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What Animators Can Learn from Asian Animation

In the late 1800s, moving pictures took the world by storm. The idea that movement could be captured and replayed for an audience introduced a whole new chapter in the tale of entertainment.

And when moving cartoons came onto the scene in the early 1900s, the extra twist only added to the excitement. Around the world, artists and engineers started sketching, inventing, and filming to produce their own narratives.

West to East, the tale of animation developed various paths for the imagination. Perhaps some say the story and techniques of Walt Disney are the most well-known, but as animators, it is vital to remember there is never one method in an artform.

How 1930s Animations Shaped Animations Today - is always a good way to look at animation.

take a look at asian animation as a whole

GIF via Giphy

So it comes with no surprise that we at Business of Animation (BOA) want to offer you, dear animator, a glimpse into a world of animation you may want to consider exploring and learning from - Asian animation.

Feel free to go and read our other blog on western animation - 10 Ways That Western Animation Influenced Global Animation

But for now, move your trained eyes, mind, and hands east where we introduce you to a whole new approach to animation.

Although many Asian nations have and still are making their mark in animation, we will be focusing on three main countries - China, South Korea, and Japan - and looking at their Asian animation histories and styles.

If you wish to explore a wider range of Asian animators and Asian animation in general, you can read “Animation in Asia: appropriation, reinterpretation, and adoption or adaptation.”

So let's climb onto an Oriental Express east to learn from Asian animation.

Prominent Asian Animation Examples

China and its History in Animation:

It’s August 17, 1908 - Frenchman Emile Cohl’s hand-drawn yet fully animated cartoon, Fantasmagorie, was released in Paris by the Gaumont company. 

By the 1920s, there were various new animators and animations arriving on the scene, and in 1923 four Chinese brothers left everything to pursue a career in animation after being enraptured by animations from the west.

popular chinese animators

Image via ChinaCulture

Three years later, The Wan brothers, as they were known, released their and China’s first animation: Uproar in the Studio.

The Asian animation featured a figure on a canvas coming alive when the artist left, who proceeded to play with the artist’s paint and brushes.

The Wan Brothers would continue to create many Chinese animations, often proudly and heavily influenced by Disney or the Fleischer brothers. But they also drew animation strongly from the Beijing Opera and Chinese shadow puppet theater.

Post World War 2, Chinese animation made exceptional progress as the Wan Brothers further produced the first color animation, Crow Black-Coated, as well as an animated musical called Havoc in Heaven.

asian animation example of chinese animation

Image via YouTube

It was during this time, under General Mao's leadership, that animation really developed and became known as China’s Golden Age in Animation. Asian animators and their animations were praised highly for their skills.

That is until 1967, when precious artifacts, works of art, books, and anything (or one) that conflicted with the cultural revolution’s values were destroyed.

Various artists were restricted from their art form, humiliated, forced to do labor work, or even sent to prison. It was labeled “catastrophic” for the Asian animation industry in China.

By the end of the Culture Revolution, Chinese animation was sadly around twenty years behind, with only a few propaganda and advertising animations to show.

However, that had not stopped Chinese animators from learning and progressing. They became an Asian animation outsourcing service like many other countries.

As the popularity of western animation grew, so did the demand for it, and they didn’t have enough hands. So studios outsourced content needed from Asian animators - who were ready for the experience and pay.

This allowed Asian animation to catch up in the animation industry. So as Chinese animators worked, they learned and now find themselves second only to Japan on the Asian animation scoreboard.

In fact, just in 2019, The Legend of Luo Xiaohei, a Chinese animation, made it to Japan's shores and set new records for international animation films for China. It brought in around $5 million at the box office.

The animation resulted in much enjoyment and appreciation from Japanese fans to the point that some even started to learn Chinese.

China's progress in animation may have been slowed by various, but they have shown incredible grit and determination to level up in the animation industry, not only creating content for the west but for Asian animation too.

Watch Chinese Animation: In Search of a Style | Video Essay for more in-depth insight into Chinese animation.

China’s Style and Inspiration:
asian animation example of chinese styled animations

Image via YouTube

All throughout this time, Chinese animators, although appreciating and learning from the Western animators, sought strongly to keep their own culture and beliefs embedded in their work - keeping Asian animation distinctly in the picture.

Under Mao’s leadership, the stories told through their animation increasingly featured traditional Chinese stories and tales.

“In a Chinese film, one ought to have a story based purely on real Chinese traditions and stories, consistent with our sensibility and sense of humor….Also, our films must not only bring pleasure but also be educational.” - Wan Laiming, quoted in Quiquemelle, 178

As a result of the heavy emphasis on Chinese culture and values, much of this Asian animation is based on three main styles: ink and wash (shuimo dong huapian), paper-cut, and folded paper animation.

These styles have become classic indigenous techniques. Their colors, shapes, and characters are often based on either the Beijing Opera or the ink-on-paper from their traditional artists.

Other inspiration was also often drawn from Peking opera and folktale puppet films - allowing other Chinese art to inspire their own.

