ANIMATION IN CHINA

ANIMATION IN CHINA

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Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote: “China's roughly 10,000 animation studios, employing 200,000 people, churned out 260,000 minutes of animation material in 2011---about a half-year's worth of continuous programming. Most of it will never be broadcast. With supply far exceeding demand, about nine in 10 animation companies are unprofitable, state media report, citing industry insiders. To get by, most studios rely on overseas outsourcing contracts and deals with toy manufacturers and other companies using cartoon figures for advertising. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, May, 22 2012]

Shanghai animation saw its heyday in the 1960s, before the anti-intellectual frenzy of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when artists and teachers were persecuted and a generation of urban teens was sent to work in the countryside. China now has 2,400 schools providing animation training. But generally China is not really doing enough to support homegrown animation, Liu says, especially smaller studios like hers, which employs about 200 people in Shanghai and another studio in the nearby city of Wuxi. "To shift from quantity to quality is now the biggest challenge for Chinese cartoon makers," she says. "There's also the problem of piracy. It doesn't do any good to have favorable policies if you don't protect the commercial strength of the producers."

The biggest Chinese-made cartoon hit was a sequel to the popular TV program and movie, "Pleasant Goat and the Big Big Wolf," a "Roadrunner"-like tale of clever lambs outwitting hapless wolves. A highly anticipated version of the classic "Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven" in 3D, turned out by a Shanghai state-run animation studio linked to giant Shanghai Media Group, took in only about 50 million yuan ($8 million).

Chinese firms buy the same technology as many American animation outfits, and a lot of postproduction work for U.S. animated films is already outsourced to China. But China is having trouble advancing to the next level. Jimmy Wang wrote in the New York Times, “China simply has too little experience catering to international audiences. While billions of dollars in government support for the industry has helped animation studios proliferate in China---to more than 10,000 last year, compared with only 120 in 2002---most still churn out low-quality cartoons for domestic distribution. The industry’s cautionary example is the animated film “Thru the Moebius Strip,” about a young boy who travels to a distant galaxy to rescue his father. China’s first feature-length animation in 3-D, the effort cost the Institute of Digital Media Technology, a Shenzhen-based animation company, $20 million to produce. But when it was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, international distributors showed no interest. “Moebius” flopped within China, too, taking in only $3 million domestically.” [Source: Jimmy Wang, New York Times, November 7, 2010]

"I think one of the biggest problems for Chinese animation is that we view animation as being just for kids," Sun Shaoyi, a professor of film and television at Shanghai University, told AP. Sun, who also teaches part time at the University of Southern California added, "We can see that it's not like that in the U.S. or some other countries." To boost the domestic cartoon industry, foreign cartoons are banned from prime time viewing slots and television stations are required to show seven domestic cartoons for every three foreign ones.

Homegrown Chinese Animation Companies

Beijing Crystal Film & Animation company is one of China’s largest animators. It produces feature films and video games and does outsourcing work for overseas animators. At work on any give day are 270 programmers who sit behind computers in a dimly lit open-plan office.

The cartoon's producer, Creative Power Entertaining LLC, based in southern China's Guangdong province, says it grossed 130 million yuan ($20.6 million). But Kungfu Panda 2 grossed 610 million yuan (nearly $100 million). [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, May, 22 2012]

There are also many, many small studios. Describing one,Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote: Chinese cartoonist Carol Liu Hong built her studio from scratch, doing post-production work for TV commercials and then, once she broke even, realizing her dream of creating cartoons for Chinese kids. Breaking into a market dominated by state media companies has been tough---even more so now that Kungfu Panda creator DreamWorks Animation SKG and other big cartoon giants are launching their own local studios in China.

Though big projects like Oriental DreamWorks may pose a challenge for smaller Chinese studios, Shanghai Cartoon is stronger thanks to its post-production business and sales of cartoon-related books, DVDs and toys, says Liu, who went back to school to hone her business skills with an MBA a few years ago. Her company has turned out about 10 cartoon movies, including "Kuaile Xinxin," or "Happy Sweetie," comic stories about a little girl aimed at 2- to 5-year-olds that won top prize for "excellent animation" from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television last year.

