Choon Meng speaks a decade of growth & excellence for Scrawl Studios

By ANIMATION XPRES... | 29 September, 2011 - 13:25

Scrawl Studios founded in 2002 as a boutique studio in a small Chinatown office is now one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most established creative and animation houses with a staff strength of over 70 and growing.  Founded by a few like-minded individuals, the studio will complete 10 years next year. A decade of relationships with buyers, producers, distributors, broadcasters to build an iconic animation studio of international standing. Managing several projects at one time, maintaining the quality check of each IP, working seamlessly with multiple partners, networking and growing rapport with new clients clearly needs a lot of passion and hard work.

Animation Xpress Asia Pacific’s Amrita Valecha got the opportunity to speak to Choon Meng, CEO, Scrawl Studios. In this interview, he speaks about his experience of 10 years, benefits of attending international markets, co-production deals, MDA’s support and much more…


Scrawl is working on a number of projects. How do you manage with the quality check of each IP of yours? Could you give us a brief structure of your studio on how each property is managed?

We have a different supervisory and production management team set-up for each project. The key personnel in each team is drawn from a core pool within Scrawl who have experienced numerous project cycles with the company. There is thus a significant continuity in the values and expectations brought by the team leads into the respective projects, both in terms of consistency of quality as well as the standards of the output.

We also constantly benchmark the project, both during work-in-progress as well as the completed product, against other international properties so that sets the bar that our creative and production team aspires to. Each project is split into the production management team, which oversees schedules and budgets, as well as the production team which supervises the creative output, such as pre-production designs, model packs, and also the direction of the animation. The directors and supervisors are the creative gatekeepers who maintain a high level of quality control and ensures consistency across the various departments, from layouts, to production backgrounds, and key/in-between animation.

Next year, Scrawl will complete a decade. :) Could you tell us some of the major challenges that you have faced in the past  10 years?

It's clearly a major milestone, but in many regards, also a blink of an eye in building a truly iconic animation studio of international standing. I'm grateful for how far Scrawl has come along in the last decade, and also the support we've garnered from both broadcasters and some of the most established producers in the kids business. Over the years, we've had to grapple with some significant hurdles growing our company from a start-up boutique studio to our current scale. one of the major challenges is that Singapore is building the animation industry from the ground up at the same time that we're expanding our company, and this is especially true of the nascent talent pool that Singapore had at the point of our inception. Locally, I feel there has been no lack of creative talent, who are proficient technically and have the spark of innovation and originality. Coupled with exposure to international (though primarily US) media content that has honed their sensibility, these creative talents make for a very strong base of designers and IP creators, and indeed, even in our early years, many of our original creations such as Nanoboy met with extremely positive responses in terms of design and concept in worldwide platforms such as the MIP markets. There is, however, a discernible absence of a domestic talent pool experienced in animation, such as in the Philipines and South Korea. The total size of the talent pool is also markedly smaller than in many regional countries. There's been extraordinary efforts to train and groom talent in the last few years, and we've seen considerably breakthrough in the number of animators as well as their overall quality.

Another major challenge is the size of our domestic market, which does not allow for much local acquisitions and commissioning, especially for the higher-budget productions such as an animation series. As such, we've had to look for overseas markets early on.
The grants as well as project financing from the Media Development Authority has helped us with the initial entry internationally and gain sufficient foothold so we can build our traction in markets such as the US, Europe and Australia. These challenges have strengthened the foundation for our future growth by compelling us to build sustainable talent resources, as well as compete internationally.

There remain skeptics who doubt that Singapore have any real kind of animation industry, but I think, a decade on, Scrawl is demonstrating the viability of a Singapore-based globally export-driven animation and content business as well as validating MDA's wisdom is their continued support of this sector. This year, we grew our deal book some 35% over 2010 and is expecting to double our revenues in 2012, with more than 40% of sales already contracted. This is testament to the tenacity of Scrawl, but also I believe the fighting spirit of Singapore animation companies in general. Clearly, size is not a factor. As Nanoboy would say: "You're never too small to be a hero!"

Your views on a studios getting into co-productions deals worldwide, what advantages & disadvantages does a studio face. Could you explain this with giving a case study of your studio?

