Who doesn’t know Shrek? The green ogre’s hilarious and heart-tugging adventures with the talking Donkey and Princess Fiona have delighted children and families all over the world.
Unknown to many fans outside Hong Kong, however, Shrek is the creation of Raman Hui Shing-ngai, a Hong Kong-born computer animator who has given life to many other Hollywood hits including Antz, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and many more.
Hui says success didn’t come easy; he had to earn it bit by bit through years of hard work.
Hui grew up in the 1960s in a single-parent family, and he, along with his younger brothers and sisters, often had to help their mother with making plastic flowers to make ends meet.
Despite his excellent results in art, Hui failed to get accepted to sixth form. Instead, he completed a graphic design course at the Hong Kong Polytechnic (the former Hong Kong Polytechnic University) and worked at a local advertising firm.
While working, he fell in love with animation and pursued the art with remarkable passion.
“Animations at that time were all drawn by hand,” he recalls. “Once I hadn’t gone home for seven days and nights. I just kept drawing and drawing. My hand even bled as I had rubbed it too much against the paper.”
Realizing that prospects for a career in animation in Hong Kong would be limited, Hui took a computer animation course at Sheridan College in Canada in 1989. “I only brought along summer clothes because I thought I would only stay there for a few months and come back to Hong Kong after finishing the course.”
But three months abroad was such an eye-opening experience that Hui changed his mind and got a job at Pacific Data Images (PDI) in the United States.
“No one could understand me in the interview because my English was so bad. They employed me because they were moved by my works done overnight,” explains Hui.
His first five years in America was hard; he felt lonely and inferior. He could barely speak or understand English. “When my colleagues were telling jokes, I laughed only because everyone else did,” Hui recalls.
Hui eventually overcame the language barrier — but only after a terribly embarrassing incident.
“I was in the team for the storyboard of Antz. Everyone had to present their part in front of a crowd of 40 people from Hollywood.
“When it was my turn, my boss couldn’t understand a word I was saying and stopped me after the first two lines. I tried and failed again. I just stood there speechless. Finally I was ‘rescued’ by a colleague who helped explain the story.”
Instead of being teased, Hui was asked if he needed help with his English. Soon after that, he started getting weekly lessons paid by the company. Today, he is just as fluent as any native-born American.
“If that happened in Hong Kong, I would have been scolded or sent home,” says Hui.
Hui says there are some differences between Hong Kong and the US in terms of workplace culture. In America, for instance, one has to fight for what they want at work.
Previously, he was only assigned to do animated openers for TV programs, but one day he told his supervisor that he would like to do character design.
Surprisingly, his supervisor agreed right away, and told him that he should have brought it up earlier as they had just assumed that he didn’t like designing characters.
Having lived and worked in the US for over 20 years, Hui notes that people there make decisions based on facts and issues at hand.
“We will argue but we never make it personal. The company offers me chances not because I am or I am not a Chinese, but because of the fact that I am capable of doing the assignment and the company will benefit from it.”
“After Shrek, Kung Fu Panda was the next project the company was working on. I went to my supervisor and said I was interested. He asked why and I said because I am Chinese. This illustrates that the Americans do not care much about people’s background, race or sex.”
In 1995 PDI was acquired by DreamWorks, and Hui was recommended as the supervising animator and character designer for Antz.
In the meeting, Steven Spielberg was impressed as Hui introduced the main character, Z the worker ant. From then on, Hui’s reputation as a computer animator grew in Hollywood.
In 2001 Hui was appointed as the character designer and supervising animator of Shrek and he became the co-director for Shrek the Third in 2007.
Hui believes that a major factor for his success is the fact that he doesn’t easily give up. “When I am given a task, I will do my best to get it done and I won’t stop until I’m satisfied with my work. Many people see me as a workaholic.”
“I tell myself that if I screw it up, there won’t be a next time. In my first few years in the US, all I was doing were news opening animations, which I didn’t like but I had no choice. I had been preparing myself and waiting for a chance. When I got Antz, I knew I had to do it well so that my company would offer me one opportunity after another. And now they immediately think of me when new tricky projects come up.”
Hui advises Hong Kong youngsters not to be too engrossed in owning a property. “While I was working in Hong Kong, I had never thought of buying a flat. It was too far-fetched, and I only focused on what I liked to do.”
Hui believes high rents in Hong Kong are a hindrance to creativity.
“At DreamWorks, they create an environment that allows everyone to devote their energy to what they care for. In Hong Kong, people could barely afford the rent and cover other living costs. It is sad that Hong Kong people are rushing one task after another in order to earn more money.”
He hopes there will be more opportunities in the creative industries in Hong Kong.
He also says investors should be more understanding and patient for returns.
“Making an animation film is a long process. If everything goes smoothly, with a production crew of 200 people, it still takes around two to three years. One second of screen time is a day of work for an animator.”
Hui sympathizes with Hong Kong workers. “In the US, people will make sure the crew have enough time to work on. In Hong Kong, investors always want quick profit and keep pushing for a tighter schedule, so working overtime has become the norm.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly in July 2015 (Issue No. 460).
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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