To Infinity And Beyond: Behind the technology at Tokyo’s DigiCon6

Unless you’re Tom Hanks in Castaway, your life would pretty much be dominated by moving images on screens. Whether we like it or not, the age of digital technology has caught up at such an alarming rate that avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. 3d-animation and CGI-blockbuster creative studios are snapping up digital creators from all over the world. This is big. Without anything to keep us warm except our curiousity, JUICE jets to Tokyo once again to attend Asia’s biggest digital content platform and talent search, Digicon6.

THE AGE OF ASIAN DIGITALISM

In 1976, a catastrophic earthquake in Tangshan, China claimed the lives of over 200,000 denizens. During the disaster, a distressed mother caught in the chaos was forced to choose between the life of her son or daughter, both trapped under rubble. She chose her son. Her decision, however, was overheard by her daughter, who tearfully whispered “Ma…” as a concrete slab crumbled onto her. But unbeknownst to the mother, her daughter survived. After years of remorse, emotional agony and guilt, the original family is finally reunited during the aftermath of another earthquake (at Sichuan, 2008), where the now grown-up daughter and son meet by chance as volunteer rescue workers.

It’s tear-jerking moments like these that make you want to go back to the cinema over and over again. Last July, China released Aftershock, an epic movie with state-of-the-art SFX that overshadowed the box-office success of Titanic. The Asian market, hungry for local content and bored with generic Hollywood flicks, is growing profoundly as we embrace our own identities. Aftershock‘s success is based on that growth; China, having the largest economy in the world today, builds 3 new cinemas a day.

A film like Aftershock doesn’t only work financially but also acts as an agent to spread culture, promote tourism and flaunt a country’s economic might-cool CGI effects aside, all you need to do is notice how the film portrays China circa 1976 in contrast with the superpower that it is now to get a hint of how things have progressed over there. For the 1st big commercial IMAX film created outside the US, it’s impressive how the creators are killing more than one bird with one film. Of course, making half a billion yuan at the local box office can’t hurt as well.

Now, it seems like a long shot, but we think Malaysia is not too far off from creating something similar. Maybe a CGI action-drama about the brotherhood of men and ignorance of hatred called May 13th?

WAR OF THE ANIMATORS

Every year, animators from Asia submit their finest works to DigiCon6, which is organised by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) with the aim of discovering the next Martin Scorsese of the digital era. Since 2006, TBS started to open up the digital-content talent search to other Asian countries to expand the horizons of broadcasting and make new relationships while promoting their brand. Held at the administrative district of Marunouchi, Tokyo last November, the event saw participants from 10 countries including Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Philippines.

Opened to both professional and amateur digital creators, the contest gave a fair chance to anyone with a 15-minute product. Entries ranged from computer graphic animation (2D/3D) to live-action films shot and/or edited by digital movie equipment to 3D-rendered films including stop-motion and claymation.

DigiCon6 finalists this time around were an eclectic bunch. But it was weird that many of their works dealt with the subject of death when the actual theme suggested was ‘Create Your Dreams’. From Radio Television Hong Kong’s Temple Rider (an acid trip-induced adventure of a girl and a monkey in Hell) to India’s Dhaneesh Jameson and his tale of a cemetery keeper in Wilson Periera, the animations were more offbeat compared to previous years. Maybe death, as a universal subject, appeals internationally as the Asian view of it is often rooted in some mysticism.

Not surprisingly, the Golden Winner for this year’s 12th DigiCon6 Awards went to an independent Chinese animator known as Jokelate. Real name Yang Yu, the 31 year old self-taught animator beat over 2000 contestants for the grand title. Originally a medical student, Jokelate quit his day job in order to complete this 1st indie animation. Entitled See Through, this seemingly kiddie animation about the futility of war clocks in at only 15 minutes but took 3 and a half years for him to complete single-handedly! Straight-laced determination or another Aftershock in the making, this was a good sign for China’s digital creative market and for Asia in general.

MEET THE FILMMAKERS

Movies are not the only form of medium for digital creators. The digital content market extends to video games, TV, online, mobile phones, flat-screen billboards, commercials, music videos and so on. The sky’s the limit basically, which is why TBS included JUICE on a tour of the upcoming Tokyo Sky Tree. Come spring 2012, this tower will stand at 634 metres (the 2nd tallest structure in the world) and will strengthen signals to outer regions of Japan where people are hungry for digital entertainment.

