The Animators Who Turned Pain Into Beauty
Plus: international animation news and a Czech cartoon.
Hello and welcome! We’re back with another edition of Animation Obsessive. This is our newsletter for today:
1 — the story of The Monkeys Fish for the Moon.
2 — global news from the world of animation.
3 — the first cartoon by Jiří Trnka, Czech legend.
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All set? Here we go!
1. Papercraft perfected
Cutout animation is a wonderful thing. This art form (which has ancient roots) uses stop-motion to bring pieces of paper, cardboard, cloth and more to life. It’s a method that can take almost any shape, like magic.
And some of the finest cutout animation has come from China. That started in the ‘50s, when animators at the state-owned Shanghai Animation Film Studio studied folk papercraft and “shadow plays” to make something new. As time passed, they mastered the form. The Monkeys Fish for the Moon (1981) was one of their best results.1
The Monkeys Fish for the Moon is a beautiful, wordless film — the Shanghai team took its cutout animation to new heights. We watch a group of brightly colored monkeys as they try to catch the moon, traveling the forest at night. It’s cute and funny, but it also hits deeper than that. The film has a rich, ethereal feel that draws you into its world.
To quote its screenwriter, Ling Shu, Monkeys is really an “an animated poem.”
It wasn’t a project that the team took lightly, either.
Monkeys is an early film in the “second golden age” of Chinese animation. Chinese animators had been persecuted under the Cultural Revolution for most of the ‘60s and ‘70s. After Mao’s death in 1976, political reforms started, and animators came back swinging for over a decade. This was the second golden age.
When Shanghai Animation made Monkeys, the wounds of the Cultural Revolution were still very fresh. It’s a film that turns pain into beauty. Ling called it “a song of praise for the childhood of mankind and for our long-lost innocence.”2
The idea for the film came from a Chinese proverb. Basically, “monkeys fishing for the moon” are doomed to find nothing — they’re trying to steal a reflection. As Ling Shu wrote:
The original story, which was from the Buddhist scriptures, symbolized how the foolish man out of greed mistook illusions for reality and landed himself in distress. It was later transformed into a fable, mocking the ignorant that make much ado about nothing. A proverb invoked “monkeys fishing for the moon — all in vain.” […] All these interpretations were centered on greed and ignorance. Similarly, when I first started working on the script, I centered the plot on the proverb “all in vain,” emphasizing the motive of greed and adding comic effect. My ideas, however, underwent a fundamental transformation.
Ling reinterpreted the whole story. He came to believe that monkeys, drawn to the moon’s light, weren’t really driven by greed. More than that, it was “simply an act of pursuing beauty and loving life” — which he connected to the behavior of children. The monkeys, Ling felt, should be allowed to live in “their merry natural state.”
In the final film, the monkeys’ quest for the moon certainly gets them in trouble, but it’s much more than a straightforward morality tale. It’s an aesthetic experience. The director, Zhou Keqin, aimed for “beauty and poetic flavor” in the storyboards — not satire and criticism. And the monkeys ultimately learn to admire the moon as it is, without possessing it or fighting over it.
After the Cultural Revolution, this was no small thing.
Just a few years before, the government had forced the Shanghai animators to make “very bad propaganda,” according to A Da (the art director of Monkeys). Their films had to be realistic and strictly political during the Cultural Revolution — nothing like Monkeys was possible.
And, for artists like A Da, even propaganda was an upgrade. He was only ordered back to the studio after years of hard labor in the countryside. “Cleaning pig styes and carrying large sacks of grain on his back, he nevertheless always found time, under his mosquito net in bed at night, to keep sketching,” wrote his friend David Ehrlich.
As the team at Shanghai Animation tried to move forward with films like The Monkeys Fish for the Moon, they also mined those years. Again — turning pain into beauty.
When A Da designed the monkeys’ celebratory dance toward the end of the film, he pulled from his time in the countryside. He “adapted a peasant harvest dance he had once watched while feeding the pigs,” Ehrlich noted. It’s a moment of “spontaneous freedom” in the film that rejects the whole ethos of the Cultural Revolution.
The film’s look is similarly tied to the past. In the mid-1970s, artist Yue Huimin had helped to develop a special style of cutout animation (“picking”) to add a tiny bit of artistic flair to a propaganda film. It gave the cutout characters softened edges, which blended into the backgrounds. On Monkeys, A Da and Yue Huimin worked together to take these ideas to the next level.
According to one Shanghai animator, they did it like this:
First the character was drawn on bast paper. Then its contour lines were traced with a wetted calligraphy brush. When it was nearly but not yet fully dried, it was ripped free. After ripping, the fiber of the paper was exposed. However, when ripping, it is difficult to control how much moisture is in the paper. Because of this, the picking would vary in length. Sometimes long, sometimes short. Our choreographer would usually stroke the picking before shooting. That was when all the picking would be cut to equal length.
