From Bakshi and Disney to Riddick and beyond, the cutting-edge animator continues to do things his own way.
For almost three decades, Peter Chung has been carving out a unique place for himself in the field of animation. An artist with an instantly recognizable visual style, his work has ranged from storyboards and characters designs for television shows like Transformers, Rugrats, Phantom 2040 and Reign: The Conqueror to creating the MTV series Aeon Flux, writing and directing the short Matriculated for The Animatrix and directing the OVA The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury.
Chung's interest in animation began when he saw a screening of student films from CalArts at an animation festival when he was in high school. Soon he was making his own animated films in Super 8. "At that point," he says, "I knew that was what I wanted to do. CalArts was the only school that I applied to. I just knew that I was going to get in." He did, attending CalArts from 1979 to 1981, and that's also where we began our interview.
Craig J. Clark: What was it like for you when you got to CalArts?
Peter Chung: I applied to be in the character animation department and after my first year there my teachers suggested that I switch to experimental animation. They didn't seem to think that my style, my sensibility was what they were looking for. It's changed a lot since then, but at the time the department was run by ex-Disney artists, so they were very rigid about what they were looking for.
CJC: And the experimental side gave you more freedom?
PC: It did, but it was kind of like they didn't provide any useful instruction at all. I felt like after my second year I'd gotten everything I was going to get out of being at CalArts. I was eager to start working in the industry.
CJC: And one of your earliest jobs was on Ralph Bakshi's Fire and Ice. Was Bakshi one of your influences?
PC: Yeah, more so than Disney at the time. I was 20 years old and my interest in animation was making the kinds of films that I wanted to see at that age. For the most part that didn't mean Disney fairy tale-type movies. It was more like R-rated films like what Bakshi was making, and Fire and Ice was perfect for me because I was a big fan of [Frank] Frazetta as well. Frazetta at the time was a big influence on me. The chance to work with both of them was hard to resist.
CJC: So were you drawn to his kind of individualist vision?
PC: Yeah, what I liked about Bakshi was I felt his films came from a personality, an individual, whereas I felt Disney films -- as technically polished as they are -- just didn't seem like works of personal expression. They seemed to be products of tradition, and they are products of a group effort. I never got a sense of the personality behind them like I did with Ralph's work.
CJC: After that you did a lot of storyboard work and design work on various TV shows.
PC: Before I did that I actually got hired at Disney, funnily enough. I left Bakshi to go work at Disney for about two years. It's strange thinking back on it. It was a very vague kind of job where I came up with ideas that they would use or they wouldn't use. They did that a lot at the time at Disney. They would hire animators straight out of school and put them in development, hoping to see what they would come up with.
I worked on a live-action movie about Einstein, designing visual effects sequences, and after that I was asked to develop a feature film idea. I wrote an original story for a live-action film with computer-animated effects, kind of as a follow-up to Tron. At the time they had high hopes for Tron. When that wasn't a success, my project was canceled. Eventually, I got frustrated after two years of working on projects that didn't get produced.
So I decided to go and get as much experience as possible. I started doing storyboards for TV, Transformers, and then I did character design. I did a bit of everything. I did some animation, layout. I tried to get a lot of experience in a lot of different areas as a way of working my way towards becoming a director, which was what I wanted to do.
CJC: So by the time you were actually developing your own show, you had this array of skills. And obviously the process of putting a show like Aeon Flux together is not linear...
PC: My personal experience in this industry is a little unusual, I think, because when I was working on Transformers, a lot of the TV work was starting to be sent overseas and I actually enjoyed going overseas to work. Maybe it's because I'm Korean-American and a lot of the work was being sent to Korea. And seeing how they worked, and developing a lot of close relationships with Korean animators, I really saw the potential [for producing] a show with overseas studios in a way that allowed for more participation on the part of the Korean animators. I thought that an enormous amount of talent was not being tapped, not being allowed to contribute. I saw it on both sides. I saw it in terms of the American studios, that they were always feeling frustrated by having to work with people overseas, getting their instructions misinterpreted. And then on the Korean side I would see the animators being very, very frustrated by having everything dictated to them. Apart from the creative ideas behind Aeon Flux, I was also trying to work within that production system in a way that felt more organic.
CJC: When you're doing a show where you're creating a world from the ground up, where do you start that process? Do you start with the characters? Do you start with the writing?
PC: Since I've done a lot of character design work, I don't need to do a lot of drawing when I write a story because I can picture exactly what it's going to look like as I'm writing it. I always like to focus on the ideas and the script first. I make sure everything is nailed down in script form and I write very detailed scripts. Even the earliest Aeon Flux shorts, which didn't contain any dialogue, they were very detailed scripts. Every single little thing that happened was written out. I would eventually make changes when I went to storyboard, but at least it gave me a framework.
