Empowering Cambodian Creatives – A Spotlight on ithinkasia

Building an Animation Industry

From the Western perspective, South East Asia is an exotic region of fragrant, spicy foods & intricate temples. Underneath the surface, it is also the unlikely hub of a blossoming animation industry, thanks to the inspiring work of ithinkasia, an animation studio based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Last year, we had the pleasure of chatting with Justin Stewart, ithinkasia’s CEO and founder, and Marie Cusick, Communications Director. We talked about how their previous NGO work led to ithinkasia, their ambitious plans to expand the company and Cambodian job opportunites, and the role of SyncSketch within their growing studio. To follow the conversation in detail, please have a listen to our 20min audio interview, at the bottom of this article!

Justin Stewart

 “Artists who are trained to tell stories can have a great social impact.”

Justin Stewart, Founder & CEO, ithinkasia

A Commercial Studio with a Socio-economic Model

While working for an NGO in Cambodia, contact with the nation’s younger generation made a deep impression on Australian ex-pats, Justin and his wife.

“When you were talking to these young kids in primary school about what they wanted to do when they got older – they really didn’t have any creative career choices. That was an eye opener for me.”

Seeing a chance to make a difference, in 2010 the family decided to relocate to Cambodia, leaving Perth and Justin’s prior post production house behind. His vision was to start a new world-class studio, one which would have a lasting socio-economic impact by cultivating the skills of Cambodian storytellers. Today, ithinkasia has begun co-producing features with studios around the globe and represents a key player in creative job opportunities for Cambodians. The team’s impressive array of work is being distributed both locally and internationally.

In Cambodia there are cultural expectations about the types of jobs appropriate for women and ithinkasia is actively recruiting and training women in animation to create a gender balance in this new industry

From the get-go, ithinkasia saw a chance to establish a gender-balance within this budding animation industry. Their staff is currently half women, and Justin aims to employ even more women than that, with the goal to make a big impact early on, and to redefine the traditional female roles in the work force.

When we asked Justin about his experience running a business in South East Asia, he explained that countries such as Cambodia, which are on the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries, often have no trade treaties or funding for the arts. For this reason, Justin believes any social enterprise needs to be commercially viable, which is why ithinkasia insists that the quality of their work is always up to international standards. Their ability to continuously produce high-quality work lies in the studio’s free training program. Developed in-house, ithinkasia’s training program teaches their staff the art of animation, starting from pencil and paper.
“We don’t teach software first, we teach fundamentals of animation. We watch a lot of content, we break it down. We go through every every step of the process so when our artists are doing cleanup work on a feature film, they have an understanding of the whole production process before they start.”

The studio recognizes the importance of fostering inspiration by playing to an individual’s skills, and allowing for variety in daily work. Justin told us, “A lot of the time, the work that is outsourced is the in-betweening or the animation side of it only – and that can be a bit repetitive for artists. So we really want to develop opportunities to work across different platforms and fields. We would like to let the artists pursue the thing they’re most passionate about.” 

Justin is planning to grow the studio’s impact, including the swift increase in staff through their train-to-employment program, expansion into the Cambodian provinces and other parts of South East Asia, and the hope to someday produce their own script-to-screen feature films.

SyncSketch as an online training platform

ithinkasia reached out to us in January 2017, and has since implemented SyncSketch as a powerful tool in their train-to-employment program. Although ithinkasia is currently based in Phnom Penh, the studio sees SyncSketch as a key player in making training accessible as they expand to the provinces, and even throughout South East Asia. With the help of Syncsketch, Justin told us, their in-house training program could be transformed in to an online learning platform, and he believes it will be a critical tool for ithinkasia’s international production work.

SyncSketch is an easy program to use. We can quickly annotate scenes and correct issues, which helps us to apply an internal first pass before sending files to studios for their approval process.

Students Learning Animation at ithinkasiaCambodian artists working on Funan, the New People after completing ithinkasia’s free training program

Helping creatives succeed

“It’s really incredible to see that kind of drive and enthusiasm from individuals, who just have this zest for drawing and art, and see that there is a career path in it.”

We were drawn to learn more about ithinkasia because we believe there’s a common thread at the heart of our missions. Both our companies were built out of passion and the thrill of seeing empowered creatives take their skills to the next level.

As you’ll hear in our interview below, both Marie and Justin speak about their work with contagious enthusiasm, and that resonates with us. We could not be more thrilled to be involved with ithinkasia and their vision to create a brighter future for Cambodian creatives, and to bring their stories to life.

Upcoming ithinkasia Projects

Keep your eyes out for these beautiful projects, realized with the help of ithinkasia’s talented team.

‘Funan, the New People’ – Directed by cambodian director Denis Do, Funan is ithinkasia’s first co-produced feature film – a tragic but beautiful drama that takes place during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Funan will premiere later this year (final date TBD) and is a joint effort between studios in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Cambodia.

‘The Khmer Smile’ – Still in its early inception, this film will be ithinkasia’s second co-produced feature film. Production is slated to be underway mid-2018.

‘Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ – Produced by Spanish studio ‘The Glow’ and Dutch studio ‘Submarine’, ithinkasia is providing clean up and color services on this feature film, which you should look for this year.

The Interview with Justin and Marie

You’ll hear both Justin and Marie’s enthusiasm in this 20min interview as they talk more about the studio, their fascinating back stories, and their hopes moving forward. We hope you’ll enjoy the conversation as much as we did.

Note: The connection & audio quality of our call was pretty spotty at times. We added captions to make it easier to follow.

We thank Justin and Marie for sharing these insights into the Cambodian Animation Industry and the role ithinkasia plays in it!

Updates since our interview: 
ithinkasia will officially be signing agreements with Cambodian educators that allow them to share their training curriculum and initiate accredited training in software. This will expand their training impact even further, and the Studio is excited to start a new intake of trainees for both 2D and 3D animation this year.

How can you support ithinkasia?

Please spread the word! Per Justin, “Least Developed Countries – or LDCs – really need help to initiate new industries, especially in IT and creative industries like animation. LDCs often do not have trade treaties or funding for the arts. Sharing our story, and the quality of our work, is what we need to secure more contracts and expand our training and impact. Without the work, we can’t create impact.”

Visit ithinkasia’s official website here: http://www.ithinkasia.com