The technique lends the cast of Monkeys a furry, textured look unusual in cutout animation. It meant that they “glittered in the night,” wrote Ling Shu. Combined with A Da’s colorful designs, it’s a stunning visual — as seen in the full film below:
Like everything made at Shanghai Animation, Monkeys was a team effort. Its appeal comes from more than A Da’s art direction, Ling Shu’s script or even Zhou Keqin’s storyboards. A ton of talent went into the project. Ling explained:
You Yang, the background designer, used techniques borrowed from shadow puppets, window papercutting and New Year pictures to depict a subtropical forest at night, giving the scene a dreamlike quality. Jiang Youyi, the photographer, added faint, moving lights and shadows to the picture, which was almost like a ripple effect. Wu Yingju, the music composer, created an innocent and meaningful tone for the film with his humorous, light and mesmerizing pieces.
The result was an instant classic. The Monkeys Fish for the Moon joined films like Three Monks and One Night in an Art Gallery at the forefront of what Ehrlich called “the new Chinese animation.” The Cultural Revolution was over.
Yet that didn’t necessarily equal full government approval for what Shanghai Animation was doing. Ling Shu recalled that the judges of the state-run Golden Rooster Awards didn’t get Monkeys. “[T]hey called up the director to ask what exactly the theme of this animated film was,” he wrote. “Zhou Keqin answered, it is whatever you imagine it to be. The judges were displeased and eliminated it.”
Monkeys ended up traveling abroad, though, and it scooped up awards in places like Yugoslavia. It helped to put Chinese animation back on the world stage, after years in isolation. This “animated poem” showed that the Shanghai animators hadn’t lost their edge during their long absence — they were only getting stronger.
2. Global animation news
Why Foster’s Home is a preschool series now
Since the news broke that Craig McCracken is rebooting his classic series The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, he’s been answering questions about both projects on Twitter.
First, we learned this week that the announcement came extremely early. McCracken confirmed that he and Hanna-Barbera Studios Europe, which will produce the shows, have only “had a few meetings and one very nice lunch.” He tweeted that he’s looking forward to starting in earnest. With Foster’s Home, he clarified, “I haven’t done any official development work on it and I still need to formally pitch it.”
Still, McCracken has made his broad intentions for both series clear.
With Powerpuff, which has been endlessly spun-off and rebooted since its premiere, he hopes to get back to basics. As the foundation, McCracken explained, “I plan on only using my version of PPG.” Among other things, that means returning to the “original designs […] with only slight modifications for consistency of scale and proportion.”
What’s expected to change more is Foster’s Home — which will be a preschool series. When a concerned fan asked him about that decision, McCracken replied:
… doing a show about preschool-aged friends in the house is my idea and I’m very excited about my plans for it. Also becoming a dad has given me a real appreciation for quality animation for the little ones.
For reference, McCracken last year praised the preschool series Sarah & Duck, Peppa Pig and Pocoyo — and especially Bluey, which he called “one of the best cartoon TV shows made right now” for any age bracket. He’s been drawn to the idea of doing his own preschool cartoon, and wrote this week that he “felt the world of Foster’s would be a perfect setting for one.”
The Foster’s Home reboot is intended to focus on imaginary friends first and foremost. Lauren Faust, who co-developed the first series, calls the new one a “concurrent-quel.” The plan is simply to set the episodes at a different time of day than before — when Mac, the original protagonist, is away at school.
McCracken has a reputation for new ideas — from Powerpuff and Foster’s Home through Wander Over Yonder and Kid Cosmic. Reimagining his older shows is something different for him, and a sign of how hard it is to get new things greenlit now. We’re excited to see how he rises to the occasion. “In an industry that is looking for old well-known IPs,” he wrote in mid-July, “it’s nice to have created a few of those.”
Best of the rest
Check out the impressive Chinese graduation film Serendipity with English subtitles.
What does Saudi Arabia love? You may be surprised to learn that it’s anime and Japanese culture. A journalist from the Japanese site Netlab went there, saw the Anime Village event in Jeddah and found an anime craze in full swing.
Britain’s Gorillaz dropped a hybrid animated video from Nexus Studios.
In Ukraine, the Kharkiv-based Dytiatko children’s festival seems to be moving forward despite the war. One of its official selections this year is Wake Up the City, an enjoyable animated short from Taiwan.
As Catsuka reports, the Chinese series All Saints Street is coming to Japan. The team saw crossover success there with its earlier project, The Legend of Hei.
In Russia, a state-owned paper is running the far-fetched claim that Hollywood studios like Disney want to return to the country via the gray market. It’s part of Russia’s broad campaign to legalize the unlicensed use of movies.
This week, we profiled three American classics — underrated UPA cartoons from the mid-1950s.
Lastly, Canada’s BRON Studios has partnered with Katmandu Park to do animated film and TV — and a company involved in the park (Falcon’s Beyond) took the chance to give us the week’s scariest corporate spiel:
This amazing collaboration with BRON leverages our complementary areas of expertise to create new opportunities for ongoing fan loyalty and engagement for our respective brands and IPs. BRON’s incredible reputation and resources will help make the Katmandu franchise a premium offering for audiences worldwide, while Falcon’s will engage our IP expander to activate their powerful IPs across a wide variety of physical and digital entertainment.
Thanks for reading this far! We’re glad to have you with us.
The last section below is for paying subscribers (members). We’re covering one of the foundational works of Czech animation — by the master director Jiří Trnka. Its story involves the Nazi invasion of Prague, the end of World War II and the start of a new style of cartoon. We hope you’ll check it out.
Members, read on. To everyone else — catch you next time!