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Beyond visual effects: Making the move to animation film production with Park Chanwook and Bong Joonho

Feb 06, 2023
  • Writerby Bae Dongmi
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Lee Jeonhyoung, CEO at 4th Creative Party

 

 


(Photo: Choi Sungyoul)

 

 

"He’s a creative person with an artistic disposition. I believe that sooner or later he will become a film director." In December 2022, Director Park Chanwook, who was busy filming The Sympathizer in LA, shared with us these words over the phone while his crew was setting the cameras for the next shot. The person he was referring to is 4th Creative Party CEO Lee Jeonhyoung, who was in charge of the visual effects for Park's latest Decision to Leave as well as several of his previous films like The Handmaiden, Thirst, I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Old Boy. Since he is not often featured in interviews, Lee’s whole persona is pretty much shrouded in mystery. When I asked his long-time collaborator Park what he could tell us about him, the director's answer was that he is someone who " is able to offer many different options to express the director’s ideas by interpreting them with creativity and tweaking them." Director Bong Joonho, who was in the final stages of filming <Mickey 17> in London, concurred: “I’ve always enjoyed my time working with him because his interpretation of my films is always spot-on, and I can always trust his sense for details.” As can be expected, Bong too often entrusted VFX duties to Lee, from his debut feature Barking Dogs Never Bite to Okja, including The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer. These three people who have built mutual trust over the years are now all embarking on a new journey. As has already been made public, Bong will join hands with 4th Creative Party to produce a 'deep sea animation', and Park is set to direct a 3D animation film with the studio. I visited the offices of 4th Creative Party located in Gangnam, Seoul to learn more about the studio and its story, as it is making the move from a VFX post-house to a full-fledged animation studio that will produce the animated films of two acclaimed directors. Sketched out on the whiteboard standing next to Lee's desk were a small preview of the creatures that will populate Bong and Park's animation films.  

 

- You didn’t do a lot of interviews.

= People who got into this industry after me tend to do interviews, but me, not really. I often acted as VFX supervisor on Park Chanwook’s and Bong Joonho’s films, but I agree that those who started more recently should do interviews.

 

- What project are you focusing on these days?

= I’m fully immersed in Bong Joonho's deep sea animation film. We have been preparing to go into animations from 2014, and all that time I have been telling Bong and Park, "You too should do animation films. You can already accomplish anything in live-action films." In 2018, when we were about to start producing animations in earnest after my scenario raised initial funding, Bong contacted me. He said, "Lee, I got an interesting premise for an animated film. Please spare me a room." Bong commuted to 4th Creative Party for a year from the end of 2018 and the scenario he wrote here in secret was for no other than this deep-sea animation project.

 

- There is no way he could have gone unnoticed.

= There might be people who saw him in the street, but not many in the industry knew about this. Based on that script, we developed the characters in 2020, and we were pitching for funding in and out of Korea in 2021. By the latter half of 2021, we had distributors abroad who told us they would back the project, and so in 2022, we staffed up in earnest. Currently, the design for the main characters and the environments are finalized. We are planning to ramp up production once Bong returns from filming Mickey 17 in early 2023. We will work with the director on camerawork and previsualization for 6 to 8 months. Next year, we will do the animating, and the year after that it will go into rendering. The goal is to release it in 2025 at the earliest, or 2026 at the latest.

 

- Looking at this from the audience's point of view, one might be excused to think that Bong Joonho is trying his hands at animation films now that he has established a style of his own in live-action films. In fact, he was already working on this animation project before receiving the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Picture at the Oscars with Parasite.

= That’s right. As I watched Bong win four Oscar trophies for Parasite, I wasn’t sure he would still want to make this animation film, but I remember him telling me as soon as he returned to Korea, "Let's go to the Oscars with our animation!" If anything, he seemed even more fired up. Bong and I have a strong tie; I first met him while working on the CGI for Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000).

 

- Your first meeting with Bong happened before you met Park Chanwook.

= I was 27, and Bong was 30, and what I saw in him was a young director with a crew cut and a resounding voice who was employing clever ways to oversee the filming of Barking Dogs Never Bite. I have been a fan ever since. After that, he was doing preparation work on The Host when he reached out to me and asked, "Do we have the capacity in Korea to make a creature in CGI?" I replied, "That’s impossible. We should look for a partner abroad." (Laughs) The way he generally says that there is nothing we can’t do is honestly something I find very impressive. From then on, Bong has visited me whenever he had work. In the case of the VFX for The Host, it was a collaboration between EON Digital Film (a VFX company Lee co-founded with friends from college. -Editor's note) and The Orphanage, a now-defunct US-based visual effects company.

