Juhaidah Joemin was a third-year chemical engineering student in the mid-1990s when she decided to quit her degree, give up her scholarship, and enrol into the then newly established Multimedia University (MMU) to take up a course on animation.
“I have always been fascinated with video games and visual effects created in films. And when Toy Story – the first computer-animated film – came out in 1995, I was even more curious with the process of how that film was created, ” she said of her decision to switch degrees.
“I remember my grandmother asking me what I was going to do instead of engineering, and I told her, I will be making cartoons.”
From the first batch of 30 graduates from MMU, Juhaidah joined the creative department at Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) – the company put in charge to kickstart animation and other IT-related industries in their initial stages in Malaysia.
Here, she was one of the people involved in the making of Saladin: The Animated Series, which was a co-production between MDEC and Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel.
The 13-part action-adventure series is an especially big deal to Malaysians, as it received a nomination at the 2011 International Emmy Awards, in the Children & Young People category, and was recognised at animation festivals in South Korea and Japan.
After almost a decade of setting up the groundwork for the animation industry at MDEC and learning more than a thing or two about creating content as well as producing them, Juhaidah went on to found her own animation studio, Giggle Garage, in 2010.
As the managing director and executive producer of Giggle Garage, she is behind the international preschool series Orginanimals, Kazoops! and Boing The Play Ranger.
Currently, her company is co- developing with Primeworks Studios (a content creation arm of Media Prima) an animation series titled Fridgies, a 52-episode of five-minute non-dialogue comedy series about magnets on a refrigerator that come alive.
When asked what her family thinks of her career now, Juhaidah shared: “My nephew and niece are keen to follow in my footsteps.”
In the right direction
From a time when animation studios were unheard of in Malaysia, now there are dozens of them operating either as a provider for foreign companies or for local consumption.
For example, the work on the popular Cartoon Hooligans YouTube channel featuring Marvel and DC superheroes are done by a Malaysian company that’s based in Petaling Jaya.
Over the years too, some Malaysians have made their way to the United States like Kiki Poh and Andrea Goh, two female animators who work at Pixar Animation Studios.
Last year, the three local animated films – Upin & Ipin: Keris Siamang Tunggal, Boboiboy The Movie 2 and Ejen Ali: The Movie – were among the top 10 earners at Malaysia box office. Ejen Ali was crowned as the top local film of 2019 with earnings of RM30.8mil, making it also the No.1 local animated film of all time in Malaysia.
With animation being such a booming industry, it makes sense that more and more students graduating from various local institutions are entering the field every year.
Juhaidah said: “There is a lot of demand and there are lots of opportunities in the field of animation in Malaysia now.
“During my time, it wasn’t really a viable career option, but these days, animation field has a lot to offer for anyone. One only needs to have the passion and interest to pursue a career in the animation field.”
A 2016 Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka graduate, Siti Najihah Zakaria is proof of that. Although she minored in animation at the university, she was intent on a career in animation. She started the ball rolling by posting her final year project on YouTube. “Looking back, it wasn’t very good actually, ” she said with a laugh.
Currently, she is the senior animator with Blindspot Studios, where she began as one of two junior animators. Over the past years, she has sharpened her skills and has since been working with an eight-member team on the series Alif & Sofia, that is presently showing on TV3.
“It was tough at first as the animation field requires us to focus on a specific skill, ” said Najihah of the challenge she faced when starting out. “This is one field where experience is truly crucial if you want to produce quality animation.
“When I was looking for a job, a lot of companies only wanted to hire animators with experience.”
Now that she has found her footing, she is only too happy to focus on Alif & Sofia, that is also receiving some attention in Indonesia. The series, which revolves around seven-year-old Sofia and five-year-old Alif, began as a YouTube and Facebook content. Having gained traction on the digital platforms, Primeworks Studios showed interest and became a co-producer.
Aziemah Azman, the manager for IP-Animation with Primeworks Studios, is constantly on the lookout for original ideas like Alif & Sofia and Fridgies. She said: “We want to invest in studios with ideas that we believe in and add them to our stable.”
The most important element for Aziemah when finding new content, is the story.
“A key pillar at Primeworks when it comes to content is to create Asian stories for the world. That’s why we source stories from here, and then we want to export it to the world, ” said Aziemah.One of Primeworks Studios’ most popular titles is Ejen Ali, which it jointly owns and co-produces with WAU Animation. The series is a great example of an idea that carries a Malaysian identity, says Azimeah.
“The name Ali is common in this region, and the fact that he’s an agent fighting for good is a theme that is used all around the world.”
Juhaidah added: “A lot of people come into this industry because they want to tell their stories. One of the satisfactions in making our own content is knowing that kids around the world are enjoying your ideas.”
Sometimes that idea leaves an even bigger impact.
Juhaidah recalled: “One time, we got an email from a parent of an autistic child, thanking us for creating a certain content. Her four-year-old son was not responsive, and he didn’t want to interact with anyone. But the moment he watches Cam & Leon, which is about two chameleons that dance, he would follow the characters and start dancing too.
