At the turn of the century, Malaysia’s animation industry was known chiefly for its service work. Today, it is the largest creator of local content characters in Southeast Asia, according to a recent report on the region’s animation production. Its hit films and shows are exported across the region and beyond, with some securing global distribution.
This remarkable turnaround was driven by the country’s enterprising studios, which are increasingly parlaying their industry experience into original IP creation. Credit is also due to the government agency Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), a tireless champion of Malaysian animation, which provides a range of financial and professional support to artists and producers. (For more information on MDEC’s initiatives, read our recent article on the organization.)
To understand more about the country’s animation creators and the environment in which they work, we spoke to three high-profile studios about IPs they have recently created. Animonsta told us about Mechamato, Animasia about Harry & Bunnie, and Lemon Sky Studios about AstroLOLogy. All three benefited from MDEC’s support.
As Mohan Low, MDEC’s Head of Digital Creative Content, explained: “One of our key focuses is prioritizing IP creation and ecosystem building. Among our efforts to drive this is providing financial support, programs, and market access that bridges the opportunities with key industry players. Mechamato, AstroLOLogy, and Harry & Bunnie are promising IPs that have benefitted from our programs.”
Below, the studios discuss their respective IP’s development process, their ambitions for the property, and the support they received from MDEC…
Animonsta Studios: Mechamato
Founded in 2009, Animonsta (a.k.a Monsta) soon scored a monster hit with the series BoBoiBoy, which has spawned spin-off films and comics and become a cultural phenomenon in Malaysia and beyond. Below, the studio’s head of brand and marketing Faiz Zainal Aabidin speaks to us about its upcoming IP Mechamato, which will debut as a film and series in 2021.
Faiz Zainal Aabidin: Mechamato is based on its simple concept: a robot that can combine and transform everyday items into high-powered devices. The idea was initiated by the CEO of Monsta, and creator and director of Mechamato, Nizam Abd Razak. As he put it:
“I was packing my stuff to move to a new house. I noticed my kids were playing with the boxes and imagining themselves in a tank. I had a flashback of my younger self sitting in a box and imagining myself driving a car.
“That sparked the idea of a Power Sphera: a robot that has the special ability to combine with the box and transform into a hi-tech mini car or tank. Exploring the idea further: why stop at the boxes? Why not a broom turning into a high-powered blaster, a school bag into a jet pack?
“After discussing with the rest of the team, we decided to coin the term ‘mechanize’ to refer to the ability to combine and transform everyday items into hi-tech devices, limited only by one’s imagination.”
The production of Mechamato — from the script to animation and post-production — is executed in-house by more than 100 young and talented artists. Only the English dubbing is outsourced to a studio in Miami. Similar to most 3d animation studios out there, Monsta makes use of software like Autodesk Maya, Adobe After Effects, Side FX Houdini, and many more to complete the project.
Monsta plans to release Mechamato as both a film and series. The IP will make its way first to the silver screen by Q2 2021, followed by the launch of the tv series in October 2021 on Cartoon Network Asia Pacific.
Monsta has signed with Cartoon Network APAC for pay linear, and is in talks with a few other OTT and international distributors worldwide. The studio will keep expanding its audience not just in APAC but also in America, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.
The pandemic is a tough time for any business. Back in March 2020, the Malaysian government enforced a nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO) at the expense of an economic downturn. However, that has not stopped Monsta from pushing steadily through this crisis.
There has been a big shift toward the online sphere ever since the start of the MCO. Monsta engaged with millions of online users at the time by releasing the video Mechamato: First Look on online platforms. The response has been overwhelmingly encouraging, with viewership increasing by 50% and more than ten million views secured across Monsta’s digital platforms.
Before creating Mechamato, the team at Monsta was already well-known for another kids’ action show titled BoBoiBoy, an animated franchise that secured a phenomenal fanbase across various parts of Asia. It has been broadcasted in over 70 countries through Disney Channel, Netflix, Tencent, MBC, Hungama, and Marvel HQ. For Mechamato, we anticipate a global audience that demands awesome high-quality animation.
MDEC has always been supportive of Monsta right from the beginning. In the case of Mechamato, it handed Monsta a grant to kick off the production, and assisted in exporting the content worldwide by connecting us with international buyers and media.
Malaysia is one of the best animation hubs in Asia and has been growing remarkably since the late 1990s. It may be the Malaysian culture, which welcomes various kinds of content from all over the world, giving insight and driving the industry to produce high-quality animated content. Having English as our second language allows the industry to have a better understanding of content creation that appeals to the global market.
Animasia Studio: Harry & Bunnie
Animasia is well established as both a service studio and a creator of original IP. Since opening in 2005, it has created half a dozen IPs, including the Flash series Chuck Chicken. Below, Animasia’s managing director Edmund Chan discusses Harry & Bunnie, which, like Chuck Chicken, has been acquired globally by Netflix.
Edmund Chan: The concept for Harry & Bunnie was inspired by the creator Ahloong’s three young children, who have constant battles in the house, while keeping the “love-hate” relation alive. Seeing this, Ahloong came up with a story about a magician and his stage rabbit, their relationship and conflicts. Everyone in the studio was really excited to work on our first slapstick non-dialogue series. Ahloong formed a small think-tank group, and they started to go on bi-monthly “vacations” where everyone would get together in a room and start to cracking out stories/springboards and storyboards for Harry & Bunnie.
