For decades, Disney has dominated the $270 billion market for animated content, especially for feature films. There are other big animation studios--DreamWorks and Sony come to mind--but they tend to be Disney imitators rather than innovators.

Well, it turns out that the truly disruptive animation startups are popping up in unexpected places, like Malaysia, Latvia, and inside a much-loved studio that most industry observers have considered something of a dinosaur.

Based upon what I saw at Animaze Montreal Animation Film Festival, it's clear that the animation industry is on the cusp of of multiple revolutions, all happening simultaneously, and all of which are the antithesis of Disney.

Before providing details, I simply must say something about Animaze. Most film festivals tend to be over-produced and over-planned (and therefore boring) but Animaze is all about serendipity. Most festivals are like Baroque music; Animaze is like Jazz.

As a result, attendees (like myself) end up being exposed to creative work that they otherwise might avoid, because they're "not into that." And such was the case here; I was overwhelmed with creative ideas that I otherwise wouldn't have known even existed.

Probably my most interesting discovery at Animaze was Les' Copaque, an animation enterprise in Malaysia. To understand why they're unique, I have to explain something about the animation business.

The big animation studios--all located in the U.S.--tend to farm out the actual animation to vendors around the world where the work can be done more cheaply. Thus Les' Copaque could have easily pursued that business model.

Instead, Les' Copaque elected to create its own unique intellectual property based on traditional Malaysian mythology, but told in an energetic, child-friendly way:

Interestingly, Les' Copaque isn't just making original feature films; it's extended its reach into television shows, marketing spin-off merchandise, and is even creating Malaysia's first theme park. They're becoming the "Disney" of Southeast Asia... by not imitating Disney.

One reason behind Les' Copaque's success is that they fit their content into the region's comparatively conservative culture. For example, they're currently working on a princess-themed feature film where the five princesses (gasp!) aren't half-naked. Brilliant!

Eastern Europe is another area that doesn't immediately come to mind when one thinks of animation. Nevertheless, one of the most original animation film I've seen in over a decade came out of Latvia (of all places): the feature film Away:

You wouldn't know from looking at it, but Away was created, not by a huge studio or even a small studio, but by a single individual at a cost of about one ten thousandth of what even the most basic animated feature might cost. This is disruptive innovation with a vengeance.

There is also highly creative, potentially disruptive, work being done in the US, too, but it's from an entertainment culture and skill set that computer animation itself disrupted: cinematic puppetry.

At Animaze, I saw fascinating shorts from Ibex Puppetry, an entertainment company that's "dedicated to promoting the art of puppetry in all of its various mediums, including stage, cinema and gallery exhibitions."

The founder of Ibex puppetry is Heather Henson, the late Jim Henson's daughter, who is also associated with the Jim Henson Company, which after selling off the rights to the Muppets, recently created Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, now on Netflix:

I don't know much about the cost structure of cinematic puppetry versus computer animation but there's a immediacy to puppetry that's simply not present in any other form of animation, with the possible exception of stop motion (also undergoing a revival, BTW).

With today's huge need for new and original content. Combine that with production methodologies and concepts, and alternative business models, you have fertile ground for creators and entrepreneurs alike.

Published on: Sep 7, 2019
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