My Trip To Korea

I just got back from Seoul, Korea, where I spoke at a conference called DICON 2009, a digital conference that was part of the International Creative Content Fair. I liked that this event had its own slogan, “Show the Spirit of Creative Content!” since I rarely attend events that have slogans these days. I don’t think the Ottawa Festival has a slogan. I can only imagine what it would be. (“Sit down, shut up, listen to Chris?”)

While at DICON, I gave a presentation on the elements of quality cartoons. I was happy they had asked about that particular topic since it’s a fun topic to talk about. No one in the US seems terribly interested in pondering this anymore. I guess we have it all figured out here.

The Korean animation industry is an interesting case study. After years of doing service work for the US, Canada and Europe, throughout the 2000s, the animation industry in Korea shifted its attention to creating cartoons. Schools added programs in animation, and beautiful, moody Korean short films began showing up in festivals worldwide. Within a matter of years, original Korean series began showing up on the air in Korea.

The Korean animation industry’s most recent focus has been how to sell these cartoons outside of Asia. It is hard to sell to the US, even for people who live here, I assured them. There’s not a lot of space on the air and there are a lot of shows out there.

The American animation industry has a long and interesting relationship with the Korean animation industry. Through the 1980s and 90s, a great deal of animation service work was sent to Korea. Most animation executives, creators and producers participated in a particular rite of passage, a trip to Korea to visit the production studios. Reeling from jet lag, you would then have the surreal experience of seeing hundreds of people you had never met sitting and drawing or painting various series you worked on. Actually, some would be working on your series, and the people next to them would be working on series for rival networks, which would make it even more surreal.

I was always impressed with the work of the studios we worked with, Rough Draft, Yeson, Sae Rom, and several others. I remember thinking over the years that it was just a matter of time before these animators and studios would want to create original content, shows in Korean that they could watch on the air. By the early 2000s, much of the Korean animation industry had jumped head first into the murky waters of intellectual property development, along with a great deal of help from the Korean government, by way of KOCCA, the Korea Creative Content Agency.

The focus on service work had come out of a long history of Korean manufacturing. Conversely, the desire to create and own intellectual property probably came more from the marketing and publishing areas of Korean business and the desire to own the rights to the series they are producing, as well as the honor of seeing these Korean series get sold internationally.

I have met several newer studios over the years, through pitches and visits, and I have always sensed that frustration you have when you first start out doing something and you want everyone to appreciate what you are doing right away. I got a sense that the Korean government was looking at the American and Japanese industries and wondering why after six or seven years, Korea’s animation industry hadn’t caught up yet.

I have taken a number a pitches from these Korean studios over the years and one thing has been consistent — the amazing artwork. They make CGI look effortless and almost each show I’ve seen features amazing artwork. Direction and design in the pilots I look at is always topnotch.

However, I have watched a number of pilots wondering whether I’d watched something with a plot or characters, or just a study in movement. I often feel the same way watching Japanese animation, and I’ve always chalked it up to the idea that the way Japanese animators tell stories is just different from the way we westerners tell stories. No problem, I’d think, every culture deserves to have a national film style. But the issues kick in when the Korean studios want to sell these series to the US, Canada and Europe. Some of their series that remind me of independent films, but then I see they are targeted to preschool or 6-8 audiences. I guess that’s why we were invited there to give our speeches.

There was a mix of speakers from the US at DICON: Max Howard, David Voss from Mattel, Christopher Skala of HIT, Josh Selig of Little Airplane, Brian Konietzko and Seung Hyun Oh of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a long list of other speakers from Asia and Europe. I did my session with Celine Chesnay from France Television. Kevin Rafferty, the well known feature film visual effects supervisor gave a keynote speech along with Rintaro (aka Shigeyuki Hayashi), the Japanese director of Galaxy Express 999 and Metropolis.

They didn’t just cover the film and television industries. Other sessions focused on mobile and internet content, social networking, co-productions, financing, and the music industry.

For my speech, I did walk through a long list of things you must do to make a cartoon a good cartoon. After my presentation, I received a number of smart and well-thought-out questions. The most direct was, “be honest, what do you think are the weaknesses of Korean animation?” I said what I’d been saying right along, “You create amazing artwork here and direction is always great. You need to focus on character and story.” A few of the studios pointed out they had hooked up with British writers. That’s a start, I suppose.

