Popularized for the masses as a permanent form of entertainment, and a solid genre since the early 1900s, animated films have been a popular medium that appeals to children and adults alike. But within the last 20 years studios have made it their mission to create content that would engage the interests of young adults and mature audiences…studios like Light Chaser Animation Studios, based in Beijing, China.
After watching three of their most recent releases; White Snake (2019), New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2020), and White Snake 2: The Tribulation of Green Snake, I became curious about the company creating such visually arresting and well-crafted films. Seriously, the action choreography alone is superb. That meant I just had to reach out on social media to someone who could share some insight, and thankfully Light Chaser’s own President and Co-founder Yu Zhou responded and agreed!
In our interview, Yu Zhou speaks of the achievements Light Chaser and its teams have made in its decade of creating animated films. How much the positive reception and encouragement from Chinese audiences means to him and the company, and their plans for future productions. Needless to say, whatever they produce next, I’ll be along for the ride to be amazed and entertained.
Writer’s note: This interview was conducted via email.
Carolyn Hinds: Can you share how you got your start in the animation industry, and collaborated with your Co-founder Gary Wang?
Yu Zhou: Gary and I were classmates in business school back in 2001 (INSEAD, France). We both love animation and came from computer science background. More importantly, we share the same vision of creating a Chinese animation studio to produce world-class animation films, with a Chinese team and a focus on Chinese stories and Chinese audience.
CH: Deciding to form and establish an animation studio is a huge undertaking no matter the size of the company, but for one in the Chinese entertainment market, it had to be rather daunting. Are there any challenges you believe were unique to your company and the Chinese market?
YZ: After we got the vision, we did significant due diligence before embarking on the journey. What we were about to do is unprecedented while we would not duplicate the proven model such as Pixar, Disney Studio etc. because of a number of factors: talent supply, market size, audience characteristics, economics considerations, etc.
CH: With Light Chaser Animation Studio about to enter its 10th year, what does the significance of that number mean for you personally as the Co-Founder and President, and for the company itself?
YZ: It will be a critical milestone. By our 10th anniversary, our 8th film will be released and currently, our team is working on it to make it a masterpiece. Light Chaser was started officially in March 2013. By now we’ve built a very stable and strong team with solid company culture and values. For myself, I take pride in our team, all of them and every one of them.
CH: Ten years is not only a significant benchmark for any company, but I’d imagine for an animation film studio it must represent a passage of time during which technology has allowed you to make incredible advancements and face challenges not envisioned when the company was founded in 2013. Can you share what some of them were?
YZ: From the very beginning of our studio, we strongly believe art and technology are equally important and mutually dependable. A simple analog, it’s like a person’s left and right legs and the person works step by step. So, technology itself cannot yet make too fast advancements without a streamlined production management system, the collaboration of talented, hard-working artists. The past decade has seen the ramp-up of new technology, for example, cloud technology. We started to use it in 2015 during Little Door Gods in addition to our own render farm. By now cloud rendering has become an important part to enable a strong and flexible rendering system.
CH: Since it’s inception, Light Chaser Animation has to date produced and released 6 animated features beginning with Little Door Gods released in 2016, and I’ve noticed that since then there has been a pretty fast decrease in the time between the release dates: Tea Pets (2017) Cats and Peachtopia (2018), White Snake (2019), New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2019), White Snake 2: The Tribulation of the Green Snake (2021), and according to post-credit scenes, this year in 2022 we’ll see Order of the Gods and New Gods List: Yang Jian. Can you perhaps share what changed in your production and business model lead to this change?
YZ: From the very beginning, we set the model of our studio is: one film every year, meaning every year we will release one film. From Little Door Gods in 2016, this has not changed. Every film takes 3 years or so to be finished, so our teamwork on multiple films in parallel. In 2021, we released two films: Nezha Reborn and Green Snake, but Nezha Reborn was originally planned for summer 2020 and the release was delayed due to COVID. Our team managed to finish the film by June 2020 without any delay despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, which we should be very proud of.
CH: Over the last decade animation has become a significant part of the Chinese drama industry, where dramas like The King’s Avatar, Love o2o, and most recently You Are My Glory, incorporating CGI animated game environments into the storytelling. Do you see that as a step for Light Chaser to take into the entertainment market?
YZ: We will focus on animation films in recent years.
CH: Will the studio be focusing solely on original content and stories based on traditional Chinese history and folklore such as New Gods: Nezha Reborn and White Snake, or is the company perhaps looking into adapting other mediums such as games or novels such as Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao? I love that book and think it would be super cool to see adapted into an animated film, so I’m just putting that out there.
YZ: In the years to come, we will have a broader runway to produce our future films, not only traditional Chinese history and folklore but also other mediums and IPs, or original stories.
CH: One thing that fascinates me about the animation style of Light Chaser films is how colorful and fluid the animation style is, juxtaposed with the brutality of fight sequences, and dark themes of some of the storylines. As the President how do you and your teamwork to strike the balance?