 

 

 

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Image: Cinema Service)

 

  

 

- How did the two companies share their duties?

= The creature was made by Orphanage, and the rest of the VFX were made by EON. With Bong, we worked on MotherSnowpiercer and Okja. Bong is the kind of director to select the visual effects supervisor or company that best fits each project. And it is Parasite, which we did not work on, that ended up picking 4 Academy Awards... (laughs)

 

- Were you not already a member of the Academy thanks to Okja?

= Yes. If Bong is my star, Park is like my mentor.

 

- So what kind of mentor is he?

= Park always gives us hints. Once you have finally given shape to his vision after a long thought process and due consideration given to his hints, he shows up and throws new ideas into the mix. That said, he isn’t the type to constantly be asking me to do things this or that way. What he told me before working on the scenario for Decision to Leave was, “[Lee mimics Park’s voice] Oh, a woman goes down a pit she dug in the sand. Sand is falling in. But there's a lot of fog. The actress is Tang Wei."

 

- This is akin to telling the story of Decision to Leave starting from the last scene. I heard that it was your idea to have that wave we see at the end of the movie take the shape of Seorae’s profile (Tang Wei).

= How did you know that?

 

- I heard it from Park himself, "That wasn’t my idea but Lee Jeonhyoung's."

= From the moment I read the scenario, I thought it would be nice if the foam of the waves could draw Seorae's profile, as if she was transcending time and space. In that scene, the two storylines seem to be happening concurrently, while in fact I wanted to let people predict that Seorae was already long dead, that she has already become one with the sea, when Haejun (Park Haeil) finally arrives there.

 

 

  

Stalker (Image: 20th Century Fox Korea)

 

 

International projects with Park Chanwook and Bong Joonho


- I heard that Park Chanwook insisted on working with you for his Hollywood film Stalker.

= That’s correct. Park was vehemently recommending us. 4h Creative Party became the first Korean company to directly sign a contract with a major Hollywood studio, in this case Fox. There are very few cases in Korea where a VFX studio was directly contracted for a Hollywood project. In most cases, they are subcontractors of contractors, as in a US-based CGI studio acts as intermediary, hiring a Korean studio as subcontractor.

 

- How was your first experience working on a Hollywood project?

= What I will never forget regarding Stalker is that I was suffering from panic attacks at the time.

 

- Is it a story you are okay sharing with us?

= It’s fine. I had been working at EON since I was 25, and I was under a lot of stress as I was setting up my new company, 4th Creative Party. I was scared of elevators, and going out would scare me out. Even sharp objects! I would be lying in bed with hyperventilation. And that’s when production on Stalker started.


- Then how did you deal with that once you were on the set for Stalker?

= I couldn’t go immediately. I booked a flight and packed everything, but when I woke up in the morning, all I could do was say to my wife, "Honey, I can't go." After several failed attempts, one day when my medication for panic attacks was working particularly well, I immediately packed up and flew to the United States. Nashville, the filming location, was a place in total rupture with my daily life in Korea, on top of having fresh air, so I slowly started to get better. Stalker is the work that cured me.


- How are you feeling now?

= I’m now 99% healed. It’s just that I can't get on amusement rides.

 

- After your first work on a Hollywood film in Stalker, you collaborated with the global streaming giant Netflix for Okja. How did you come to sign a contract with Netflix?

= I signed with Netflix right away. Or rather, we signed a contract together with Method Studios that was assigning sequences to each studio, and the assets were shared between the two of us. Method is an outstanding company, and the supervisor did an excellent job, so I really enjoyed working with them.

 

- The creature in The Host was designed and animated by a US company, so what was your involvement this time for the super pig creatures seen in Okja?

= Method did 70% and 4th Creative Party did the remaining 30%. Method was in charge of a lot of difficult scenes, but Okja was designed by one of our artists, Jang Heechul. We did Okja's early designs, the promotional videos, the previsualization, and Method took over from there. We also did some visual effects of different levels of complexity, such as the scene on the cliff where Okja first appears, the sequence where Okja and Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) are together in the truck, and some CGI work on the shots where Tilda appears.

