During a technologically simpler time, animation allowed filmmakers to establish breathtaking new worlds, erect majestic edifices, and convey the most intimate of human emotions. While animation has gradually been sidelined in favor of live-action media, it still offers up a steady stream of creativity that continues to engage viewers. The Granite Tower (GT) met with Executive Director Lee Seung Wook of Studio Mir, a renowned Korean animation studio, to learn how animators recreate the wonder of animation.
GT: What is an animator?
Lee: An animator in the common sense of the word refers to the key animator who is tasked with animating the movement and emotions of the characters and whose role is comparable to that of actors in film. Animation is essentially, like films and games, a form of entertainment that incorporates everything from acting and writing to special effects. There are, as such, many variegated forms of animators who each tend to a different area of animation. In this sense, animation is rather similar to film; much like how the term filmmaker collectively refers to the actors, director, writers and all others who contribute to film production, so does animator to everyone involved in the animating process, not just the artists.
GT: What would you say is the main quality of animation that sets it apart from other forms of art?
Lee: A quality that is exclusive to animation is its capacity for exaggeration in a natural way. Take the animation series JJanggu, for example; no child actor could ever hope to accurately portray JJanggu’s larger-than-life antics. Characters that appeal to all ages can most often be found in animation for precisely this reason, that animation contains exaggerated performances which would otherwise be impossible to translate to film. Likewise, fantastic and creative worlds, such as those found in Kung Fu Panda or Zootopia, can only be fully realized in animation.
▲ Key Animation from Studio Mir. Provided by The Legend of Korra (The Art of the Animated Series)
GT: What animations has Studio Mir produced?
Lee: Studio Mir has been producing animations for six years now, and so far we have three shows to our name, The Legend of Korra (2012-2014), Boondocks (2014), and Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-), with the third series currently in production. The studio has traditionally opted for complete hand-drawn animation, primarily due to the costly nature of CG (Computer Graphic) animation and the freedom of expression that is granted by hand-drawn animation, at least on a TV budget. With Voltron, however, we are striving toward a blend of the two.
GT: How do animators capture various movements and emotions?
Lee: As I mentioned before, key animators are essentially actors. Just like film actors who improve with rigorous practice, animators also get better at depicting character movements as they continue to push themselves to meet higher standards. Of course, similar to other vocations, a certain amount of natural talent is required to create smooth, flowing movements, especially with something as arduous as animation.
▲ Artwork from The Legend of Korra. Provided by pininterest.com
When it comes to the technical aspects of animating character movement, one thing to note is that most key animators come prepared with a mirror beside their drafting tables. Often, after analyzing their assigned characters’ psychology and emotional state, key animators look into their mirrors while emulating the characters’ mannerisms and emotions, using the reflection as a frame of reference when animating facial expressions. Some animators take this method even further, acting out certain scenes in front of a camera to get a better grasp of the characters they have been tasked with bringing to life. The natural expressions and movements present in animation are thus made possible through an endless process of research, trial and error.
GT: Is there a way through which animators can contribute to, or even enhance, the initial story?
Lee: Returning to the film analogy, you don’t see many films where the director, actor and writer are all the same person, right? The same goes for animation; the writing aspect and the artistic aspect are mostly completely separate. Key animators can, however, influence the story when they animate a particular character in an incredibly creative way and the writers decide that focusing on the character could enhance the final product. Producers of CG animation in particular appreciate the insight key animators can bring to the story, often choosing to begin production with a partially completed scenario and allowing the animators and their characters to fill in the blanks.
GT: In your opinion, what are some qualities an animator must have?
Lee: Personally, I highly value animators’ enthusiasm for animation. It takes a lot of time, anywhere from five to ten years to be exact, for hand-drawn animators to come into their own; professionals are seldom fostered as frequently as in other fields. So I would be hard-pressed not to say that passion and diligence are the most invaluable qualities that an animator can possess. It would be in bad taste for me to delve into the minutiae of an animator’s work ethic, though; after all, I’m a producer, not an animator.
▲ Executive Director Lee Seung Wook. Photographed by Kim Ji Won
GT: What is it like living as an animator in South Korea?
Lee: Working conditions for animators are not really favorable in any parts of the world, save for the United States (U.S.). One of the main reasons South Korean animators in particular languish under poor conditions is because of the lack of a proper animation market, which, in turn, encourages South Korean animators to look for work abroad. The sad truth behind their employment is that they are recruited abroad not for their superior skills as animators but for their relatively lower wages, which means that Korean animators are undervalued compared to foreign animators.
Studio Mir is attempting to rectify this situation by actively hosting U.S. animation producers and demonstrating that Korean animators are just as talented as their U.S. counterparts. Ultimately, I like to think that our production of great animation is a means toward affording Korean animators the time and money they deserve.