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Korean Computer Animators Rising to Challenge Hollywood

2007/08/13 Source

The recent turnaround in Korea's movie industry is helping local producers of computer graphics (CG) to challenge the world. "D-War", a sci-fi monster flick produced completely with Korean CG technology, is expected to record five million viewers in just 10 days of release. In addition, Korean software garnered rave reviews at the world's top CG show this week. In other words, a Korean CG company has formally thrown down the gauntlet to Hollywood.

"The Host" was last year's biggest blockbuster, drawing over 13 million movie fans. Its computer graphics, considered to have played a major role in the success of the film, were all done in the U.S. The visual effects in "D-War", on the other hand, were made totally by domestic CG company Younggu Art.

The highlight of "D-War" is when an extremely real-looking imoogi, or Korean serpent, terrorizes downtown L.A. and snakes up a skyscraper. The dynamic scene was made possible by linking an imoogi made by 3-D CG technology with actual shots of the city.

Younggu Art was designated an Advanced Technology Center by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy in 2004 for its expertise in 3-D visual effects. The company is closely guarding the details of its work, being very cautions about its know-how amid growing attention following the release of "D-War".

It's been less than two years since computer graphics were fully adopted by domestic films. In that relatively short period, the quality of Korea's work has almost reached that of "The Lord of the Rings" or "Spider-man". A case in point is "Digital Actor" made by the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute at a cost of W30 billion (US$1=W931). The actor, much like Golum from "The Lord of the Rings", was made entirely by computer graphics.

The public first got a look at the technology behind "Digital Actor" last year in such films as "For Horowitz" and "Hanbando". In "The Restless" the technology was used to create a digital facsimile of Jung Woo-sung, the film's main actor, falling from 10 m above the ground.

Last April ETRI's "Digital Actor" development team opened research center Macrograph. "In terms of technology alone, domestic CG is only about 10 percent behind that of Hollywood", said Lee In-ho, a representative of the research center. Macrograph recently signed a deal to work on "The Forbidden Kingdom", the latest project by Rob Minkoff, the director of "The Lion King" and "Stuart Little".

Computer graphics usually account for about 10 percent of a movie's total production costs. However, CG adds tremendous potential value as computer-created characters can be turned into games and toys when a movie becomes a blockbuster.

The international computer animation market is estimated to be worth around US$55 billion. Korea's current market share, however, is a meager 3 percent. A bigger problem is the fact that most of the CG software being used in Korea comes from overseas, making Korea just another profit source for foreign companies. If Korea is to fully compete with the U.S., it must come up with its own software that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with American programs that aren't even being sold commercially.

There is some hope in this regard, with a Korean CG software product earning glowing reviews at a recent international show. In the movie "The Restless", a digital actor wears clothes made of many layers of thin cotton. Not too long ago, Korea CG software wouldn't have been able to create the look of layers of cloth blowing in the wind. However, the film's CG team developed a program called Qualoth specifically to animate clothing.

The software was developed by Seoul National University's Professor Goh Hyung-suk and his team, and a fashion show using models wearing layers of thin silk, the effect created by Qualoth, was played at SIGGRAPH in 2002, the world's leading CG exhibition. Reviewers were so impressed they said the effect was far better than those seen in "Monsters Inc". and "Shrek".

Another Korean program has been designed to depict flowing water. At SIGGRAPH 2007 in San Diego, an animation of a glass of beer made with the software was a big hit. ETRI's Gu Bon-gi and his team perfectly recreated the look of the beer's bubbling froth.

"Waves crashing on the shore in movies like 'Superman' were made with CG software", said Dr. Gu. "We decided to challenge froth, which is considered the most difficult of all fluids to express with CG, in order show that our technology is better than American technology". The froth software has already been sold to a local film studio.

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