Despite the challenges, "We are in a good period," Liu says. "Every year, 20 million children are born here," she says. "Thanks to the one-child policy, each child tends to have six adults spending money on them, so the environment is very good."

Beijing Helps Homegrown Chinese Animation Companies

Many animation companies are getting help for their global ambitions with the same sort of government support that has propelled other Chinese industries like automobiles and clean energy. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television last year announced a policy to set up financing for and give tax breaks to movie, television and animation projects.

Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote: Liu has gotten some help. Seeking to nurture creative industries, the Shanghai government gave her studio, Shanghai Cartoon Communication Group, a choice location. But its success so far mainly stems from its ability to balance cartoon making with sales of related products, she says. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, May, 22 2012] Having drawn-in-China cartoons high on the national entertainment agenda also helps local creators: Prime time is reserved for domestic cartoons---no "Winnie the Pooh" or "Tom and Jerry" between 5-9 p.m. because China's culture czars want a say in the content shown to the country's 300 million under-14-year-olds. Also high on the agenda: breaking into a huge global industry. China has yet to strike that magic formula that draws audiences across borders and age groups. "China's cultural influence has not matched its economic growth and officials here want to spread Chinese culture abroad," said Sun Shaoyi, a professor of film and television at Shanghai University.

Chinese Animator Seeks a Global Role

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The Chinese animation and special effects company, Xing Xing Digital, provided special effects for the 2008 vampire movie “Twilight” and animation for a Warren Buffett cartoon series meant to teach financial basics to children. Jimmy Wang wrote in the New York Times, “If you have seen the eerily colored sky in fight scenes of “Twilight,” then you have already glimpsed Xing Xing’s postproduction work. Xing Xing, one among dozens of Chinese animation and computer special effects companies that serve as low-cost contractors to Western filmmakers, has also added effects to movies including “Changeling” and “Tropic Thunder”.” [Source: Jimmy Wang, New York Times, November 7, 2010]

“Now, though, Xing Xing (pronounced shing shing) wants to be more than an outsource supplier to the film industry, by developing original content for the international market. One of those efforts involves Mr. Buffett, who provides the voice for his cartoon counterpart in the English-language series “Secret Millionaires Club”, which runs on the AOL Kids Web site. The episodes are each a few minutes in length---enough time, say, for Mr. Buffett and his animated acolytes to impart the importance of location when setting up a lemonade stand.”

“Xing Xing already employs more than 300 computer graphics programmers, artists and producers in its Beijing headquarters, and an additional 30 employees in its branch in Anhui province. While Xing Xing co-produces each episode, A Squared Entertainment, an American company owned by a longtime animation executive, Andy Heyward, and his wife Amy Moynihan Heyward, handles the scripts and voice recordings in Los Angeles. A Squared also owns rights to the series outside China.”

The government of Jiangsu Province, in southern China, is one of the largest stakeholders in a $45 million fund that has helped Xing Xing convert a gutted steel mill in the city of Wuxi into a futuristic studio. It is the company’s third site in China, which Mr. Wang says will eventually house 200 employees. But despite its production deals and state backing, Xing Xing knows that global success is hardly assured.

That is why Xing Xing is among a handful of next-generation animation studios that operate their own training schools. The Xing Xing Digital University, which enrolls over 1,500 students and aims to recruit its best graduates, offers accredited two-year certificates for full-time students and academic credit for students from other universities. Even so, Xing Xing “can’t approach world-class Western animation companies in terms of employing top-notch programmers,” said Steven D. Katz, executive producer at Xing Xing. “Our biggest problem is know-how.”

Xing Xing Projects

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“The “Millionaires Club” is part of our strategy of investing in I.P. targeting children,” said Lifeng Wang, the 37-year-old president of Xing Xing, referring to intellectual property. “The danger of outsourcing effects is we get caught in a price war with other Chinese animation studios,” Mr. Wang said.

