Critical point for animationIt’s been just about 30 years since Nelson Shin designed the light saber fight scene in “Star Wars.” It’s been about 20 years since he directed “The Transformers” animated movie and set up Akom Productions, one of the first Korean animation firms.
Now the 65-year-old Korean animation veteran is breaking new ground again. His feature-length animated film, “Empress Chung,” jointly created with North Korean animators, is opening next month in Korea but will first be shown at the Annecy Film Festival in France next week. The hand-drawn film required a budget just shy of 7 billion won ($6 million) and seven years of work, 10 years if you include the gestation period.
“The animation market is hard,” says Mr. Shin, who has won Emmys for his work.
It’s more than just hard. The Korean animation market is also at a critical juncture. From its princely position as the largest market in the world for contracting work, also known as OEM (original equipment manufacture) production, it has fallen to fourth.
But then again, what country wants to be famous only as a foreign contractor in the first place? The animation production industry takes skill and talent, but it also relies on a cheap price tag. So insiders such as Kim Jae-jung, director of the Seoul Animation Center, are hoping the pioneering artists, marketers and directors will now push the industry forward with original material.
Already the international market is taking notice. Both the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France and the Holland Animation Festival have a special focus on Korean animation this year. For Annecy, the Korea section includes seven entries, of which three are features. Mr. Shin’s “Empress Chung” is one of those three.
Mr. Shin’s reputation as an animator is sterling, but whether an international audience is ready to appreciate a classic Korean folk tale about filial piety is another question. “Empress Chung” is based on the story of a poor, blind father who finds out from a monk that donating 300 bags of rice to the temple will restore his sight.
To get the money for the rice, his only daughter sells herself to sailors who want a sacrifice to the sea gods in case of a storm. When a storm does hit, she jumps overboard and descends into an underwater kingdom.
Mr. Shin tweaks the story a bit for an international audience and adds characters that don’t exist in the original tale.
“I may be the director of ‘The Transformers’ and ‘My Little Pony,’ but they weren’t really mine. It wasn’t my story. I made ‘Empress Chung’ my story,” he said.
Whether his story will appeal to Koreans and non-Koreans remains to be seen, but Mr. Shin has never let uncertainty keep him from moving into new territory in his career.
He started drawing for a living as a political cartoonist for Seoul Daily in 1960. “My uncle was a carpenter and my family likes to create,” he says. “I have that blood in me.”
But the threatening phone calls ― “You’re bound to piss off people as a political cartoonist” ― became part of a weary routine.
“Since high school, being a cartoonist was my dream, but as an adult, I felt like I was going someplace strange,” he says.
He chose to go into animation even though “Snow White” was the only work he had seen. The problem was, the industry was non-existent in Korea. “Hong Gil Dong” was the first Korean animated feature, in 1967, but all prints of the film have since disappeared. Other animation was created sporadically.
So he left for the United States in 1971 with two pocket dictionaries ― Korean to English and English to Korean. He found employment with Animation House in San Francisco for educational films and TV specials, then with DePatie-Freleng Enterprises in Los Angeles, where he worked on more than a dozen animations, including “The Pink Panther” and “Bugs Bunny.” Marvel Productions employed him as a line producer in 1980, then promoted him to supervising producer.
The language barrier forced him to become sharp and to develop relationships with people who recognized his raw talent.
“Whenever I became frustrated because I couldn’t understand English, I used to throw a dictionary in the garbage, then later have to retrieve the dictionary,” he says. “After a while, there were some people there who’d try to communicate with me, then just hand me the garbage can.”
He returned to Korea in 1985 to establish Akom Production Company, which started working on “The Simpsons” in 1989.
When asked why he chose to return to Korea when he was one of the first Asian animators to find success in the United States, he says, “There’s a saying in Korea about wearing gold clothes and returning home. I wanted to return home in gold clothes.”
It was rough going at first, but patiently he built a successful company that helped boost the OEM market in Korea. He began commuting between Korea and the United States, reaping more projects for the Saturday morning children’s TV show in the United States.
Eventually, more than 200 firms specializing in OEM production opened in Korea. In 1994, a government report showed the animation contracting work was Korea’s top cultural product export. In 1997, the government established the Korean Culture and Contents Agency to oversee animation, comics, film, television, music and games.
But in 1997, Disney Channel bought the TV network ABC, and Warner bought KTLA. The entertainment companies monopolized the animation industry and stopped sending productions to Korea. The slowdown also coincided with Korea’s financial crisis, further squeezing the local animation industry. By then other Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam had begun taking in OEM work.
Most post-production is still done in Korea, and new projects, such as an animated version of the American cartoon “The Boondocks,” are still being sent here. But the competition is expected to catch up eventually.
However, Mr. Kim of the Seoul Animation Center says Korea’s animation industry will develop to a point where it will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Japan.
“The market in Japan for animation is much larger than the one in Korea, but Korea is producing animation with cutting-edge techniques,” he says. For example, two Korean films, “My Beautiful Girl, Mari” and “Wonderful Days,” drew praise for their 3D animation and computer graphics.
Korea is also becoming famous for online computer games, Mr. Kim says, and the animation techniques used in games are spilling over to feature and short animation.
Even though the industry is developing at a rapid rate, it’s still looking for its first big hit. “Wonderful Days” was shown in Korea for only two weeks when it opened in 2003. The movie, directed by Kim Moon-saeng, grossed $1.9 million but cost $11 million.
Critical success doesn’t guarantee profits, either. “My Beautiful Girl, Mari,” directed by Lee Sung-kang, won the best animation award at the 2003 Annecy film festival. It was touted as the Korean “Akira” for its beautiful renditions, but still did badly at the local box office, drawing only 110,000 viewers in 2002.
The problem is that films have the tendency to go over budget, lack an international marketer, plot and character development, says Mr. Kim.
“We haven’t had any financial successes, and all we need is one ‘Taegukgi’ or ‘Swiri’ to get the world to notice us,” says Mr. Kim.
So the pressure is on Mr. Shin and his peers at the Annecy festival ― which is showing “Wonderful Days” and “Hammerboy,” a feature by An Taekun ― to come up with the first animated blockbuster. Mr. Shin has made “Empress Chung” a truly homegrown film, enlisting the help of North Korean animators he met at Annecy years ago.
The past seven years, he’s been able to visit North Korea, where his family is from, more than a dozen times. Despite difficulties with communication, this time with North Koreans and not Americans, he has never questioned whether the project would work or not.
“I thought, ‘It has to work.’” And that belief is what has brought him this far.
by Joe Yong-hee