Building a series out of clay

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A scene from Vietnam's first stop-motion cartoon series Xin Chao But Chi (Say Hi to Pencil) in which the main character is evicted from a child's desk by jealous pens. Photo: Dien Quan Media

A pair of 21-year-old journalism students have created Vietnam's first stop-motion animated series Xin Chao But Chi (Say Hi to Pencil). Their new series will begin airing, nationwide, on July 2.

Pham Thi Phuong Anh and Huynh Thanh Thanh seem rather shy as they walk through the shady campus of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities their faces obscured by glasses and giggles.

Unassuming as they may be, the two journalism students are considered major celebrities here.

People began talking about Anh and Thanh, after they created "The Journey" a stop-motion film about a discarded paper box's unlikely adventure. The animated short won an international prize at the "What Makes a Young Champion?" competition which was organized during the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

The following year, the duo made Xin Chao But Chi (Say Hi to Pencil) a five-minute short which tells the story of a pencil that joins a family of pens on a schoolgirl's desk. The short, which combined live action footage and claymation, won the Plural + Youth Video Festival's United Nation's Television Award.

Following their second win, the girls began amassing a team to turn Xin Chao But Chi into Vietnam's first animated series. Their crew now consists of about 25 artists, camera technicians and writers.

They've even brought in a few kindergarteners to consult on their scripts.

Dien Quan Media began funding the team in February. On June 25, HTV7 screened the award-winning short and a trailer for the 50-episode series it inspired at a press conference in HCMC.

 
Huynh Thanh Thanh (L) and Pham Thi Phuong Anh now have a team of 25 filmmakers working on Xin Chao But Chi, Vietnam's first animated series

Representatives from Dien Quan said they hoped the cartoons would prove popular with local kids and provide a shot in the arm to Vietnam's latent animation industry. Each six to seven minute short cost around US$2,000 to produce and the girls say they've shot nearly half of the episodes.

Starting next Monday, the show will air twice a week on Monday and Thursday at 8 p.m.

During the conference, Thanh and Anh discussed the challenges they've faced in taking the small project and expanding it into a full series.

"To create the first short, we just took photos of the characters gesturing and combined the frames," Thanh said. "But now, things have gotten complicated. We've had to learn how to work with studio lighting. Our team has also found it hard to churn out all our handmade sets, backgrounds and props."

Since the first short film was uploaded onto YouTube in 2011, Xin Chao But Chi has attracted more than 85,000 views and hundreds of acolytes.

"Those who disliked the film probably never had a pencil," said one commenter.

"This is such a cool movie, frankly," chimed another.

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A few critics carped about poor sound quality or bad dubbing. Others compared the girls' work, unfavorably, with Disney's hit "Shaun the Sheep."

It can take days to finish a single short scene and the girls admitted that there have been some shortcomings in the early episodes "” stilted movements, inconsistent characterization and imperfect photo editing.

But, Anh and Thanh say they consider every comment a compliment and have pledged to try their best to create a worthwhile experience for young viewers.

"We'll continue to learn from our mistakes to present the best quality cartoon for our audiences" the girls wrote, in a collaborative e-mail.

You can check out Anh and Thanh's work at www.youtube.com/ping0407.

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