The “Dream Worlds” Exhibition at USC

The USC School of Cinematic Arts, in collaboration with DreamWorks Animation SKG, is now hosting an exhibition titled “DreamWorlds: Behind the Scenes, Production Art from DreamWorks Animation,” and the exhibition will be on display from July 30 through September 7, 2012.

The gigantic Panda statue in front of the entry way of the Steven Spielberg building at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

I am glad that the exhibition, which draws from DreamWorks’ twenty-four animated feature films, especially highlights the visual development of Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda II, the two animated features with strong Chinese cultural flavors. Both films were released in China and did exceptionally well in the emerging market, and also caused quite a heated debate in the creative community of China. I remember attending a symposium in Shanghai right after the first one came out, during which a professor raised a poignant and quotable question: “China has panda, and China has Kung Fu, but why can’t China make Kung Fu Panda?”

The original art work of the Panda character in “Kung Fu Panda” and “Kung Fu Panda II”.

Yes, why China can’t produce Kung Fu Panda? There isn’t an easy answer to that question. In recent years, the Chinese government has invested handsomely in the “entertainment” industry, and quite a number of the so-called “creative clusters” have been planned and built across the nation. Home-made animations are also receiving favorable treatment, including a government-imposed ban that locks out all foreign cartoons from airing on Chinese TV between 5 and 9pm. But have these efforts succeeded in spurring the domestic cartoon industry? Hardly so. The state-owned Shanghai Animation Studio, once the crown jewel of Chinese animation, remains to be the least desirable place for any inspired Chinese animators.

Visualizing the ideas and story: the unlikely hero buried in a noodle shop.

Although one could come up with a long list of reasons as to why the Chinese animation industry fails to take off like Chinese economy, ultimately, it boils down to one simple answer: imagination and creativity come neither from top-down planning nor from a tightly controlled and carefully censored cultural environment. The government/Party-dominated “China model” might be able to produce an “economic miracle,” but it will cause more harm than good to Chinese culture and arts. Imagination knows no boundary, but there are simply too many boundaries and taboos in contemporary Chinese society.

Maquette of Lord Shen in “Kung Fu Panda II:” art, design, and inspiration.

Yes, the Giant Panda is a mammal unique to China, and Kung Fu is a Chinese cultural invention, but when it comes to imagination and creativity in arts, Hollywood’s panda won. Although I am not a fan of big studios, I like the following quote from Jeffrey Katzenberg, studio head of DreamWorks Animation: “Every single thing you see on-screen came out of somebody’s creativity. It doesn’t exist. Nature didn’t deliver it to us. Everything had to be dreamed.”

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