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‘KKUM:’ How Kangmin Kim Created His Oscar-Qualified Short with an $80 Micro-Budget

Seoul-born, Los Angeles-based independent stop-motion filmmaker employs Styrofoam and cinematic lighting to create a moving and intimate tribute to his mother.

KKUM, which translates to “dream” in Korean, is the most recent short film from Seoul-born, Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker Kangmin Kim. The black-and-white stop-motion short has been making the rounds at film festivals worldwide, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival, where it earned the distinction of becoming just the third project to win both the Grand Prize and Public Prize in the Oscar-qualifying festival’s 44-year history. Screening as an official selection at the Fantasia, Fantoche, and Sweaty Eyeballs festivals, among others, KKUM has also received the award for Best Independent Film at Stop Motion Montreal and the Grand Prize at the Korea Independent Animation Film Festival.

The nine-minute animated short, which was produced by Los Angeles stop-motion animation studio Open the Portal and Kim’s Studio Zazac, employs Styrofoam puppets and sets for what Kim calls his most personal film to date. An intimate and moving tribute to his mother for her love and protection, KKUM is broken into four chapters to tell the story of her prophetic dreams. “My mother’s dreams have always been strong premonitions for important moments in my life,” Kim states. “I rely on her dreams more than any religion.”

Taking about two months to complete, the self-financed film was made possible with Kim’s ongoing collaboration with Open the Portal, where he has produced a number of commercial projects in addition to his three previous personal films, 38-39°C (2011), Deer Flower (2015) and JEOM (2017).

“Financing is the most difficult thing for me because I could not find money for short filmmaking. It frustrates me,” Kim comments. “But Open The Portal supported all the facilities, tools and equipment. It is one of the biggest reasons I could make short films,” he adds. “I spent my own money from my pocket. This is why I tried to make a short film with a tiny budget in a short time. I usually make films between jobs and it allows me maximum two months for production. So my budget for the KKUM was $80,” he details, acknowledging that without support from Open the Portal the budget would have been much more expensive.

The collaboration was born at the CalArts Experimental Animation program, from which Kim holds both a BFA and MFA, and where he first met Open the Portal founder David Braun. “I have been working with them for a lot of commercials,” Kim explains. “And we are all filmmakers and creators who really want to create our own contents. So I shared my ideas with them and they support facilities, tools, equipment. Also Barrett Slagle, the other founder of Open the Portal, creates sound and music for all of my films. And Jason Milov, producer at Open the Portal, helps me with festivals, promotion.”

Kim chose to employ Styrofoam for KKUM not only because it was inexpensive and plentiful, but also because of its distinctive structure and the way it could be lit. “My budget was too tiny,” he says. “So I had to find cheap materials that were effective when we saw it through a camera. And the materials should have unique qualities that can put different characters into film. And I thought foam, foam core, and Styrofoam are the perfect materials. I put a lot of effort into revealing the beautiful texture of the materials with lighting. And it is also one of the reasons I made this film with black-and-white because we can see the texture more clearly.”

Working with Styrofoam also allowed Kim to use a single puppet for all the characters, switching out the heads as needed. He also made a second puppet of the mother’s upper torso for close-up sequences. All in all, Kim created 29 different settings using the same props and puppets. Working five hours daily, he aimed to finish at least two shots each day.

“There is another important reason why I choose Styrofoam,” Kim adds. “I had to find out what is the best and beautiful material to show my body growing. And I thought melting Styrofoam can convey what I want. I know the melting is very dangerous and toxic so I did every melting sequence in one day,” he continues.

The release strategy for Kim’s personal films follows the conventional pattern, with festival screenings followed by an online release, although Kim acknowledges that the current pandemic has been disruptive. “I want to share my films in festivals. I usually have premiered my short film from Sundance and keep the festival circuit during one year. And I usually release on Vimeo to share with more audiences, students, and clients. This is what I have done with my previous three films,” he outlines. “But I think that I might have a different releasing strategy for KKUM because COVID-19 changed so many things and I need a different approach.”

Relying on his commercial work for income, Kim has yet to develop any plans for monetizing his personal films, although it’s not something he rules out. “This is something that I still need to study,” he admits. “Because I have made short films for communicating with many people who love animation. Also I could find many clients and friends and audiences who really like my style and films and world. My short films definitely helped me and brought me jobs. But I have not been thinking about monetizing it,” he continues, adding with a note of humor, “Please let me know if you know how to!!”

Although Kim initially was drawn to experimental animation, he finds that he has been adopting a more narrative approach to his work in recent years. “I used to love experimental film and animation when I was an animation student,” he recounts. “I thought I was going to be more of an experimental filmmaker than commercial but I have been trying to change and develop my style and technique over time and I figured out my style of filmmaking is getting closer to narrative,” he says. “KKUM is the most personal film I have made but it is also about mother’s love and care, which audiences can relate to with the same emotion. And I tried to make a different film, not an experimental film.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.