 

 

Okja (image: Netflix) 

 


What's in a title?


Lee Jeon-hyung has been working with Bong Joonho since Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), and with Park Chanwook since Old Boy (2003). Just as much as he earned their trust a long time ago, Lee did not hide his affection for them. During the interview that day, he was wearing black horn-rimmed glasses which he called his special glasses. They don't really look like glasses anyone would wear these days, but sure enough, these are the glasses he has been wearing whenever he gave an interview to talk about one of Park Chanwook's films. Even when he’s merely doing an interview, this artist never misses an occasion to hide an “easter egg” to express his affection for the director.


- What would you say is the reason these two directors, Park and Bong Joon-ho, have continuously worked with you for such a long time? Is there anything they lauded about you?

= That's the thing. I don't really know either. I don't drink or smoke, so I couldn’t even hear anything when they drink out. And they are not usually full of compliments... But I do often hear things indirectly through the producers.

 

- And what did you hear from them?

= One told me that Park liked so much the title design for I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay that he said, "Only Lee Jeonhyoung could have made something like this." It felt really good to hear that.


- Indeed, I remember Park recommending me to take a good look at the title sequence for I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay.

= He liked it so much that he validated it without any edit. Another interesting title design work was for Decision to Leave.

 

 


I’m a Cybord but That’s Okay (Image: CJ ENM) 



- What was the concept behind the title for Decision to Leave?

= We focused on its colors. In the movie, no one can never really tell whether Seorae's clothes are turquoise, blue or green. Similarly, in the title we are showing these colors in succession, and then we inserted magenta, their complementary color, like some sort of mold to create an optical illusion that tricks your brain into not being able anymore to tell what color it is. These spots of mold, which at first looked like they were spreading as if Hae-jun was applying some eye drops, suddenly fade in as if with the blinking of his eyes. It's a short title sequence of about 2.5 seconds, but the director also validated this one on our first try.

 

  

 


(Photo: Choi Sungyoul) 

 

 

Lee's Digital Mise-en-scène 


Film title sequences are made in motion graphics, and in fact, Lee Jeonhyoung's main discipline is VFX. The visual effects produced by Jeon Hyung Jeon are crafted with great attention to details, as the story about the title sequence for Decision to Leave can ascertain. He calls his own VFX work ‘digital mise-en-scène’, as he strives to leave in the audience’s subconscious mind the main images of the movie. That’s why I asked him about the digital mise-en-scene hidden in Decision to Leave.

 


- Beyond the title sequence, what other aspects did you pay attention to for the sequences that required visual effects in Decision to Leave?

= If you look closely, the rocks that surround the spot where Seorae digs the hole have the same outline as the mountains around Beegeum Peak. We also used the profile of mountains for the graph produced by the lie detector. When I come up with ideas like these, Park will just naturally accept them and act cool as if he had them in mind.


- Are you sure Park was not surprised and trying not to let it show?

= No, not like that. (laughs) He not only gives hints, but he also comes up with more than 90% of the visuals I create. For example, at the ending of Decision to Leave, rushing water crashes into the spot where Seorae died, producing a whirl. This originally came from a specific demand from Park to create a whirl there. So, I created that whirling effect for that scene, and then I repeated that same whirl motif throughout the movie. The most noticeable instances are the fog swirling around in the wake of Haejoon's car, or the ashes flying around Haejoon’s body in whirls as he scatters them.


- That’s some details!

= In the shot seen from the point of view of the deceased Ki Dosu (Yoo Seungmok) at the beginning, a red vein is obstructing the view, right? Well, in the scene when Jeongan (Lee Junghyun) presses on the eyes of some fishes at Ipo market, there is a shot from the point of view of one of the fishes where we can recognize Ki Dosu’s vein. When in one transition the light bulb fades into the pupil of a heavenly king statue at the temple, we edited the filament to give it the same line shape as Ki Dosu’s vein so that Ki Dosu’s point-of-view shot could parallel the eye of the statue. As if Ki Dosu could somehow be looking at them, just like the Heavenly King can witness their affair. I really enjoy working with Park because it gives me the opportunity to create this kind of touches throughout his films. This makes me feel alive.


- You have worked a lot of films since 1996. What is the work for which you have the fondest memory?

