EXCLUSIVE: WHILE Malaysia’s visual effects industry has earned its share of accolades - the Oscar-winning work of Rhythm & Hues KL come to mind - there is also a thriving local animation scene producing quality children and family entertainment.
Now, three-year-old 3D animation studio Giggle Garage Sdn Bhd hopes to raise the bar for the industry with their own creative content.
Origanimals, their latest intellectual property (IP) based on the adventures of four origami-animal friends who help others with creative origami solutions, was recently picked up by Canada-based Bejuba! Entertainment for international distribution.
Sabahan husband-wife team Zeno Gabing, 42 and Juhaidah Joemin, 37 welcomed The Star Online to their Cyberjaya-based office to share more about their latest success.
“Paper folding is common across all cultures, and every kid has made at least one paper plane. Even a paper sampan (boat) is origami!” said corporate veteran and executive director Zeno.
“Our creative director, who is responsible for all character design, has loved folding paper since childhood. He lit up when I told him about my idea,” said managing director Juhaidah, who has extensive experience in the animation industry and manages Giggle Garage’s creative and production side.
“Before the team designs anything - characters, objects, even trees - they will try to fold it first. The concept and designs stay true as everything in the animation is foldable!” she added.
During the first six months of the pre-school series’ development, their office was plastered with origami art as completed creations were stuck on the walls for further inspiration.
In the series, the Awesome Four - yes, that’s A4 for short - are a wildlife rescue team comprised of brave leader Ryan Rhino, playful athlete Zoe Zebra, shy inventor Khye Koala, and the impatient yet intelligent Fiona Fox.
“There are kids just like that, and children can relate to many different facets of the characters’ personality,” said Zeno.
Giggle Garage’s other IPs also feature animal-based characters, as playground characters star in the completed Boing the Play Ranger, while work in progress Cham & Leon chronicles the (mis)adventures of two chameleon friends.
Asked if the use of animated animals was a conscious direction, Juhaidah said that content should be able to travel without boundaries: “With animated humans, at some point you have to ask what race the character is, and which part of the world they come from. Animals are very funny, relatable, and lots of storylines are possible. There’s a lot of freedom.”
Zeno finds it important to make content where children pick up on the educational bits “without them realising it”, and thinks preschool kids would enjoy learning about animals through fun, subtle and solid storytelling.
But Origanimals was not only about pushing paper (together): when the two decided to set up shop in Nov 2010, the birth of their first idea was followed by much planning.
“Our team created a three-minute proof of concept (3D trailer), which we took to a market called Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, UK. There, you can ask any broadcaster and producer for their thoughts on your work,” said Juhaidah.
To test the market, they pitched their projects to 15 parties at the three-day event: “We’re very determined to make it work for a global audience, and we wanted to know what audiences in the US and UK are thinking.”
They came back with “a pile of thoughts” and a directive for the designer: fix everything! The IP received a total makeover, and all changes were incorporated into a pilot episode to undergo another trial by fire by way of numerous competition entries.
“It probably worked, because we won the Best Planning Award at last year's Seoul Promotion Plan Project Competition against 19 countries and 109 submissions,” said Juhaidah.
Origanimals also bagged the 14th Tokyo Broadcasting System Digital Content “Animation & Movie” (TBS/Digicon6) Golden Award for the Malaysia region, but the team did not rest on their laurels.
“Even after the pilot was done, we continued meeting up with broadcasters to update them and secure their feedback,” she added.
Their presentation at the inaugural Asian Animation Summit, hosted by the Multimedia Development Corp (MDeC) in Kuala Lumpur last December, also garnered them strong support.
“We met our distributor Bejuba! there. During our very first pitch at Sheffield, they had already thought the concept was amazing. After seeing it in full, they said: now you are ready! It took us three years to please them,” said Juhaidah, adding that all episodes are expected to be delivered by June 2015.
After an arduous development and pre-production process, January finally marked the start of main production on Origanimals.
So far, three 11-minute episodes of 52 in total have been completed, and the duo will take the first to the Mipcom global entertainment market in Cannes, France to finalise deals with buyers and broadcasters.
Origanimals will also premiere at the MIPJr screening, which is a platform for producers to introduce new products and help interested parties decide on whether to take the plunge.
Though Origanimals is “100% Malaysian”, it is not peppered with overt local themes or icons.
“It’s done by a local creative team in Malaysia, who poured their ideas and storytelling powers into it. That’s what we interpret as Malaysian content,” said Juhaidah.
The cartoon’s first season will cover five major areas: Africa, the Amazon, the Tundra, the Australian outback, and the Galapagos.
“With this IP, it’s possible to go anywhere in the world! You can even go back to the dinosaur age. For the next season, we’re certainly thinking of the Borneo rainforest, the tapir and the orangutan,” said the Kota Belud-born Juhaidah.
According to Tampunan boy Zeno, Sabah’s Lost World, Maliau Basin, is another setting they’re considering: “Maybe we can put Ryan Rhino in scuba gear so he can go underwater diving in Sipadan!”
He jokes that the couple, who tied the knot in 2006, are from “totally different worlds” as well.
“My kampung is Tambunan, the highland valley in the middle of Sabah. She’s from Tempasuk in Kota Belud, which is a coastal area. She’s familiar with all the fish in the sea, while I’m very familiar with the jungle!” said Zeno.
Asked what the local animation industry needs to improve on, Juhaidah pinpointed scriptwriting as the area in need of development, as local institutions do not provide enough training in the subject.
“But we have to start somewhere - we appointed four international scriptwriters to ensure the series talks in a global language. The knowledge from these award-winning experts is transferred to our in-house team here,” she said.
To Zeno, there is a healthy talent pool in Malaysia - all 45 employees of Giggle Garage are Malaysian, with the exception of their Lebanese senior director Nazih Hatem - though more work lies ahead.
“Business leadership is needed, and animation can sometimes be treated as a hobby. But it must be an exportable product with good storytelling and quality animation for Malaysia's economy, without neglecting its creativity,” he said.
The animation industry’s contribution to the country’s economy is also a subject he is most passionate about: “We’re now in the Knowledge Economy phase of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) plan, so creative companies should be looking at (being profitable) knowledge-based businesses. Setting goals and making a company sustainable is a challenge in the creative industry. Our goal is to become the most admired animation company in Asia.”
They’re in good company, as other local outfits have also produced plenty to be proud of.
Examples include Third Rock Creation’s Cingkus Blues, a tale of a cat and a rat (who are also best friends) that Nickelodeon picked up for international syndication in 2012, while Inspidea Sdn Bhd’s Akis was the first Malaysian animation to be commissioned by the channel.
In 2011, the Pet Squad cartoon co-produced by Inspidea also picked up a Children’s BAFTA award nomination in the Animation category, while their charming Mustang Mama series about the antics of a feisty, sports-crazy grandmother became a worldwide hit.
With these and more in the pipeline, the children’s animation scene in Malaysia is one to watch!