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ithinkasia is using animation to empower and employ women in Cambodia

Tags: Animation Customer Story Education Film News Storytelling Harmony Storyboard Pro

March is Women's History Month. Unfortunately, animation doesn't exactly have a great track record with the fairer sex. As a group, women remain shockingly under-represented; according to Women in Animation, only 20 percent of creative roles in the industry are occupied by females. This has led to a 'chicken or egg' scenario where only 29 percent of children's cartoon characters are women. The bias runs deep, particularly for women of colour.

Yet one small studio is making a huge impact for women in Cambodia. Justin Stewart was profoundly affected by the poverty in the Kingdom while volunteering there. Inspired to make an enduring difference, the Aussie and his family moved to the country soon after. He brought with him 28 years experience in television and post-production, and launched ithinkasia in Phnom Penh in 2010. 

ithinkasia's work and mission have attracted global attention; the studio is currently co-producing its first international feature film Funan and has recruited Gobelins graduate and former DreamWorks animator Patrick Pujalte as its head of animation. Directed by Dennis Do, the piece is produced entirely in Toon Boom Storyboard Pro and Harmony

UPDATE: Funan follows the genocidal devastation of the Khmer Rouge's arrival in Cambodia and has been one of the 10 films in competition for the Cristal Awards at the 2018 Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

*The above is a trailer for "Funan, the New People".

Despite 90 percent of American animated television being produced in Asia, Cambodia sees very little of this work. ithinkasia hopes to change that and increase the country's creative output, talent base and economy by catalyzing a young generation of animators — especially women.

Besides producing premium content, Stewart's studio is also a social enterprise. It has a one-year train-into-employment program that is free to Cambodian youth hoping to get into the industry. By specifically recruiting a majority of female trainees, it aims to create gender equality in the nascent Cambodian animation market.

ithinkasia's founder Justin Stewart in the studio.

Toon Boom spoke to Justin Stewart about Funan, plus how ithinkasia is helping turn Cambodia into an animation destination and empowering women in the process.

Hi Justin. Can you tell us about the NGO work that brought your family to Cambodia?

My wife and I had volunteered in an area outside of the Phnom Penh called Stung Meanchey. There was a lot of poverty — it was very confronting. When I returned to Australia, building a business for personal gain seemed insignificant compared to what I had experienced in Cambodia. Within a month of being offered the NGO role, we left with three suitcases and our six-year-old son, and have been here now for seven years.

Did this experience inspire you to infuse sustainable social change into the core values of ithinkasia?

Absolutely. My experience in Stung Meanchey highlighted the need in Cambodia for developing creative industries that can provide greater employment opportunities and fuel social change. It became my personal and professional mission.

A female animator draws digitally at ithinkasia studio.

Can you elaborate on how ithinkasia empowers women through animation and training?

Gender equality is so important to our vision. In Cambodia, there are cultural expectations about the types of jobs appropriate for women. We'd like to help change that by aggressively recruiting and training females. Because animation is a relatively new industry in Cambodia, we have the opportunity to create an employment gender balance.

Would you describe ithinkasia as feminist?

I think any other expression runs the risk of diluting what is actually a very specific problem. So, yes!

What is the ratio of women to men in the office?

We're sitting at about 50 percent, with a staff of 31. The percentage we aim for in female trainee recruitment is much higher though. We want to start this industry in Cambodia with a blatant bias towards training women into employment in the arts. We feel that this will bring a gender balance to employment in animation here in the years to come.

Trainees working on computers at ithinkasia.

How many people are currently enrolled in your training program?

Our intake is currently set to 20 students, although we are hope to train much larger numbers. The program is ESL-sensitive and lessons are unit-based, focussing heavily on art technique and the principles of animation. It is initially pencil and paper-based, and trainees are literally taught to draw.

With studio profits bankrolling everything, and no funding support currently, we train into employment for free. We are in the process of applying for grants to expand, but will keep going regardless of funding success.

What value is there in training your students with Toon Boom?

Using Toon Boom, our trainees went from pencil and paper straight into a digital workflow on "Funan". Toon Boom is the industry leader in 2D animation software and a fundamental aspect of our training program. We transferred to PCs and Toon Boom at the start of production, and it's amazing how quickly they have picked up the software.

The ithinkasia team storyboards a scene in Funan, the New People.
Source: "Funan, the New People" Facebook page.

How is production on Funan going?

While this is certainly our biggest project to date, and our first as co-producers, it's running incredibly smoothly. We had a target of 1.3 seconds per day, per artist for clean-up and colour — and we are running at 2 seconds! I'm proud of our team and can't wait to see Cambodian names on the credit roll.

What's it like working on such an international production?

There are five studios in four countries working on Funan and I couldn't be happier. The director, art director and producer in France have set up an extremely efficient production pipeline. Toon Boom has also been utilized in such a comprehensive way that everything is very productive.

What creative muscles are ithinkasia flexing with Funan?

We want to show the global animation industry what we can do and the capacity for animation available in Cambodia. On Funan, we are doing clean up and line work, and colour with some animation sequences.

A still of a couple in Funan, the New People.
Source: ithinkasia studio.

What's next for ithinkasia in 2017?

Massive growth and expanded services. We're excited about taking our training to the provinces of Cambodia this year — that will be great fun! Training in 3D and VFX will also start soon.

We have signed a letter of intent to co-produce a second feature film, a tripartite production between France, Cambodia and Italy slated to start production mid-year. We are also in discussions for two more potential features and have started developing a children's TV series with friends in Ireland. We want Cambodia to be considered a world leader in animation, both for outsourcing and original content creation.

What is your ultimate goal for the studio?

We want to be a premium hub for outsourced animation services and original content development on a large scale. I believe we can also create huge impact by training young Cambodians into employment. Employment in animation offers the opportunity to impact developing countries — emerging markets need more social enterprises that affect positive change while maintaining commercial sensibility and viability.

What are you most proud of at ithinkasia thus far?

I'm very proud of our team and the work they are doing. We started the studio to train into employment and create opportunities for Cambodians, and we're doing it. That's what I'm most proud of.

Were you inspired by ithinkasia's story? How do you think the animation industry can be made more accessible to women? Let us know in the comments below!