the story of “Foodiverse”?

Chen: Inspiration certainly has a relationship with eating. In the late 90s,when I had dinner with a good friend in a small restaurant. My minds were full of doing what kinds of animation themes and creation. Because we were eating at that time, so I was thinking of turning the things into cartoon characters, certainly more interesting. Later this idea was intermittent, but did not immediately implement. At that time, “Story” mode was very popular in cartoon films. People put a class of things all into a cartoon image, forming an alternative view of the world. We thought that there were so many food in China, why not put these foods into a cartoon image? Later, until 2005, around 2006, we began to write this story. In 2006 we wrote the first edition, called “Flour Town”, because the designs are all made of flour. Now the role in the film called “Yi mao qian”. It was called “Yi jiao qian” in “Flour Town”. Because I am a southerner, generally say “Yi jiao qian”. Now the film is on the north of the context, I changed it into “Yi mao qian”.

Started from 2006, in 2007 we wrote the first version of the complete screenplay, which also did the application. At that time, the animation film investment and market environment in China was immeasurable with that of today, it is difficult to wait until the opportunity to achieve. The film had to shelve. But we kept working. Around year of 2013, conditions of investment and the environment had been much better. We retook this project out. At that time the market, the audience viewing level, and the production level of animation had not been the same with a decade ago. Although the concept can still be used, but the film’s art style, character design, and the story of the main line, need to be reconsidered, that is the film we are making.

The overall core of the film has probably been determined in the second stage. Now we expand the world of the story from the flour town to Foodiverse, which is just one of the stars in the universe. There are many other planets in the universe. Compared to the previous stage of the design, it emphasizes a greater cosmology. And we want to be able to continue making the sequels.


No matter where the audience is, we should do well enough


CFM: The pre-sale of Foodiverse has been doing great in the overseas market and will have a global release. How do you tell a story that will be loved by the global audiences?

Chen: From the director’s point of view, whether the film is released in the country or in the world, my work status is the same. As a creator and based on my own understanding of animation and creation, I never deliberately thinking about the so-called “Chinese elements” in the creation of a film. In turn, once I made a film, whether the film is good or bad, it is a film made by Chinese. If you make a significance film for broad market, you will hope that the world’s audience can understand it, whether Chinese or foreigners. In my opinion, I will not deliberately delineate the region of the audience unless I target a particular market.

I am not only a director, also a college teacher. From the academic level we often discuss the issue of internationalization. I think, whether a film can achieve internationalization, it is decided by the creator’s vision and position. If the creators usually accept the strong education, knowledge system and cultural background, all of these will obstacle him. Even he try to do the investigation of information, and to deliberately cater to overseas audience, it may not be successful. In the 1980s and before the 1980s, Chinese animation had a lot of good works, such as “The Monkey King”, ” Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King ”, and “The Legend of Sealed Book”. I think those directors did not go to pondering how to cater to Western audiences. They focused on how to do something better, and their works also could get a good response and evaluation when they are going abroad.

From the beginning of the 90’s, about 20 years, Chinese animation industry was doing processing films. Before 80’s, we had formed a set of creative discourse and style. But in the era of processing films, they were thrown away, and the films were entirely under the Western creative language – not even talked about using someone else’s language to tell our stories, but entirely with the words of others to tell the story of others, and to work for others. To the late 90s, the early age that we produced a large number of cartoons, whether it was television or movies, the audience would say they looked just like foreign films. When the films released abroad, the foreign people even didn’t like to see them. At that time I also participated in many meeting about creation, generally to discuss these two issues: First, we had to do what kind of things to represent the Chinese culture. Secondly, in order to show that the film was very international, we had to use some scene visions, specific symbols. I think these were signals of not self-confident.

These years I think the situation was slowly improved. In fact, as a creator, I only need to care about one thing, which is whether the work is particularly well. Overall, regarding the cultural things, when you are strong enough, you are international standard. When China is becoming stronger and stronger, and Chinese culture can have a certain voice, foreigners will automatically understand Chinese culture and Chinese way of thinking, because they need to pay attention to China, just like that Chinese people are particularly concerned about European and American culture right now. At present, compared with the developed countries, our culture and communication is still weak. For the actual operational level, we still need to do some technical adjustments on design and promotion. I will not exclude that. I think this is only a problem at certain stage.

