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Does China's answer to Pixar have what it takes?

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Until he got the call Han Lei was living the American dream: working one of the animation industry's most demanding jobs at Dreamworks' lighting department in Los Angeles.

After moving to Texas to study visualization science, Han began working at Dreamworks in 2004. He programmed light and life into the African savannah in Madagascar, the warty green epidermis of Shrek and the rippling pelt of Kung Fu Panda.

And then in 2013 Han got a call from Chinese tech billionaire Gary Wang - a man on a mission to produce world-class animation in China. Wang was recruiting for Light Chaser Animation, a studio he had just launched; Han accepted.

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"Gary wanted someone with experience in a major studio but from a Chinese background," Han said. "It feels like the early age of Pixar."

"Our goal is to make a high quality feature-length animation in China -- at least close to a Hollywood level of quality," he added.

Competition

Light Chaser's team is hungry to bring the industry to life and win an audience as young Chinese begin to view animation as more than children's television. However, unlike Pixar, Light Chaser faces competition from a host of multi-national rivals who dwarf their studio in size and experience.

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While U.S. box office sales are roughly stagnant – sales grew an average 2.7 percent over the past five years – in China they've grown over 30 percent annually for the past decade. According to a 2012 Ernst & Young report China's box office is on track to surpass America's by 2020.

American animation houses are catching on. Last year, Disney formed a joint venture with Shanghai new media giant BesTV, while Dreamworks formed Oriental Dreamworks with a consortium of Chinese investors, establishing equal footing in China's markets.

Upon announcing its China partnership, Disney executives highlighted China's technological innovation.

"Technology and innovation are key pillars of Disney's strategic vision," Stanley Cheung, executive vice president and managing director at Disney, said in a press release at the time. "The China digital landscape and industry is expanding and changing exponentially."

Homegrown talent

Each year more Chinese graduates with 3D and 2D paperless flash, hand-made and stop-motion animation skills enter China's animation industry. Light Chaser's staff, for instance, will grow to 150 artists by the beginning of June from 100 currently.

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"In 2002 there were only two animation programs [at universities] in China but now there are more than 600," said Wang Lei, vice dean of the School of Animation at the Communication University of China. "For this generation of animation students, since they grew up with computers, 3D animation is like second nature to them."

For several years China has produced more animation than any other country. However box office profits remain elusive. In 2013 the 29 China-made animation films released brought in just $103.7 million in China, according to the Chinese entertainment news portal, Entgroup. By comparison,Kung Fu Panda alone brought in $92 million in revenue from China in 2011.

Finding success

In an industry overflowing with cash, new technology and elaborate expertise, Light Chaser's success will ride as much on the very human skills of storytelling and imagination as on technological mastery.

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"I think the core challenge is creating characters that can evoke the audiences' emotions," said Wang. "With deeply imagined, relatable stories and characters, Chinese companies would have the basis for the kind of intellectual property necessary to win a following and sell the vast array of toys and products that are the lifeblood of the animation industry."

Recently a few local characters including Pleasant Goat and Boonie Bear gained enough traction to sell products and compete with foreign brands.

"If you go to the supermarkets and department stores in major Chinese cities you can see merchandise based on Chinese characters," Wang said. "Ten years ago you could only find Mickey and Doraemon. I believe the next decade will be very bright for the Chinese comic industry."

While Wang suggests audiences crave story lines that they can relate to, for the time being, Hollywood animation reigns supreme in Chinese theaters.

"Each month there is a new (local) animated feature in theaters and, each month, people don't go to see it," said Light Chaser's Han. "Why do people go to foreign films? I think people see these movies because the production quality is high and the storytelling is mature."

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