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I just watched Erick Oh's latest film, Symphony (2008, 5 mins), and I was happy to find that despite the difference in subject matter, it's just as wonderful a film as Erick's previous film, Way Home (2008, 8 mins), which so captured me a few months back when I saw it at a screening in Beijing. Erick has again created a short that feels like a perfectly honed combination of stylistic elegance, richly worked hand-drawn animation and theme simultaneously cosmic in scale and microscopic in character.
The transition from his previous film to this one felt like a kind of test. Namely, a test as to whether what made Way Home an enjoyable film was just its 'cute' (?) characters. I had no doubt that that was not the case, but this film confirms it. The characters in Symphony are not the cute bug characters of Way Home, but rather impersonal, shape-shifting blobs as far removed as one could imagine from the characters of the former film. And yet, the film remains just as compelling, and just as immediately identifiable as an Erick Oh film, revealing that Erick's skills were indeed the real star.
In Symphony we find ourselves plunged into a strange microscopic world, a sort of amniotic ether where protozoan-like blobs dash about the rocky crags in an elemental struggle to eat or be eaten. Suddenly, one of the anonymous blobs seems to awaken from its precambrian slumber, dashing off on a danger-fraught journey that has presumably never ended.
In terms of the animation, there is just as much nuance in the 'acting' of the blob as it dashes across the screen as there was in the acting of the dung beetle in Way Home, which is quite impressive, as it has no eyes or hands to emote with. A great feeling of three-dimensionality is created in the ether through simple layering of pure black lines and shapes. There are no shades or color in the film, just a gorgeously organic mesh of black and white spaces and forms. Just like in Way Home, Erick makes remarkably effective use of such spare means, resulting in a film of great visual clarity. The animation is tied closely to the movement of Vivaldi's Seasons that provides the background music, creating a symbiotic unity of music and animation.
In terms of the theme, the film comes across as thematically related to Way Home. Although Way Home did feature conventionally identifiable characters and a clear narrative, the film didn't strike me as being about those things as about a much more cosmic theme. Rather than being about characters, or a story, or even a message, both Way Home and Erick's latest film strike me as compelling explorations of a very basic concept that permeates every aspect of our lives and of the universe we inhabit: the macroscopic versus the microscopic. The films strike me as humbling reminders that we are not the center of the universe, that we are but part of a continuum that reaches far above us and far below us. It's just clearer in Symphony than it was in Way Home.
What fascinates me about Erick's work is that a film like Symphony, which is otherwise rather ephemeral in terms of narrative and characterization, somehow manages to get across a very clear narrative, and the audience can follow what the 'character' is feeling at every moment of the film, entirely through the nuances of the very active and emotive animation - such as when the blob recoils in fear, stretches out tentatively in curiosity, or soars through the ether joyously exploring its new-found freedom. The same could be said of the dung beetle in Way Home. I love Erick's films because he creates films that are not only beautifully animated and have a compelling and intelligent theme, but the animation is the voice in which his mute characters speak to the audience.
Way Home was made in Korea, where Erick obtained his BFA, while Symphony was made at UCLA, where Erick is now completing his MFA in animation. Since making Way Home, Erick has also made a very nice short film entitled Welcome to Vokle for a new social networking site entitled Vokle, which just opened its doors to the public last month. Welcome to Vokle is compelling both technically and thematically, continuing as it does to explore grand themes, this time examining no less than the history of humankind in one and a half minutes. Welcome to Vokle can be seen in its entirety on Erick's web site here. Clips from Symphony and all of his other films can also be viewed on his web site, erickoh.com.
Erick was kind enough to answer a few of my questions by email, so I'm happy to be able to present a short interview with this great young animator.
What made you choose animation?
As an artist who has a background in fine art with experience in other mediums like painting, illustration, etc, I consider animation to be one of the greatest art forms to convey my thoughts and feelings to others. It allows me to express whatever I want with the message as well as the style, ranging from narrative to abstract, traditional to experimental. One of the best things about animation is that the tool itself inspires me to blur all the boundaries between all the mediums. It mixes up all the great art forms like music, images and the narrative. The more experience I gain in animation, the more respect I find I have for the art.
What was it that made you turn to hand-drawn animation in this day and age, instead of CGI?
I just like hand-drawn images because usually I can feel the artist's ideas and feelings sincere. However, I also admire CG-based animation and video art and would love to apply some CG effects to my projects in the future if it's necessary. It's all a matter of how effectively I use these tools. I'd like to be someone who uses these tools to create his own world, rather someone who just follows the tools.
Your films are wonderfully animated, with great technique, and a very unique style. How do you do it?
I made my first animated film in my senior year for the graduate exhibition. Since I was in a painting-based fine art program, I had to self-teach using all the references and video I could get online and offline. It was extremely difficult to learn all the techniques by myself but I think that experience helped me a lot with establishing a foundation in animation strongly and firmly in my own unique style.
What's your stance towards animation in your work?
