by Trung Hieu – Vu Tam
Recently, I asked my children if they could tell me the names of any famous Vietnamese cartoon characters.
Both hesitated and failed to think of any. Instead they replied with the likes of Tom and Jerry, Son Goku from Seven Dragon Balls, Batman, Pororo the penguin, Oggy the cat, and Nemo the fish, all popular characters from foreign cartoons that they – as many other Vietnamese children – often watch.
Sadly, over the last few years, Vietnamese cartoons have either been ignored or received with indifference by the public.
Director of Viet Nam Animation Studio Dang Vu Thao said: "Movies and TV series can be bad but at least they have people watching and criticising them. With cartoons, we the producers watch them together, then put them on shelf."
Director Nguyen Ha Bac, who has been making cartoons for more than 30 years, said: "No way out, no investment, no advertisement, no show; this is the current situation facing Vietnamese cartoons."
In recent years, Viet Nam Animation Studio produced about 10 cartoons annually, though most were usually shown only once or twice.
Thao said the studio had tried to bring cartoons to audiences by signing contracts with Ha Noi Television and Viet Nam Television, and by even making discs for sale. However, these efforts were not effective.
"The television stations were not interested in domestic cartoons even though our prices were cheap. And if we made DVDs, we would lose out because of piracy.
"The cost of a 60-minute DVD [containing about five cartoons] including copyright, production and distribution costs is VND60,000-70,000. At that price, it would be difficult to sell or compete with pirated discs sold at only VND5,000 each. Also, unlike in the past, when cartoons were shown before movies at the cinema, animation now only has two opportunities to be seen at movie theatres: a few days around Children's Day on June 1 and during the Mid-Autumn Festival," Thao said.
Although domestic animation faces such problems, local cinemas make giant profits from showcasing foreign cartoons. Animated movies like Ice Age, Lion King and Shrek have created "movie mania" in many cinemas such as Megastar and the National Cinema Centre, helping distributors to attract blockbusting numbers of customers through their doors.
Megastar general director Brian Hall said: "We are willing to show Vietnamese cartoons if there is good content." This means there is a "place" for Vietnamese cartoons, although the reality is that the cartoons themselves cannot compete to live "in that "place".
In many Vietnamese cartoons, the characters tend to lack creativity. Compared with classic cartoon characters like Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and dynamic, modern characters such as Nemo and Shrek, Vietnamese cartoon characters are uninspiring and lifeless. Frustratingly, Vietnamese fairy tales and legends contain many famous characters that could easily be used as source material to form exciting Vietnamese cartoon characters.
Also, many Vietnamese cartoons lack good scripts. Often centred around folk stories, the dialogue is usually too simple, dry and unimaginative.
According to French cartoon director Prakash Topsy, Vietnamese cartoons are only suitable for domestic audiences because the stories and characters' behaviour and speeches are difficult for foreigners to understand. Their expressions are incoherent, they lack charm, the changes in storyline are boring, and there are no dramatic climaxes.
Director Huynh Vinh Son, who won a Golden Lotus award for The Hare and the Tortoise, said: "Frankly, the best Vietnamese 3D animation can hardly compare with the work of US university students."
Also, Vietnamese animation lacks longer cartoons (40-50 minutes or more) and regular series'. Only with longer animations can film-makers create memorable characters with personality.
The problem with short films (usually no more than 10 minutes long) is that the stories are discrete and the duration is not long enough to be shown in cinemas or broadcast on television.
However, this doesn't mean Viet Nam doesn't possess any skilled animators. On the contrary, a number of Vietnamese animators are starting to collaborate with foreign studios. The likes of Huy Nguyen, Quan Tran, John Truong and Dennis Duong have all contributed to famous animations such as Madagascar 3D and Ice Age 4.
And recently, short cartoon Bach Dang Battle, made by a group of students from Hong Bang International University in HCM City, has gained much attention and praise from the online community.
In fact, foreign animation producers do not underestimate the skill of Vietnamese animators. Thao says that a lack of funding is the main cause leading to the current downturn in domestic cartoons.
"Producing a cartoon requires a lot of sophisticated work at a high cost. To have a picture moving for a minute, the painter must draw about 1,400 pictures, all from different angles."
With limited funding, production firms cannot afford to pay filmmakers properly. Thao says a low income is the biggest obstacle for the people looking to persue a career in animation.
"At Viet Nam Animation Studio, many talented people have quit their jobs because of low income. The others who remain must do extra work like painting, designing advertisements and doing layout to survive. However, nobody can guarantee that they will be in the profession forever," he said.
So, we have skilled animators, and the elements required to ensure the future of the industry, but lack a "place" for them. The domestic cartoon industry needs investment programmes, including the attraction of talent.
Viet Nam Animation Studio has recently looked at ways to survive by building a project called "Education of tradition, history, culture and patriotism for children through cartoons".
The studio has been invested with facilities and modern equipment to improve its animation production capacity, including 3D animation. As a result of the project, within 10 years the studio hopes to produce about 100 cartoons from State investment or by following orders from various organisations and units. Whether this will definitely happen remains in the balance.
"For the project to be successful, cartoons must reach viewers. This is beyond the ability of our studio, which is just a film production unit," said Thao. — VNS