“If you don’t have the money, don’t get into animation,” says Burhanuddin Radzi,
founder and managing director of perhaps, Malaysia’s most notable animation company Les’ Copaque Production - creator of the popular Upin & Ipin and Geng series.
Burhanuddin is forthright but far from being boastful.
Having went through the struggles of starting an animation studio from scratch at a time where an ecosystem to support the industry was still nascent, he experienced first hand the struggles to get Les Copaque to where it is today.
“If you depended on the government or grants, you won’t be able to survive. I was lucky because when I entered (the industry), I had lots of money. So, i wasn’t entirely dependant on others.”
I knew that if we want to go global, we must make it big locally first
Trained as an oil and gas engineer, Burhanuddin built a successful career in the corporate sector for many years, rising to become Partner and Managing Director of Dayang Enterprise. He, however, decided to take a break after the oil and gas service provider went public in 2002.
“I didn’t want to run a public-listed company,” says Burhanuddin, who resigned and three years later, received a substantial sum of money after selling off his shares in the company.
It was then Burhanuddin and his wife decided to venture into the film industry (‘She loves Hindustan movies’). But he knew next to nothing about movie-making, except that it was a tough business to be in.
“I saw a lot of problem in the film industry - artistes want a lot of money, some are undisciplined and often, budgets allocated tend to go down the drain.”
“Just so happened, in 2004, the government was trying to push animation as the next growth area; a lot of funds and incentive were being allocated to animation companies.”
“I thought - why not do animation! A lot of universities were offering animation (courses) but graduates did not have a place to work - many end up becoming salesmen.”
“It was a waste!,” says Burhanuddin, “So, my wife and I decided ‘Let’s do it’.”
Les' Copaque - What We Did Right Locally Before Going Global
Its flagship characters Upin & Ipin, featuring the adventures of eponymous five-year-old twin brothers in akampung setting has become Malaysia’s best local creative export since it was first introduced on television in 2007 as a six episode Ramadhan special.
Disney Channel Asia picked up the franchise in 2009, setting it on an pathway to international recognition. It particularly enjoys a strong following in Indonesia due to linguistic and cultural similarities with Malaysia.
The series has also been translated into multiple languages - Arabic, Mandarin, Turkish, and more recently Hindi; it started airing in India in May 2018.
In each episode, there must be a lesson learnt - and we put them in a subtle and entertaining way
Cementing the franchise’s success is its 2011 movie Geng: The Adventure Begins, which hit box office success; it was the highest-grossing local film for seven years since its air date - a rarity for an animated film.
“I knew that if we want to go global, we must make it big locally first,” says Burhanuddin.
“In Malaysia, the Malays make up the biggest television audience, and if you want to capture the market, you must target the parents.”
“They want something with a religious bearing, something they can watch together. That’s how we do it. While the content is intended for children, the parents love it too,” he says of Upin & Ipin’s, explaining how the characters first found a strong local audience.
That aside, he says viewers of varying age and background also find Upin & Ipin relatable because of its simple story line that is infused with good values - giving it a global appeal.
“It must portray our culture, it must have good moral values, we have to show unity - how (different races) live together. In each episode, there must be a lesson learnt - and we put them in a subtle and entertaining way,” says Burhanuddin.
Successful Strategies of Les' Copaque in the Creative Sector
The franchise’s popularity goes beyond the TV screens.
“We have a huge following on YouTube - about three billion people watch us,” Burhanuddin reveals.
He says Les Copaque earns close to USD180,000 monthly from YouTube viewership alone, with some videos getting over 100 million views.
Upin & Ipin also finds fans in unlikely places.
“On YouTube, most viewers come from Malaysia, Indonesia and then, the United States. If you narrow it down further by state - you’d be surprised - the most viewers come from Los Angeles and Texas.”
“Texas! - don’t underestimate kids,” he exclaims with a wide smile.
“A lot of TV stations don’t go to Cannes to buy products anymore. They just look at YouTube - which series have a lot of followers - that made it easier for us too,” says Burhanuddin.
While Les Copaque is in a stronger position now – having the luxury of being able to ‘pick and choose’ it’s distributors, the shrewd businessman says he had to learnt the difficult way (including getting into bad business deals) to not end up with the short end of the stick.
