‘Kai’ illustrates crisis in film animation industry

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‘Kai’ illustrates crisis in film animation industry

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The country’s animation industry is heavily focused on young children, leading to a narrow range of films and series. “Pororo the Little Penguin,” far left, and “Leafie, A Hen into the Wild,” (2011), center, have been popular among children, while “The King of Pigs” (2011) was made for those 19 and over. [JOONGANG ILBO]

When the Korean animated feature film “Kai” was screened for the press last week, producer Yeon Sang-ho stopped by the theater to discuss the current crisis facing the country’s film animation industry.

“The film animation industry is not good,” said Yeon, who is an animator as well as the director of the recent live-action hit “Train to Busan.”

“Lee Sung-gang [the director of ‘Kai’] made the film with about one fifth of the production costs compared to his previous films.”

“Kai” was reportedly made on a budget of 700 million won ($631,768).

The country’s film animation industry has been struggling for years, which led to a recent drought in animated features.

There were no Korean-made animated features in theaters in 2015 and 2014, the same years that films like “Inside Out” (2015) from Pixar and “Frozen” (2013) from Disney — which was released here a year late — took the country by storm.

“Kai” is the first major Korean animated feature since the moderately successful “Leafie, A Hen into the Wild” (2011).

Based on a children’s book of the same name, the film sold 2 million tickets.

Despite the hype around “Kai,” it hasn’t done well with critics, who have criticized the film for it’s unimaginative, plodding storyline and unimpressive visuals.

However, these failings are at least partially related to several long-standing issues in the country’s film animation industry.

Han Chang-wan, a professor in the cartoon and animation department at Sejong University, said the industry needs to return to square one and think about the importance of storytelling.

“Hollywood’s animated feature films do not only target children anymore,” Han said. “For example, the stories offered by ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Finding Dory’ are rather hard for young children to understand but they appeal to a wider audience, from preteens to adults.

“But Korean animators still make stories targeting only children — and then think the films will do well with a general audience. They live in a fantasy world. If animated features want to be competitive, they need to be written by screenwriters working in the live-action film industry because what matters most is storytelling.”

But that requires financial investment, which is proving to be another problem in the country’s animation industry writ large.

In many cases, the industry is heavily focused children between the ages of 2 and 5 because the sales of tie-in products can make up for losses often incurred from animated content.

One example is Iconix Entertainment, which is best known for the animated TV series “Pororo the Little Penguin” but also makes shows for audiences of all ages.

Even though it costs between 2 billion and 5 billion won to make a quality animated TV series or feature, broadcasters often refuse to pay more than 10 million won for the rights to show the content, which leads to losses, said Choi Jong-il, the CEO of Iconix, in an interview with SBS CNBC last year.

“We eventually have to make up for those investment losses by selling character-branded products such as toys and books,” he added.

“Because of this, animations for young children are preferred by production companies and investors.”

Choi Yu-jin, the director at the Korea Independent Animation Filmmakers Association, agreed with the CEO’s diagnosis of the problem.

“It’s always a matter of investment. Even after the success of ‘Leafie, A Hen into the Wild,’ investors are not still willing to spend money on animated feature films,” said Choi.

“But as a person who has been working at this association over the past 10 years, I would say the outlook for the country’s animation industry is not that gloomy, because we’ve seen a wide range of animated features including ‘The King of Pigs’ [directed by Yeon], ‘Green Days’ and the recent ‘Kai.’”

The first two films she mentioned were released in 2011.


BY SUNG SO-YOUNG [so@joongang.co.kr]






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