Thirst was interesting both in terms of character and genre. Thirst is the first title on which I was acting alone, after leaving my college friends at EON. The level of difficulty in the visual effects we had to realize was very high, and I was very nervous as to who would be in the scenario. Anxiety came crashing down hard into my confidence during that period of time, but I think it is thanks to Thirst that I have come this far.


- Was there a lot of visual effect sequences in Thirst?

= Yes, a lot. All the scenes where Kim Okvin is seen running around the rooftops can be considered to have some CGI. Even the final scene had CGI in every shot. The sea was filmed in Australia, whereas the background was filmed at a quarry on the road to Yeongjong Island. I was really happy when I received Best Visual Effects at the Asian Film Awards for Thirst.


- What do you think makes good CGI, good visual effects and good images?

= I think a visual effect is good if I'm not ashamed of it when I see it again once a lot of time has passed.

 



Decision to Leave (Image: CJ ENM) 


 

DFrom a VFX post-house to a production company 


- I heard that 4th Creative Party, a VFX post-production company, is setting up to become a film production company. What is the fundamental reason behind this decision?

= If I have to go back to the roots of that decision, I could go back to an experience I had when I was five. I went to Seil Cinema with my close neighborhood friend to see General Ttoll, but as you know these old theaters were really dark. I couldn't really see the stairs, and I was so nervous at that young age that I tripped a few times on my way to my seat. And then the screen suddenly appeared in front of me, and before my eyes was a full-color image. This was a real shock, since I had only watched a few cartoons on a small black-and-white TV at the time.


- So, you have wanted to direct films from the age of 5 when you saw General Ttoll?

= The desire to be a film director came when I was in college. I made a video of robotic movements as my graduate project for the Department of Industrial Design at Kyung Hee University. I also wrote the scenario for a short film about robots, and I made a film in which I created a robotic sound with a hair dryer.



- Don’t you usually design automobiles when you major in industrial design?

= Yes. Everyone was sculpting car models except me, who was making everything on computers, to the point where my professors would tell me , "This is all fake!". (Laughs) Actually, the reason I set up EON was because I wanted to make my own animation films. Afterwards, while doing visual effects in the film industry, I lost my confidence in directing as I met fantastic directors and talented writers. Then, in 2014, I decided to move to animation films, and the reason for that was that it felt frustrating as a company if we were to keep doing subcontracting and outsourcing work for other people's films. Even when I would look back on my own life, it seemed like that prospect wouldn’t be any fun.


- The procedure for a VFX studio to turn into a production company must not be easy. You have to convince the internal staff, hire new staff for the animation...

= The reason I felt we had to move to animation in 2014 was because the barriers delineating animation, VFX, and advertising were starting to crumble. The era of animation artists exclusively doing animation work and film-related graphic artists only doing VFX work is over. The software is now designed to be accessible whether you are a VFX artist or an animation artist.

 

- If that’s so, then the transition may have not been as difficult as I first thought.

= This is all par for the course for those who work in this technical field. I think the boundaries separating live action from CG has also collapsed. The creatures that appear in Warcraft (2016), which was based on the video game, were entirely made in CGI. The backgrounds are also 100% digital. And yet, it is impossible to determine with certitude whether this film is an animation or a live-action film. The emotions of the actors can still be found in these digital characters since motion capture was used to acquire the performance of great actors. The type of animation films 4th Creative Party is aspiring to make is not the Pixar animation films we commonly see. To be precise, the idea is, “Let's make a 'show' using our own technology and creativity”.


- At 4th Creative Party, you don’t have any planning/pre-production department. How are you dealing with the planning stage of projects, then?

= As of right now, with all the projects that we are currently working on, we don't have the energy to spare for planning new projects. Our next work after Bong's project will be Park's project.

 

- I heard that Park sent his script to 4th Creative Party.

= That's right, we have received Park's scenario for his animation film, so my own project was pushed to the back of the queue.


- Which means you already have a strong lineup of films.

= Once we have the initial financing secured for Bong's film, normally in early 2023, I think we will be seeking financing for Park's project. If we do a good job at translating into animation the scenarios penned by these two amazing directors, I guess there might be some opportunities for my scenario as well…? (Laughs) The child who was left speechless after watching General Ttol has grown into a VFX supervisor and is now making great films thanks to excellent film directors and infrastructure, so I hope you look forward to it. 

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