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Erick OH, Prize Winner at Annecy International Animated Film Festival

Jul 31, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
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“I want to create meaningful work in the Korean Animation industry”

Erick OH, a Korean animator who previously worked on ‘Hank’ in Pixar’s Finding Dory (2016) stood alone on a global stage with an independent animation project. PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems won the Cristal Award for top TV Series at the 42nd Annecy International Animated Film Festival (Annecy, France). This animation series is based on the pig character from THE DAM KEEPER (2014) by Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, and draw the portrait of the character’s childhood. OH, who worked as the animation supervisor on THE DAM KEEPER, wrote the script and directed a 10-episodes TV series of 10 minutes each. This elegant and lyrical fairytale that encompasses deep emotions was created by Tonko House (www.tonkohouse.com), a studio known for being a supporter of young creators. We met in Seoul with Director Erick OH, who is now working at Tonko House with fellow former Disney animators, preparing for a second creative life.

How did you get involved in Tonko House’s PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems?

THE DAM KEEPER is an 18-minute long indie short animation from 2014 by Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, who were my colleagues at Pixar. In 2012, these two established an independent studio, Tonko House, and asked me to supervise THE DAM KEEPER, so I participated in this project from the planning stage. The story starts as dark clouds cover the village. The father leaves in order to find a way to stop the clouds and the young pig is left behind to build a dam to protect the village. As the animation’s outlook on life received positive feedback, we were able to follow-up on this project and create a longer TV series. This time, I was in charge of directing as well as writing the screenplay. In the short film, the protagonist is about 13 years old, while in PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems, I had the protagonist imagine his childhood. Instead of using a direct narration, I focused on making his memories fragmented, poetic and dreamy, while expanding the story to talk about his past scars, as well as his strong relationship with his father. I think these elements were able to get us positive feedback at Annecy.

I’m curious about the production process. I heard that you drew all 31,000 frames one by one by hand. 

Just like it is the case with any indie animation film, we had limited time and budget. I had 9 American staffs and 11 Japanese staffs, for a total of 20 split into different teams. One team would draw the pictures roughly, then another team would clean it up. The third team was responsible for coloring. Since each picture went through different sets of people, the workload was indeed heavy. Since I majored in painting, I draw with my hands and I am a traditional 2D animator, so most of my personal projects are made this way.

Can you say a few words on the production company Tonko House?

Tonko House, based in San Francisco, is an American company founded by Japanese-Americans. There are about 20 staffs working there, and the key members have all worked at Pixar before. That’s why in the US, most people know it as “the animation studio run by ex-Pixar animators”. In addition to animation, they work on VR, AR, publications, feature films, 3D, and exhibitions, among many other creative works. They work with external companies on collaborations as well. In other words, it’s a company full of creative resources. Since some of the key members are from Japan, they also have a great network within the Japanese industry. They’re planning projects with Netflix, Google, Hulu Japan, and Fox right now. I believe the company will become global very soon.

Are you an affiliate of Tonko House as well?

Legally speaking, I’m their partner, but you can almost say that I’m their affiliate animator. Tonko House is like a pair of wings I needed in order to express my vision but we’re working together as creators. My hope is to produce animation in Korea with the help of Tonko House. There is one project underway, so I want to see if we can get Korean investment and distribution help while collaborating with a Korean studio. Personally, I want to create a meaningful work in the Korean Animation industry.

PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems was distributed in Japan through Hulu Japan. Are there other platforms where we can watch it? Is there any chance that the series will be introduced in Korea through a film festival? 

We’re discussing a France theatrical release. Each episode has its own story, but we also considered looking at the series as a single feature film, so you’ll be able to see the relationships between the characters developing from episode 1 to 10. We’re thinking about how we should introduce it in Korea. Actually, the reason why I came to Korea this time because of that. I believe when and how it’s introduced is important. I haven’t decided if a film festival premiere would be better or if we should screen it in a special way through an event. Since it’s a commercial film, we’re hoping to find an impactful strategy through publicity and marketing. 

While working as a Pixar animator, you continued to make your own work (Way Home (2008), Heart (2010), How to Eat Your Apple (2011), GUNTHER (2014)) until you decided to go independent. Instead of being a Pixar animator, which many people dream of, is your aim to put more weight on your individual identity as a creator? 

Making an animation film is very similar to making a live action film. We work on production design, we edit what the characters performed, then add sound. As for me, I plan out everything along with the story from the beginning. Some composers think about the lyrics, sound effects and arrangements while they compose, and I think I work in a similar way. Until now, I never thought I was bounded to my job when it came to being a storyteller. That’s why instead of being responsible for a small part of a project, which was the case when I was at Disney, I thought it made more sense for me to become a director who would oversee the full project. I was at Pixar as an animator for seven years. Had I continued working there, I might’ve become a great actor in this industry. But in order to become the type of director I wanted, I had to compete with many people and I would also have to wait for at least 15 years for my chance. Leaving Pixar was a huge decision for me but since I’m always ready to take on a new adventure, I was able to choose this path.

The indie animation market is very confined. It’s probably, even more, the case in Korea. 

There are many talented Korean artists, but there’s a lack of good stories and directing, that’s why they fail in the market over and over again. This is also the reason why investors give up on indie animations and move onto children’s animation which brings in more money. In a structure like this, it’s very hard for a creative work to be innovative enough to surprise the world. Unless they know this will make money, distributors and producers will not open their wallets, and creators cannot challenge themselves either. I’m enthusiastic about turning this around, and I feel obligated to do so. I hope a valuable project gets made in Korea, which in turn would change the direction of this animation industry. That’s how much love I have for Korean culture. I always think about how I’ll introduce what I learned elsewhere to Korea. First of all, being original is the most important. Currently, the US and China are leading the industry due to their large capital and countries like Korea cannot follow their method, nor even try to. Korea shouldn’t try to join the game others created, but instead, they should start their own.
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