Animation Director LeSean Thomas: “You Have To Anticipate Failure If You Intend To Innovate”

LeSean Thomas, the supervising director and creative producer of Adult Swim’s Black Dynamite, spoke at TEDxSinchon about his experience moving to Seoul to work in South Korea’s animation industry. There’s nice nuggets of hard-won experience throughout.


  • Toonio

    Very inspiring words.

    Being able to rise in the South Korean animation turf (as a foreigner) is very commendable of him.

  • Charles M.

    I’d first like to say I really enjoyed watching this video. I’m familiar with some of LeSean works as well as Kim’s. Watching this actually made me reflect on some of my own failures in the past that, unfortunately, still linger over me today. As a struggling artist, I should know that failure is to be expected but I find it difficult to accept. I get frustrated and easily burn myself out…Art, animation is the only thing I know.

    I’ve learned a great deal here and from many other sources. However, after watching this, I now have mixed feelings about outsourcing. Who does it truly benefit? Subjects like this I don’t have a particular interest in but I’m curious as to why main production is never done here in the states? Is it a matter of cost-effectiveness? Are there any solutions being negotiated?

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    • Mike

      This is probably a GROSS oversimplification, but largely it seems to boil down to cost: a production company farms out its animation and/or inbetweens to take advantage of the cheaper labor overseas, or to make a better-quality show for the budget given due to this cheaper labor. I’m sure someone else has more perspective on this in general and I’d love to know more also. As far as I know though, there aren’t really solutions being negotiated for this. It seems pretty black and white; either a major company outsources some or all of its animation, or (rarely) it produces it in the US. Though it’s nothing but a crazy pipe dream, I’d love to see budget allocations made by the government for animation; they could either support individual film-makers and experimental animation (a la the National Film Board of Canada), or support the in-house production of animation at production companies, like England is beginning to. Alas, the day that happens I’ll eat my hat.

      • http://www.oneblaze.com ned

        As we all know it is a factor of money. Also why would the government get involved in using taxpayers money to fun an animation, unfortunately that makes no sense.That is problem right now we depend too much on the government for solutions to our problems.Currently we have ways and means of making an animation but we simply never utilize them. Also businesses are about making money when you run a business you think about the cost factor first and foremost, it is a hard gamble but that is the cost of doing business. Plus animators over sea such as Korea are way more talented than us at animating unfortunately. their drive and determination is paramount compared to the work ethics here even if they are not payed at the rate that we here in the states expect to be payed.

    • Sarah J

      I think it’s a cost thing, apparently animation workers in Japan and South Korea don’t get a whole lot of money.

      • Pablo

        I think Japan is an entirely different country, compared to Korea in terms of animation. They do make their own animations mostly (though they outsource too). There, they make the whole product, in most cases. Korea has no market for animation, while Japan’s is bigger than the American.

        • http://www.oneblaze.com ned

          Just so you are aware Pablo Japan does do a majority of its work but most of its animation also come from japan, you need to read your facts. Where do you think studio ghibli, gonzo, production IG,studio 4degrees send their in-between work. Japan is a country much like any other that thinks about cost factors it is all a business model.People do not normally do anything and expect nothing. Korea’s animation sphere makes most of it’s money from Japan and the America’s and other countries that require their expertise.

      • wever

        There’s a reason for that. The wages for animators in Japanese is laughable to a United Statesman!

      • Daisy

        There is no way around it, if one studio doesn’t do it, their competitors will. A studio has to stay competitive to stay alive, outsourcing cuts production costs significantly. American companies have been doing this for years. It’s the same thing with animation studios, you realise they are in the end a studio is just a business. whether its animation, technology, service , etc. It’s the same thing, ideas are generated here in the U.S while they outsource the grunt work to other countries.

  • http://www.youtube.com/distrakt DISTRAKT

    To sum this lecture up in a nutshell nothing can replace passion and hard work. Congratulations Mr. Thomas! Compelling, so I had to go and listen to The Planet by Gang Starr.

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    Not to take away from Mr. Thomas’ success and happiness; Kudos for following your dream.

    There was a time animation even in its limited form for TV was a daunting task; all by hand, in camera etc. It was expensive to produce a syndicated series in North America.
    Even Rocky & Bullwinkle was animated in Mexico and Jay Ward even looked into Japan.

    I would bet taking into consideration inflation it has never been cheaper to create animation thanks to all aspects from the computer. Look at all the completed student works and independents. Even the worse home made flash animation from a dilettante would require personal hundreds of dollars pre home computing.

    Whereas before it was a daunting technical task, the task of animation COULD remain in North America; we have enough animators. Thing is now it just can be done CHEAP ENOUGH for corporations and producers to line further their pockets.

    Face it. The actual animation is a means to an end these days. A successful show is desired not just for cultural or entertainment, but primarily for merchandising. The object is to create 22 minute commercials if successful.

    Nothing is wrong with spin-off merchandising. Even Walt Disney the man did it. But he used revenue from that back into his projects. Today merchandising is the tail that wags the dog benefiting corporations.

    All that said, there was a time Asian studios were looked on as cheap= bad animation. Today, they have it down to a fine art and stuff like The Last Airbender looks breathlessly amazing. Too bad we in N.A. may have fallen behind in honing our skills for drawn TV animation.

  • jordan reichek

    really well said.

    i’d say if all that happened in only three years, he’s doing amazingly well.

    i felt the same way when i went there.

    hope he likes kimchi.

  • http://robertkohr.com Rob K.

    Really inspirational!

  • http://www.itsthecat.com Mark Kausler

    It’s interesting that LeSean Thomas said almost nothing about the actual working conditions in South Korea. I assume there are no animation workers’ unions there, so there are no restrictions on uncompensated overtime, who is paid piece rates as opposed to straight time, what are the actual working conditions, air-conditioning? food available? How much footage is expected weekly from the animators? How much of the TV animation in South Korea is still hand-drawn as opposed to Flash or Maya based? Inquiring minds seek knowledge!

  • http://www.leseanthomas.com LeSean Thomas

    Hey all, thanks for the interest in this 15 minute presentation and thanks to Amid for posting it.. It was an honor to be selected by TEDxTalks to speak about my experiences in South Korea, to South Korean free-thinkers IN South Korea. The Korean organizers from TEDx contacted me specifically and requested this presentation. it was approved by them. It was about using an experience of pushing yourself out of your box and failing. Using that experience to push forward. “Successful Failure” was the theme and it consisted of 11 speakers from all backgrounds. The discussion was about using failure as a method of growth, (something not popular in Korean culture), not to talk about the Korean animation industry, as I think that topic deserves much more than a 15 minute speech. Or, someone else can cover that when they make their in-depth presentation about the Korean animation industry :-). I’m simply sharing my experience as a method to inspire others. If you want to get a further glimpse into the actual working conditions of some of the top studios in Korea, please watch upcoming episodes of my Video Journal series entitled “Seoul Sessions” which is also posted here on Cartoonbrew ( http://www.cartoonbrew.com/animators/lesean-thomas-is-the-seoul-brother.html ). For more information on this event please visit the TED website at: http://www.ted.com/tedx/events/4471

    • davidbfain

      Thanks for sharing your journey, LeSean. Just finished watching episode 2 of Seoul Brother. Looking forward to episode 3.

  • Jerold Howard

    Thanks for posting this Amid! I’m a big fan of LeSean Thomas’ work and it’s interesting to see him talk about his journey. I can not imagine how difficult it would be to relocate, start a new job, AND learn Korean. His passion for his art is very inspirational.