You can watch A Brief History of Chinese Animation, which has lovely visuals for the different styles we will look at below:

  • Paper-cut: 

Animated films created in paper-cut style are unique to their Chinese folk artisan cut-out cartoons. They often feature bright colors and intricately cut shapes.

paper cut animations from chinese animators

Image via YouTube

Pig Bajie Eat Watermelons, by Wan Guchan in 1958, is the first example we see of Chinese paper-cut animation. 

  • Folded-Paper: 

We have all, at some point, been introduced to origami - the art of folding paper to create an intentional form (in many cases starting with a star or heart).

folded paper asian animation named the clever duckling

Image via YouTube

If you've been brave enough, or rather patient enough, to dive deeper into origami, then you will know that it is an impressive skill.

Now can you imagine a complicated but neatly folded character put into motion and then animated? Well, that's Chinese folded paper animation.

  • Ink Wash:

Ink Wash animation is a guarded secret when it comes to animated technicalities. However, we know one thing - it is mystical and wonderous. 

ink wash animation was popularized by chinese asian animators

Image via YouTube

It's clearly heavily based on Chinese ink wash painting, which uses black carbon-based ink to paint or write (calligraphy) on paper or silk.

If there’s anything to learn from China’s contribution to Asian animation, it’s that inspiration can be found close to home - in the art, legends, and values around you.

China presents a bold, definitively different style of animation - whether intricately shaped and detailed, bright with contrasting colors or subtle blank ink stains fading into the background.

example of ink wash animations

GIF by Talia

China also sticks to an Asian animation theme - the ability to provide entertainment and bring strong lessons, values, and beliefs for educational purposes. No need to shy away from teaching if you’re considered “boring.”

History of Animation in South Korea:

The first mention of a Korean animation was in November of 1936 when a Chosun Ilbo article stated that the nation's first fully animated film, Gaeggum, was already in production. But it appears to have never materialized in the Asian animation scene.

After that, there were a few animators who taught themselves or learned from other nations and who even tried to start companies. But they were sadly not so successful.

In the 1950s, there was a growth in foreign animation importation which resulted in South Korean animators learning and practicing their animation skills even though it wasn’t for Asian animation at the time.

Despite the outside influx of animation, local Korean animators were inspired to learn and create their own content - starting in advertising. 

early south korean animators started locally

Image via YouTube

The first South Korean animation was a toothpaste commercial that was created entirely by Asian animators, and it set the trend. Businesses understood why animation is a profitable venture.

What followed was a series of commercials and then short animated stories that ran about five minutes, but it took a few years before South Korea could release a full-length animated film - Hong Gil-Dong.

Shortly after the release, however, there was a coup, and the new military government imposed strict censorship and bans that significantly slowed the nation's progress in the film industry.

The number of animation companies shrunk from over 71 to eventually only 4 under the Motion Picture Law, which banned communism sympathetic or obscene content.

But animators could not be stopped - they turned their focus toward children and teenage audiences. This Asian animation decision was met with huge success!

Although many other films were released after, the audience shrunk. The introduction of TV, which resulted in a flood of cartoons from various other nations, took the limelight off of Asian animation.

Again, however, with cartoon fever spreading quickly, American animators could not keep up with the demand for more content. And South Korea became one of the countries with the highest outsourcing rate.

Korean animators were highly regarded for their quality of work, so it is not surprising that of all the subtracted animation in the world, Korean animators dominated, with 50% of their work being done for other countries.

Here’s some insight into Asian animation: we say “baby shark,” and you’ll probably start singing “do-do-doo-do-do-doo.” Yes, Korea is behind the well-known “Baby Shark” music video for kids. 

massively popular baby shark originated from korean animators and asian animation

Image via YouTube

With over 11 billion views on YouTube - with a 3 billion difference to second on the list - Korea definitely has put its name on the animation playing field - boosting Asian animation once again.

In 2018, Korean, Oh Sung-Yoon's film, "Underdog," premiered at the 22nd Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. And it took only nine seconds to sell out.

korea produces feature length animations

Image via YouTube

It even made it into the film exchange program between South Korea and its neighboring country, North Korea. So the nation’s Asian animation contribution is infiltrating many areas.

South Korean animation may still have some work to do, but we are keeping an eye on their brilliant storylines and excellent technique. 

South Korea’s Style and Inspiration:

South Korea is truly respected for its interesting and captivating storylines, along with the use of vivid colors while retaining very high quality.

However, between South Korea’s political changes and their constant outsourcing, their style has not really developed enough to establish clear characteristics.

Yes, their quality of work and captivating storylines are recognized; however, they became the workforce for other nations’ popular cartoons and animations.

popular western animations were actually animated in asian countries

Image via The Atlantic

Shows like Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons, The Boondocks, Family Guy, and Scooby-Doo may be broadcasted as American, but most of the animating was done by South Korean animators.

Their Asian animation is pretty much all over western animation - which perhaps means that South Korea’s animation styles and characteristics can be found in American animation.

