John A. Lent interviews one of the pioneers of Korean animation, who had a profound effect on the course of the nation's indigenous production
One of the well kept secrets of the animation world is the role played by South Korea, both in the production of foreign films and television shows and in the dynamic transformation of its sluggish domestic industry. In just 30 years, Korea has become the world's largest animation producer, its 80 to 100 studios churning out up to 1,000 works yearly for US, Canadian, Japanese, and European clients.
Even more impressive are the strides made to develop local cartoons, mostly since 1994. Discovering that 98% of all exportable visual products from Korea were animation, the government acted quickly to exploit this resource. In less than two years, it granted the industry manufacturing status, affording a 20% tax break; established an annual Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF), contests to encourage the creation of local cartoon characters and animation, and annual prizes for the best animation; promoted co-production efforts; spurred the creation of at least nine university and college training programs in animation and cartoon arts, and set in motion plans for a comics/animation museum and an animation town.
Some results of this activity include the production of at least a half dozen feature-length films, the establishment of a television cartoon network, the binding together of the desperate animators into a professional organization, and the publication of a quarterly animation journal.
Observing this phenomenal growth with more than a bit of nostalgia and wonderment has been the acknowledged father of Korean animation, Shin Dong Mun. Punctuating his reminisces with the question, "You ever hear such a miserable story of animation?," Shin delights in delights in telling how the industry grew from three people (himself, his wife, and his brother Shin Dong Woo) to thousands of employees, from one makeshift studio to about 100, and from hand-made equipment to computer technology.
Born in 1927, in what is now North Korea, Shin has lived a life of a movie script. His early interests in science and art were combined as he pursued the study of architecture, a subject which he soon realized was not to his liking. He dropped out of the university at the beginning of the Korean War, and during the ensuing conflict, was a prisoner of both the North Koreans and the Americans.
Shin broke into animation with no knowledge of the field, but armed with dogged determination. His first work was a commercial for a Korean rice wine company, completed at the time of the historical student uprisings in early 1960. For the next six years, Shin continued to produce animated commercials, until in 1966, he and a few friends embarked on making Korea's first full-length feature, Mong Gil Dong. Based on a comic book story by Shin's younger brother, Shin Dong Woo, Mong Gil Dong was an immediate success. The number of people who saw it in Seoul during the first two weeks totaled more than 200,000. Shin remembered police controlling traffic in front of the theaters, there being so many ticket holders.
Getting a film like this (70 to 80 minutes, more than 125,000 cels) into production took unimaginable patience and ingenuity. The problems seemed almost endless. For starters, there was the weather. The rainy season played havoc with cels, which stuck together and were damaged. Then there was the lack of training and expertise of the small staff, which necessitated repeating work; as Shin said, "We would make 10 minutes of animation, not like it, throw it away, and do it again and again until we got it right." Improvisation dominated production as Shin applied knowledge he picked up through his many hobbies, one of which is astronomy. He explained: "As for special effects, I taught myself. One of my many hobbies is astronomy. I applied techniques used by astronomers to get the double exposure effect. We improvised everything, even the way to get shadow effect through the concept of accumulation of light."
Finally, Shin and his crew faced the problem of obtaining equipment and supplies. "We had no color, no cels," he said, "and we could not import from Japan as there were restrictions." The result was that scavenging was added to Shin's many duties as an animator. When the US Air Force threw away expired wide film used in air surveillance, he was there to retrieve it. The film was erased with chemicals to make it transparent. When he could not obtain the use of the animation camera at the US Eighth Army base, Shin sent his cameraman there to measure the stand and then duplicate it. The two of them designed a hand-made camera.
Disappointments & Happy Times
Immediately after the release of Mong Gil Dong, Shin began work on a second feature, Moppee & Chadolbawee, a mixture of the fiction of Shin and his brother. The six-month production was shown in August 1967. Shin used lip synchronization in the cartoon, the know-how for which he gleamed fro his life-long interest in music.
Like so many of his works, Moppee & Chadolbawee cost Shin financially. "I made a financial failure and the movie production people were disappointed with me," he said. A devotee and imitator (down to wearing a beret) of Osamu Tezuka, Shin likes to point out that Japan's premier cartoonist also lost money on his animation. "Mine is a sad story," he said; "I lost big money as I don't have business ability. I'm suitable to be an artist, not a business tycoon like some of my juniors." Among the latter he referred to are Jung Wook and Nelson Shin, both of whom went on to head major studios after working with Shin in the 1960s.
From 1974-80, Shin headed Universal Art Company, which working as a subcontractor for both Japanese and American animation houses. The company went bankrupt, mainly because "my junior partner was a swindler," Shin said. Disenchanted, he quit Korean animation in what he described as the "epochal year of 1980." For three years, he traveled, first settling in Toronto for half a year, where he worked as a layout artist at Nelvana. After that, he became somewhat of a free spirit, journeying for two years from "Texas to Alaska." He painted landscapes, primarily of the 22 US national parks he visited; the works were sold to Korean Americans for traveling money and "some to send home to my wife."
Returning to Seoul, Shin was appointed honorary chairman of Dai Won Animation Company in 1983, where he helped with the feature, Dokko Tao (1983). That same year, Munwha Broadcasting Company commissioned Dai Won to produce a daily animation series for children. Dai Won's head, Jung Wook, one of Shin's assistants earlier, gave him the assignment to do independently under his Shin Dong Mun Production Company. Shin said this was his "happiest time," as he produced the series single-handedly ("I did not employ any assistants") until 1992.
Shin's last work in animation was making titles for Ninja Turtles in 1993. Paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur, he said that, like old soldiers, he is just fading away from animation. He spends his time now creating paintings and illustrations of musicians and listening to the more than 4,300 disks he has collected. "I don't want to do risky work like animation again," he said.
John A. Lent is on the faculty of Temple University, in Philadelphia. He is also the editor of Asian Cinema, the journal of the Asian Cinema Studies Society, which he also chairs.