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Cartoonist, Raman Hui
Hollywood-based, Hong Kong-born cartoonist Raman Hui is directing "Shrek 3," and has worked on some of the world’s most entertaining animations, including “Shrek,” “Shrek 2” and “Antz.” Hui talks to Victor Chau about animating and his new cartoon book, "Picocolo."

By Victor Chau | Jan 12, 2006

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  • Cartoonist, Raman Hui

Many cartoonists look a bit comical and childlike. I take it as a compliment. Cartoonists also behave like children sometimes, though this trait is not a must.

I grew up in a single-parent family. My mother raised three of us. She supported me on getting a job in the States because she thought I would stay there for a year or two only.

In 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I took a three-month course in animation in Canada. It was a big change for me. When I arrived, people asked me if Hong Kong was okay. Many people didn’t know Hong Kong was far from Beijing.

I started my career as a junior animator in PDI (Pacific Data Images), which was then bought by Dreamworks.

The biggest difficulty I faced was the language barrier. I couldn’t speak English very well. Another problem was a drastic change of lifestyle. Hong Kong is a busy place. But the place I lived, Silicon Valley, was so quiet that if you see someone walking down the street at night, you should feel worried.

After spending more than 10 years in the States, I do think about working in Hong Kong often. In fact, I was transferred back to Hong Kong last year. I enjoyed it very much.

I love working in the US. They make sure you have enough time to do your job well. I feel attached to that country because it is where I learned all my skills. Working in Hong Kong was very tough because we had to work overtime often. But generally the team spirit was good – that makes my life easier. But in terms of living, I much prefer Hong Kong.

One thing I learned about working in the US is that you have to speak out for what you want. For example, if I don’t ask for a raise, my boss assumes that I’m happy with what I’m making. But in Hong Kong, you almost never ask this kind of question.

I see myself as being sandwiched between Western and Chinese cultures. I feel that I may be having a “green pasture” mentality. I miss what I had in Hong Kong when I’m working in the US, and vice versa.

When people ask me if I’m a Hong Konger or an American, I say I’m a Hong Konger living in America.

Before I left Hong Kong, I used to think it was very big and important. Communication wasn’t as easy as it is today. But in the US, I started to grow up and see the world better. Hong Kong is not just Hong Kong, we have China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea too.

My first blockbuster as supervising animator was “Antz” (1998). I drew over a thousand designs for the hero, “Z,” based on the face of Woody Allen [who acted as the voice of the character] and from observations of real ants. The heavy workload wasn’t the toughest part; it was the creative part that was most difficult because it's hard to dig up something new.

Animating is a very, very long process. If you’re lucky, it takes “only” two to three years to finish a film with 200 workers. Hong Kong film investors are always looking for a fast return. They’ll ask, “Will the film be ready for the summer holiday?” I’ll ask, “Which summer holiday?” And they’ll say, “This one.”

It’s natural for Hong Kong investors to be very skeptical because of uncertainties with long-term investments. But every investment bears a risk and if you do your calculations carefully, the risk can be minimized. Besides, track records tell us that animations do make money, not only from the box office, but also from merchandise and DVDs.

My latest book, “Piccolo,” is a children’s book. It’s about a small sparrow who envies other animals and tries to alter himself to look as good as them. While not realizing his own merits, he makes himself into some sort of monster and scares his friends away. In the end, he takes off his disguise and is himself again. My mother thought the little sparrow is my own reflection, probably because I’m short.

Children’s books are a unique art. You can tell a long story, potentially with a meaningful moral, with the least text and the simplest artwork. That’s why I like it.

Hong Kong has just started its “creative industry.” I believe there are many talents in China and Hong Kong. But we need to tackle piracy before the creative business can take off. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere.

Read our review of Shrek 3 here.

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