Vietnam's animation industry has not quite lifted off the ground, but eager young animators are determined to make a cartoon for Vietnamese, by Vietnamese
Foreign and local staff at animation production studio of Con Meo Pictures Co., Ltd., which was established in HCMC in 2006
In 1960, a studio in Hanoi released the country's first animated film. The black and white feature, entitled Dang doi thang cao (The just punishment of the fox) ran just ten minutes and told the story of a bear avenging his roommate, the chicken, who had been kidnapped by a fox.
Since then, few state-produced cartoons have seen the light of day, despite the growing industry.
Most young Vietnamese animators work as outsourced help for foreign studios, which took a major hit in the recent economic downturn.
No original Vietnamese work has made it to the local market.
Meanwhile, an eager crop of young cartoonists are struggling to find a way to get a Vietnamese cartoon out into the world.
Warehouse full of toons
Dang Vu Thao, 59, director of Vietnam's only state-owned cartoon studio, the Vietnam Animated Film Company, says that cartoons here have greatly improved in the last ten years.
In fact, he's tired of hearing people say there is no such thing as a cartoon made in Vietnam.
"Well-trained cartoonists and good quality films, however, are not sufficient to form a cartoon industry," said Thao of the Vietnam Animated Film Company. "Without an effective cartoon distribution system and knowledgeable investors, the industry can never thrive."
Thao's company depends totally on the government to screen its films.
He cannot do much in the way to ensure that they get seen.
"Only a few people know that our films have been sold at Phuong Nam Bookstores for years," Thao said. "I have no idea why most the local TV channels are not willing to feature our films, but I am sure the reason is not the quality or the content of the film. Like most people, they've never seen our films."
Thao estimates that he has overseen the production of around 300 cartoons, all of which have premiered at local film festivals but remain shelved in studio archives.
From state to foreign studio
Pham Van Chau worked as an animator and director in Vietnam's state-run studios during the 1980s and 90s.
He has since become the deputy director of the Animation and Comic Department at Hong Bang International University in Ho Chi Minh City.
He has watched the city become a center for outsourced cartoon labor.
Foreign studios began showing up in the city and training local animators in the early 1990's he says.
In 1999, the animation division of the state-owned Giai Phong (Liberation) Film Studio, where Chau earned around $100 a month as an animator, closed its doors.
In 2005, he began lecturing at the University's new course of study, where he ushered in a whole new generation of homegrown animators. Three out of four of his students end up working for foreign-owned studios.
Up and down
Dao Minh Uyen was hired out of college by Sparx animation studios.
The 3D production company, which has studios in Paris and Los Angeles was the largest employer of animators in the city, with over 250 on staff.
"They tested my graduating class at the University of Fine Arts and trained the selected candidates," he said.
Last year, the global economic crisis forced Sparx to close its Ho Chi Minh City studio.
In 2009, Uyen and a number of his colleagues banded together to form Viet 3D Animation and Special Effects Group. They're all desperately hoping for a breakthrough.
Huynh Ngoc Long, 50, chief of animation at Viet 3D Group, said it costs about US$35 to produce a single second of an animated film here.
It requires far more money, work and time to make an animated film (than a live action movie) and takes much longer to recover the initial investment, he said.
"To investors, such things mean just one thing - more risk," said Long.
Several animators complained that they have been stymied Vietnam's lack of intellectual property laws. No publishing firm seems able to guarantee that a domestic release won't be pirated and bootlegged minutes after it premieres.
Determined to produce a popular Vietnamese feature, they continue to churn out demos and search for backers.
An ambitious group of Ho Chi Minh City animators are struggling for recognition
In 2008, the 3D computer-animated Hollywood feature, "Igor", premiered at the 61 st International Cannes Film Festival.
As the credits rolled, dedicated cartoon buffs may have noticed that half of the film's crew sport Vietnamese names.
A good portion of the film was outsourced to animators in Ho Chi Minh City.
"At first, our names weren't listed in the credits like in other movies we made for the company," said Huynh Ngoc Long, 50, chief of animation at Viet 3D Group. "Then the producer of Exodus Film Group, recommended that we name local artists in the credits, after they became confident that the names would not influence our gross revenues."
In addition to toiling away as hired help on foreign productions, many artists from this new generation of cartoonists are taking risks to get their own work out there.
"Economically speaking, we gain nothing [by producing small cartoons]," Quoc Thang, who won a title at the Golden Kite Short film festival in 2009 for his 3D stop-motion feature Cau chuyen mua dong (The winter story), told Tuoi Tre. "We care about the small number of Vietnamese cartoons (most of which are shut up in studio archives) and we long to film our own features."
Do Dang Thuong says he spent six months and only US$1.5 to make a five-minute film "The Journey Unknown 1." He produced the film for the sole purpose of entering it into a British short film competition in 2009.
Thuong is now working on "The Journey Unknown 2" with his friends. What he really needs, he says, is more time to work on it.
Both Thuong and Thang have uploaded their work onto the YXine.com - a site dedicated to 3D filmmakers.
According to Pham Van Chau, deputy director of the Animation and Comic Department at Hong Bang International University in HCMC, these developments represent new, positive signs that Vietnamese animators are finding their way in the world.
"[The young cartoonists] are fresh and more creative than our generation," he said. "They have their own audiences, which encourage them to pursue their dreams."