's New Animation Set to Open in Both Koreas This Month
By Shim Sun-ah
Yonhap News Agency
"The Simpsons" is an icon of the American middle-class. Yet few people know that the long-running U.S. animated-cartoon series is partly made in Seoul.
After 16 years of animating the cartoon, Nelson Shin
looks just like Bart Simpson, the eldest child on the show, with his permed hair and small stature. Bart was ranked among the 20 most influential artists and entertainers of the 20st century by TIME magazine in 1998.
Shin, the Korean-born American founder and president of the Seoul-based Akom Production Co., is now waiting for the opening of an animated film based on a famous Korean folk tale about a daughter who sacrifices herself to restore her blind father's eyesight.
The film, "Empress Chung
", has been produced jointly by animators from both South and North Korea for the past eight years. It is scheduled to open in South Korea on Aug. 12 and in the North on Aug. 15, a day marking the 60th anniversary of Korean liberation from the 1910-45 Japanese colonial rule.
"While working in the center of the world entertainment industry, Hollywood, I always had a thirst for exploring Korean beauty", the 66-year-old master animator said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. He pointed to the lack of adequate animated films dealing with Korea's traditional customs as a subject matter.
"After many thoughts, I chose the tale of 'Shim Chung,' through which I could effectively introduce Korea to the outside world and which people of all ages could watch when made into a film".
Shin was born in 1939 in Pyongsan, Hwanghae Province, in what is today known as North Korea. In 1952, his family moved to South Korea amid the turbulence of the Korean War.
While his father earned a living by running an undergarment shop in Taejeon, a city south of Seoul, he spent some of his childhood drawing sketches. After spending some time in Seoul, where he learned how to draw cartoons from famous cartoonist Shin Dong-hun, he went to the United States at the age of 35 to learn an advanced system for producing animated films.
He made a string of hits while working for DePatie-Freleng Enterprises in the 1970s and Marvel Productions in the 1980s. He worked on the Pink Panther films and directed and produced the television series "The Transformers" and "Transformers the Movie".
After years of working on popular American TV series, however, he decided to return home to start his own business. He founded Akom Production in 1985 in southern Seoul. "The Simpsons" is one of the company's most prestigious accomplishments.
His latest work, "Empress Chung
", received critical acclaim when it premiered at Annecy International Animated Film Festival, dubbed the Cannes of animation, in June 2003. It received a special award during the festival and was invited to a dozen international animation festivals.
All of the characters in "Empress Chung
" were created in his office.
His shaggy pet dog, Danchu, and Tobongi, the turtle, which he raised in his office, eventually turned into characters in the film. He decided to transform his bird into an animated goose, however, because she was too small to be noticed on the big screen.
Shin frequently relied on his childhood memories and imagination to make the film more enjoyable and spectacular.
"I don't remember for sure whether it was before I entered primary school or not. Whenever I listened to my mother telling that folk tale, I often imagined what the underwater kingdom of fishes and its king in the story would be like", he said.
The result was an amusing scene reminiscent of the under-the-sea landscape in Hollywood's "The Little Mermaid".
Extensive study of historical materials helped him conceive of how to describe Chung.
"After realizing that there existed an empress whose family name is Shim during the Joseon Dynasty era, I thought, 'right, that's it,'" he said.
He changed the backdrop of the story from the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392) to the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910) as a way to make the story sound real.
Chung was reborn as the beautiful, glamorous and cheerful daughter of a well-to-do family. "There was no such thing as a Cinderella in the highly discriminative social structure (back then)", Shin said, commenting on the illogicalities inherent in the original fiction, in which a girl who grew up begging for food became an empress.
Shin added more drama and action by transforming Chung's father from an ordinary good-natured farmer into a leading figure who loses his eyesight for refusing to join a rebellious conspiracy plotted by insurgents and lives in hiding as a farmer.
To graphically describe the background scenery, he photographed several Buddhist temples and studied scores of texts about Choson era clothing and customs. "The place where Empress Chung
reunites with her father was the reproduction of Kyongbok Palace", he said.
Technically speaking, the film is not an inter-Korean co-production because Shin's U.S.-based KOAA Films and its South Korean unit in Seoul co-produced it. Nevertheless, it will be marked as the first product of inter-Korean cooperation in the animated film world as some 500 North Korean animators took part in the drawing work.
It was pure coincidence that North Korea became involved in his movie project. He came across officials from the hermit state's April 26 Children's Film Studio or SEK at an overseas film market and made the job offer.
He then visited Pyongyang via Beijing 18 times to put the cooperation project in place.
Asked to describe the North Korean animators, he said: "They were excellent. They were like geniuses".
The North Koreans proved highly adept at realistically expressing a story in pictures, but changes of scene were very slow because they used more pictures per scene than South Koreans do, he explained.
He mentioned a 22-year-old animator who surprised him by realistically describing the scene where Chung's blind father crosses a bridge.
"I cautioned him to think carefully before drawing the pictures because the blind man would never cross a bridge in an upright posture but grope his way forward using his legs. When I asked him how he could describe the scene so realistically, he answered that he experimented with how a blind man would walk with his eyes closed at home".
"I stayed in Pyongyang for about a week each time. I talked a lot while working together with the North Korean animators, sometimes about democracy, which appears to have brought much change to their way of thinking", the Korean-American businessman said.
Asked if there was any censorship of his speeches or activities in Pyongyang, he said: "No, they allowed me to move freely inside the studio building by Taedong river".
Shin said he will work together with the same animators for his next TV animation series about the people of the early Korean kingdom of Koguryo.
"I think there is no question that `Empress Chung
' opened the way for inter-Korean cooperation in the animation industry. I hope it will contribute to enhancing peace on the Korean Peninsula".