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A pig's tale

By Huang Yuli | China Daily | Updated: 2012-06-12 10:31

A pig's tale

Chen Xifeng's 11-minute animation Pig Sale features Northwest China's geographical features and customs. Provided to China Daily

A pig's tale

Chen Xifeng, 48, wins awards for his maiden work, Pig Sale, though he has worked in the animation industry for 26 years.

The award-winning cartoon Pig Sale by Chen Xifeng shows how Chinese animation is evolving to produce original and locally flavored animated films. Huang Yuli reports in Shenzhen.

The short animation Pig Sale won the open entries grand prize at the Tokyo Anime Award in March. The international award for unreleased animations was a first for China and producer Chen Xifeng. The 11-minute Pig Sale tells the story of a father taking his two sons to the market to sell a pig. It features Northwest China's geographical features and customs. It also won best animation at the China International Short Film Festival in May.

In Shenzhen, Chen tells China Daily the story behind the awards and of his 26 years in the animation industry.

"Pig Sale is my maiden work," says the 48-year-old from Gansu province, sitting in a bamboo chair in his living room.

His company, Feng Animation, has processed dozens of popular works, including the Fullmetal Alchemist and Mushishi. Even so, he says, Pig Sale, which he originated and directed, is his first original work.

Chen and his team started on the pig tale six years ago, after settling on a story by writer Jia Pingwa, commemorating his father.

Part of the story tells of Jia's dad taking him and his brother to the market to sell a pig during a time of food shortages in the 1960s. The pig, however, evacuated its bowels and didn't weigh enough, so they failed to sell it.

"This small anecdote attracted me," Chen says, with a loud laugh.

They adapted the story into a cheerful animation demonstrating not only the inner worlds of the little boy and the pig but also the larger life of people in the Northwest at that time. As such, there is local music, such as Xintianyou and Qinqiang Opera.

Chen, his wife Zhang Minfang and art director Ren Congrong went to remote villages in northern Shaanxi province to learn about local customs and even stayed in caves with the locals.

They shot tens of thousands of pictures and drew sketches. They drew more than 10,000 sketches of the pig before finalizing its image.

"There was a storyteller in the Pig Sale. We discovered him when we went to a temple fair. We drew and recorded him singing and telling tales," Zhang says.

"There's also a tramp singing folk songs. We met him in a village and then in another village about 100 km away. He sings very well."

Zhang was in charge of the animation's roles and coloration. She met Chen in the first animated film they worked on in Shenzhen.

The 11-minute-long animation cost them more than 2 million yuan ($314,000) to make and filming was interrupted several times over the six-year period due to financial difficulties.

"Each time there was not enough money, I would accept more outsourced processing work," Chen says.

His company is located in a factory building in Futian district, Shenzhen, where he bought one floor that's 1,700 square meters. The company mainly does processing for Japanese and European animations.

Typically, Shenzhen companies do the so-called "middle-phase work" of coloring and setting background scenes for European and Japanese companies before post-production.

This doesn't require so much creativity but does allow Chen and his company to earn quick money.

"My company and others support their costly creation of originals using money gained from such work," Chen says.

The other reason Pig Sale took so long to make was Chen's team, though experienced as animators, had not produced original works, "which requires more brainwork and is a longer process, where you have to consider so many more things".

"Many left the team when they found creating original work was so difficult and making money from processing is so easy," he says.

In the end, more than 100 animators worked on Pig Sale. The film was finished in August 2011, after which Chen and Zhang asked friends to watch and comment on it.

"We were very nervous," he says about the reaction. It wasn't until the Tokyo award that he felt vindicated about his approach to producing localized, original work.

A pig's tale

Hou Tomoyuki, Chen's friend of 20 years and a Japanese animation producer, says the couple was "really tough".

"They are really good animators. Even in Japan, there are not so many skilled talents like them. But I think they should create original work and work with Japanese companies, rather than outsourcing jobs," he says.

After the Tokyo award, Pig Sale received the Royal Reel Award from the Canada International Film Festival, the Golden Monkey Award from the China Cartoon and Animation Festival and best animation at the China International Short Film Festival.

This gave Chen confidence, and since then he has closed his company's middle-phase processing business and decided to focus on original productions with a local flavor.

He intends to do regular long animation films if he can get financing. Otherwise, he'll continue to produce shorts, possibly about Southwest China.

"Though the road is not smooth, we're on the way," Chen says.

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