“That gave his parents a way to interact with him. I mean, you never know the kind of outcome from the content you create.”
It is this kind of “emotional engagement” that is crucial to Nik Ily Diyana Nik Anuar, the manager for Licensing & Merchandising department of Primeworks Studios. She and her team are responsible for translating stories to products or merchandise, which has become a crucial extension of the animation industry.
“Ultimately it is the content, stories, that are the the best way to engage the fans. And the studios we have worked with, they have been really great storytellers, ” shared Diayana.
As children are savvy and know what they want, Diyana listens to what these young fans are interested in.
“It is always important to have a strong connection with the fans. There was a boy who suggested some changes to a game we created. We took his suggestions into account and made the changes; it was for the better. And when we had a launch, we invited him.
“It is small things like this that keep us going.”
A mother herself, Diyana is mindful of the kind of values she imparts with the products her department comes up with. Having a decade of experience in handling kids content, she and her all-female team take the time to truly understand their target markets’ needs before anything else. For instance, a key product Diyana’s department launched was books based on animated series.
After all, she states, books allow parents and teachers to get the children, who are fans of the show, to be interested in reading, writing and colouring.
“A lot of local animation projects offer good values. And we try to extend that with what my department does because ultimately, the characters are meant to be someone children can aspire to be.
“For Ejen Ali, we partnered up with Tenaga Nasional Berhad to send out a message about how to save energy. We came up with 21 energy-efficiency tips, which when translated to ground activities kids could remember.”
While animation is viewed as a male-dominated world because of the notion that technology-related industries are more appealing to men, Juhaidah says the numbers of women and men working in the animation field in Malaysia are pretty equal.
She explained: “I think it’s a misconception that the industry is a male industry.
Since she herself went against the flow with a pioneering beginning, Juhaidah adviced: “The biggest hurdle for women, I think, is to get over our own fear and own our confidence. Once you are beyond that (restricting) box, you’re no longer scared of doing what you want to do. You can see yourself on an equal footing.
She added: “For me, it’s all about your idea, what you bring to the industry. If your idea is good, male or female, you have the same kind of entry point. Everyone is on a level playing field.”
Nonetheless, she doesn’t deny that women could provide a unique voice to storytelling.
“If you’re looking at the differences between men and women, I think women’s way of thinking is a lot more complex, we have a lot more layers, even in the way we do things, like we’re really good at multi-tasking.
“There is no denying men can tell a good story, but women would bring warmth to what may be a straightforward story. Within my key production team, 60% are women and our female directors do add more depth to their projects, ” she offered.
There is also the pressure from society or just one’s own sense of responsibility that women feel the need to give up their careers or be in a less demanding job after having children. Luckily, in today’s environment, some women get full support from their family and company.
Ida Rahayu, a mother of two, was there when WAU Animation was formed in 2013. Today, she works there as a production coordinator, and provides the voice for Agent Ali of Ejen Ali.
With an uncanny ability to change her voice according to an animated character without any technical aid, Ida says she’s been interested with voice work after watching her mum participate in radio dramas. As for her love for creating art in a film, that began when she saw the animated classic Beauty & The Beast as a child.
Like any working woman, Ida puts in a lot of effort in juggling her roles as a voiceover talent, production coordinator as well as mum to two girls, aged seven and two. She doesn’t entertain any thought of changing her career no matter how difficult things get.
“When we were doing Ejen Ali The Movie, we had really tight deadlines, we had to finish the film in one and a half years, which is insane. Sometimes, I had to work overnight. When my husband – who also works at WAU Animation – and I had to work long hours on the same nights, we’d just bring the girls to the office.
“Our office has allocated a place for the ladies and children for that purpose. Otherwise, my husband and I will take turns to take care of them, ” said Ida.
Besides setting a good example for her daughters, one of the things Ida instils in them is that they shouldn’t limit their options just because of their gender. “I always tell them, you can do and be whatever you want, ” Ida stressed.
And Ida made sure this message is also present in the Ejen Ali series and movie.
She said: “During the story developing stage, the female employees at WAU made sure to insert messages that would empower girls. The titular character may be a boy, but the smartest character in the show is a girl and she is Ali’s biggest rival. Ali’s mother is also a very strong character. The villain in the film is a girl, and she’s no weakling either.”
Ida shared that her company is looking at making a series revolving around a female protagonist sometime in the future.
Aziemah agreed that there are a lot of issues regarding women that could be weaved into an animated project, and make them into positive messages for little girls.
“Asian women are taught to be a bit more timid, that you shouldn’t be too loud, you shouldn’t be too smart or whatever. Personally, I don’t want to hear these kind of things for our girls now.
“I am glad to see that younger women are speaking up more. And from my experience working in the animation industry, women’s ideas and voices are getting heard. In that sense, I feel, we do make an impact and contribute to the industry.”