By Pepper Marcelo
Unknown to many, the Philippines is a major hub and outsourcing center of the global animation industry for decades. Local artists have literally had a hand in developing and producing world-renowned, beloved cartoons such as Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons, Popeye, X-Men and Dragon Ball Z.
Locally, animation is $105-million industry, with approximately 50 small and medium-sized animation studios employing some 5,000 people. Industry players are service providers, local sub-contractors and non-commercial producers. Specializing mostly in 2-D animation, the Philippines once controlled 90% of animation outsourcing in the world.
The country’s comparative advantages are many – cheaper production cost, the Filipinos’ proficiency in English, and understanding of American culture and nuance – which have attracted American clients such as Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna- Barbera, Marvel Comics, and the Cartoon Network.
“The Filipino is quite close to western culture, in terms of language, sense of humor – we’re able to capture those things more than our counterparts in the region,” says Miguel del Rosario, president and CEO of Toon City Animation, one of the country’s leading animation studios.
Operating for 15 years now, Toon City specializes in animation production services for feature animation, direct to video (DTV), TV series, and short programs for Walt Disney, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios, among others. Some of the popular programs they’ve worked on include Tom and Jerry, Curious George, Kim Possible, and Lilo and Stitch.
The company, with a staff of up to 1,000 animation artist and technicians, is housed in a huge 30,000-square-foot warehouse-like studio in Mandaluyong City in Manila. It offers complete production services, including traditional, hand-drawn 2-D animation, layout, animation, clean up, and inbetweening, computer generated and traditional background services, and digital ink paint.
“Our latest success is a preschool TV show, Curious George,” Del Rosario tells Planet Philippines in an interview. The program, based on the popular children’s book, has been nominated five times for the prestigious Emmy Award in the US, winning once. Unfortunately, the program is not televised locally. “The local networks don’t carry it,” he says.
With the rise of rise of computer-generated, three-dimensional animation (3-D), however, local animation companies have found it difficult to compete with other countries due to budgetary constraints. The necessary tools required to produce quality 3-D animation, principally the cost of the software, is beyond the budget of small and medium-sized local animation houses. Other Asian nations, like South Korea and India, have steadily lured away interest from local studios.
“As far as quality is concerned, we’re ranked way up there, [but] in terms of volume, unfortunately not, because Korea and India are there. India, because of the advent of CGI. They’re a technical people, so they know how to manipulate the computer, so they’re good in their discipline. They persevere in getting it right. What the Indians lack is in animation, meaning the movement of people, the expression. That is the advantage of the Filipino,” Del Rosario explains.
As a response to foreign competition, local animation companies have begun to ramp up their own 3D facilities, while still plying 2-D-style cartooning. Toon City itself is planning to hire more than 200 artists, animators and digital technicians this year to provide Flash and 3-D animation services for Disney and other major foreign film studios.
“As for Toon City, we have been a 2-D studio. We remain in that nice for a long time,” ads Del Rosario. “With the advent of CGI and 3-D, we thought it would be wise for us, business-wise, to grow in CGI. Our advantage is that we’re offering training to our 2-D artists to embrace CGI. If we perfect this, I think we’ll have a winning combination.”
The global economic recession of 2008 hit the local industry hard. Although Toon City had contracts to finish that year, by 2010, overseas-based animation studios were eventually affected as well. “Animation was hit, so we had to retrench. It was a dry spell for us,” says Del Rosario. Toon City had to scale back to a minimal “skeleton crew,” but has been gradually building back its staff since last year. But it had difficulty retraining its staff, since many of the old ones had left for other jobs, mostly in call centers.
Del Rosario says the government must be take a more active role building infrastructure, providing funding and supporting animation in schools. “In Korea, the reason why animation is big is because they have a domestic market. In the Philippines, it’s not much,” he says.
Consequently, he continues, because the market is big in Korea, their artists and animators have the necessary training and skills, and there are enough funds and resources to service global clients. “Unfortunately, The Philippines has no government program to help promote animation, but that’s something we would like to work on.”
To be sure, there have been remarkable strides in the local scene as evidenced by the production of Urduja, a traditional, hand-drawn 2-D feature, and RPG Metanoia, a full-length 3-D CGI film. Local animation companies, however, still have a long way to go, particularly in terms of training and upgrading the skills of local animators to make them up to par with current techniques and technology in developed countries.
Foreign companies have made available animation courses in local schools. La Consolacion College Manila (LCCM), for example, offers a two-year, 3D digital animation course related to computer programming, thanks to Digimation UK, an animation school based in Great Britain.
PHINMA Properties Holdings Corporation, the mother company of Toon City, is introducing animation courses in some of the schools it owns and operates, which include the University of Pangasinan, Auraullo University in Nueva Ecija, Cagayan de Oro College, and the University of Iloilo.
Del Rosario hopes animation becomes the next big industry, akin to call centers and other BPOs (business process outsourcing companies). “I hope animation makes the Philippines a creative capital of the world, and there’s no reason why not. We have fashion designers, car designers – how I wish Filipinos could be recognized. I hope the Philippines could be a significant player.”