Frame by frame: Philippine animation’s growing pains

Time and time again, the art of animation has captured the fun and refreshing ideas and brought their magic to our screens. Studios such as Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Studio Ghibli continue to invest hundreds of hours into carefully crafting countless classics and producing tales of wonderful whimsy to warm the heart. And while animation is primarily targeted toward a younger demographic, there are shows like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman that present themes and topics for a more mature audience, showing off the fluidity and flexibility of the genre for any viewer to enjoy.

However, the domination of American studios in the animation industry makes one wonder if there is any room for the local animation industry. It is a rarity to find non-American or non-Japanese animated films that break into the mainstream, much fewer ones that originate from the Philippines. There is a clear amount of passion, talent, and effort from these local animators—especially considering that the Philippines has been outsourcing animation services since the 1980s—yet the Filipino animation industry still remains to be widely recognized and respected internationally. 

The premiere of the first adult animated movie Hayop Ka! on Netflix was a veritable game-changer for the local animation industry as the film drew international acclaim. Now enjoying a long-overdue time in the spotlight, local studios are gearing up for more artistically bold and genre-defying content. Although the industry’s star is on the rise, many artists still have to contend with a culture that undervalues art.

Sketch it ‘til you make it

“Animation is definitely a lot more streamlined and rigorous in its processes than most people would believe,” shares Sara Verallo, an animator at Top Draw Animation. Her daily schedule consists of clocking in at 9 am to work on Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a film collaboration between Netflix and Nickelodeon, then working until the late hours of the evening, sometimes finishing at midnight just to meet deadlines. 

Furthermore, behind production animators are a team of directors or checkers who regulate the animation to ensure that the visuals are in line with the project’s vision. This means that animators don’t have much leeway in terms of animation style since every detail must cater to the client’s satisfaction. 

Similarly, Avid Liongoren, the founder of Rocketsheep Studio and director of Hayop Ka!, stresses that a methodical approach to brainstorming ideas results in better productivity for himself and his fellow artists. “We have a very boring approach to work. It’s not like we’re setting fires and dancing around them and stuff like that to get inspiration,” he elaborates. 

Behind the scenes work also entails the melding of finance with creative ideas. Such is the difficulty when it comes to directing an indie animation film or a self-funded project. One must have a good grasp of finance and creativity, creating art without breaking the bank.  Liongoren explains, “We need to be able to do it in an easy way that it won’t cost so much money [but] at the same time, it shouldn’t look terrible.”

An animator’s woes

While the local animation industry has seen more demand in the past years, this isn’t always a boon for the animators. Artists—especially those just starting—find themselves taking on “exposure” projects to build their portfolio. While work begets more work, the trade-off in doing these projects is not always worth it. An individual’s time and skill are maximized, but often for the wrong value in return. “You often have to choose between your integrity as a professional artist that knows their worth, and being looked down upon by local project producers who do not want to meet your price,” Verallo explains.

Liongoren is also no stranger to these harmful industry practices. “There are some very bad studios that trap young people [in a sense that] they’ll have a contract for two years, but they’re not actually employed. They’re still freelancers, but they’re locked to the company,” he says.

However, in the internet age, this discussion is easier to bring to the table. Liongoren is a member of the Philippine Animation Workers Association, a Department of Labor and Employment-registered advocacy group for the local animation community that seeks to educate these creators on their labor rights and job opportunities to be wary of. They provide infographics, focus group discussions, and seminars on the industry’s working conditions, an animator’s legal rights, the value of a work contract, and more.

The bigger picture

These industry horror stories are only a symptom of a culture that has consistently devalued art. To this day, most people consider art as a hobby or recreational activity rather than a legitimate career. Animation is a costly field due to the labor-centric work it requires; an animated short can take up to several months to complete. To create something worth watching, top-notch equipment must be utilized. Toon Boom Harmony, a software considered by many as the universal industry standard, has an asking price of 22 USD—roughly P1,000 per month for the essentials alone. 

“[It is] a mix of the Filipino culture [viewing] animation as a second-rate genre that isn’t worth funding, and the simple fact that animation software and the necessary hardware are expensive for schools to get a hold of,” Verallo posits that cost and general neglect toward the arts elicited these circumstances.

Preparing for take-off

The success of Hayop Ka has undoubtedly broadened the horizons for the future of the local animation industry, serving as proof that the local animation industry is worth investing in. A surplus of brilliant, imaginative, and creative animators and an audience of Filipinos eager to support their projects are at the ready; all that’s missing is the proper resources that these animators need to thrive. 

The future of local animation is bright and an endless assortment of possibilities await to be featured on the silver screen. Verall, for one, can barely contain her excitement, saying, “I would love [it] if we could have more animated films that aren’t afraid to dip beyond [the] surface level, and are willing to tell stories of Filipinos as their own people with their own narratives.”

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