However, that doesn’t add up when you consider that the ideas and character concepts are created by western animators.

In this video, A Brief History of South Korean Animation by WooKong, he explains how South Korean animation “remains obscure.”

asian animation and korean shows were aired worldwide

Image via YouTube

Although South Korea has produced its content for its own people and has even teamed up with various other nations to create content that benefits both, their unique style is not as visible as the other two nations mentioned in this blog.

However, with their growing successes in other entertainment industries, South Korea may yet surprise us. 

But in the meantime, perhaps we could describe this nation’s contribution to Asian animation as being the nation behind every nation’s animation styles.

History of Animation in Japan:

Firstly, let’s establish an understanding of Manga and Anime because you will notice when trying to understand Asian animation that these two words will come up fairly often.

animations in japan are commonly referred to as anime

Image via 71 Bait

Manga is Japanese cartoons that combine their traditional painting style (ukiyo-e) with the typical western comic style.

“Anime” for the Western world is generally understood to be Japanese animation - anything made in the Japanese style.

For the Japanese, “Anime” refers to animation in general, be it Japanese, western or Chinese, etc.

To learn more about Japanese animation, you can watch this three-part series on The History of Anime

We find ourselves again in the early 1900s with Japanese artists developing their Asian animation techniques using cut-out techniques and turning their rough imitations of French or American animations into tales of their own.

Their “Manga” films grew in popularity, but their high-quality content was much more expensive to produce than the American trends.

They got their names into Asian animation with talking and colored films - even gained some international recognition. However, the cost of world wars overshadowed artistic development.

Unless, of course, it was used as propaganda to encourage morale for the war. Such an example is a 74-minute black and white film called Momotarō: Umi No Shinpei (Momotarō’s Divine Sea Warriors).

even back in the day, japanese asian animations were already produced at length

Image via IMDb

When the ’60s came with Television - Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) was the first “anime” we would recognize today. With 30 minutes of using “limited animation” techniques, the show managed production costs.

anime found its identity as early as the 1960s

Image via TMDB

By the 70s, Japanese anime became renowned. Their Gundam and Mazinger Z pulled international attention to Japan and Asian animation.

And when the 90s hit with the intermingling of cinema, anime soared to new heights. To be blunt, which kid hadn't heard of Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon then?

anime such as pokemon is known all around the world by everyone

Image via The Verge

Even today - anime has grown to the point where its styles are as distinctly recognized as the styles of Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks. And anime fans will make sure you know it.

They certainly did learn The Secret to How to Get Into the Animation Industry.

Japan’s Style and Inspiration:

Firstly, we have to stress the point that Anime really digs deep into a story and its characters. Looking to showcase values strongly believed in through the use of consistency and complexity. It's never shallow water.

Japan, sticking to the Asian animation theme, believes in using its content to educate and inspire good morals and values.

Japanese culture or religious values are always deeply implanted into any character or film. So Asian animation has yet another nation standing on its culture, history, and beliefs and using animation to teach it.

Some of the most important and noticeable animation characteristics to spot in Japanese animation would include the following:

  • Eyes: often larger than life, shaped into ovals or thin lines. They are the centerpiece of characters' emotions and vital to Japanese animation.
  • Hair: you can count on it being striking! Taking up space with unusual styles and bright colors often carries key symbolism.
  • Typology of Tropes: visually shows what a character is emotionally feeling. Scrunched eyes when laughing, sweat when overexerted or tired, etc.
the animation style of japan is highly characterized by their facial features

Image via Anime Ignite

One other important thing is that there are five main categories and this Asian animation nation sticks pretty close to those five. We’ll briefly explain them:

  • Shonen - looks to cater to a younger male audience. 
  • Seinen - targets young adults in general but still leans toward a male audience.
  • Shoujo - focuses on young females and leans into more relationship and romance themes.
  • Josei - points straight to adult females, often with a strong theme of romance. 
  • Kodomomuke - is directed especially for a young English audience and looks to seed good morals and values into developing minds. 

6 Lessons Asian Animation Can Teach You

examples of asian animation

GIF by Talia

As we come to a conclusive platform, albeit an express train through a much larger land of animation, let us review what you as an animator can learn from Asian animation:

  1. Go back to YOUR roots for inspiration - if it’s your first ideas of animation, the childhood stories, the art, music, or theatre of your predecessors, or your own.
  2. What do you value and believe? What do you want others to be educated on?
  3. Be willing to work for others to develop your skills. Even if it is a side hustle and you don’t get the credit.
  4. Who is your audience? How are you connecting with them? Constantly be looking to extend your reach.
  5. Look to your storyline and character development - Asian animation is getting that right - so can you!
  6. Get business savvy - how many of the above nations had political or economic setbacks? You and your animation business do not have to go through the same.

And that’s where we come in - we have some great articles to read through on a variety of topics….

But our main focus is helping you as an animator and business owner to be good at business as well as animation. Great animation without great business skills can result in no animation.

So start here with our blog on How to Start an Animation Studio! And then be sure to check out our free marketing handbook and masterclass too!

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