Animation industry finds a home in S’pore

Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
The New York Times

“Made in Singapore” is becoming a more common tagline for computer-generated animation.

While this industry in Singapore is less than 10 years old and still very much in its infancy, it has turned an important corner in the past couple years, executives and analysts say.

Christopher Chia, who until two weeks ago was chief executive of the Media Development Authority in Singapore, said he saw local production moving up the value chain.

“In the early years, our industry could be characterized as a fee-for-service industry,” said Mr. Chia, who is now a senior adviser to the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. “Somebody out there would commission a part of a show and companies here would execute.”

“But increasingly, our companies are either co-owning or owning the intellectual properties,” he said. “At the same time, they’re working with the bigger boys around the world to co-produce or co-market the content.”

That is the case with Dream Defenders, developed and produced by Tiny Island Productions of Singapore and introduced in October at the Mipcom trade show in Cannes. When completed, the 26-episode show will be the first three-dimensional series from Singapore.

Another local studio, Sparky Animation, signed a contract with the Jim Henson Co., creator of the Muppets, to co-produce a second season of the award-winning children’s series Dinosaur Train, which is animated and computer-generated. It also participated in the first series.

Meanwhile, August Media Holdings, which is based in Singapore, recently signed a $60 million deal with the U.S. media company Classic Media to develop and jointly produce 10 new shows for television. They will be based on children’s classics from Classic Media’s catalog, which includes “George of the Jungle” and “Mister Magoo.”

August Media was founded in March by the industry veteran Jyotirmoy Saha, who used to be co-head of Sparky Animations. Three months ago, the company acquired the Scottish children’s content producer Red Kite Animations, founded in 1997 by Ken Anderson. Red Kite is behind The Secret Life of Benjamin Bear, Dennis and Gnasher, 64 Zoo Lane, and The Imp.

“The real business is in developing and owning intellectual property, with media products that can move across different platforms,” Mr. Saha said.

“As a company we’re trying to build this business in a complete 360-degree manner,” he added. “We acquired Red Kite because we wanted to move quickly and that was a good way to jump-start our kids’ content business.”

Mr. Saha said the company was in negotiations to acquire a couple of distribution companies in Europe that would help August Media Holdings “control the monetization of our own content and that of our partners.”

August Media will be one of the first tenants of Mediapolis, a 19-hectare, or 47-acre, high-technology media park, when the first building opens there in December. The park will take as long as 10 years to be fully developed but is envisaged as a self-contained media ecosystem, with soundstages, digital production and broadcast facilities, and media schools.

So far, the Media Development Authority has remained coy about announcing the tenants of the first building, which will cater primarily to the incubation of start-ups and creating prototypes of innovations in various media sectors, including interactive digital media, film and broadcasting.

Many of the changes in the Singaporean animation landscape can be attributed to the arrival of Lucasfilm, which opened the doors of its digital studio in Singapore in 2005. The presence of the big Hollywood name acted like a magnet, attracting more companies and creating employment opportunities.

“When Lucasfilm opened a studio in Singapore, Classic Media identified it as a talent center that demanded close scrutiny from us,” said Doug Schwalbe, executive vice president of production and program sales for Classic Media.


With a staff of 400, Lucasfilm has outgrown its current facility. It recently announced it would start building a state-of-the-art facility in Fusionopolis, a business park close to Mediapolis, with the goal of moving in to the facility in 2012.

Mr. Chia is encouraged that companies like August Media are starting to provide financing for the industry. Over the past eight years, the Media Development Authority has played a main role in co-producing or co-financing many of the local projects, as well giving grants of as much as $112,000 for the production of original animation pilots by Singapore-based animation studios.

“We did a lot of hand-holding and nurturing at the beginning, helping take companies to the market,” Mr. Chia said.

“We definitely want more companies like August Media locating in Singapore and taking the private sector’s rightful place in developing content,” he added.

To date, the authority has co-financed more than 30 animation projects, but with new entrants coming to the Singapore market, more nurturing is needed. Mr Chia acknowledged that most of the success of the local industry had been in television and that it still needed a big success with an animation feature film for others in the industry to really take notice.

Several such films are in development. Sparky Animation is working on The Brothers Grimpley, which is being co-produced with Grimpley Films in Britain and PorchLight Entertainment in the United States.

Tiny Island Productions has announced plans to co-produce a 3-D, computer-generated animation film based on the television series Shelldon, about the underwater adventures of a seashell, scheduled for release in 2012. Its partner is the entertainment production company Shellhut Entertainment, based in Thailand.

David Kwok, managing director of Tiny Island Productions, said he believed the local industry had made tremendous progress in the past few years, and disagreed with critics who say that Singaporean studios continue to perform lower-end jobs.

“We’re not a low-cost country, like China or India, where you can tap on talent to do very manual, low-end jobs,” he said.

“In fact, a lot of the talent here are doing high-end work, the same type of work you would do in Los Angeles.”

Mr. Kwok conceded that in terms of preproduction work like script writing, “we’re not quite there yet.”

His company is using writers based in Los Angeles for the Dream Defenders series, which depicts the twins Zane and Zoey as the last line of defense between the real world and the nightmare creatures of the Dreamworlds.

“But there is no reason why we cannot do it one day,” Mr. Kwok said. “I think it just takes time.”

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