Digerati50: The old-school heart of Malaysian animation
By Tan Jee Yee August 29, 2020
- Position Inspidea as go to 2D animation studio in Asia, putting Malaysia on the map
- Advice to entrepreneurs: Do things with great love & have clear focus as your guide
Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.
The following article is an expanded version of the print edition.
Had the wheels turned the other direction, the story of CJ See may have been a cautionary tale parents drilled into their children. Growing up, See’s head was filled with cartoons. Cartoon Network classics like The PowerPuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack remained so significant to an adult See that in 2002, he left a cushy job as a financial analyst to pull a Walt Disney. Inspidea (Inspiration + Idea) was born so that CJ could make the cartoons he loved.
18 years later, things had come full circle. The studio is part of a cross-country production on Cartoon Network called Monster Beach, where they handle the animation production. In a way, the 18-years of Inspidea’s existence seems to have prepared them for this. They’re no stranger to international productions – in 2011, one of their co-productions, Pet Squad, was nominated for a BAFTA award.
“Personally, I think we have a good team working together, and we are so lucky to have such strong collaboration spirit amongst our partners. That has oiled the engine well and make the production much easier. When there as a problem, we jump right onto a call, and solve it together,” he says.
Working internationally is what they do best, and something Inspidea very much loves. “Very often we can work with a very diverse team, both geographically and culturally. Our team learned a lot from working with the best creative and production people around the world. I reckon this is a very enriching process for a lot of us at Inspidea,” CJ states.
While they’re often tasked to develop cartoons for an international audience, they do get to work on the occasional content targeted at more regional demographics. “For example, we have developed AKIS for Nickelodeon Asia before. And we are always scouting for new ideas that will work regionally but at the same also has an international appeal,” he explains.
Much has changed for Inspidea in the last 18 years. The studio began with a modest four-person team. Only two founders remained now: Andrew Ooi, the managing director and the “right brain” of the organisation; and See, the “left brain”. The early years had been tough, but now the studio is among the top animation producers in the country.
In 2014, the team operated in a studio with a 19,000sq foot floor space. Today, they’re in a larger 35,000sq foot studio that can accommodate up to 420 people. The team has now grown to more than 300 people, and in 2019, Inspidea recorded a revenue of US$6.3 million (RM26 million).
[Para updated with 2019 revenue.]
“We have been putting a lot of time and energy over the last 6 years building capacity. Otherwise, we have been pretty much focused in what we love most and more importantly what we do best, which is 2D animation,” he says.
CJ is still very much old school at heart. Where most up-and-coming Malaysian studios dive straight into 3D animation, Inspidea has strictly remained in the 2D-realm. The decision started off as a creative choice, but is also now a business decision.
“It is a form of craft that many of us at Inspidea love and appreciate, and more importantly, we know how to do this very well. 2D animation will always be there regardless of all the bells and whistles of 3D animation. Those are distractions. We start with the love for 2D animation (our passion) and then turn that into a business decision. I believe that applies to other businesses as well,” he says.
One may say that going from a financial analyst into making cartoons may feel like a leap to rival any canyon-clearing daredevil stunt, but for CJ, it’s almost business as usual.
“Running an animation studio is just like running any other businesses. You need to have the creative team that understands the creatives, and the business team that understands sales, marketing, finance and operations,” he notes. “Being a financial analyst has helped me a lot in building a strong foundation in finance for the company. Those foundation has put Inspidea on the right financial track so far.”
Revenue grew on a compounded growth rate of 29% in 2014 (using 2011 as a base), and CJ says they still grew at a compounded growth rate of 21% in 2018. CJ adds that they would love to grow more over the next five years, but with the recent Covid-19 hit, they’re reassessing their position and would prefer to remain conservative.
“Maintaining the current business, strengthen the balance sheet and core operation is top in our priority list to weather the storm,” he notes.
After the storm, though, CJ intends to keep growing the studio. “We have achieved some successes thus far, but there is still some room for expansion. So in years to come, we will continue to plough our effort into expanding our market share. We will focus on what we do best: 2D animation,” he says.
It’s not just an expansion of business, but also creative ventures. CJ observes that cartoons have grown more diverse and cover wider demographics these days, and that the increasing number of distribution platforms means that cartoons will always remain relevant.
“Personally, I’d like to position Inspidea as the go to 2D animation studio in Asia, and putting Malaysia on the international animation map. We have been making a lot of cartoons for kids. In the near future, I would love to dabble our hands onto something more adult and as always we love comedy and all sort of content that will make people laugh. I think people would appreciate comedic content in times like this,” he says.
For an industry that is blooming in Malaysia, CJ has one piece of advice: start with passion. “Do things with great love, and have a clear focus. Inspidea is here today because of these attributes.”
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