Friday, January 22, 2016

UNICEF partnership with Lao animator flourishes as pioneering early learning clay-mation series enters third season

Animator Souliya Phoumivong sets up a new scene in season 3 of “My Village”
Picture a small road sidling along the Mekong River just outside Vientiane. Thailand visible just across the water. On both sides line row after row of family homes with motorbikes and pick-up trucks clustered outside. Most offer some kind of homemade business opportunity – a shop, food stall, a mechanic. Behind one of the houses, tucked away almost out of sight, sits an unassuming building. The faintly turquoise, washed exterior walls, pretty potted plants and ordinary appearance disguise the hive of creative activity within. Meet the world’s most unlikely Claymation studio.

Inside, Lao animator Souliya Phoumivong and his team of four assistants – students from the Media Club he founded in the Laos National Institute of Fine Arts – painstakingly craft each episode of My Village, a children’s animation series that debuted in 2013 and was a first-of-its-kind in Lao PDR. Before My Village there were no TV shows for children in Laos.

An assistant from the Laos National Institute of Fine Arts captures a clay animation shot using state-of the art software 
Backed by UNICEF, with the support of the Lao Government, the show is aimed squarely at under 5s and embraces early childhood learning. It includes characters from different ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities and aims to expose children to taught skills such as literacy, numeracy and creative skills. Many children in Laos watch foreign television, often dominated by soap operas and martial arts shows. My Village aims to redress that balance, even in a small way, and offer an educational, informative and fun new world for Lao children to inhabit.

“The concept for My Village is study by learning.” Meet the show’s animator Souliya Phoumivong. “Because it’s a TV show and not a book it has to be fun and happy. We make the scenes as humourous as possible and with the clay that makes it special. It’s not only a video for schools, or just to be shown on TV, it will be on the internet and people will watch for themselves. We have to make them follow our work.”

Souliya’s background is in art but prompted by a restless creative drive he bought a camera hoping to incorporate it into his work in some way. Eager to broaden his experience he applied to a scheme offered by the Japanese embassy in Laos and was accepted onto a video art and animation course in Tokyo despite not having direct experience of the form. “They were interested in my proposal and they let me go” he says. Soon after Souliya was making the first stop motion animation by a Lao person. It was a steep learning curve. “The first animation that I made was a figure of myself with a buffalo – one boy and one buffalo. No studio. I used the city as the studio. I put the figures in the street, in the museums, in the train stations, in the restaurant, everywhere that I went. I communicated with people using hand gestures because a lot of the Japanese didn’t speak English – but they understood, they gave co-operation and I did it.” Little did he know but that pairing of the boy and his buffalo would become the basis for the first ever Lao children’s animation.

Some of the characters from 'My Village'
Soon after he returned to Laos UNICEF approached him about developing a TV programme for children. Shortly after that My Village was born. The first season was a steep learning curve, “Everything was new to me,” says Souliya. “At first I didn’t know how it worked so I ordered individually coloured clay and spent a lot of money. Then the clay melted because the weather is so hot. We had to make and remake the characters after every scene. Other times it was dirty from dust blowing in from the nearby road. When we worked during the first season air conditioning was on all the time. We also shot all the pictures first and then had to look at the pictures to match the voice after. It was a challenge. Now we record the voiceover first, then the shooting and make the clay follow the voice. It’s the professional international standard.”

As the show has progressed the production techniques have become more sophisticated. Now Souliya works with special clay imported directly from Japan or South Korea and uses advanced visual mapping software to avoid matching movements by eye and memory. As the show enters its third season, the cast of characters is growing too. “For the new season we have about twelve characters. New additions include a monk and a doctor. One episode talks about a temple and a hospital.” This is the immersive, colourful storytelling world that introduces children to an early learning environment rich in simple imagery and concepts, introducing new ideas and real-world awareness.

This is also the first season produced in Souliya’s brand new studio, “I’m just open for work here a few weeks. I’ve painted the walls blue and green but the colour can be changed any time and the whole wall can become the background, none of the tables are fixed, on every table you just have one main set. All moveable.” The new building also has an editing suite and is set back from the dusty main road. This and other technical improvements make producing the show a much smoother process.

Souliya works in the edit suite
Souliya explains how this new environment is quite a change from what came before, “You can see the quality change between the two studios. The work is not so hard now. I’m learning how to work easier. The first and second seasons were made in a small studio at the front of my house. I built it with my team. It was also built from clay!” But the clay walls weren’t enough to protect the My Village world from the punishing Lao heat and humidity. The clay melted and cracked. The dust from the road penetrated the studio environment.

As we talk Souliya's young son is running around the spacious new studio playfully prodding and poking his father and exploring the brightly coloured sets and characters under the hot stage lights. “My son is the same age as the project. Three-years old. He love Ban Koung Khoy (the show’s title in Lao). He can sing it and when he looks at the video he speaks along with the character. When the character speaks he speaks following them. The first time, I use My Village to help him learn about counting and singing and it worked, so now he wants to wants to be my real assistant. He’s checking out all my props!”

Souliya and friends!

Soon after the season aired something unexpected happened. “When season 1 and 2 were shown to the schools, I started to be asked if the children could come to visit the studios to learn. I was so happy. Now I get children under 12 and even some very small children coming here. Some come a couple of times, they ask for small workshops. I teach them how to do stop-motion, they can play with the computer and the material that I set-up. Do their own stop-motion by themselves in a very short time – just one hour. Just to learn and give them a taste. I thought, if I open this new studio, it’s not only for working it can be a learning environment.”

Souliya is philosophical about the project and his future direction, “My Village is not the same thing as my work. My work is video art so I do one figure with a concept, an idea and I can do it. But My Village is different. It’s for children. You have to imagine a beautiful world for children, to make them love the pictures”.

With thanks to donor H&M for funding the series via UNICEF Sweden.

Story by Barry Bracken, UNICEF Communication Officer
Photos by Barry Bracken & Tabongphet Phouthavong, UNICEF Communications Specialist

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