On first glance, this might look like any normal office in Korea.
A poster for the American animated sitcom Family Guy hangs on the wall. Not too out of the ordinary. But is Family Guy very popular in South Korea? And looking even closer, where did all those signatures come from?
We’re in the offices of Yeson Animation, one of Korea’s many animation studios that caters to American animation productions. Yeson has been responsible for a wide number of animated coons over the years, including Family Guy.
They’ve also done King of the Hill, about a conservative family in Texas.
As well as The Fairly OddParents, a kids’ show about a boy and his fairy godparents.
And this is only a small sample of the titles done by Yeson.
They are just one of many animation studios in Korea providing services for American productions; I’m struggling right now to name even one cartoon that was animated without any help from Korea since the ’80s, but every show goes back to Korea at some point, even well-known shows like the Simpsons, Spongebob Squarepants, and Dora the Explorer.
In order to understand the role of Korea’s animation industry in some of our favourite western cartoon shows, I contacted Philippe Angeles, the overseas animation director at Yeson. He personally worked on the first season of Family Guy, he was on King of the Hill for most of its run, and he’s done several other shows throughout his time in Korea, to where he moved in 1996.
“In abstract I’m a bridge basically,” explains Angeles. “My job is essentially related to the very wide cultural divide that exists between the West and the Orient in general, and in this case, Korea in particular. What is funny to a Western mind doesn’t seem to survive translation into Korean. Trying to explain a gag or a comedic situation often draws indifferent stares. I must engineer ways to bypass this obstacle, either through personal technical intervention or by installing protocols.”
Case in point, here’s a clip from the first-season episode of King of the Hill, “Westie Side Story” (prior to Angeles coming on board), that might be difficult to explain to a Korean viewer.
“I think Korean TV shows would be more prone to slapstick, and maybe a little less sensitive to language,” Angeles explains. “I like the fact that King of the Hill
has a lot of good language in it. Actually it was very sophisticated and one of the reasons why I miss that show is because the characters had such subtle interaction between themselves and with their world.”
So, Angeles’ job requires him to be a sort of cultural ambassador for his Korean coworkers when it comes to minor cultural differences. “Facial expressions or body language (essential elements in an animation show for adults) are radically different between these two cultures,” Angeles goes on. “That’s one of the most difficult parts actually. Good shows depend a lot on proper body language and expressions — but it’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t understand those expressions to actually visualise them and draw them properly. In most cases, characters’ expressions are obtained without the understanding of the Korean artists.”
And Angeles emphasises again and again, none of what he is saying is intended to reflect badly on his Korean colleagues. Their job is to make a product at top speed without compromising on quality, and in this regard Korea has proven very competitive against other Asian countries such as China and India, who also have similar animation industries but have trouble keeping up with the rigours of a prime time-schedule whilst still providing consistency and good quality. “Korea offers a good compromise between quality and very fast work, in ways that no other country in Asia can offer,” Angeles says.
So, what exactly do Korean animation studios like Yeson do? They generally only handle the latter stages of animation such as layouts and camera, the more time-consuming, labour-intensive tasks, freeing up the creative minds of the show to focus on the creative aspects. “My job is more of a technician’s job,” says Angeles, “but I have to have an artistic background because there’s a lot of troubleshooting that comes into play and I have to be able to make decisions because sometimes there is no time.”
As Angeles describes it, the client provides the following:
-storyboards, which are almost like a comic book of the finished product showing each scene
-character models, prop models, background models and colour indications thereof
-timing sheets, or X-sheets, “the animation version of the score sheets in music, with indications for characters’ acting, their mouths assignments (lipsynchs), camera moves, etc, given frame by frame,” explains Angeles. “Through the X-sheets, each scene is very precisely timed. Typically there is no room for improvisation.”
Now, the Korean animation studio has many little procedures to go through to turn this information into a finished cartoon episode.
“The job of the layout person is to set the stage,” says Angeles. “It will be in the proper perspective, and basically ready to be sent to animation so the animator doesn’t have to work on this level.”
Layouts are a more precise version of storyboards, in which each scene is expanded upon to place the characters in correct proportion with their models and in relation to the backgrounds.
The layout also takes into account different cuts showing characters from different angles or at different distances from the camera. Although animation is a 2D format, many of the models used in this stage are in 3D to help with perspective between camera angles.
Here’s a clip from The Goode Family, a great Mike Judge creation Angeles worked on that was cancelled before it could find an audience. Pay attention to how the camera jumps around, showing different parts of the background that come close to totally encompassing the scene on all sides.