All in all, it was a fun trip. There was a store called Aniland right near the hotel, with Totoro right on the sign next to the store’s logo. I bought some great toys for my kids. The Korean aesthetic is all about extreme cuteness. Their toys and designs are even cuter than Japanese characters. That’s good news if you have a four-year-old daughter. I bought all the toys from vending machines that looked like gumball machines. We have a good collection of Tofu-head magnets now.

However, I slept no more than ten hours in three nights so I have been spending the week catching up on that all important sleep.


  • http://www.arielvillaverde.com Ariel

    Interesting post. Thanks Linda.

    One a side note, i’ve always been baffled by Korean(*and japans) extreme “cuteness” design esthetics also. I wonder where all that comes from or what the back-history is.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Nice to hear they’re getting better about it in Korea these days. Some of us anime fans are quite aware of the knock-off movies they used to do back in the day, what they really need to do to drum up encouragement is to perhaps get into co-productions with European or North American companies where they’ll create/develop the series alongside Western colleagues with the intentions of the show to be a success in and outside Korea, if only with that kind of support, we might start to see something fruitful come out of Korea that would only need to be dubbed into English if accepted here. ^_^

    Many of us can’t explain the cuteness factor present in Asian cartoons, it goes back to the eye deal where many east Asians tend to focus on the eyes rather than the mouth for emotional responses. It’s a cultural thing.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    I presume that Hollywood movies and TV series have been accessible to Korea for a long time. I wonder why those haven’t been more influential in story terms.

    I recall the South Korean monster movie “The Host” a few years ago was quite good. So it’s not like they are bereft of story talent.

    Maybe that was a rare oddity that happened to be interesting to western audiences? I wonder if their taste in western imports is quite different from what is well-regarded here?

    Maybe they have some weird Jerry-Lewis-is-a-god-in-France perspective that is hindering them.

  • http://www.mattmurrayanimation.com Matt

    I lived in Seoul for 2 years, and after seeing all the art and entertainment, I came to the same conclusion. Amazing artwork and direction, animators are phenomenal there, but the history and culture there are so different that us “westerners” can’t quite understand the stories the same as the Han gook Saram do. There are some new groups getting together to try new things there though, like the one named team Mesai that made this short film called “Alarm”(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN83DfmH9Tw). Still in this one you have to know a little about modern Korean culture to fully enjoy it. I’m excited to see what the future holds there.

  • http://www.animationinsider.net/ Aaron H. Bynum

    There’s a lot I love Korean animation; a knack for funny and functional character design, quality CG, and a sense of drama (which may or may not always be successful). The South Korean television and home video markets are chock full of dramas/novelas, which is likely to have had some longstanding effect on the nation’s other creative content industries in terms of structuring a meaningful story.

  • vzk

    Koreans have also worked on a lot of Japanese anime productions.

  • Wally

    There is one way to get a Korean studio to do a purely westernized story: send the key people over there for the duration of the production. By key people I do not mean executives. This worked at least once and “The Brave Little Toaster” feature was the fine result.

  • http://www.battlebears.com Benjamin Vu

    Thanks for the great report. The animation talent in Korea must be pretty awesome. The Korean animation students in my classes at CalArts were insanely talented. Six to seven years isn’t a long time for an industry to change their gears to creating original work. As with many cultural/industrial changes, it’ll take more than government subsidy programs, it’ll take some pioneers to make something different and inspire a new generation of artists that will take their industry to a new level. This is probably already happening in Korea and other countries which is a great thing.

  • Adrienne Jenkins

    I’m living in Korea right now, and I’m amazed that with the 2 cartoon channels I get on cable, it’s mostly filled with a handful of the same Japanese and American TV shows. I keep wondering when Korea is going to make some interesting animated TV shows and features. I lived here five years ago thinking they would have done all of that by now. Where else can you go to the bookstore and pick up a pegbar?

    My favorite Korean animation is the web cartoon series “There She Is”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NdVPTQkRaY

    I don’t know if I buy the Asian “Different way of telling stories” too much. All of the Korean live-action dramas that have become really popular still have a plot and characters that make sense, and don’t leave the viewer cold.

    Even the stuff that’s more “lyrical” gets away with thinner plot and characters by having charm and invention.

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    Thanks for the post, Linda! Very interesting to learn more about Korean animation. I’ve always had a similar reaction to Japanese animation: love the visuals, get a little lost by the story and certainly by the characters.

