Toon town on the drawing board

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Toon town on the drawing board

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CHUNCHEON, Gangwon ― “I hope this event will be a forum to produce a center of the Asian animation industry.”
“I hope Chuncheon will become a center of animation in Korea and will become a world-renowned animation city.”
So spoke Lee Geun-sil, chairman of the Chuncheon City Council, and Heo Cheon, national assemblyman, respectively, at the opening ceremony last week of the Chuncheon Anitown Festival.
With only one real local animation studio, it might still be a distant dream for Chuncheon, the provincial capital of Korea’s least-populated province, to become a “world-renowned animation city.” But dogged efforts by the head of that one studio, Park Heung-soo, have borne fruit ― and this was on display at the festival.
Gathered here were Mr. Park’s business partners, friends and invited guests, including fellow Korean animation mogul Nelson Shin and representatives from American, Chinese and Japanese studios.
Anitown is in its 10th year, marking a decade of promotion of the animation industry and the third year since the opening of the city’s 14.3 billion-won ($15-million) animation museum.
In that time Mr. Park (or, as his American associates refer to him, “Dr. Park”) has amassed several impressive accomplishments. In a time of steep decline in Korean animation production, Mr. Park’s Gangwon Information and Multimedia Corporation has snagged and completed production deals for major companies in Japan, Canada and the United States. The studio even produced a 3-D animated feature about a pirate pig, called “Mateo,” two years ago. GIMC has worked on such hit American kids’ shows as “He-Man,” “Justice League” and “Jackie Chan Adventures.”
But at the festival Mr. Park was clearly dissatisfied with the direction his industry is heading. The revenue of the Korean animation industry has been declining since 1997, Mr. Park said.
“To overcome this hardship we must work with all our efforts,” he read in a speech at the opening. “I hope we can cooperate more actively [with China], and I hope we can involve Japan as well.”
“Animation is very profitable,” Mr. Park said. “Nevertheless, we have been very lazy and have not made efforts in preempting the world market. I hope all of you will make more efforts so that we can start the long process of honing the animation of Asia.”
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Even the toast at the night’s dinner reception, at a posh European restaurant overlooking the Chuncheon nightscape, sounded a note of alarm. “United we stand, divided we fall,” Mr. Park declared, and demanded that the others in the room join in. Eventually, people caught on and started chanting it.
How to accomplish this turn-around? Mr. Park believes it can’t be done with OEM production work, in which Korean studios animate to the specifications of foreign producers. Korean original productions have to make their way onto foreign shores.
To that end, David Wiebe, the programming director at Kids’ WB!, the No. 1 Saturday morning cartoon block in the United States, was scheduled to spend much of his visit here taking pitches ― ideas for animated cartoons proposed by Korean artists.
As of now, there are no Korean shows on Kids’ WB! “There were some we heavily considered, but in the end it was a matter of the shows being heavily serialized, with not enough action,” he said.
“We see Korea as a huge market. All the series we develop ourselves get animated here. But [with a Korean show] you’re dealing with an entirely different tradition of storytelling and a different kind of hero.” However, Mr. Liebe said, “we’re optimistic.”
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On hand to testify to the possibilities of Korean-American coproductions was Larry Huber, a longtime animation producer currently working with the kids’ cable network Nickelodeon. He’s developing a pilot called “Mr. Dee and BitBoy,” created by two Korean artists and produced by GIMC, for the network’s “Oh Yeah! Cartoons” anthology series. Mr. Huber was also scheduled to give a lecture at the festival on how to pitch a cartoon to a network.
“Koreans need a little more assistance in developing Western story ideas,” said Mr. Huber. “They’re great artists and they have great concepts, they just don’t understand the American narrative process.”
Elvis Hong, director of business development at Hong Kong content importer Jess Media, agreed. “There are 6,000 years of history here, so [Koreans] breathe art. But narrative story sense is not a perfect fit.”
Enzo Kumase, the head of Mook Animation, a small Japanese production house, pulled fewer punches. “The problem is originality. It’s difficult, but without that you’re through.”
He suggested, however, that hope is ahead in Korea’s new generation of second-culture kids. Citing Peter Chung, the Korean-American who created “Aeon Flux,” as an example, Mr. Kumase said, “New talent will come to Korea. Korea has a special artistic place in Asia.”
But the festival wasn’t all business. Outside the animation museum, children gathered around actors dressed as popular cartoon characters such as Shin-chan (known as Janggu in Korea) and Garu, got their faces painted and participated in a few activities only peripherally related to animation ― glass blowing, for example.
Inside the museum, the only one of its kind in this country, was a diverse look at local and international art and animation, from a hunting mural on the walls of the Goguryeo dynasty Muyongchung tomb to “Toy Story” and the most modern digital techniques. Visitors could watch the complete video of such landmark films as “Gertie the Dinosaur”; “Steamboat Willie,” the first cartoon with sound; and “Flowers and Trees,” the first three-color commercial animated film. Kids without the patience for hundred-year-old artifacts diverted themselves with the many fun hands-on animation machines: zoetropes, thaumotropes, praxinoscopes, kaleidoscopes. A history of Korean animation traced stylistic development through the postwar era, and a special exhibit called “Artistic 15 Seconds” explained Korean animation for commercials.
Unfortunately, the museum is a long, 10,000-won-plus taxi ride from town, over three bridges, past rows and rows of produce and with no amenities save a cafeteria and combination general store and bait shop.
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It’s too perfect a microcosm for the obstacles on Chuncheon’s path toward the goal of “animation city.”
Isolated from more populous parts of Korea, with scant local industry and a small population, it’s hard to see Chuncheon becoming the next Burbank. But if his tenacity thus far is any indication, Mr. Park will keep building, one project at a time, one frame at a time.


by Ben Applegate
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