Animation is a device that connects me to the world. I think my 'ego' projected onto the final product in the form of animation is the most sincere reflection of myself.
Any animators or filmmakers who influenced or inspired you?
Everything I see and hear inspires me. To specifically talk about one of the directors who directly influenced me with 'Way Home', I'd like to mention Michael Dudok De-wit, the director of 'Father and Daughter'. I was very impressed by how amazing a film he made using the contrast between light and shadow and the beauty of blank space with his charcoal. Understanding how he made this beautiful film, I'd like to create a whole new world of my own with the oriental calligraphic brush. Leaving the ground in white color, I showed the passing of a day with just the change in the color of the sky and the tone of the shadow.
Can you tell me about the production process for Way Home and Symphony?
Pretty much every animation I did is traditionally hand-drawn animated. I usually use 30 frames per second to make the animation more fluid. For the camera and composition, I don't really use any particular technique. After Effects and Premiere are basically all I use. There is some stuff I did in Flash or Maya though.
How did your approach change between Way Home and Symphony?
First of all, the message or the story I'd like to tell is always about my thoughts and outlook on 'life'. As for the style and the approach, the project I just finished always influences the next project I plan. After finishing 'The Bag', my very first animation, I wanted to make a cinematographic film because the world described in 'The Bag' is totally surreal. The land becomes the sky, the food chain goes backward and everything is awkward in this animation. That was the start point with the style in 'Way Home'. As you can see, the way I set the camera, the transitions from shot to shot, etc, all come from studying film. After 2 years working on 'Way Home', I was exhausted from dealing with all the cinematography. I decided to make a film that breaks the rules and blurs all the boundaries between everything. Because the interaction with the viewers is the most important thing I consider while making films, it was extremely hard to achieve both goals. After lots of experimenting, finally 'Symphony' came out as a film that is somewhere in the middle between abstract experimental and narrative character animation. 'One' is another experimental work I collaborated with media artists on as a sequel to 'Symphony'. It's more like installation art, but I think it's meaningless to categorize things. These two works have received attention not only from theaters and film festivals but also art galleries. 'Welcome to Vokle' or 'Gunther Sausage' are pretty commercial and entertaining compared to other films. But I believe that the viewer will still be able to find my style and philosophy in these films as well.
Why did you leave Korea to study at UCLA? How does animation education in Korea compare to animation education in the US? And on a related note, how is the situation in the Korean animation industry? We don't get to hear much about that industry over here.
I can't deny the fact that there is more opportunity in the US. It's not about the education, it's about the environment. Especially this city of Los Angeles is where all the studios and industries are all gathered around. I can't really compare animation education between Korea and US since I studied fine art in Korea. But in my opinion, the faculty in Korea are not that experienced in animation because the history of Korean animation is quite short, compared to Japan or the US. Everything including the animation industry, education and culture grew up so quickly overall in Korea that it feels like we didn't have enough time to put the right instructors in the right place. For example, most of the faculty in college animation programs are designers, cartoonist, filmmakers, critics and so on. They can still teach students, but the education can't have depth. It is slowly changing and getting better and better. The facilities in Korean schools are really good though.
As for the industry, Korean animation studios have been doing other people's work for the past 20 years. As far as I know, all the Disney movies and other Hollywood animations are actually produced and animated in Korea. That made Korea have really good technique and skills in animation but no creativity in it. We are definitely at a turning point right now. Various Korean's own productions are coming out going over all the trials and failures. But we need this process to grow up.
What are your current projects, if you can say? And what do you plan to do once you get your MFA?
I'm working on this film as another story in my 'Life' series following after 'The Bag', 'Way Home' and 'Symphony'. It'll be traditional character animation just like 'Way Home'. My grandfather passed away last April in 2008. While experiencing all this sadness and missing him, I came up with lots of fragments of ideas. I developed a story out of them. The title is 'Tree' but it might change. I just started animating so I'm not sure when this journey will end.
After graduation, hopefully I'll stay in the states working on this and that. My ultimate goal is to be left as an artist, not an animator or filmmaker. Of course the animation would be the main medium I use, but I'd like to always be flexible to borrow from other art forms or try different things blurring the boundaries of art.
Ben, your interview with Erick Oh is great. I just like his work as independent animation. Thanks for asking Erick Oh about Korean animation industry and its training system.
Although I have some interest in Korean animation industry, I still have cynical feeling and reluctance. Koreans are recognized by Hollywood for their technical talents, but I feel that’s only merit that Koreans are known for. Hopefully people like Erick Oh make more creative and meaningful animations beyond technical excellence in the future.
Great interview Mr. E. I haven’t seen many Korean works but I will definetly be on the lookout for Mr. Oh’s work.
On another note, seen anything interesting Japan-wise?
Soul Eater recently finished and the last episode had Igurashi storyboarding and a maybe 2 Nakamura shots, needless to say it was one of the best episodes visually.
