【Minsheng Lecture】Made in Shangha


Made in Shanghai - Animation Films from the Golden Era



Jiao Da

Animation Films of Those Years 14-- The Adventures of Pinocchio

Guest: Jiao Da
Date: 14:30 Saturday, August 3rd, 2019
Venue: Mutimedia Interactive Hall, Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum

After two years of hard work, China’s first color puppetry film Little Hero was born in Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1953. The beginning of Chinese Animation Film era was marked by the creation of Emperor’s Dream (puppetry film) and Go After an Easy Prey (animation film), produced by the Northeast Motion Picture Studio, before it combined with other divisions to become the predecessor of Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Since the early films have already covered these two kinds of films, the predecessor of Shanghai Animation Film Studio was named as Shanghai Arts and Film Studio. Te Wei, the director of the studio once said: “We produce both animation and puppetry films. The studio that produce both categories deserve a name that covers both types.”


The props of Xiao Mei’s Dream designed by director Yu Zheguang (on the right) and Wan Chaochen (on the left)

In 1950s, many big-name artists were concentrated in Shanghai Animation Film Studio for the first time, who later became the core artist of the studio. Among the talent is Yu Zheguang, who has long engaged in puppetry drama and puppetry education. Since childhood, Yu has been fond of all kinds of handicraft art, making lovely animals out of mud. Starting from 1932, Yu, in his young adulthood, began researching and studying puppetry making and performing. In 1940s, he founded Shanghai’s first puppet theatre club. Embracing the puppet theatre trend in the early 19th century, Yu dedicated his life to puppetry art. Joining Shanghai Animation Film Studio with two talented trainees—You Lei, Xia Bingjun, Yu efficiently improved the quality of the crew’s creation. After designing several films’ character image, Yu shouldered the responsibility of a director. In his works Mr. Dongguo and Taoist of the Mountain Lao, he used as few dialogues as possible, setting up a distinguish artistic style. “The faker, the weirder, the better” thus became the artistic concept of the puppetry film. In the early 60s, Yu also developed another technique called origami animation, in the films A Clever Duckling and Quacking Duckling.

The movie still of A Clever Duckling, the first origami animation film. 1960

The four crew were working inside one studio at the same time. On the left were cameraman Wan Chaochen and the director Yu Zheguang

The office of the early Shanghai Animation Film Studio was quite small, lying at what is now the Hamilton Building on Fuzhou Road. The actual film making work took place in the studio on Tiantong’an Road, which later became the Shanghai Film Technology Plant. Inside the shabby studio, every crew member had to work under poor condition, ignoring the annoying mosquitoes inside the dark, damp room. The floor of the studio was muddy yet versatile, always ready to be changed into a land with mini ponds and rivers for filming various scenarios. Limited as the resources were, the crew member maintained a passionate toward animation films production. Usually different crews were stuffed together into a small studio, filling the room with the roar of numerous running machine, and creating what later became classic animation films.

The Magic Pen is a world-known puppet film directed by Jin Xi, who also directed Princess Peacock, an 80-minute classic puppet film. The technical instructor of Princess Peacock is Wan Chaochen, one of the Wan brothers who were titled as “the pioneers of Chinese animation.” The other two brothers, Wan Laiming and Wan Guzhan, were relatively dedicated to animation and cut-paper animation, while Wan Chaochen put his heart and soul into puppetry films.

The dressers were making outfits for the main characters of Princess Peacock in the puppet department. 1960s.

As more talents joined the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, the structure of the puppet department was comprehensively improved. Numerous graduates of authentic art academies were assigned to the studio, who gradually made up of an important part of the new talents, including Zhan Tong graduated from Central Academy of Fine Arts, Qu Jianfang graduated from LuXun Academy of Fine Arts, Fang Runnan, Huang Qiao graduated from Shanghai Film Academy. Several performing majors from Shanghai Theatre Academy also undertook the motion design. Aside from the basic positions of writers, directors, motion designers, character designers, scenario designers, cameramen, puppet makers, dressers, carpenters, painters, and prop group were also added to the puppet department. With a well-functioning team, Shanghai Animation Film Studio produced numerous classic puppetry films.

The shooting scene of Princess Peacock. Director Jin Xi and puppet manipulator Lv Heng was designing a scene of the film.