“A lot of people take the easy way. They go to Cannes and sell (the product) to a distributor. Then distributor will buy it for, say RM100,000 for a 40 country deal. I’m not going to do that.”
“Because what we have is a very good product. You have to be smart in doing things. So, you don’t sell the rights to a distributor. You enter (a new market) with the distributor and get a cut from it,” says Burhanuddin. “I do admit, it is a bit tricky to do it,” he contends.
Les’ Copaque has set new benchmarks in the local animation industry, winning multiple local and regional awards for Upin & Ipin, currently in its 12th season, the longest-running Malaysian animated series.
For Burhanuddin, his primary motivation has always been driven by a desire to inspire more local animation studios to dream big and make Malaysia proud.
On YouTube, most viewers come from Malaysia, Indonesia and then, the United States. If you narrow it down further by state - you’d be surprised - the most viewers come from Los Angeles and Texas
That is why, he says, no expense was spared in his third 3D animation film Upin & Ipin: Keris Siamang Tunggal.
The cinematic adventure, which took five years to make, is Burhanuddin’s biggest investment by far at RM20 million ringgit, including a RM3 million grant from Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).
“This film is 100 percent produced by our local talents,” says Burhanuddin with pride.
“It took about five years because we had to bring up our technical levels. We also had to remodel our characters,” adding that the production is on par with Hollywood standards.
Because of his engineering background, Burhanuddin approaches filmmaking is methodological - putting production structure, plan and control in place, before the creative process. “I’m basically building a factory,” he says.
“This time, I wanted to do something spectacular, to push the team to their limit. That is why we choose Keris Siamang Tunggal, because I want them to transform the keris (dagger) to something big, to have fighting scenes.”
Keris Siamang Tunggal, which hit the big screens this month, tells the tale of a mystical keris that opens up a portal into the heart of an ancient kingdom.
“We did a lot of research and development. Our colouring and rendering techniques are all at a different level now. So, our next film will not take five years - it could be in two years,” says Burhanuddin.
Burhanuddin says the the trilingual Keris Siamang Tunggal (Upin & Ipin communicates in Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mandarin) has secured screening in Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam.
He is also in the process of getting the movie into China and Taiwan. “Our local partner is pushing to distribute the movie in China with a company that also owns two-thirds of theatres in the U.S."
“In terms of readiness, we have completed English dubbing in Los Angeles for the international release.” His team - comprising about 200 employees (“Ninety-nine percent are locals”) also collaborated with an orchestra from Boston for the music scores.
“It was a blessing because the composer was also a Malaysian living in Boston. My staff and his team would Skype every week and along the way, they also learnt how to make music.”
Third Feature Film 'Upin & Ipin - Keris Siamang Tunggal' Costs RM20 Million, Five Years to Complete
Like every popular animated series, the studio has spin-off into money-making product licensing and merchandising spinoffs , offering products ranging from stationery and apparel to bags and toys. It even has a restaurant chain.
The next big venture for Les’ Copaque is a theme park - a dream that Burhanuddin has harboured for many years, but now a step closer to making it a reality.
“I’ve talked about wanting to build a theme park since 2014 but we couldn’t get a partner.”
“But now, I’ve got serious investor that is going to raise money from the US.” Burhanuddin says he has identified a vast piece of land near Klang Valley, and has met up with state officials to discuss building a ‘Upin & Ipin’ city.
“I am going to build an ‘Imagineering’ team,” he says, referring to Walt Disney’s research and development arm, responsible for the creation, design, and construction of Disney Theme parks and attractions worldwide.
I am going to build an ‘Imagineering’ team
“I have a friend who is good in building theme parks. I told him, lets form a company, bring in the young engineers and architects. We will also inject some of his people into the team as they have the experience.
Burhanuddin’s theme park dream is not confined to Malaysian shores; the Chinese government, he says, has expressed interest to have ‘Upin & Ipin’ in their backyard. “We will provide the design, but not run it. We will hold the royalty and maybe, some percentage of ticket sales.”
“My theme park will have a lot of interactive attractions. For that, I will hire another 300 content makers,” he says, adding that he expects to get the theme park venture up and running by the end of 2019.
“That’s my plan. It will all be done by locals - we can do it.”