Animation World Magazine, Issue 1.11, February 1997

The Changing Winds of Korean Animation

by Chung-bae Park

SICAFOfficial poster for the Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival (SICAF).

In December, South Korea, known as the "Miracle on the Han River" and a major automobile and semiconductor exporter, joined the OECD. Today, however, the most important topic of conversation concerns the future of Korea's entertainment industry. And animation is the center of that industry. Nineteen ninety-five will be remembered as a turning point for Korean animation: it was the year when the world's second channel devoted exclusively to animation was established and when Korea first played host to the Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival (SICAF). These events took place against a background of the increased production of animated features, all of which signaled the start of a new phase in Korea's animation industry.

From Subcontracting to Planning
Korean animation nominally began with a commercial for Lucky Toothpaste in 1956. But, it is usually agreed that it really began with the production of Hong Gil Dong (1967), the country's first animated feature by Shin Dong Woo of the Shin Dong Hyun brothers (Korea's answer to Walt and Roy Disney). The film's success sparked public interest in Korean animation. Though after one more film, the Shin brothers' success ended due to a dispute with their distributor. In the early 1970s, the market for Korean animation rapidly shrank as the country was flooded with foreign animated films and TV shows.

Korea's animation industry acquired the unique distinction of being dominated by feature films. Most American and Japanese TV series were being animated in Korea, but local broadcast outlets could not afford to make such shows themselves. As a result, Korea became subordinate to the American and Japanese oligopoly.

View outside of theater at SICAF.View outside of theater at SICAF.

A Decade of Subcontracting
The 1970s was the decade of subcontracting. Korean animators, because of their low wages and high skills, were in high demand by American and Japanese producers. While subcontracting greatly expanded the Korean animation industry, it also gave it a bad name, as it seemed to demonstrate a lack of creativity and planning.

Before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as a result of cultural reform, there arose a demand for domestically made animated TV series. The demand was finally met when Korea's two major broadcasting stations, KBS and MBC, showed the first locally-made animated series: Wandering Gga Chi and Go On Running Hodori. The following year,Wonder Kiddy 2020 sparked interest on the international scene.

While both subcontracting and domestic production continued to coexist after 1988, some studios began to enter into co-production deals with Japanese and American companies, enabling Korea to begin entering the international animation market. Disney's success in 1992, spurred a revival the following year of local animated features for the first time in seven years.

Dinosaur Dooly (1996).Dinosaur Dooly (1996).

What Inspired These Changes?
The first factor in changing Korea's animation industry was that the country's major industrial companies changed their attitude about investing for the 21st century. With the worldwide entertainment industry expected to become highly profitable, they became eager to enter the field, which of course included animation!

Jeiljedang invested in DreamWorks SKG and began to produce animation through JCOM. The Dong Yang Group established the Tooniverse cable channel, while such industrial giants as Samsung, Hundai, and DaeWoo are also entering the fray.

Second, there were changes in the structure of the animation industry itself. During the 1970s and 1980s, Korea had been relied on as a source of cheap labor. When its work force became more expensive and Korea started to shun low tech industries, it started to lose subcontracting work to Southeast Asia and China. It is a situation that threatens the livelihood of the some 20,000 people employed at 450 studios. These workers, along with the major industrial companies, provided the basis for a transition from subcontracting to indigenous production. This resulted in development and planning departments being set up in the larger studios.

Third, changes occurred because of the new expectations engendered by the success of Disney animated features and the global spread of Japanese animation. Disney's success, in particular, allowed Korea to dream of animation as being a viable industry in the same league as automobiles and semiconductors. And it was the success of nearby Japan's animation industry that supported that dream.

From the Edges Towards the Center
These structural changes resulted in many changes in the Korean animation industry itself. Nineteen ninety-five, the first year of planned animation, proved to be the turning point. The most important change, though, was the birth of the Dong Yang Group's Tooniverse. (Until then, Dong Yang had been a leading confectionery and finance company.) The laws governing Korean cable television demanded that 30% of programming be locally made, a mandate that was easily fulfilled by animation. As a result, along with co-ventures in such related industries as cartoons and games, the animation market started to take off.

1995 version of Shim brothers'Hong Gil Dong.1995 version of Shim brothers'Hong Gil Dong.

Another important change was the increase in the production of in-house productions and the continuing challenge of making feature-length films. The number of animated features increased steadily (one each in 1993 and 1994, and three in both 1995 and 1996), as did the number of TV shows (five to six new series a year between 1994 and 1996). However, with the exception of Little Dinosaur DoolyDecember 1996, most indigenous animated productions have not been successful. This shows that, despite Korea's demonstrated technical proficiency in animation, its productions lack the creativity characteristic of Korean cultural products.

For 1997, it is expected that the development and production of original material will provide new opportunities to incorporate Korean styles, characters and plots, resulting in films of the same quality as Dooly. Korean animation is ready to compete in the international marketplace through original TV series and international co-productions.

As to computer animation, Korea, which was once a desert, has made significant progress, which started withWa Bull&nbspin 1991. The progress eventually resulted in having films entered into competition at last year's Hiroshima Animation Festival; in addition, this technology is now being used in movies, commercials and other areas of film and television.

Due to the animation boom, a number of animation schools were established. Thus, the number of animation courses has increased from only one prior to 1995, to four in 1995, and eight last year. These well-educated directors, animators and planners will ensure that the expansion of the local industry will not be short-lived and as such will provide the most powerful force in Korean animation.

Recent developments in animation parallel the country's industrial policy, which is noted for government working hand-in-hand with the private sector. The most impressive example of this collaboration was SICAF, where attendance was over 300,000, once again illustrating the great interest in locally-made product. The Korean government also sees animation as the most competitive industry for the 21st century. To demonstrate their confidence, it has provided tax breaks by changing animation's industrial classification and providing services to producers--two changes which clearly demonstrates the government's commitment to the field.

1995 version of Shim brothers'Hong Gil Dong.1995 version of Shim brothers'Hong Gil Dong.
1995 version of Shim brothers'Hong Gil Dong.

Despite all the changes and progress made by Korea's animation industry, it continues to remain on the periphery of the international subcontracting system. The winds of change are blowing, but nobody knows whether they will turn into a typhoon or simply fade away. Some speculate that the future of Korean animation is not bright, because of the industry's inability to plan, investors who demand immediate results, and the overwhelming power of Disney and Japanese companies.

However, with substantial investment from the country's industrial giants, the increased interest by the public, and a new cadre of highly trained animation artists, the Korean animation industry now has the potential to change.

Animation in Korea can perhaps best be compared to country's shoe industry. During the 1970s and 1980s, Korean labor was a vital factor in subcontract shoemaking, a role now assumed by China and Southeast Asia. Recently, a slogan used by a local shoe manufacturer gained considerable popularity: "To conquer or be conquered." This motto perfectly expresses the critical situation of today's Korean animation industry.

Chung-Bae Park is Vice President of MICOM , in Korea, and whose book, Animation Story, was published last year. An experienced animation producer, he was until recently President of Seiyong Anitel.

Dinosaur Dooly (1996)
Dinosaur Dooly (1996).

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