As TBS strives to reach a wider audience, so does the Asian creative content market. For the 1st time, speakers and judges from Korea and Hong Kong were invited to DigiCon6 for their storytelling expertise. At the Interbee Broadcasting Exhibition-a showcase of the niftiest broadcasting equipments and services in Japan-we were treated to insightful talks by reputed Hong Kong filmmaker Alex Law, whose recent release Echoes Of The Rainbow has been well-received around the world, and his South Korean counterpart Kwak Jae-yong who struck gold with 2001′s romantic-comedy My Sassy Girl. Both seem to agree that a day will come when Asia unites to share content-be it movies or technology-via a proper distribution channel. Alex added that “Hong Kong’s government realises that filmmaking is an investment and sponsors about 30-40% of its industry’s output” while Jae-yong spoke about the importance of music-he’d actually listen to music with his actors to develop an indirect form of communication with them.

The speakers were joined by the famed Mobile Suit Gundam team of Seiji Mizushima and Yohei Miyhara, who were working on the latest installment Awakening Of The Trailblazer. It’s safe to say that the Japanese are still leaders in technology and 3DCG (3-dimension computer graphics). Even so, as Seiji explained, “DigiCon6 showed us many different expressions from different countries through their productions.” And diversity is always a good thing to a creative type.

OUR STORIES, OUR WAY

Good stories are like cakes; everyone loves them! But an international point of reference would be-for Alex, at least-the Steven Spielberg classic ET. “The film creates a universal feeling of humanity through a story of unlikely childhood friendship,” he said before adding, “In the past, Americans were great storytellers while Asians, on the other side of the spectrum, loved to listen to stories.”

However, Alex said that this has changed. Asians have their own style of storytelling now and we should maintain that. He added, “When I watch a French movie, I don’t want it to be like an American one.”

Likewise, the guys at Animonsta Studios know how to add a slice of Malaysia to their children’s programmes. As the team behind the successful series Upin & Ipin (which is aired across the region on Disney Channel Asia) and Malaysia’s 1st 3D-animated movie Geng: The Adventure Begins, Animonsta seems to have a winning formula when it comes to exporting cute, cuddly characters with local flavour. Their latest series BoBoiBoy, which airs on TV3 this March, is about a boy and his friends with superpowers battling chocolate-craving alien invaders.

Selected as the winner of the local leg of DigiCon6, BoBoiBoy together with 4 other local animations made it to Tokyo to represent Malaysia. Of course, it’s not always about winning as DigiCon6 offers a chance for the creators to showcase and meet with international distributors who are looking for content to broadcast.

For a bunch of young guns in the industry, establishing yourself is no easy feat even after the success of 2 animated titles. That’s why our government, since catching on to the digital tech game, has identified this sector as a key growth area. Good news for people like Animonsta who are in a high-cost, high-risk business. The government (or more appropriately, MDeC, the Multimedia Development Corporation) granted Animonsta RM2 million to complete BoBoiBoy. Even then, the owners of the studio had to fork out an initial RM100K for the 1st 6 months of operation.

Luckily, support from MDeC doesn’t stop there. Coming under the umbrella of MSC Malaysia, MDeC works closely with digital content creators, tech industry players, colleges and universities, foreign studios and companies (such as TBS), and the media to develop the local digital content market and give our animators a boast. Apart from nurturing, providing funds and industry hook-ups, promoting local content, organising events and researching the global market, MDeC also provides space and technological utilities for start-up companies focusing on digital content.

To give props to local creators, MDeC organises the Kre8tif! Digital Content Conference yearly. Like a local version of DigiCon6, the 3-day event and awards presentation has seen international speakers from bigwig companies such as Sony Pictures Imageworks, Hasbro Studios, Codemasters Studios, Industrial Light & Magic, Marvel Animation and Dreamworks in the past. Themed ‘Back 2 Basix’, the most recent Kre8tif! witnessed these top minds gathering to share their insights on the fundamentals of producing world-class creative content including scriptwriting, digital design and character development. Apart from sending creators to Tokyo for DigiCon6 and organising Kre8tif, MDeC also runs IPCC (the Intellectual Property Creator Challenge) to unearth local talents and enhance the development of new intellectual property.

So with financial and technical support at our fingertips and an ever-growing Asian market, it’s just a matter of time until Malaysia comes up with an Avatar of our own. The question is, who’s gonna make it?

The 12th DigiCon6 happened in Tokyo from 16-20 November 2010. To find out more about MDeC, DigiCon6, Kre8tif, IPCC and opportunities for digital content, visit www.mscmalaysia.my and explore the options under the Rakyat and Business tabs or e-mail Vernon at vernon@mdec.com.my.