KUALA LUMPUR, April 24 — Come Saturday when kids and kids-at-heart tune into the latest Cartoon Network original series Monster Beach, they will be watching an international animation project helmed by a Malaysian studio.
The series, which follows surf-siblings Jan and Dean who are on an endless summer vacation with their groovy monster buddies on a cursed beach.
Written and directed in Australia, the series is led by Malaysian animation agency Inspidea together with a Los Angeles crew while Cartoon Network’s Hong Kong and Singapore offices drove the production.
“The unique art direction drew influence from island living so many of us in the region know and love,” said Monster Beach producer and Cartoon Network Asia Pacific senior production manager Chai Yoon Fei.
Chai, a Malaysian based in Hong Kong whose job involves shopping for scripts, said the cultural melting pot that is Asia Pacific has much to offer when it comes to storytelling.
“One of my main tasks is to look for concepts with universal themes and a unique local twist to resonate with kids in the region,” she told Malay Mail.
As an audience, kids have more choices than ever before and are thirsty for themes, characters and stories that speak to them on a personal level.
“Sometimes you hear people say, ‘Oh, that’s too smart for a kids show but I can assure you, they are a smart and informed audience,” said Chai.
Despite evolving viewing habits, some fundamentals have remained.
“We all still love to laugh at cartoons that entertain and spark a sense of excitement when something unexpected happens or a hilarious character does something silly,” she said.
In Asia Pacific, the Cartoon Network team uses a virtual studio model to create originals, making collaboration with talents and studios in any part of the world convenient, even in times like Covid-19.
“Monster Beach is a great example of that — creators and directors in Australia, an animation studio in Malaysia, writers from around the region, other support from the US and our team spread across Hong Kong and Singapore,” she said.
Malaysia in the global animation industry
Long before localising content became a norm in film and television, Cartoon Network warmed up to the idea of shows made by Asians for its Asian audience about 10 years ago.
The series Roll No. 21 was developed by Malaysian animation studio Animasia that aired exclusively on Cartoon Network India.
“The reason it’s so important is that we want to be able to reflect kids’ experiences in an authentic, relatable way, while creating wondrous worlds using Cartoon Network’s unique storytelling style and sensibilities,” Cartoon Network Asia Pacific head Leslie Lee said.
That collaboration and Monster Beach are just some examples of the growing demand of Malaysian animators regionally — some have even found success in Hollywood.
“There are many creative talents coming out of Malaysia especially in animation production,” Chai chimed in.
As a key person in children’s programming, Chai spoke about the Malaysian spirit that has helped her career and hopes to inspire kids to dream big.
“As corny as it might sound, I attribute my ‘can-do attitude’ from our Malaysia Boleh spirit, and it also runs strong in all the Malaysian talent I’ve worked with.
“If I can achieve my dream of producing animation, then they can too,” she said.
Lee, who is based in Singapore, believes Malaysian animation talents are sought-after because of their willingness to learn, hunger for excellence and passion for the industry.
“Humility and thirst for knowledge goes a long way,” he said.
Lee attributed Malaysia’s success in animation in the past decade to the support given by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation and the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia when studios such as Les’ Copaque, Inspidea and Animasia came on the scene.
Commenting on Malaysia’s place in the global animation landscape, Lee believes “Asia stands on the cusp of a golden age in animation, be it through great Asian stories, individual talent or even technology.”
To achieve that, it is crucial as a region to grow the ecosystem and nurture storytellers, writers and designers alongside collaboration and mentorship.
“There are strong ideas and IPs coming out of Malaysia, and they have the potential to be seen by millions of viewers everywhere,” explained Lee.
“We just need to look at the right platforms, guide them and develop them for them to also stand alongside some of other Cartoon Network comedies such as We Bare Bears, Adventure Time and The Powerpuff Girls.”
Covid-19: The show must go on
Asked how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the animation business, Lee said the industry requires continuous support as well as focus to get work done under these extraordinary circumstances.
“The situation also allows creators to take a step back and watch more content, get inspired, learn, read and create more.
“It’s usually through adversity that the best ideas come to life,” said Lee.
For Chai, she has been pleasantly surprised by people’s efficiency when working remotely.
“I’m really fortunate to be part of an amazing team who is never shy from going the extra mile and helping one another out — ‘the show must go on’ is our motto,” she said.
Monster Beach kicks off Saturday, April 25 at 6.30pm on Cartoon Network (Astro Ch 615 HD/635).