A Squared and Xing Xing have struck similar deals for two other animated AOL Kids Web series. “Gigi and the Green Team” features the supermodel Gisele Bundchen as a superhero fighting for the environment, and “Martha and Friends” has a 10-year old Martha Stewart running an event-planning company from a tree house.

“Gigi,” to which Ms. Bundchen has licensed rights but does not actively participate, started showing in Brazil last month, whereas “Martha,” to which Ms. Stewart has also licensed only rights to her character, is planned for a December premiere on AOL Kids.

Xing Xing is also collaborating with the National Wildlife Federation on “Wild Animal Baby Explorers,” an animated series introducing preschoolers to nature that has run on some public television stations in the United States.

Distribution within China presents its own challenges. Consider what steps ‘secret Millionaires Club” must take before it can be shown on television in China, for example. In addition to being dubbed in Mandarin, it must first be approved by the state radio, film and television administration, which censors content deemed politically sensitive.

But Mr. Wang, who hopes to begin showing the series here next year, anticipates the animated Mr. Buffett will have “no problem” getting past the censors to hundreds of millions of young Chinese. “Teaching the principles of making money,” he said, “is generally regarded as a healthy thing here.”

Dreams of Jinsha, New Chinese Animation

Dreams of Jinsha is a hand-drawn, feature-length animation by Chen Deming about a selfish boy Xiao Long, who in a dream, travels back in time to 3,500-years-ago ancient China. “In a place called Jinsha Kingdom, there is mysterious evil energy trying to destroy the kingdom, Xiao Long finds he has a natural super power and works together with Princess Jinsha and an elf to fight the dark energy and help Jinsha Kingdom to maintain peace. He also learns love and courage through the process,” explained writer and producer Su Xiaohong. “Nowadays there is only one child in one family in our society, the young generation tends to be selfish and self-centered, just like the leading character Xiao Long,” Going through fights against bad characters, he develops courage and learns to care for others we are trying to tell the young generation that love and courage is what we need.” [Source: Leng Mo, Global Times, July 7 2010]

Director Chen Deming. Told the Global Times, “he film is really 'made in China. “It took us five years and 80 million yuan ($11 million) to finish. Every single detail of the characters in every single cell is drawn by hand, hand-drawn pictures take more time and energy than computer-generated images, but we believe it looks more realistic and alive,” he said]

Apart from using hand-drawings for the film, the team decided to use a large number of traditional Chinese landscapes as backdrops. “We want the audience to see the film and know immediately it is a Chinese cartoon, not American, not Japanese.

Cartoon features “Pleasant Goat” and “Big Big Wolf” did weel at the box office during the spring festivals of 2009 and 2010, each earning around 100 million yuan ($14 million). They proved that cartoon movies can be successful and profitable.

Pleasant Goat and Government Involvement in Animation in China

Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In 2006, China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television banned any foreign cartoons from being broadcast on TV between 5 and 8 p.m. The ban was extended to 9 p.m. in 2008. Some believe this ban was a major factor in the success of the TV show "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf," China's most popular cartoon franchise, produced by Hong Kong-based Toon Express. [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2011]

"Children only have a short amount of time to watch TV because their parents are constantly pushing them to study," Yang said. "When every channel is playing 'Pleasant Goat,' of course it's going to do well."

"Pleasant Goat" moved from TV into film. The third "Pleasant Goat" movie was released in China in January and is the top-grossing Chinese-made animated feature ever at $22.7 million, according to EntGroup, a Beijing entertainment research and consulting company. But that's still far behind the Chinese box-office receipts for other types of movies, including dramas and comedies, both foreign and domestic.

China’s Attempts at Reasonably Big Animation Projects

Given the rather measly box-office returns for Chinese-made cartoons, investors have been unwilling to spend a lot of money on such projects. That in turn results in films with low production values that are unpopular with the public. (In contrast, live-action films have seen the opposite trend in recent years, with budgets breaking the $100-million mark and investment coming from both private and government entities.)

