Watch Some of the Best Indie Animated Films in This Cyberpunk Virtual World

Like most events in 2020, this year’s Cartoons Underground festival has gone virtual. But unlike…

Like most events in 2020, this year’s Cartoons Underground festival has gone virtual. But unlike most events in 2020, the change actually makes it even cooler. After all, if one of Southeast Asia’s largest independent animation festivals — now on its ninth year — can’t make it work, who can?

Happening entirely online from Dec. 9 – 13, festival goers can explore a virtual world that looks like a dystopian neighborhood, with a chicken rice store, medicine shop, and an artist market. Viewers can watch animated films and behind the scenes footage from the productions, and catch live Q&As with directors and artists. There’s also a treasure hunt within the virtual world that reveals exclusive trailers and clips. 

“Our 360 world was inspired by a few things. Firstly from the current pandemic, that’s why there is a dystopian vibe. We also drew inspiration from Tokyo street lights and the idea of eating dim sum very late at night in Hong Kong,” Vicky Chen, co-founder of Cartoons Underground, told VICE.

Inside the dystopian land is another virtual world, accessible through a ‘secret’ portal above the chicken rice store. It features an animated version of the New Tiew neighborhood, a once thriving Singaporean estate that is now abandoned. 

Artist Xin Li spent a significant part of his childhood there, where his mom sold chicken rice and hor fun, and his aunt sold drinks at a coffee shop. At that time, many Singaporean men undergoing their mandatory National Service would drop by the area for a meal, before hopping on a bus back to the city center. In the virtual version, people can read up on the artist, a little history of Singapore’s neighborhoods, and the inspiration behind the artwork.

There’s also an animation competition that consists of 1,321 entries from 88 different countries. There’s a film about Taxi Uncles and one that looks like it was hand drawn with crayons. Seventeen works have been selected to compete for the festival’s Golden Durian Awards on the last day, which will name the Best Animation, Best Singaporean Student Animation, and Audience Choice, among other awards. 

Films on the lineup include Awkward by Nata Metlukh of the United States, which is about a day full of socially awkward moments, and the stop motion film Strange Occurrences: Bukit Balabu by Wong Shi Teng, Gloria Yeo, and Hana Lee.

On a live Zoom call on Thursday, Kyle Balda, best known for co-directing the films The Lorax and Minions, and Patrick Smith, director of the MTV classic Daria and co-founder of Cartoons Underground, will talk about Hollywood during the pandemic, how to have a sustainable income as a filmmaker, and the future of animation. Other Q&A sessions include one with the directors of films featured in this year’s festival, and another with directors part of the National Youth Film Awards animation showcase.

The best part? Tickets are free and available online. Instead of a fixed fee, festival goers can donate any amount, which will go towards future iterations of the event.  

With a team of only eight core members, Cartoons Underground wants to put Southeast Asian animation under the spotlight by showcasing works from the region and connecting budding animators with top studios. Chen said that some animators featured in past years have even gone on to work at Disney. 

“This is not even our full time job, for many of us behind Cartoons Underground, we just do this as a side hustle. And seeing how long we’ve been going and how big we’ve become is really quite crazy,” Chen said. “Last year, we sold almost a thousand tickets.”

Animation projects have been outsourced to Singapore since the early 2000s, but these artists are often unsung heroes, appearing as tiny letters in end credits and rarely getting rights to their works. The independent animation industry has been developing in recent years, with studios like  TinyIsland Productions, One Animation, and RobotPlayground championing Singapore animation, a style that focuses a lot on 3D work. Many of these films will be showcased in the festival.

“Our Ethos has never changed, we will always be a community-centric festival and we want everyone to be a part of it. Even if you are not an animator or an enthusiast, we always want people to come in, crash, grab a beer, and just enjoy a few good short films,” Chen said.  

Cartoons Underground begins at 8 p.m. (GMT +8) on Wednesday, Dec. 9 and will end at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13.

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