For this film, we want to do it well enough. In the process of work, we will always feel it is not good enough. We first strive to do well at core values, contradictions and conflicts of the story. After the release of the film, the evaluation I wish to hear is: “This Chinese cartoon film is good enough.” I will be very satisfied.


CFM: From the “Flour town” to the present “Foodiverse”, how do you evolve and advance the story structure?

Chen: We must admit that the starting point of the writers of Chinese animation is weak. In the creation and production process, we are also slowly aware some problems. I think a film like a person, the core value should be correct. No matter any flaws in the production, the core values must be correct, at least with the common consensus level. Secondly, we just discussed the issue of internationalization, that is, the so-called concept of universal values. Specifically speaking of this film, we discuss the contradiction of these foods. Is it the contradiction between traditional food and modern food? Or is it between Chinese food and Western food? In fact, no matter from the healthy and unhealthy, or the East and West, or traditional and modern even other concepts to find the point of manufacturing contradictions, I do not feel it is right one. All of these are untenable. Food is different in their shape, taste and smell, also the production process is different, but they have their own value. If people replace these foods, it is the same thing. Everyone is unique, everyone is different, but the value of survival is the same, with the power of happiness is equal. On the contrary, we can find a contradiction, that there is only one measure of success, right and perfect. The concept of a single standard and the diversity of tolerance are contradicted, which could be understood and accredited by people all around the world.

The reason why I compile this story is that there is such contradiction in our present society. For example, so-called secrets of success is now particularly popular. Many people come to educate everyone what is successful people and what is successful life. When someone accepts the instilling of a single successful value, in order to prove that he has entered the ranks of success, the first thing to do is to give up the original himself. We feel that the society is impetuous. I have such a strong feeling that people tend to identify success as a single standard. In the creative process, combining the feelings and cognition on the status quo, it will increasingly strengthen the core of the conflict.

In terms of the specific role, the dumpling named “Yi mao qian” actually describes a person how to know herself, to accept her own. A steel coin was put into her brain. Some people think she is not the same with others and this “not the same” thing brings more trouble. She becomes unwilling to accept herself, and like to change herself. “Yi mao qian” gets through the four stages of growth. The first stage is denying herself, she couldn’t accept herself, thinking that “why I am so unlucky and I also bring a lot of trouble to others”. The second stage, the villain appeared, because she is too eager to get rid of her problem, when the temptation and a variety of fraud appears, she is the first one to be fooled, lost herself. In the process of following the villain, “Yi mao qian” find the truth. When the villain tries to kill her, she escapes to the garbage planet, and she finally find herself. But then she still had a difficult task to complete. Because of her, many people have been cheated, and her best friends were in danger too, so “Yi mao qian” must go back to save them. The fourth stage is to sacrifice. She sacrifices herself by the steel coin in her brain, so this film was named “A Dime to Save The World”, a pun.

The role setting of Bun, corresponding to the mentality of peace in this era that I call it “simple values”. They have no big theory and no great dream, but believe in “Money doesn’t grow on the tree”, which is very simple but truthful. In contrast to the setting of dumpling, Steamed Stuffed Bun is willing to accept his role, and he never complains and become a mirror to the role of dumpling.

We have established such a world in this film, so it is necessary to use it as much as possible, to develop all its value. From the creative point of view, if I continue to make sequel, I believe that more creative inspiration will be taken from the regret of the first film, or the first part of the things that has not been mentioned. For example, I pay more attention to the big story line, the main aspects of the conflict, and the role of setting, basically not deliberately to reflect the family relationship. But I think, we have a lot of emotions, stories, relationships and other core things, all with family relations. If you let me to conceive the second story, there may be a new planet and the residents. The popular role in the first part certainly will appear, but the story may be transferred to tell the direction of family relations, father and son relations, etc. I also want to show the interesting things of food itself. The story is designed as a simple framework, which makes room for people and the animation itself to dig the fun and to express some delicate emotions. I do not want to turn the film into skits, scripts of the string field, and a piece by a piece. I want it to have a strict story of the main line, and then to establish figures, but the two things need to be balanced. All the details of the characterization should be created from real life. The audience can find the corresponding point in life, then the comedy effect will come out.


