Cartoon fest offers chance to look backThe Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF), the largest such festival in Asia, comes to the COEX convention center next Thursday. The six-day festival will feature exhibits and a film festival for the public, while in private executives will decide the fate of animated films and series.
Opening the film festival is a film from Luxembourg called “Renart the Fox,” directed by Thierry Schiel. The feature-length competition will include one Korean film, the cute 3D animated “Pororo to the Cookie Castle,” and four foreign films. Among them is “The Place Promised in Our Early Days,” the debut feature from Shinkai Makoto, whose contemplative pacing and gentle sentimentality have made him a rising star of independent animation in his native Japan. Another film in competition is “The District,” a frenetic Hungarian film about the power of oil that takes stabs at politics, religion and terrorism along the way. Its unique style was produced by drawing over photographs of real actors’ faces (a technique called rotoscoping) while drawing the characters’ bodies by hand. The film festival will include a host of other screenings, from retrospectives to student films.
The festival’s exhibition hall will honor the 60th anniversary of Korean independence with a look at the animation industry’s contribution to the national dialogue. Another exhibit will spotlight the works of the Korean cartoonist Lee Doo-ho, an artist and amateur historian who received the festival’s lifetime achievement award last year.
Reflected in the growth of SICAF is the tumultuous history of the Korean animation industry. When the first SICAF took place in 1995, Korean animation was standing on the edge of a period of explosive growth. “OEM animation” was the driving force behind the surge. OEM studios perform the grunt work of animation, everything after the conceptual work and storyboarding. Low costs allowed Korean studios to undercut the then-dominant Japanese. It was one year after winning an award at the first SICAF that DR Movie, now one of the world’s most advanced studios, opened its OEM branch.
The first major American series produced in Korea was “The Simpsons,” which was animated by Nelson Shin’s Akom Studios in 1989. Mr. Shin directed the North and South Korean co-production “Empress Chung,” which won last year’s SICAF Grand Prize.
Now, 10 years and seven SICAFs later, the industry has changed. Though “OEM animation” is still big business, Korean studios are increasingly underbid by foreign competitors looking to duplicate Korea’s success. Between 1997 and 2003, Korean revenues shrank by more than 50 percent.
Instead, Korean studios are increasingly creating projects that are completely Korean, such as “Empress Chung” and 2003’s “Wonderful Days,” the most expensive Korean animated film ever made at 13 billion won ($13 million). A major part of SICAF’s mandate is to encourage such productions.
Even today, though, Korean studios still enjoy advantages in production work. As Avi Melman, the head of the American studio Cybergraphix Animation, points out, “The Chinese studios specialize in the more cartoony productions. But when you go to Korea, they’ve latched onto the Japanese style. They’ve done such a good job that Japan gives them their contracts.”
What path the industry takes from here, and to what degree it will continue to involve production contracts or original animation, is still unknown, but one thing seems clear: SICAF will help it get there.
by Ben Applegate
SICAF 2005 runs from Aug. 11 to 16 at the COEX. Tickets for the exhibition and film screenings are 3,000 won to 5,000 won. For more information, visit www.sicaf.or.kr.