  • jordan reichek

    great stories, linda!

    i loved Korea when i was there. i think the artists as well as the culture are generally misunderstood. i do agree they should do what works for them and not try to replicate what they THINK the US buyers want.

    hey, did you make it to LOTTE WORLD? the best fake Disneyland since Japan’s NARA DREAMLAND! great bad stuff!

  • Chris Sobieniak

    > I’m living in Korea right now, and I’m amazed that with the 2 cartoon channels I get on cable, it’s mostly filled with a handful of the same Japanese and American TV shows. I keep wondering when Korea is going to make some interesting animated TV shows and features. I lived here five years ago thinking they would have done all of that by now. Where else can you go to the bookstore and pick up a pegbar?

    We need to see a band of cartoon fans there to gather together and put out a fan-made thing they could show at a con or festival, a la Daicon IV! That’ll show ‘em!

    Wally said something I however had also have to agree a bit on as well, though I also think another good example they could try is to adapt western literature into animation if they think they could adapt the tone and characterization just right to pull of a miracle. Of course I’m thinking back to the works of Nippon Animation when I say this. For those who heard the name firsthand, you may think it suggest nationality, but this studio as put out dozens and dozens of cartoons based on classic literature including the famous “World Masterpiece Theater” series of titles like “A Dog of Flanders”, “Anne of Green Gables”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Pollyanna”, “Lassie” and more. Perhaps Korea needs to lean towards that direction if only to get their feet off the ground on a more global storytelling structure.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Masterpiece_Theater

    Hmmm, I guess Lotte World is related to the famous candy company there (and in Japan). I’m famliar with their knockoff of Pocky! There’s an Asian food mart a mile from my house that tends to stock up on Korean goodies and offers videotape rentals (the usual bootleg-quality stuff), too bad though I asked for something animated and they never seem to have anything for me to check out (nor have they allowed me too).

  • Nightmare Is Near

    That’s awesome Linda. Wish I was there. I hope someday you return to work for CN.

  • Jackie Deegan
  • http://cartoonelectro.wordpress.com Novid

    Thank you for this post, Madam.

    Korea is in a bit of a crossroads. They have worked with the Japanese and American producers for nearly a quarter century. The only thing keeping them from having a break out hit and the flood gates opening is a smart business sense. They first got to put their folk on their TV networks. But I hear that Korea is a little bit more tougher with editing and censorship than others. That may hurt them – or not – but they still need that business sense.

    As for getting their shows here, thats a bigger fish to catch – your former employers are hungry again for more Entertainment properties. There’s going to be changes soon and some of it isnt going to work but using old school ideals in new ways might be the way to get these series here.

  • Adam

    Someone mentioned the There She Is! series of shorts, but failed to give a link to the creator’s website, where the five videos can be viewed properly, in higher quality than on youtube.

    So here is a link to the website of SamBakZa, the trio that created the set, and a couple of other shorts.

    http://www.sambakza.net/

  • Ale

    It’s 2009 now, another blah-blah conference the same as in the previous years. It is just talking and nothing more. Because:
    in the end there are no willing korean sponsors to put money into the production of any serious animation project.
    Why?
    Because there are no fanbase ( audience ) for what they are going to make if they would even start to do something.

    and what are they going to sponsor?
    Cartoons for children? They are already paid for making them for the rich western market.

    Cartoons for korean chidren only? No way, they will be bancrupt right away.

    Then, they just need to mix it all into something like anime. The genre evenly suitable for kids, teenagers and adults.

    That’s why I still read the animation news from Korea. I know that they are capable of as far as production is concerned. Plus they have potential audience of manhwa readers and on-line gamers.

    And now yet another obstacle arises: to be appealing to these groups means breaking local stereotypes both for animation and “moral safeguarding the youth”.
    Even children’s anime from Japan is a little bit censored in Korea. Role models for children ( and young people ) in Korea should, no, MUST be respectful, obedient and docile 100% all the way!

    Now imagine how this conservative society will react if young ( 13-25 yr ) audience will see something “rough” in their favourite “cartoon”.

  • http://www.kimeunice.com Eunice Kim

    I lived in Korea all most all my life as a US citizen, and all your points are very, VERY well taken.

    A lot of it has to do with the social mindset which is very different when contrasted to the “Western culture.”
    Seriously, I could write a book on this, so if you have your own personal questions, just shoot me an e-mail. ([email protected])

    PS- I know where Linda took that picture exactly in the COEX mall. YEa~~