The first concept and trailer were presented at the inaugural Asian Animation Summit, held in 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was really fruitful for the creative team, as we got a lot of feedback. We analyzed these comments, especially the strong criticisms. We had to redo character designs as the original Harry looked way too “old,” and we aged up Bunnie a little. The format — 78 episodes x 7 min — was always the duration we intended.
Our ultimate goal for the show is to pull off a slapstick non-dialogue series that will thrill all our target audience (boys and girls aged 7–11), with no cultural or geographic limitations. I think we have achieved our goals with Harry & Bunnie, as we have successfully got it to air on Disney Channel Asia Pacific, and soon after globally via Netflix.
Animasia has always been focused on original IP: since our inception in 2005, we have produced more than five or six original IPs that have found regional and international success. Harry & Bunnie is our first attempt at slapstick non-dialogue comedy, where the storytelling is the crucial point. As there are many successful slapstick non-dialogue properties on the market, we’ll need to make sure we position our concept differently from the rest, and not to be labeled as copycats.
Since the concept will be storyboard-driven, the team will also need to create 78 captivating stories, and make sure they don’t keep reusing gags and tricks that could bore our viewers. Ahloong and his team did a fantastic job during their creative vacations in resort and hotels, which inspired most of the fresh, original Harry & Bunnie stories.
MDEC actively coordinated potential buyers to meet with Animasia, and this process allowed us to gather first-hand industry feedback to further strengthen our development process.
MDEC offers incentives that can help support and boost new original IP creation: creators can tap into development, co-production, and marketing funds. Animasia has managed to gather support from MDEC to create our own original IPs, boosting job opportunities for local talent, and extending the broadcast reach of our show beyond Malaysia.
Lemon Sky Studios: AstroLOLogy
Since 2010, Lemon Sky has grown into a premier cg service studio, working on games such as Warcraft III: Reforged and Marvel’s Spider-Man, as well as tv series like Nickelodeon’s Middle School Moguls. The studio launched its first original animated property, the hit web series AstroLOLogy, in 2018. Its creator and director Ken Foong, who is also chief creative officer at Lemon Sky, tells us how the project came about below.
Ken Foong: Having serviced so many creative companies over the years, we were itching to flex our original idea muscles as well. It only seemed like a natural progression. That is what gave birth to Lemon Sky Development (LSD) back in 2015. The department was put together to generate and pitch ideas, and function as the idea bank of Lemon Sky Studios. Before settling on what we now know as AstroLOLogy, LSD had gone through various other idea pitches. More than 20, maybe. At that time, one of the leading children’s networks was focusing on character-driven content with personality.
That got me thinking about how each of us is unique, and the various factors that contribute to that. I fiddled with the possibility of using Chinese zodiac signs or even blood type to highlight some of the things that contribute to our personalities. But each of those ideas had its own set of limitations.
I finally decided that the 12 zodiac signs would be most relatable, as there was a lot of insight into the characteristics and the personality of each star sign. In addition to the content being character-driven, I wanted it to relate to everyone. The idea ticked several boxes, and we moved forward with it at LSD. Taking a slapstick approach to delivering the content made it even more relatable, and enabled the viewer to see the lighter side of their characteristics.
Our target was always a social media platform. Our idea of introducing 12 episodes each month (one star sign per episode) that made it ideal for the social media platform. Before developing all 288 episodes, we tested a pilot (12 episodes x 2 min) on Youtube. We also tested a 2d version, but the reception for the 3d version was more promising. We then greenlit the idea and were on our way to creating our very own full-fledged IP.
While our primary target audience is ages 8–12, the content relates quite easily to any age group. The slapstick aspect will get anyone giggling not only at our characters and storylines but also at themselves, in a way.
What we had initially created for social media has also found a home on a broadcast network in Japan. Our Japanese partners added Japanese dialogue to the non-dialogue content that we had originally created, demonstrating the flexibility of the IP. If we get more interest from broadcasters, we may extend the IP to a longer broadcast format.
The stats on Youtube are also very promising. We have exceeded 750,000 subscribers, garnered over 300 million views, and aggregated more than 19 million hours of watch time. Our top viewers at this point come from the U.S. (17%), but we have quite a good mix of global audiences as well.
We definitely want AstroLOLogy to go through all the stages of the IP cycle. We are currently working on games and will be extending to licensing and merchandising in the near future. This was our very first experience diving into the world of IP creation and marketing. We took on several partners to help us, but we spearheaded a lot of the initiatives.
One of the most challenging parts of developing the IP was creating storylines for 288 episodes. They had to not only be funny but also relate to the characteristics of the particular star sign we wanted to highlight in each episode. We were approving at least one idea a day, and we managed to lock down the ideas and stories for all 288 episodes in less than a year. I am completely impressed with the team.
In the early development stages, we received funding from MDEC. While in full production we also received a partial reimbursement of production costs, which alleviated our burden. MDEC were also supportive in connecting us with the right partners, distributors, and broadcasters, which allowed us to focus on the art of creation and the actual production of the IP.
The fact that we live in a multicultural and diverse society in Malaysia gives us so many opportunities to tap into this melting pot for creativity. At the same time, we are privileged enough to be exposed to a variety of content from all over the world, be it Japanese manga, Marvel comics, Hong Kong comics, animation that comes from Hollywood, or many other things besides.
Being exposed to what the world has to offer has given us a global perspective on the things we create. This environment is the strength of the animation industry here in Malaysia.