Director Nguyen Ha Bac has spent nearly 40 years making cartoons. The Meritorious and People's Artist talks to Phong Van about his hopes for Viet Nam's cartoon industry and the ups and downs of working in animation.
Nguyen Ha Bac is renowned not only for winning many of Viet Nam's prestigious awards as a director, artist and screenwriter, but also for being a pioneer in many fields, such as the first Vietnamese director producing 3D cartoons (Giac Mo Cua Ech Xanh or The Dream of the Green Frog), the first Vietnamese director creating 3D cartoons about a historical figure (Quyet Dinh Lich Su or Historical Decision), and the first Vietnamese cartoon producer invited to be the judge of an international cartoon festival.
Inner Sanctum: It seems that Vietnamese children in this country know very little about Viet Nam's cartoons, while those in the city, cartoons means Disney Channel or Chinese cartoons shown on TV. What is the position of Viet Nam's cartoons among Vietnamese children today?
It's hard to answer this question, but your question reminds me of a preconception popular in Viet Nam: that cartoons are for children so they have to be treated like children, which might explain why Viet Nam's cartoon industry cannot grow up.
You see, foreign cartoons serve various types of audiences, especially the young, such as those imported into Viet Nam, such as Finding Nemo, Lion King, Kungfu Panda, Ice Age and Rio. Viet Nam's cartoons have been outrun by their counterparts.
Inner Sanctum: The movies that you have just mentioned belong to the entertainment kind which are seen in Hollywood, which use cartoons as a means of producing films. Could you specify your opinion on cartoons in general?
It is not just my opinion. Cartoons might be considered to be films for children only in Viet Nam. As a method in the film industry, the cartoon is a perfect product of human imagination. With the assistance of technology, it might go beyond the imagination of the most liberal minds; therefore, it is considered that it suits and serves only children.
However, in the world, cartoons are divided into many kinds, such as advertising cartoons, feature films or TV serials, each of which has its own standards. More importantly, cartoons cannot lack their own philosophy. Philosophy is like the backbone for all imaginations about the appearance of characters, the context or the movements.
Inner Sanctum: After watching Historical Decision, [about General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Dien Bien Phu Battle], I'm sure that it is not for children. However, to be honest, I find the character depicted is pretty inflexible.
Your comment is fairly right. I want to explain right away that the cartoon is produced without support from the state budget. In Historical Decision, all the phases of characters depicting and designing are conducted by groups of artists accustomed to producing the components and devices for online games. I'm the only professional cartoonist, and I'm also the script writer, general director and even financial contributor. Therefore, I could not manage every detail of the film. I participated a lot in editing, especially in character depiction. It took nearly two years to finish the cartoon, but not all of its errors could be fixed. I'm sure that if I had another chance to work on it, I would try to make it better.
Inner Sanctum: According to what you have just said, the incomprehension in the production of a cartoon is also as serious as the limits in the cartoon orientation that we have just talked about?
That's right. State budgets are still not available for we cartoon producers, but the exact expense the cartoon makers receive might be only one-third. Directors like me prefer making our own films from our own scripts, but sometimes they are not approved for inexplicable reasons. Otherwise, we have been assigned scripts that we have no interest in. To artists like me, our artistic-self and artistic interest is the most important thing.
Inner Sanctum: You and your colleagues are nearly 60 years old now. What do you expect will be the differences for your descendants?
I really feel hopeful. Many families have satisfied their children's passions for cartoons by having their children study drawing and cartoon technology. Some parents have come to me and asked me to help their children. Maybe due to the profound influence from Japanese cartoons, or manga, some are determined to draw manga-like characters. However, I hope they will gradually realize the value of their own style in depicting characters so that they can go further and be successful.
At least I have seen the passion, extreme individuality and good technological foundation in young cartoonists. They are much better than some of their predecessors who were so reserved, just producing cartoons to fulfill their jobs and they did not know how many people ever watched their films.
Inner Sanctum: Have you watched cartoons that are popular on the internet and made by young cartoonist, such as Co Be Ban Diem (The Little Match Girl)? What do you think about the way they are introduced to audiences?
I have watched and my first feeling is great admiration. A cartoon might last for only 20 minutes, just half the length of a TV film, but it takes months or even years to finish. We have called cartoons an aristocratic film. It is free to broadcast on the internet so it might draw large numbers of viewers, but in such a market economy, how many free films can be produced without regaining the capital, not to mention earning profits. I think that no matter how they pursue their passion, nothing is as durable as letting passion nurture itself.
Inner Sanctum: Cartoon production in Viet Nam seems to encounter enormous difficulties. Has the recent Viet Nam Film Festival offered any solutions?
I have not seen any light at the end of the tunnel yet, but we who are passionate about our jobs will not be likely to loosen our hands. I have new directions of cooperation and hope that I can do something useful for the audience of Viet Nam's cartoon. Cartoons have brought me lots of things: a little fame, much travel and much knowledge, even though I have been through a lot of ups and downs with them. — VNS