One Cambodian studio is carving a new creative path for the Kingdom in the form of animation. Editor Marissa Carruthers finds out more. Photography by Corinne Tan.

Each of the students stares at the large TV screen, their eyes dart back and forth as they follow the rough black and white sketches of characters and scenery that flash across it.

While it’s Friday afternoon, the ithinkasia 2D animation class isn’t enjoying a lazy end to the week watching a movie.

Instead, they’re taking their first look at the animatics – the first draft of an animation where the storyboard, sound and music are pulled together – of French feature film, Funan the New People, which they are spending the next five months working on.

“I’m very excited about this. I always wanted to be an animator and loved drawing; it was my dream,” says Chhaeum Sothea, recalling rushing home from school to catch the 15 minutes of Japanese animation screened on TV every afternoon. “It was the best 15 minutes of my day.”

Soon the 24-year-old’s dreams were crushed when he realised there were no job opportunities in animation in Cambodia. He went on to pursue degrees in engineering then English before stumbling across ithinkasia’s animation training course in May last year.

Since then, Chhaeum and his classmates have been learning the technical and creative skills required to be world class animators competing in the international market as part of an intensive 18-month course, with potential employment at the end.

The aim is to pave the way for a new industry to flourish in the Kingdom.

“I see this as a potential industry for Cambodia,” says Justin Stewart, founder of ithinkasia. “A lot of animation from the West is outsourced to Asia, and a lot is bounced back because of lack of technique or quality.

“Our bars are held to the highest standards and we take every opportunity we get internationally because we want to push the industry.”

Having relocated to Cambodia in 2010 to head up an NGO with his wife, after a year Stewart, who started the full service production, post-production and animation studio in Australia in 2003, left the NGO to open ithinkasia’s doors in Phnom Penh.

“There are no creative choices here because Cambodians haven’t been exposed to creative working opportunities,” Stewart says. “I realised I had to use my experience in TV to create something from a business perspective to offer employment in these fields.”

With international work flying in and no Cambodians with the skills to carry it out, Stewart launched a training course with four students, which has successfully expanded each year.

A bonus is students are handed the chance to get paid experience, working on projects from renowned studios across the world, including Spain, Ireland and the US. Their impressive work is also earning Cambodia a reputation in animation.

Yin Sovanpitou spent one year training with the company in 2013 before being recruited as a fulltime animator. The lifelong Tom and Jerry fan was born an avid artist but was discouraged by his parents for the lack of money it makes.

“I thought about becoming a lawyer,” says Yin. “Then I saw this. When I showed my parents my work, they were so proud of me. Now they are very supportive.”

Last year, the training stepped up a gear with a class of 12 recruited and an 18-month curriculum written for 2D and eventually 3D animation, led by head of training Corinne Tan and head of animation Patrick Pujalte.

Starting from scratch the trainees have learnt skills such as sketching, drawing, perspective and character design.

Now they have landed the chance to put their new skills to the test and earn a wage after ithinkasia secured a five-month contract to co-produce Funan, which is slated for international release in 2018. They will complete 40 out of 80 minutes of the line and colour work.

It takes one day for an animator to create 1.3 seconds of film.

“This is fantastic,” says Peng Chhoun, who will work as a line cleaner on Funan, a true story that tells of the survival and struggle of a young mother during the Khmer Rouge to find her four-year-old son who is torn from his family. “When it is shown, I’m going to bring all my friends to the cinema to see it.”

Once that has ended, work will start on French family-action film, Khmer Smile – another huge coup for the studio. “It is incredible that a Cambodian studio is producing two internationally-acclaimed feature films,” says Stewart.

With work on Funan starting this month, a fresh batch of 20 students chomping at the bit to start training and co-production on Khmer Smile slated to begin later this year, the future for the industry in Cambodia looks bright.

“We don’t want to be a studio of 20; we want to be a studio of 200 and more,” says Stewart with confidence. “We want competition to come. We want Cambodia to be seen as an animation hub. We want to build the industry of animation in Cambodia upwards.”