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Thai trio go to Tokyo

What three young prize winners learned on a trip to the metropolis where much of Japan's anime and manga is dreamed up

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While animated Japanese hits like Pongo On The Cliff By The Sea, My Neighbour Totoro or even the Oscar-winning Spirited Away haven't been as popular here as computer generated imagery from Hollywood (films such as Frozen, Despicable Me or Finding Nemo for example), Japan is still a favoured destination for budding Thai animators given that country's firmly established reputation for producing high-quality anime" the idiosyncratic Japanese genre of animated films which are often based on popular manga comic-book adventures. 

Japanese kids learn how to edit animation at NHK Studio Park, where admission is free for children.

So when a team from St Francis Xavier Convent School won the 2013 Thailand Animation Contest (TAC), its three young members were delighted when they discovered that the itinerary for their all-expenses-paid trip to the Land of the Rising Sun included visits to Studio Ghibli and NHK Studio Park, two of Japan's most famous animation studios.

Besides exploring those two venues in Tokyo where a good deal of manga and anime have originated, the winning team, comprising Waewwan Charoensuk, Suwassa Marat and Thanyasinee Laoweeratham, also had the opportunity to present their prize-winning animated feature, Fireflies, to lecturers teaching animation and computer graphics at Waseda University and colleagues of theirs from Tokyo University who specialise in information science and technology.

Fireflies is about a world where people are waiting for luck, but the core message is that one should not just sit back and wait for good fortune to arrive; that one needs to work hard for it.

"The work came as a surprise as its animators are just high-school students who have to study hard for the university entrance exam," said Prof Shigekazu Sakai from Waseda University, "but the beautiful animation they created suggested how much effort they have put into the piece."

While clearly impressed by the excellence of the artwork, Prof Sakai did comment that some more detail-oriented observations would have been key to bring the work closer to perfect. One example he singled out was the way the flickering light produced by the fireflies was represented.

The interactive activity at NHK Studio, where visitors can learn about important events.

"If they [the students] can understand human perception, they will be able to make emotional animation and the fireflies in the animation will become more natural [looking]. The combination of science and art is very important for animation works,'' said Prof Sakai, who also sits on the committee that judges entries to the Asia Digital Art Award.

Dr Kwan Sitathani is deputy director of the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec), one of the three bodies which organises TAC on an annual basis (the other two are Allianz Ayudhya and the King Rama IX Foundation). He observed that while Thai students are certainly not inferior to youngsters from other nations when it comes to creativity in animation, what they do need to further develop is their use of tools and computer programs. The use of open-source software is one of the preconditions for submitting an entry to TAC and while acknowledging that this may make things harder for some entrants, Dr Kwan thinks that requiring competitors to make use only of licensed technology is good practice for would-be professional animators.

The market for manga comics in Japan is huge and inter est in the genre has spread worldwide. Far from being restricted to children, manga appeals to Japanese men and women of all ages. A wide variety of subject matter is covered, with comic-book content ranging from history and science fiction to teenage romance stories and more profound themes about life. Popular manga series often go on to inspire the making of anime, with productions such as Doraemon, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon and One Piece going on to become household names around the world: .

"Japanese animation is created to meet the needs of different age groups," said Dr Virach Sornlertlamvanich, an advisor to Thailand's Technology Promotion Association. Children, for instance, prefer the futuristic robo-cat Doraemon while some adults are more interested in an adolescent ninja character called Naruto or Sazae-san, a series that typically looks at the lighter side of everyday life in Japan: studying for exams, taking care of children, getting along with one's neighbours, bringing home a regular pay cheque and keeping one's home in a decent shape.

Prof Sakai explained that most animation nowadays is made using 3D graphic technology which can conveniently be converted for use in games and other forms of multimedia entertainment.

He mentioned that MikuMikuDance (MMD), an interesting freeware animation program that lets users create their own 3D animated movies, has already been used to produce such popular animated characters as Hatsune Miku.

A virtual idol in her country of origin, Hatsune Miku is a humanoid persona voiced by a singing synthesiser application. She has appeared on billboards, in mobile apps and television commercials and, a few years ago, even held her first "live" concert. Thanks to 3D hologram technology, she was able to sing and dance for large crowds of fans. In 2009, Sega released Project Diva, a music game series starring not only Hatsune Miku but a large collection of other characters as well.

To make a success of a career in animation, Prof Sakai suggested to the trio of Thai students that they first acquire a lot more experience by exploring both nature and human society. Once they enter university, he said, choosing information technology-related subjects would be an important stepping stone, allowing them to learn the basics of using tools and equipment such as computers, applications and software. Having good powers of observation is also a crucial asset for the professional animator, he suggested.

Getting more exposure to the industry at large is also paramount, Prof Sakai said. He suggested that budding animators submit their work to competitions such as ADAA or TAC where, apart from the experience gained, they may win some measure of recognition which might later allow them to put their content on a larger platform such as YouTube where they could be talent-spotted by commercial agents or television producers, a possible gateway to future success.

Members of the winning team and first runner-up of TAC 2013, and the hosts from Allianz Ayudha, Nectec, and Panyapiwat Institute of Management.

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