It was incredibly hard to produce an animation film in an era of resource shortage. A ten-minute puppet film usually takes at least four months to complete, from script writing to finally completing. The crew had to made the props and outfits, and adjust the puppets’ motion during filming. Yu Zheguang’s grandchild, Jiaoda, was familiar with the shooting of the puppetry films. He mentioned that the puppetry film making was not easy: “The repetitive work of motion adjusting was so hard and so boring that I would fall asleep watching them, and wake up again and they would still be working on it. It is now unlikely to find someone who can still be committed to hard work like this.”

May’s Dream was the first puppetry film starring both puppet and human. It is a story about May seeing all her toys come alive in her dream. The film uses real scenarios from the temple fair in the northen China, with the crew acting as real human characters. This was a bold step toward technique reform of puppetry film.

Fat Aunty Visits Parental Home tells a Shandong folk story with no lines but acoustic elements from Shandong traditional opera such as suona. With the conception of less talking, more storytelling and character shaping, this puppetry film passed the censorship of the Film Bureau without any revision. The production of puppetry film often involves talents from all walks of life. The choreography of Three Butterflies was designed by professional children’s dancing teachers, and the background music was sang by the chorus from Children’s Palace. And the character image of Princess Peacock was designed by the famous picture-story artist Cheng Shifa.

The movie still of the puppetry film Avanti

Adapted from the ancient story “Lotus Lantern,” Shanghai Animation Film Studio produced a puppetry film named Magic Child of Huashan in 1984. However, after producing the first half, the production was paused due to the production adjustment of the studio. Finally after 22 years, Shanghai Animation Film Studio decided to make up for the regret. To make this work, the crew made more than 20 characters and set up the scenes just as the first half was. More folk elements such as Shanxi Opera and banhu fiddle are added to the new film, giving the new film more textures. Though the puppet control technique has been updated compared to 1984, puppetry film producing is still encountered with various challenges, including lacks of fees and talents. Therefore, the complete version of Magic Child of Huashan directed by Hu Zhaobo almost marked the end of the puppetry film when it was premiered in 2006.

In 1956, The Magic Pen directed by Yu Zheguang was awarded the first prize by Ministry of Culture. This photo was shot after he came back to Shanghai with the medal. On the photo are Yu and Jiao Da.

Shabby and dark as it was, the plain little studio was the dream factory for generations of animation artists. However, the children nowadays may hardly know anything about puppetry. In his application to join UNIMA, Jiao Da fondly wrote: “When I was a kid, I often watched my grandpa working in front of his desk, designing character modeling and writing scripts for puppetry films. He always reminded me of Geppetto, the old man who created Pinocchio. Growing up with a grandpa who was passionate about puppetry, I follow his track and enter this magical world enthusiastically.”

Jiao Da witnessed the glorious days of puppetry film and composes his own adventure of puppetry. In this lecture, Jiao Da is invited to talk about Shanghai Animation Film Studio, from the early founding days to the 60s of technique reform, and to the 80s-90s when the second peak of puppetry film arrived. He is going to bring back various classic characters, such as Sanmao and the three butterflies, for a better presentation of those years. Also, he is going to bring the precious Yu Zheguang’s working journal to share with the audience.

About the guest

Jiao Da

Born on May 28, 1953 in Beijing. A member of Shanghai Dramatists Association, China Puppetry and Shadow Arts Association, UNIMA China. He is an expert on puppet modeling, stage design, and prop design. Influenced by his granpa Yu Zheguang, he has been engaged in puppetry film and shadow art design since 1979, producing and educating about the art. Currently he is working on the exhibitions of museum, memorials, and exhibition projects. He is also designing props and models for film industry.

About “Made in Shanghai”

The series lecture Made in Shanghai: Animation Films of Those Years” was established in 2016. It started from inviting former “backstage masters” of Shanghai Animation Film Studio who was engaged in different positions, to talk about those golden years of Chinese animation films. The lectures have attracted lots of audience. “Made in Shanghai” series was titled “2017 Excellent Public Education Program of Chinese Museums” by Ministry of Culture. Reviewing the history of Chinese animation film and the memories of several generations, the series bring the audience to know about the background, details, and international communication of the classical Chinese animation films.