In this stage, the animator prepares the key poses describing the acting and movements of the characters, the props, and special effects such as fire or water. This stage of animation is closely tied with the X-sheets, dictating how many frames are dedicated to each effect. Still, at the end of this stage the images are not fully animated yet. “Characters’ expressions — facial or body language-related — are an extremely important part of the animator’s job,” says Angeles.
Here’s a clip from Allen Gregory, a recent project Angeles was involved in, that shows more attention to character expressions, something that is important at this stage.
The model-checker is basically a proofreader, checking that the characters’ designs follow the models provided by the client. This is a critical moment, because if mistakes are not caught now, they will be far more difficult to fix down the road.
“The foot soldiers of animation,” as Angeles describes them. Their job is to fill in the blanks between the key poses previously made by the animators. They must animate the characters fully from one key pose to the next.
One of the key tasks in this stage is animating head turns. Think about how much effort it must take to animate an action as simple as a character turning his or her head. Check out this clip from Family Guy (season 7, long after Angeles’ time on it) where Peter’s dancing creates a lot of work for the inbetweeners.
Ink and Paint Department
At this stage, the animations are given colour, a stage which still requires a lot of oversight.
The background department colours the backgrounds provided in the layout stage according to the background models provided by the client.
In this stage, the animated figures are combined with the background as directed by the X-sheets. Once this stage is finished, the animations are ready to be rendered in video, and the product is shared with the client.
Here’s a clip from a recent episode of the Simpsons (which has been animated by many studios, mainly AKOM and Rough Draft) that must have taken a lot of work at this stage.
The client reviews the shots and may call for revisions to correct errors or enhance quality. “This stage is called the Retake stage, always a painful one…” Angeles says. A great deal of care must be taken to ensure that the final product meets the needs of the client to ensure a successful episode.
“Right now I’m checking layouts, and then animation, and even inbetweens — that’s a lot,” Angeles explains. “You have to set up strategic checking points where you do not constitute a bottleneck. One very important thing that I have to do is that I must not endanger the workflow or even bother the studio’s capacity to deliver on time.”
The two goals of a Korean animation company are meeting deadlines and producing quality animations. It is an incredibly streamlined process, removing all unnecessary diversions and rendering its animators essentially assembly line workers — only here the assembly line is digital and the products are entertaining animated characters. Creative input is planned out of the process, leaving most of the big decisions to the overseas client.
“The way the industrial line has been set over decades leaves very little room for creative decisions at the animation stage,” Angeles explains, which is the way animators here prefer it. Their job is to faithfully show how things happen, rather than why, bringing to life the vision of the creators and reliably bringing an epsiode from start to finish.
So, that might not make the Korean animation industry sound too glamorous, but they enable others to do an even better job. You may be familiar with the Simpsons opening sequence created by anonymous artist Banksy (and animated begrudgingly by AKOM) depicting an Asian animation sweatshop which resembles a dungeon incorporating child labour and exploiting pandas, dolphins, and even unicorns.
Although the sequence pokes fun at a number of Asian cultures simultaneously, it was animated by Korean animation house AKOM. In fact, the animators AKOM protested being asked to animate the sequence. AKOM founder Nelson Shin told Time Magazine: “Most of the content was about degrading people from Korea, China, Mexico and Vietnam. If Banksy wants to criticize these things … I suggest that he learn more about it first.” He lobbied to soften some of the jokes, and managed to remove the pointy Vietnamese-style hats that Koreans have been wrongly stereotypes as wearing ever since M*A*S*H.
However, Angeles doesn’t have as much of a problem with it, and doesn’t see it as directly making fun of South Korea. “I think it was an amusing (and yet accurate methinks) take on the perception westerners have of developing Asian countries (of which South Korea does not belong any longer),” he explains. “The panda points to China, evidently, although I do not entertain the notion that westerners would make much difference between any of the East Asian cultures. It was so funny and cruel. And funny.”
Whether or not that was Banksy’s intention, there are misconceptions about the animation process in Korea. Animation is done in high-tech studios by professionals, not sweatshops, obviously, and no dolphins are harmed in the making of an episode of the Simpsons.
The country is swiftly becoming visible for its contributions to these cultural products, but there is still a lack of domestic awareness of these Korean-animated shows over here due to underexposure to American TV. I think it’s gradually changing, particularly with the Simpsons; in a recent episode, fans in Korea noticed the appearance of Korean foods during a musical sequence.
As the professional ranks of the American animation industry is steadily filling up with Korean talents, I think we’re seeing the beginning of something. Korean names are claiming the top spots in a number of American TV shows, such as Peter Shin and Kyounghee Lim, so who knows what we’ll see down the road. A more conspicuous Korea in western pop culture, certainly.
But in the meantime, let’s just enjoy the cartoons.