YZ: Our team has been working together for a long time and we have grown stronger in artistic and CG capabilities. We also have realized and have been focusing on that story is the most import. All the artistic presentations are all serving the purpose of good story-telling. That could be the bottom line or the balance.
CH: Could you share a bit about the casting process for the voice actors, and martial artists/stunt performers who provide motion capture work as refence for the action sequences? I’m a huge fan of action films and am always interested in the work that goes into choreographing action sequences for animated films and shows.
YZ: Through years and since 2013, we’ve worked with a large number of voice actors/actresses in China, thus a database and good relations have been developed through the process. With that, it has become easier and more efficient for our new film to assemble a well-selected voice crew.
We also worked with a few performers for acting reference. For example, during White Snake, we invited some professional dancers to study traditional Chinese dancing, so that our animators could apply these choreographing tactics in animation for Xiao Bai and Xiao Qing. However, we don’t do motion capture for these performers, as in animation films the acting and movements are too exaggerating and most of the time, far more than a human being can reach in performing them.
CH: For animators new to the field or experienced – especially those of Chinese and Chinese American heritage – looking to work with a company such as yours, is there anything you’d say to encourage them that Light Chaser could be the right choice for them as creatives?
YZ: Light Chaser is now the only studio in China that has built up a complete production pipeline and, with a team of 250, we have been releasing one film every year since 2016. Think about Pixar has been roughly releasing one film every year since 1995 (total 24 films by 2021) and they have 1200 people (Year 2020). Light Chaser team are very young (average age 31) and we’ve developed an open and inspiring culture with great self-driving and teamwork spirits.
CH: Would it be fair to assume that you’ll keep producing more mature theme films such as Green Snake 2, or will there be a balance with creating stories more geared towards younger audiences?
YZ: For White Snake, we set young adults as our main audience. From Nezha Reborn and Green Snake, we would like our films to attract not only young adults but also family audiences, so will be our upcoming films.
CH: Does your collaboration with Netflix to platform your films play a part in what types of stories you’re looking to tell? Why and how so?
YZ: No. We only sell the online streaming rights to Netflix after the films have been finished or theatrical released.
CH: As a global streaming platform Netflix has done wonders for the Chinese film and TV industries because it creates a more accessible method for audiences all over to world to find work by creatives that may not be accessible because of theatrical distribution deals and other roadblocks. While there are many pros to this, are there any challenges or things you think can be improved on that you can identify since having your own films platformed there?
YZ: By now we have three films on Netflix: Little Door Gods (renamed as The Guardian Brothers), Nezha Reborn and Green Snake. The platform has been very helpful in bringing our films to worldwide audience. The only regret we have is that if Netflix could expand from online to theatrical release as well because our films are created for theatrical (3D, IMAX, etc.) and we do hope to present our works in their best format and our audiences can see all the details and efforts we’ve put in. Nonetheless, I understand the chance for Netflix to evolve in that direction is slim.
CH: Because Netflix has made your films accessible to audiences globally, what do you think sets your content apart from North American studios in terms of stories centered around Asian characters, stories and cultures such as Mulan, Avatar: The Last Airbender?
YZ: Our team are 100% Chinese. This comparison is somewhat like, what if our team do a story centered around North American characters, stories and cultures. On the other hand, as a young studio, we have learned a lot and are still learning from established studios such like Pixar, Disney in storytelling and other film-making experiences.
CH: Your films have done extremely well in the Chinese market, can you share your thoughts on how your films measure up against, and what sets them apart those produced by western animation studios such as Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, with Chinese audiences?
YZ: Since White Snake we’ve set our main audience as young adults while all the films produced by Hollywood studios are family entertainment. This sets us on different market spaces. We’ve recognized that Chinese young audiences are more inclined to animation films than their peers in the western countries. Animation film for family could be one genre but other general film genres could also and should be covered by animation.
CH: Speaking of Netflix, I recently co-hosted a live-tweet of White Snake 2: The Tribulation of the Green Snake for #StaurdayNightSiFi, which you saw (and is how we connected), what was it like seeing real time reactions to results of all the hard work your animation teams created?
YZ: Thanks again for organizing the event. It is very warm and encouraging to see the reaction and feedbacks we got from overseas audiences. As you may be aware of, Green Snake was ranked 3rd in non-English films on Netflix globally in its debut week, with a total viewing time over 10 million hours. The film stayed 3 weeks on Top 10 in that ranking. Since its theatrical release day July 23 in China, although there was a wave of COVID and 40% of theatres was closed during that time, the film was warmly welcomed and received by the Chinese audiences and achieved a total box office of RMB 580 million with more than 15 million audiences.
Here’s a video about some events with audience. It’s in Chinese but you can have a feel:
CH: And to get a little bit nerdy, I must know if there’ll ever be a sequel to Nezha Reborn where Nezha acquires his remaining Astras, and will we ever find out what happened to Xioa-Bai’s baby? I’m so curious.
YZ: Haha, your curiosity and anticipations are well grounded, although we cannot give you a clear timeline about when these sequels will be out.