It's probably cliche now to say that co-productions are here to stay, but it remains a valid fact especially in the wake of continued turmoil in the global markets. I think studios will have to deal with the downsides of being in a co-production, and maximize the advantages that a synergistic partnership with bring, including: Pooling together specialised skills to create a truly formidable production team, accessing various sources of financing to greenlight productions, tapping into our respective markets to develop the commercial potential and reach of properties. It's also about finding the right partner, where there is mutual trust, respect, and genuine interest to work together. This is the guiding principle with Scrawl, where we spend many years (and MIP markets) speaking with each other, assessing our respective strengths, and also getting to know the key players in the other party, before coming together to explore projects and financing models that could work, and probably also the reason why we're finding success with our current partnerships with SLR Productions (GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU) and CyberGroup Studios (ZOU).

How many co-productions has Scrawl studios gotten into? What are the current projects that you are working on?

We've completed 4 co-production projects before, and are in the midst of 2 current ones which are with SLR Productions and CyberGroup Studios.

Scrawl has been attending a lot of international markets worldwide. How important is it for an animation studio to attend markets like these?

I think it's essential for regular contact with buyers, and also to get acquainted with the new products being launched so we have a better idea the trends the markets are following, and to use that as a basis for our new developments.

How did you go about making good rapport with networks like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, YTV, ABC, Discovery Kids and partners with Agogo Entertainment, Beyond International, Cookie Jar Entertainment, DECODE Entertainment and more...

We maintain regular contact with the key decision makers and buyers by making it a point to attend trade shows (both MIPs, KidScreen, ATF are a must, plus a host of other industry events) to get some extra "face-time" with the broadcasters. With a doubt, the consistency of quality, and delivering on promises, such as production schedules, go a long way to keep the relationship strong.

When you started your own studio, what was the business strategy of the studio? Outsourcing or Ips?

We started with commissions from the local broadcaster as well as advertising agencies, MNCs, government bodies to produce animation content but moved into IP creation in 2005/2006 with support from the MDA. Our strategy now is to grow the company as a creative/production hub and become the leading IP-based kids content business.

Your views on the MDA's initiatives to grow the digital media industry in Singapore?

I think they were very bold, forward-looking moves to grow a fledgling media ecosystem here, well ahead of other similar measures we see being adopted by other Asian governments. I think it has been effective in putting Singapore on the world map, accelerated the growth and international standing of local media companies, and nurtured a growing pool of talent. The MDA will without a doubt continue to evolve as the industry here matures in order to stay relevant, given the dynamic nature of the business, and I'm confident it is a transition that MDA will manage well to benefit more local firms and talent.

How big is the team at Scrawl studios?

We have about 40 in our core team, and a further 50 - 60 project-based staff located in our offices in Singapore and Suzhou, China. There are a good number of experienced animators in Singapore, and the various polytechnics continue to graduate around 200 - 250 every year.

 What is the kind of research you do before commencing any project?

We research on the subject matter of the property, especially if there are specific educational points. For example, we did extensive reading-up on microbiology and even micro-physics before developing the scripts for Nanoboy, since each episode centres on one scientific fact which we then extrapolate into a full story. The same goes for a show about 3 extinct animals that aims to teach kids about biodiversity. In terms of market research, we typically analyse the products and trends in the marketplace as well as forecast areas of future demands for kids content. We also
conduct extensive market testing through bibles and pitches at all the major tradeshows with select buyers, and also seek market validation (such as an anchor broadcast pre-sale) before moving ahead with production financing and greenlight.

 Could you tell us about your L&M business?

It's an area that we're just getting into, but certainly one that will be increasingly important for our business as the size of our IP catalogue grows. So far we have licensed one of our properties, Milly Molly, for a line of apparel products that were launched in SM Mall in the Philippines, and also worked with a gifts & novelty producer/retailer on exclusive merchandising based on quirky Chinese horoscope designs and a series of web shorts.

How do you manage work between your Singapore & China facility?

The creative supervision, planning and production management is done in Singapore. Some of the animation is done in China.

 What is your studio's future plan?

Our goal for the next 3 years is to grow the size of our IP catalogue, expand our presence in international distribution, and also increase our revenues through licensing and merchandising, especially in key markets such as US, Europe, China and Southeast Asia. We will continue to create IP with the aim of developing characters and stories that will be enjoyed and loved by kids around the world.