Pioneering animation fusion with ‘Wanga-Manga’

During the 1920s, a young man created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character that quickly became a success for Universal Studios.

But when he asked the producer, Mintz, for more money, the producer insisted upon a 20 percent budget cut, reminding the young man that the studio owned the character. The young man disassociated himself from Oswald and moved on.

He was, of course, Walt Disney, and his next project was Mickey Mouse. Today, both Disney and Mickey are famous the world over, synonymous with animation and imagination.

Oswald will always be Mickey’s shadow, but for animator James Speck, he remains an inspiration.

“The irony is that [Mintz] did Disney an enormous favor. Yes, Mickey Mouse resulted from losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but the bigger lesson was that Disney never ever again trusted his business partners,” Speck says.

“He realized that they were all short-term thinkers, and that they underestimated his talents. Had Mintz given Disney what he wanted, Disney would have been tied to Mintz, a producer whose films are basically obscure.”

Speck has learned from Disney’s experience. Since he first became interested in animation at age 15, he has continued to hone his craft, always endeavoring to remain in creative control and own the rights to his own creations.

His projects include Hollywood films, international television productions, commercials, fine art exhibits and live motion capture performances.

Born in Michigan, but calling Arizona home, Speck first came to Jakarta in 1992, when a Montreal-based company, Softimage, sent him to ASEAN to develop their 3D software. He moved to Singapore shortly afterward, where he has remained.

There, he founded Cowboy Water Design in 1994, a company that aims to “continually push the boundaries of computer animation and exceed client expectations”.

His company’s unusual name and idiosyncratic logo (the rear view of a naked child in a large cowboy hat, peeing) were inspired by Speck’s earliest childhood memory.

“When you name something it should be really personal and it should have meaning for you,” he says. “My youngest memory was in South Bend, Indiana, four years old, in front of a mirror, going ‘Drink cowboy water’. It stuck in my head … It’s timeless, it’ll never go out of fashion. That little boy in the hat is me.”

Last Thursday, Speck was in Jakarta to present a talk on “Technology vs Creativity”, one of the highlights of the “Plaza Desain 2009: ‘Kinesis’” graphic design event organized by Bina Nusantara University, which took place from July 7 to 12.

Speck might not have found his Mickey Mouse yet, but he already has a host of creations under his belt, ranging from a perky blue-haired television host to a urinating chihuahua.

At the talk, Speck declared a new art movement, “Wanga-Manga” or “Wanga”, a fusion of Western art and Japanese manga.

Lili, a real-time virtual character that debuted in 1998, is arguably his most famous creation to date, as well his first realized example of Wanga, a figure displaying manga-style facial features and a Western-style body.

The Lili Show, on the MTV Asia Network channel, involved Lili interviewing pop stars such as Madonna, Bono and Coco Lee.

In 2000, The Lili Show won the Asian Television Award for Most Innovative Program. It remains one of the most highly rated Asian MTV shows of all time, attracting an audience of 1.2 billion at its peak. Lili, along with sidekick Bibi, appeared in Time magazine and on the CNN network and performed live at the MTV European Music awards. Both Lili and Bibi continue to represent a fashion line and appear at live music events.

“It was so far beyond what I could imagine success-wise: thousands of screaming fans in Taiwan for this character,” Speck says.

“That show opened up a lot of doors for me, but that was it. I thought, now the money’s just going to come rolling in … but then nothing… I own the rights to this character and have done a few things with it, but mainly, I’ve moved on.”

In 2004, Speck created Quu and Tee, a pair of Wanga-style characters designed to represent Animax Asia, a 24-hour Japanese anime channel.

Adding to his live motion performance work, in 2007 Speck developed five real-time virtual characters for the Woolworth’s Corporation in Australia, which over a period of five days performed live for an audience of 40,000 people at the convention center in Melbourne.

“Grown businessmen were suddenly talking and laughing and having a really good time, because of the crazy cartoon characters.”

In 2008, he created canine mascot Randy for Singaporean IPTV channel “Razor TV” ( The chihuahua’s most notable feature is his frequent urination.

“Why put a cartoon dog in a live set? Why put a cartoon dog in anything?” Speck says. “Because people love to be entertained. People like talking to cartoon dogs.”

Speck introduced two Woolworth characters — a laddish household cleaner and imperious washing powder box — and Randy to the seminar attendees, demonstrating real-time lip-synching technology.

The characters are controlled by a computer keyboard, a mouse and a microphone. Their rate was between 57 and 60 frames per second, which approaches Pixar or movie quality. Speck also included secondary motion, which enhances lifelike performances.

The seminar attendees responded to the characters, performed by Speck, with laughter and smiles, a response that Speck is used to, but never gets tired of. “People behave so interestingly when they talk to a cartoon character.”

His latest project is Tra the Tiger, a ukulele-playing, Wanga-style Sumatran tiger that dances with musical durians. He hopes to collaborate with the WWF and use Tra to promote environmentalism internationally in a fun, accessible way, through television, merchandising and licensing.

“Tra the Tiger will be a spokesperson for all animals and all different types of tigers. He’ll be talking and dancing and singing, with the ukulele,” he says.

“I don’t think there’s any other tiger that plays the ukulele. I’ll be the first one.”

While his other characters have usually been voiced by professional actors, Speck plans to voice Tra himself.

“I want to make him a tiger with a real attitude, like, ‘Dude, get your hands off my skin’.”

Speck hopes that Tra will eventually be able to interview high-profile conservationists such as Jane Goodall.

He plans to target palm oil plantations and large-scale companies such as Tiger Beer and Tiger Airlines for funding, as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs.

He hopes to convey through Tra that it is not a simple case of megacorporations being the bad guys and ruining the environment, and that these are issues that should be on everyone’s conscience.

“None of us are innocent. Palm oil is used in shampoo and foods … I probably used a product today, maybe it was in my soap,” he says.

“I found that Exxon Mobil spends US$10 million a year to save the tiger.”

Inspired by his treks around jungles in Sumatra, Speck decided to focus on saving the tiger, because he observed that their presence was linked to the condition of the environment.

“If you go and try to save a bird or snake or whatever, there’s no point if there’s no tiger. If you’ve got a tiger in a forest, that [place] is in really good shape. If there’s no tiger, everything goes downhill.”

He intends to remain in Asia, which he feels currently offers far more opportunities than the US, but hopes to leave Singapore soon, possibly for Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“Singapore may fund this project, but after that it’s going to be game over. They have their own animators now, I trained a lot of them … It’s time to wake up and do something different,” he says.

“I want long-term, I want sustainability… I hope I can retire with Tra the Tiger.”

James Speck can be contacted at Tra the Tiger is available to add as a friend on Facebook (search “Tra Tiger”).

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