Igurashi made the show really fun and engaging despite being an admittedly middling shonen adventure, I hope he works on something more substantial next time.
I have heard great things about Casshern but stopped at about 10 or so, sometimes I arbitratliy stop and pick shows up weeks even months later. I probably will see it through if only for Umakoshi and his cohort’s work.
A show I recently marathoned was Toradoa!, A high school love comedy from JC Staff. I never look out for works by the studio from a sakuga perspective but the work was surprisingly very good. The image quality was at worst average to somewhat above average with some excellent character acting scenes strewn in the last few episodes.
The animation really enhanced the character drama, which despite it’s looks is one actually the more genuine youth love stories of recent years. While it was rough even at it’s most mobile, The attentive character acting embued certain scenes with a very rare sense of life, which uncommon in anime itself is PRACTICALLY UNHEARD OF in a non action based television series, thus enhancing the emotional catharsis of certain scenes (particularly some crying ones).
Director Tatsuya Nagai handled the character drama with a strong amount of low key believability which only got stronger as the series progressed. (It can get a little overdramatic in a few places like Planetes did, though not nearly as much as that show did)
Although based on a light novel, the characterization magages to successfully scape the moefication epidemic of many based works, to have characters with actual depth and believable traits (realtively).
If you can stomach such stories I recommend it not only from a visual perspective but also from a general show perspective too though it really shows it’s emotional resonance in the 2nd half.
Some of the stand out animations are in episodes 1 (not uncommon)
16 (actually an action sequence)
19, 24, and 25 (have some great acting in certain scenes even quiet ones).
Only shows I am really looking forward to are the FMA reboot by Bones’s D studio
and the new Noitamina show Eden of the East (I dig Kamiyama’s shows, IG shows and Noitamina in general)
IG’s Sengoku No Basara may have some nice fight animation but other than that yields little interest from me.
Just to reinforce toradora’s sakuga interest.
Gainax vet Akira Amemiya does a little shot at the end of ep 7, with one character with a baseball cap, eyes aflame.
H Park, I feel the same way, although Erick’s in a pretty different position, so it’s not really comparable. I know for a fact that there are talented people with their own voices in the industry in Korea (Kang Won Young, Sung Goo Won, etc), and it’s not all just a country of super-inbetweeners. I hope we see more of them break out and get more and more opportunities for expression in their own country. I get a feeling we’re verging right now, verging on a break out of Korean talent after all these years of subcontracting. Personally, I’d like to see more people creating shorts like those of Lee Sung Gang, more personal and less flashy, as I’ve noticed a trend of style over substance in a lot of the shorts I’ve seen.
Hey Will, thanks for the impassioned words on Toradora! It’s great to hear your outline of the good aspects of the show. When the first episode came out I actually wrote about it in a comment here in the blog - said it was my favorite ep 1 of the season in fact. But I didn’t follow the show afterward. I suspected there would be good stuff here and there later on like the first episode, but it was too much work for me. I might just check out the episodes you recommended, so thanks. If the episodes you mentioned are anything like the first, then yeah, I agree, standout stuff, comfortably enough removed from what you’d expect from this material to make it watchable, and with technical backing in the layout and animation.
Anyway, Japan-wise… I’ve been watching anime, believe it or not, although I haven’t been in the mood to write anything lately. Sorry about the silence there. I watched every episode of Casshern Sins and Soul Eater and enjoyed both thoroughly and am sad to see them go. So maybe I’ll write my thoughts soon. Nakamura did some sketchy animation in one of the Soul Eater episodes that was really awesome… my favorite of the many wonderful sequences he contributed to Soul Eater. Every time I found out he was in an episode it was exciting waiting to see his animation show up on the screen, and it never disappointed. There were even good bits by people other than him whom I can’t identify… And that giant robot battle episode was just awesome in its pacing and everything. Of course, yeah, I agree. IgArashi’s work was great, but the material was incontestably by-the-book. At the same time, that didn’t bother me too much.
So yeah, the new season is starting. I’ll try to watch a few shows and post some comments. Thanks for the advance comments on shows to look out for. I’ve totally not been paying attention so I’m not too sure and will proceed randomly.
Hey, Mr. E.
Seen any good ep 1s yet?
Sengoku Basara is a big standout from I.G. with it’s crazy shonen action, it doesn’t take it self seriously at all and turns out to be great fun. Itsuro Kawasaki is handling direction while Toru Ookubo is handling character design. I think there was a sweet action sequence by I think Naoyoshi Shiotani in ep 2.
BONES’s new FMA show was overall good, not spinetingling but very good overall. There were some nice shots in the opening. I couldn’t recongize any names in the credits, must be mainly new faces.
Nothing but garbage so far. I would’ve skipped Basara, because I thought it was just a continuation of the old version, but I’m having a look right now and it’s quite entertaining. I love that one of the characters has mufflers on his horse. So silly.
Just finished it. Not bad. The preview for the next episode looked great. Maybe that’s the part you were talking about.