Currently working as layout and lighting artist for high-profile computer animation studio Pixar Joh Sung-yeon has come a long way from her studies in printmaking at Hongik University.
Here in Seoul for the "Pixar: 20 Years of Animation" exhibition, Joh talks in a lighthearted manner about her decision to go into the field of computer animation.
"I like trying different things out", she said during an interview with The Korea Herald. "After high school, I did printmaking. And when I went to America to study abroad, I saw that there was a field for animation".
Joh enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and majored in art and technology. For her master's thesis, she created the award-winning 3-D computer animation short, "Grandma" (2000).
With talent and guts to boot, the bold graduate made 50 copies of her thesis and sent it to various festivals.
"I sent it to major festivals and to events where the application fee was cheap", she explained.
By main festivals, she means events like the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, which screened her short in 2001.
Joh Sung-yeon [Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald]
"I just applied to Sundance. There were no requirements".
The judges at Sundance liked what they saw and so did about 20 other film and animation-related events, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival (2000) and the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival (2001).
Joh attributes part of the success of her short to Indiestory, a Korean independent film distribution company: "Indiestory contacted me. They wanted to distribute 'Grandma'."
Thanks to Indiestory, "Grandma" attracted more attention. She ended up walking away with four awards for her endearing tale about a grandmother and a little girl.
"While living in the States, I missed my grandma", recalled Joh. "My grandmother was born in 1911. She went through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. I turned all those hardships into a fantasy".
In this movie, grandmother and a girl take a journey into the ocean and encounter some wicked fish. They are determined to steal the grandmother's spirit, so they attack her and the little girl. But grandma fights back and wins.
Coincidentally, Joh is raising a Betta fighting fish at home. Also known as a Siamese fighting fish, and not unlike the evil creatures in her animation, the Betta are very aggressive pets.
"You can only raise one at a time", said Joh. "They fight to the death".
Unfortunately, Joh couldn't attend the Sundance Film Festival. She had a very good excuse.
"When Sundance was underway, I was doing my first month at Pixar", she explained.
Shortly after graduating, she sent a VHS copy of her thesis to Pixar. They contacted her and, in 2000, she joined the company.
"(Pixar is) comfortable, free and fun when I'm working", she said. She has been with the studio for over six years.
Her duties include handling staging, camera movement, composition and lighting. Her most recent project was the highly successful "WALL-E" (2008). But another one is dearest to her. "I like 'Finding Nemo' most out of all the films that I did. It was the first movie I did from beginning to end".
She has worked on five Pixar films, including "Ratatouille" (2007) and "The Incredibles" (2004). Aside from her full-time job doing layout and lighting, Joh keeps her creative juices flowing by making picture books.
While she would like to do another film such as "Grandma", she's happy helping Pixar make animation magic.
"The world Pixar creates is real, you know", she says, eyes shining. "It has shadows. It happens like it's real, right before your eyes".
By Jean Oh