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Thru the Moebius Strip: A 3D Animated Coup for China
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Produced by Shenzhen-based computer graphics (CG) company, Institute of Digital Media Technology Ltd (IDMT), cartoon fans did get a sneak peek into Thru the Moebius Strip at the Second International Animation and Cartoon Festival that was held from April 27 to May 3 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. IDMT won two Golden Monkey Awards at the festival, one for Best Short Film and the other for Best Commercial & Educational Animation Advertisement. The second award was for a CG production composed of deleted Moebius scenes.

Moebius is based on a story by one of France's more eminent comics artists, Jean Giraud, whose pseudonym is Moebius. Giraud, who broke new ground in comic art in the 1970's with his magazine Métal Hurlant, the precursor to the American publication Heavy Metal, has worked on several blockbusters like Alien, The Abyss and The Fifth Element.

Moebius is the coming-of-age story of brave, resourceful 14-year-old Jac who refuses to accept the loss of his father. Powered by the sheer strength of his conviction, he reaches the Planet Raphicca 27.2 million light years away to find that his father is a prisoner in a kingdom of giant aliens who believe in magic and a medieval code of chivalry. In the midst of a raging battle between good and evil, Jac rescues his father, his new-found family of aliens, the planet of Raphicca, and ultimately, the Universe.

Producing Moebius required a process as fantastic as its storyline. IDMT recruited over 400 domestic and international cartoon professionals to put the movie together, including producer Frank Foster, former vice president for multimedia at Sony Pictures Imageworks, and director Glenn Chaika, who was an effects animator on The Little Mermaid and who directed Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, and modeling supervisor Wayne Kennedy, who played a part in the production of Star Wars, The Mummy and Men in Black. Mark Hamill, whose most famous role was as Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars trilogy, lent his voice to the production, playing Jac's father in the original version in English.

In an interview with on May 25, Ms Xu Ling, general manager of IDMT, said that the company owns the copyrights to the movie. Screening was originally scheduled for June, but Xu said that they didn't want to clash with the World Cup in Germany in June. She said that the world's biggest soccer event would surely draw many sports fans away from the cinemas.

As to why a China screening first, Xu explained that it was difficult to find a Hollywood distributor who didn't demand too much. According to Xu, the big Hollywood companies IDMT approached wouldn't buy the movie unless they were given carte blanche to decide what, where, when and how to distribute the movie. IDMT eventually decided to release the movie in China first, in the footsteps of other Chinese productions such as Hero and The Promise.

But Moebius' makers are aware that it isn't exactly what Chinese audiences are used to: it has a distinctly un-Chinese plot and is of the Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings genre, which of course got it the thumbs-up from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Why not a Chinese story to start with? Xu explained that it was a business decision.

"We are an independent company, and we have never done anything like this before," she said. "We had to consider the risks. Chinese stories don't sell well internationally. Plus, the domestic market is so small that we knew we needed a story that would work around the world. The story had to be global."

However, local elements were added to give it a little bit of a Chinese feel, a technique that Xu said IDMT picked up from Japanese anime guru Hayao Miyazaki.

Xu added: "We have learned something from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and were not willing to repeat its failure. But we see the gap between great storytellers and us. Everyone has his own point of view, so we will wait for audience's response after the movie is shown. Only then will we know if we've done it right."

Xu's comment hints at not all being completely right with the film. "Honestly speaking, I'm not quite satisfied with the movie because I thought we could have done better," Yan Kai, the project's leading storyboard artist and one of the pioneers of Chinese comics, told on May 30.
"But no matter what, the movie lives, walks and even starts running. Despite its many flaws, I think it is a victory. Can anyone not love his own child? I will be happy even though I am not satisfied."

Yan said that in the early stages of production, the main problem was a lack of guidance. The team had to feel its own way across. "When the foreign veterans and professionals praised our work, that was the proudest moment for me."

How Moebius will perform at the box-office is anybody's guess. The last successful animated feature was Lotus Lantern, which raked in nearly 20 million yuan (US$2.5 million) in 1999.

"If we make it this time," Xu said, "the success will guarantee a Chinese story for our next project." However, she also admitted that because a CG animation is very expensive to make they would like to explore new technologies, approaches and storylines, and make something they can afford.

Xu added that IDMT has ambitions of its own; they want to be more than just a production house and oversee every aspect of the process, including production, marketing, promotion and distribution.

Thru the Moebius Strip will hit screens nationwide on August 4. According to a May 18 IDMT press release, merchandise including toys, novels, comics, photo albums, accessories and computer games are also on the way.

( by staff reporter Zhang Rui, June 2, 2006)

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