CFM: How do you define the audience group of “Foodiverse”?

Chen: Disney has said that when we do any of the cartoons we never think it is done for adults or for the children. We put the best things in our heart, the things we most want to share with you, the most interesting things for everyone to see. If the animated film has segregation of children and adults audience, it should be specific to some indicators, such as what kind of lens, language or behavior cannot appear in front of children. I am recognized of that. From this perspective, my film is the type for both adults and children.

I have observed that little audiences may not be able to fully understand the cartoon films in those stories and values, but the children can be very happy. For instance, Disney’s animated film to all ages of the audience provides a lot of stories and emotions, values, but also contains many children’s favorite animated image and its movements, performances, as well as the details of fun. I hope that when adults watch the film at least they don’t think the story is too low, and the core values are not correct. I hope they feel that the emotion, character, logic is basically feasible. Adults are certainly judged from these angles, so then there should be something interesting details. Children will find the happy scenes are very interesting, the roles are amusing and fun enough.

In China, we must face the market awareness and positioning habits of the reality of animation film. The market will determine the audience to be children based on our cartoon style. I personally think that the film is more with the United States-style. Its biggest feature is that it does not have any requirements to the audience, which is the most important feature of American-style cartoons. In fact, the Japanese cartoon has requirements to the audience, they should be fans. Viewers need to understand the author and content of the cartoon before they can enjoy it.

In the promotion of the film, I hope to emphasize the most key word- fun. The audience can see the role of the film’s shape, posters, videos, and even the film from the promotion, and they will feel it is quite funny. For the Chinese audience, now watching movies is no longer the process of education, but a recreational experience, especially cartoons. In addition to bring more joy to the audience, as a teacher, I have a little bit of requirements that the film’s taste need to achieve a certain standard. At present the most critical thing is to make a perfect presentation.


Technical level is not the only way to impress the audience


CFM: Animation production is very complicated. Is there any special technology using this time in the production?

Chen: Turning to the production of animation film, I think that China’s animation industry has been a distance from the establishment of a sound, well-tested production process. Regardless our previous achievements, the real sense of the animated film, from the start to make practical things, is just happen in China in the past six to seven years. So, in fact, any one of China’s current animated films, animation directors or animation companies, are not very rich in experience. They move forward with no complete technology and process. Everyone continue to solve the problems and constantly explore in the process of the former line. For US animation industry, the process model has been repeated after the operation and each procedure is done on the basis of the original addition. And we have not reached such a high level at this stage. When We are making an animated film, at least half of the energy is to solve various temporary problems which were unplanned. We do not have a team to form a very smooth, mature production process. Every day variety problems of ultra-cost or over time schedule would happen. But I think, for the future development of China’s animation, this stage is the only way to go through. We need to continue to accumulate experience, improve the process, and try to achieve higher lever in the process. I am particularly confident on my film as well as the future development of the domestic animation. This is my true feeling.

As the animation industry practitioners, I would also like to say a few words for Chinese cartoons. In fact, the current level of Chinese animation is not bad as media described. We all know that the United States, Japan animation level is relatively high from the overall level, and then it should be followed by China . As the third in the world, it should not be bad rank. Secondly, the cartoons imported to China, whether from the United States or Japan, are basically the best works. It does not mean that every animated film in these countries can be such boutique with so high quality. Third, compared with the animated film, the real movie has more gimmicks, stars and speculation talk, but animation movies do not have these advantages. The first-class animation director’s popularity can not compete with the director of the real film. Audience has less attention on animation film and animation industry. This is the reality of the situation. In fact, China’s animation film has reached a certain level.