One example is "Xibaipo," the only other animated feature in theaters at the same time as "Kung Fu Panda 2," produced by DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. of Glendale. "Xibaipo," which is the name of a village outside of Beijing, tells the story of a group of children in the midst of the People's Liberation Army's final push on Beijing during the Chinese civil war. The animation style is reminiscent of Disney's "Pocahontas" rather than "Kung Fu Panda's" computer-generated feel.

"Xibaipo" took in only $100,000 at the box office and was pulled from theaters after less than three weeks, compared with "Panda's" $94.9-million box-office take as of early August. This may stem from "Xibaipo's" dull and propagandistic story rather than the quality and technical competence of the animation.

The $18-million "Legend of a Rabbit," which was made at a smaller animation facility in Tianjin, is China's most expensive animated feature to date. The movie, which arrived in theaters in July and took in $2.4 million in its first two weeks, centers on a hare because 2011 is the year of the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac; in all, a dozen films are planned over 12 years to celebrate each zodiac animal.

China’s New Animation Facility

Reporting from Tianjin, China, Benjamin Haas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Entering the campus of the largest animation production facility in China, visitors are greeted by life-size statues of Disney and Pixar characters: Belle dancing with the Beast, Mowgli and Baloo sitting on a tree trunk and Buzz and Woody in a classic buddy pose. But this isn't an overseas outpost of the American studios. Instead, these knockoff statues are meant to inspire a new generation of Chinese animators to make films that can compete with Hollywood blockbusters and classics such as "Beauty and the Beast," "The Jungle Book" and "Toy Story." [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2011]

The National Animation Industry Park formally opened in May 2011 and occupies roughly 250 acres at the Sino-Singaporean Tianjin Eco-City, 100 miles southeast of Beijing. It represents part of the Ministry of Culture's $695-million attempt to spur the national animation industry and make films that can compete on the international market. Although the facility is managed by the government, film studios from across China can rent space and equipment at subsidized rates---incentives intended to encourage more cartoon production. A company or government agency can even simply present an idea, and animators at the facility will take care of the rest---though of course the content is subject to censorship rules. A number of private companies are expected to establish satellite offices at the park.

The campus boasts the latest in animation technology from around the world, including the largest motion-capture studio in Asia and what it says is the fastest rendering software in the world. Still, it remains to be seen whether China can overcome what even the facility's managers describe as a bigger problem: a dearth of artistic creativity.

The animation park is clearly a priority for the central government, which included animation production in its current five-year national economic plan. Having rapidly increased its political and economic might globally, China is eager to boost its so-called soft power---its cultural appeal and influence---overseas.

Poor Storytelling and Lack of Originality in Chinese Animation

One major concern is that films produced at the Tianjin animation park ultimately will suffer from the same problems many live-action films have faced on the international market---mainly story lines that are too entrenched in Chinese culture to make them palatable to audiences abroad. Inside the Tianjin facility, large signs tout the technology on site, noting that the same equipment was used to make some of Hollywood's biggest animated films. (But even with the tools, a promotional video shown at the facility was jumpy and seemed unfinished.)

Chinese animation studios realize the dearth of originality and are trying to combat it by looking to box-office record holder "Avatar." "Chinese animators don't have their own thoughts," said Yang Ye, a business manager at an animation studio. "If you tell them to make something round, they'll make it round, but they won't ask, 'Why is this round?'" [Source: Benjamin Haas, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2011]

"A unique visual style and storytelling is a priority," said Jon Chiew, general manager of Crimson Forest Films, a Beijing company with an in-house animation studio that uses some of the same technology found at the Tianjin animation base. "We've adopted similar filmmaking techniques that were used in 'Avatar,' which allows for a more interesting visual style compared to prior locally made animated films."Massive government investment in creative sectors has had some disappointing results in the past and in some cases has even harmed it.