I've seen what happens when a lot of visual development gets done without a script. A lot of work gets wasted. I experienced a lot of that while working at Disney. Tons of great artwork was being thrown out because it didn't fit in with the story that they finally settled on.
CJC: So you're very much about getting all the details right so there's no wasted effort.
PC: I think about the end result. The process is not important to me. Maybe I'm a little unusual in this sense because most of the animators, most of the people in the industry that I know, they're so focused on the process and about enjoying the process, in a way you could say the result is just the pretext for them to be involved in a process. For me it's the other way. I really don't enjoy the process that much. It's all about the result, so I think about what the audience is going to take away from the final result when they finally see it. What that means in most cases to the general public is story and ideas and characters, more so than visuals.
A lot of artists tend to focus on the visual aspect of it, but in the end I think audiences care about that less or they take it for granted, and what they take away from it is what it's given them to think about or the feelings it left them with. So that's what I try to focus on, that's what I try to nail down from the very beginning. The visual elements are just a vehicle, a way of conveying those emotions and those ideas. It's really the ideas that drive everything.
CJC: How different is the process when you're adapting somebody else's work, say with The Animatrix or The Chronicles of Riddick? How much freedom do you have in those cases?
PC: Well, with The Animatrix, my part was something that I created. I wrote the story for that and all the characters were mine, even though it's based on a basic idea from the Matrix movie. They gave me a lot of freedom. It was funny; they prevented us from knowing anything about the sequels. All we had to work from was the first movie. With the Riddick project, it was a case of being given a script and being a director for hire, but I did make changes in the script. I cut out a lot of dialogue that I thought was unnecessary. That's a big part of the process for me, trying as much as possible to reduce the amount of dialogue and trying to convey what's going on with the characters through their actions and not what they're saying.
CJC: And you also worked on the character design for that. How does that work when you're dealing with characters that have already been cast for you?
PC: In a way it frees you up because you're not wasting time going down a lot of blind alleys trying to look for the characters because the characters are right there. So for the main characters it gave me a good head start. The hardest character to design on that project was the female villain. I must have spent weeks trying to design that character since it didn't have any live-action counterpart.
I'd worked on commercials where I was interpreting some known character like Cindy Crawford or Charles Barkley or somebody like that, so I'd had a lot of practice adapting a real person into animation.
CJC: Between Reign and The Animatrix, you did several years of commercial work. How satisfying is that on a professional level?
PC: Well, it gives you a chance to work with a lot of different styles. I enjoy commercials because it lets you work with a schedule and a budget that is much more generous than what I'm used to on TV. As a director, it forces you to focus on the essentials and cutting it down to communicating in the way that has the most impact in the shortest amount of time, and that's always a challenge. It's a good exercise. They're mostly 30-second spots, but usually the amount of animation in them is like 20 seconds or sometimes less.
CJC: Is there any one thing apart from money that is preventing you from doing the kinds of personal projects that you would prefer to do?
PC: Well, that's a tough question because, in a way, I'm not interested in making anything that's purely personal, like an independent festival film that only gets seen by a few people. I'm really interested in working to a mass audience and having my work function in a marketplace, yet remaining somehow personal. For me, that's the greatest challenge there is. I have no interest in working on a project I have no artistic investment in, either. That's probably kept me from being more prolific, actually. If I don't feel a personal connection or passion about what I'm doing, I just can't get motivated to do it. As I said, I don't enjoy the process, so it has to be something in the content that gets me motivated.
CJC: Can you tell us anything about what you've been working on recently?
PC: Well, I had been working on an animated Aeon Flux for a while because we were trying to revive that. For various reasons, we decided not to go ahead with that.
CJC: Was this before or after the live-action adaptation?
PC: It was during and after. Trying to redo Aeon Flux now, over ten years since the last time I worked on it, I realized that my own interests are very different. My own take on the character is very different from what it was originally. I almost get the feeling that trying to adapt the character to the ideas and themes that interest me now would require reinventing the character altogether and at that point why do Aeon Flux? Why not just create something else? So that's really the direction I want to go in.
One of the things that I'm working on now is an adaptation of Cyborg 009, which is a Japanese comic book character and an animation series from the '60s, which I grew up with. Japanese animation is very popular all over the world, so a lot of it is being adapted into animated features.
CJC: Is this one that you're adapting yourself?
PC: Yeah, I've written a story and redesigned the characters. It's funny, late last year I worked on the Astro Boy movie -- I did storyboards on that -- and I'm working on an adaptation of Wicked City. With a lot of those projects, I guess I end up getting involved because they were such a big source of inspiration for me. But those are adaptations. My original feature project, which has been planned for a while, I had kind of put on hold while working on Aeon Flux; but since Aeon Flux isn't happening right now, I'm going to get back to working on it. I can't really say very much about it.
CJC: I look forward to seeing it.
Craig J. Clark is an occasional contributor to AWN. He writes an online comic strip called Dada.
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