Animated video is highly dependent on technology. Due to the most basic technical and cost threshold, the production process depends on the level of industrialization process, technology and management. One year of the process for a common movie is quite a long time, and animation film production cycle is basically three years onwards. Now we all want to see the technical innovation of the animated film, but I am not engaged in technical origin and from my personal pursuit of speaking, this is not my main direction. I pay more attention to the final practical effect, and my main work is to put forward the various requirements of the effect, or choose which form of expression is more appropriate.

Each director, each team’s resource and conditions have their own characteristics. Now the audience is an international perspective. Every year they can simultaneously watch the outstanding animation around the world. Under the pressure of the United States’ high level of technology, if we claim to achieve an animated film technology innovation challenges, I am afraid it is very difficult. Secondly, if we make the technological innovation as the main highlights of the film, I think it means the creators are not very self-confident of their films. I hope this film uses a normal technology, and then make a very good movie. I even hope that I can finally prove this point. I do not deny that it is good in making animations particularly realistic, but obviously that’s not the only way animated movies can impress viewers. My choice may be more inclined to the story, emotion, fun, and then reach a normal level of technology on it. I do not reject new technology. But with the cost, capacity, and relatively limited cycle, I would like to choose the most cost-effective aspects to breakthrough.


The Three Development Stages of Chinese Animation Film


CFM: How do you evaluate the current performance of Chinese animation film market and future trends?

Chen: From a creative point of view, my views on the market may not be the same with others. In the short-term, people will be very concerned about who’s box office is over billions of dollars. In fact, from the industry point of view, I will value an animated film on whether its mode can be copied and whether it has positive growth. For example, “Monkey King: Hero is Back”, I am more concerned about whether Tian Xiaopeng has one model, based on which we can make a second movie, rather than let the film become a fortuitous event. In fact although the “Monkey King: Hero is Back” and “Big Fish & Begonia” are very successful at the box office, but they are non-normal model. Both worked for 12 years or 8 years, and eventually carried out by a variety of reasons. Their sequels cannot be done by this way. If the success of the film can be achieved on the basis of a transformation into a replicable model, the Chinese animation film industry is entering a new stage of development.

I have said that the development of Chinese animation film should go through three stages. The first stage is completely jungle times. All of us are at a zero starting point, swarming. After the first round of PK is over, it will eliminate many participants. In the second stage, there will be some successful individuals, such as “Monkey King: Hero is Back” and “Big Fish & Begonia”. What is the greatest significance of the success of these films? They prove to the audience, the market and investors that Chinese animation does not come to nothing. Before that, the audience had a relatively poor impression on Chinese animation. The third stage actually hasn’t appeared. That is the success of the film production model, creative mode, and even IP, which you can copy and continue to develop. Once entering this stage, Chinese animation is likely to enter the boom phase. Now everyone in the industry has the opportunity to do cartoons, just to prove that there is no strong company and there is no leader company or directors in this field. I think we need at least three years for the third stage. If there is a company, a brand or a director to establish the successful model that can be copied, China’s animated film’s situation will be eventually accomplished. The emergence of such a successful model suggests that those who are relatively poor companies and works will not have any chance to survive. The industry’s human resources will focus on several large companies. I think this trend will come soon or later.

Now most of the China’s animation directors really devote themselves in the business rather than talk about material conditions. As long as someone provides us the investment and conditions, we will work hard for the films. I think we are still in the stage of proving ourselves. In fact, in China the mentality of making animation is better than making movie because animation filmmakers know well that there is no room for them to play any trick. China’s animation people are endured hard to make their dreams become true. In their hearts, they are always thinking not to let the audience down. In the future of China’s film and television culture products, theoretically it is cartoons that most likely going into the international market. Now there is a new situation. In the past, the Chinese filmmakers did some parts of the original work of an American or Japanese animation. Now the situation changed, China is getting stronger. It is possible that Hollywood or Japan production team works the production for a Chinese cartoon, but the producer is still Chinese people. And the final work still belongs to China’s animation.

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