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A Pig's Tale Animation

In June 2012, 48-year-old Chen Xifeng won awards for debut work, Pig Sale, though he has worked in the animation industry for 26 years. Huang Yuli wrote in the China Daily, “The short animation Pig Sale won the open entries grand prize at the Tokyo Anime Award in March. The international award for unreleased animations was a first for China and producer Chen Xifeng. The 11-minute Pig Sale tells the story of a father taking his two sons to the market to sell a pig. It features Northwest China's geographical features and customs. It also won best animation at the China International Short Film Festival in May. [Source: Huang Yuli, China Daily, June 12, 2012]

Cheng’s company, Feng Animation, has processed dozens of popular works, including the Fullmetal Alchemist and Mushishi. Even so, he says, Pig Sale, which he originated and directed, is his first original work. Chen and his team started on the pig tale six years ago, after settling on a story by writer Jia Pingwa, commemorating his father. Part of the story tells of Jia's dad taking him and his brother to the market to sell a pig during a time of food shortages in the 1960s. The pig, however, evacuated its bowels and didn't weigh enough, so they failed to sell it. "This small anecdote attracted me," Chen says, with a loud laugh. They adapted the story into a cheerful animation demonstrating not only the inner worlds of the little boy and the pig but also the larger life of people in the Northwest at that time. As such, there is local music, such as Xintianyou and Qinqiang Opera.

Hou Tomoyuki, Chen's friend of 20 years and a Japanese animation producer, says the couple was "really tough". "They are really good animators. Even in Japan, there are not so many skilled talents like them. But I think they should create original work and work with Japanese companies, rather than outsourcing jobs," he says.

After the Tokyo award, Pig Sale received the Royal Reel Award from the Canada International Film Festival, the Golden Monkey Award from the China Cartoon and Animation Festival and best animation at the China International Short Film Festival. This gave Chen confidence, and since then he has closed his company's middle-phase processing business and decided to focus on original productions with a local flavor. He intends to do regular long animation films if he can get financing. Otherwise, he'll continue to produce shorts, possibly about Southwest China. "Though the road is not smooth, we're on the way," Chen says.

Making Pig Sale

Huang Yuli wrote in the China Daily, “Chen, his wife Zhang Minfang and art director Ren Congrong went to remote villages in northern Shaanxi province to learn about local customs and even stayed in caves with the locals. They shot tens of thousands of pictures and drew sketches. They drew more than 10,000 sketches of the pig before finalizing its image. [Source: Huang Yuli, China Daily, June 12, 2012]

"There was a storyteller in the Pig Sale. We discovered him when we went to a temple fair. We drew and recorded him singing and telling tales," Zhang says. "There's also a tramp singing folk songs. We met him in a village and then in another village about 100 km away. He sings very well." Zhang was in charge of the animation's roles and coloration. She met Chen in the first animated film they worked on in Shenzhen.

The 11-minute-long animation cost them more than 2 million yuan ($314,000) to make and filming was interrupted several times over the six-year period due to financial difficulties. "Each time there was not enough money, I would accept more outsourced processing work," Chen says. His company is located in a factory building in Futian district, Shenzhen, where he bought one floor that's 1,700 square meters. The company mainly does processing for Japanese and European animations.

Typically, Shenzhen companies do the so-called "middle-phase work" of coloring and setting background scenes for European and Japanese companies before post-production. This doesn't require so much creativity but does allow Chen and his company to earn quick money. "My company and others support their costly creation of originals using money gained from such work," Chen says.

The other reason Pig Sale took so long to make was Chen's team, though experienced as animators, had not produced original works, "which requires more brainwork and is a longer process, where you have to consider so many more things". "Many left the team when they found creating original work was so difficult and making money from processing is so easy," he says. In the end, more than 100 animators worked on Pig Sale. The film was finished in August 2011, after which Chen and Zhang asked friends to watch and comment on it. "We were very nervous," he says about the reaction. It wasn't until the Tokyo award that he felt vindicated about his approach to producing localized, original work.

American Animation Giants in China

Kungfu Panda creator DreamWorks Animation SKG and other big cartoon giants are launching their own local studios in China and forming partnerships with Chinese animation studios to gain access to Chinese financing and a government-controlled film market that is growing strongly at a time of weak ticket sales in the United States and Europe. In February 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the formal unveiling of plans by DreamWorks to build an animation studio in Shanghai in partnership with two Chinese state-owned media companies.

. Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote: DreamWorks' $330 million new venture with China Media Capital, state-run Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment---christened Oriental DreamWorks---will make animated and live action movies for the Chinese and world markets while developing related businesses such as products, interactive games and theme parks. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, May, 22 2012]

Disney said in April 2012 the third installment in its "Iron Man" franchise would be co-produced with Beijing-based DMG Entertainment. DMG co-produced the thriller "Looper," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt. It includes scenes filmed in Shanghai. Disney also has joined with Internet company Tencent Holdings Ltd. and the Ministry of Culture to develop the animation industry. Whether a big Chinese cartoon icon to match the likes of Mickey Mouse will emerge from such alliances is unclear. The obvious lure for foreign companies is China's fast growing, huge market.

DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg described it as a "historic alliance" that will produce animated and live action products "for China, by the Chinese, in China, at a quality that actually can be exported to the rest of the world." The recent slew of alliances between industry giants like DreamWorks and the Walt Disney Co., which is building a theme park in Shanghai, will bring in new technology and help improve local industry standards, says Liu, whose studio has worked on foreign projects for years. But such collaboration has its limits, she says, since cartoons that work in the U.S. might not go over well in China, especially among adults. "In some cases, the kids really like it, but TV stations say they are unacceptable," Liu says. While American schools and families might encourage children to think for themselves, "in China, it's all about obeying the teachers."

Joe McDonald of AP wrote: “China's communist leaders want to build a globally competitive film industry and hope their studios can learn from Hollywood partners. They are trying to attract foreign studios to form joint ventures by promising more market access and a bigger share of ticket sales. China has dozens of small, mostly anonymous companies that do animation work outsourced by foreign film studios and video game companies. Beijing wants to capture more of the profits by nurturing the growth of studios that can create their own popular characters and movie franchises. [Source: Joe McDonald, APm August 7, 2012]

DreamWorks to make 'Kung Fu Panda 3' in China

In August 2012, Joe McDonald of AP wrote: DreamWorks Animation and Chinese partners announced plans Tuesday to co-produce the next "Kung Fu Panda" movie and develop an entertainment district in Shanghai, expanding Hollywood's fast-growing ties to China. "Kung Fu Panda 3" will be produced in China and released in 2016, according to DreamWorks Animation SKG Ltd. and its state-owned local partners---China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment. They said the movie will be produced by a new joint venture, Shanghai Oriental DreamWorks Film & Television Technology Co. DreamWorks will own 45 percent of the company and the Chinese partners will hold stakes totaling 55 percent.[Source: Joe McDonald, AP. August 7, 2012]

Oriental DreamWorks plans to release one to three films per year and employ as many as 2,000 production professionals, the partners said. They said it aims to become the largest animation production base in China and also will explore opportunities in online games, musicals and consumer products. The planned entertainment district in Shanghai's Xuhui area, with investment of more than 20 billion yuan ($3.2 billion), will include cinemas, theaters, restaurants and tourist attractions and is due to open in 2016, the partners said. They said the project is modeled on London's West End and Broadway in New York City.

China Media Capital, whose owners include state-run China Development Bank, owns a controlling stake in News Corp.'s China television channels and other assets. Shanghai Media Group operates television and radio broadcasters. Shanghai Alliance Investment is an arm of the Shanghai government. Other studios including DreamWorks rival Walt Disney Co. have announced co-production deals in China and are adding Chinese elements to films to appeal to the growing local audience.

The "Kung Fu Panda" movies, about a bumbling panda named Po who becomes a martial arts hero, are hugely popular in China. They prompted debate about why a Hollywood studio was more successful than the country's own studios at creating a successful movie based on Chinese themes. "Kung Fu Panda 2," in which Po battles a peacock villain, raked in $665 million at the box office last year, although only $165 million of that was from U.S. moviegoers.

Image Sources: Black Cat, Asia Obscura; YouTube;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012


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