SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- Dubbed the "Godfather of Animation" in South Korea, Nelson Shin is behind such iconic animated characters as the Simpsons, Pink Panther and Transformers. His work also extends to live action, including the famous Star Wars lightsaber.
South Korea's "Godfather of Animation" Nelson Shin
Although he has enjoyed enormous success in the animation field, Shin never received any training. Born in North Korea, he left his hometown and moved South during the upheaval of the Korean War when he was 13 years old.
Shin's AKOM studio now creates many of its own original characters and recently released the animated film "Emperess Chung." Hailed as a step towards greater unity on the Korean peninsula, the film saw a rare collaboration between North and South Korean animators and actors.
AR : Nelson, it's great to have you on the program today. You know, it's quite difficult to know where to begin with you, because you've been responsible for so many of the world's best loved cartoon characters. But I tell you what, let's kick things off with the Simpsons. When you took on the gig back in 1989, did you have any idea that you would end up being such an integral part of something so huge?
NS: We started off with "The Simpsons" animation 18 years ago in 1988 or '89. And in the beginning, nobody realized how big it would be. It was a Matt Groening cartoon, and Gracefilms made it into a program. Then 20th Century Fox got involved and asked me if I could make an animation out of it. At that time, I had already been working in animation for such a long time, but I didn't realize how difficult it would actually be. So, I started to work on it at a very low price. But next year, after one year, I realized that I should have demanded more money for it. I found out later that the Simpsons had the perfect story line, but the work was very challenging.
AR: So now 18 years on, does it still have the same difficulties and the same challenges, or is it a walk in the park these days?
NS: At first, it was difficult because of the cultural differences between Korea and the U.S. A lot of times it was tough for us to catch the actual nuances of dialogue or daily life. The reason why the Simpsons is popular is because the storyline is clearly interesting, and recently we just finished off 400 episodes, which is a large number of episodes.
AR: And is it easier these days to deal with what the Americans want?
NS: Currently in Korea, we are well aware of the American cultural movement. Of course, now it's different from before. I think that these days, a lot of Koreans understand the cultural trends of the U.S. much more because, not only do we work in the animation field, but a lot of people visited the country and also lived there, so I think that there is not much of a cultural gap anymore.
NS: So this is the animation department here. Specially the wall is all yellow, this is the Simpsons, meaning Simpsons. Simpsons all yellow.
AR: Ah, so everybody thinks that the Simpsons are actually, their home is Springfield, but it's not, it's right here.
NS: We get in the all storyboard like that.
AR: So this is what the Americans send over to you, right?
NS: Yes. This is Lisa pushing the door and she comes in... This is sort of the story, you know, so we have like continue showing the story like this you know, like that. Then we put animation here.
NS: This is the complete assistant work too. Like this. (flips pages) This has to be two-second flip. Animators use this flipping for the filling about the timing.
AR: So have you been surprised that the Simpsons has gone on for 18 years? And you've had such a part in it.
NS: Yeah yeah. The story is amazing because we have to draw every episode is different, you know, yeah, and also the other one...
AR: Do you hear people say you look like Bart Simpson these days? That's what people tell me.
NS: Yeah, on the side maybe... For example, this one here. Mouth, you know, we have 9, 10, 11, 12, you know, this is about 17 different mouth shots. You know this is an M, mmm...
AR: But the animators who draw these characters, they have to be very experienced right? How many years of experience do they need?
NS: Animator at least more than five years, 10 years, you know. Animators my experience, hardest job in the world.
AR: This is the latest step in the long process, tell me what happens here.
NS: Right. This is all we operating by the digital, so this is a scan here, black and white, line, just only the line scanning. And then we move to here, you know. This the layers. We do layers, some layers have to be underneath, some on top, you know. Then that one comes to, for the painting, yeah, this is for the painting. This one even before they compose it with the background, this only the portion like a level. This means all different levels, so how many levels we have? Probably 20 levels.
AR: Wow, so that's the final step then before it gets sent to the U.S. and voiced, and we see it on our screens. How amazing.
NS: Yea, after that they do recording all the dialogue. They have to synchronize with the drawing, you know.
AR: With the mouth movements and the body movements. Hey let me ask you one thing. Do you remember that Simpsons episode that showed South Korean animation workshop and it showed all the people inside it as slaves? Of course that mustn't have pleased you greatly. What happens if you don't agree with the story line they come up with?
NS: Well you know, that's the difference. This is the Western style. European and maybe American style of the storyline, probably in Korea, we do it different way because it's not, we not living in same culture.
AR: That's very diplomatic of you, I must say.
AR: How come people around the world don't seem to know anything really about South Korea's involvement in international cartoons that are seen all over the world? I mean not only Akom's participation in the Simpsons but also others that you bring to life, like Batman and Dilbert and TinyToons?
NS: At that time I was working in the U.S., Korea adopted the OEM system, which means we produce projects under their brands, with no rights to us. We did the work without any rights. With the OEM system we just got paid wages. There is a reason why this structure came into place. If you look at the history after World War II, a lot of people in the U.S. left their animation jobs for other types of work. There were not enough people in animation.
I went to the States in 1971. When I arrived in U.S. at that time, the three major networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- started Saturday morning shows on a very large scale for children. This was a new movement in U.S. to bring the animation industry to life, but also to educate the children through this. But despite this large movement, there were no people who could actually work on the animation, which is why most of the work went to Taiwan, Korea and Japan. So because of this reason it may seem that Korea was playing a large role in the animation industry, but a lot of the animators in Korea actually started off by learning and working for these American shows.
AR: Nelson, it's not just cartoons is it? Apparently you also came up with the idea of the light saber for Star Wars? Exactly how?
NS: At that time, I was working for a company in the States, and my manager called me in one day asking if I could work on the effects of the live action for the film. So what we did was they brought in the Star Wars clip causing effects, and asked me if I could draw the light saber with the animation. I first got to learn about a device called the rotoscope, in which you put the film in the camera, shed the light on it, and then it shows on the animation table. Then, you trace the live action drawing parts. People from Lucas Film came to pick it up.
I explained to them since the light saber is light, and the light should look a little shaky like fluorescent tube. I suggested that when printing with optical printer, one frame should be inserted so that one could be printed much lighter than the other. By that way, it would look like a fluorescent tube or laser. I also asked them to pass on the information that when adding the sound, a degauser, which is used in deleting tapes, should be placed on the top. Then, this device would make sound, because it has magnetic field like light streaming.
So that's how the light saber came to life. In fact, I did not need one month, but finished it in a week. My company was very surprised because I finished it within one week. When people from the Lucas Films picked it up, they put me into the director's chair. They showed the product from behind with over the shoulder on the small screen, and it was excellent. I did not expect such effects at all. The team had followed my advice on adding sound, and on using an exacto knife to cut the paper to give a very sharp look of light.
They asked my opinion about it. Since my vocabulary was not good at that time, I said, oh, it's ok. I should have said, oh, it was really great. They said it was more than ok. At that moment, I felt that I should learn how to express my feeling with more excitement. Lucas film sent some people 3-4 times to scout me with generous offers. But at that time because Star Wars was just released and I didn't realize it would expand into a very long series. I refused their offers because I was not sure about moving into a new field.
AR: Your experience also opened the door for you to work on those marvelous Pink Panther shorts, which I still think are among the best cartoons ever made. What was it like working on something that now has such a cult following?
NS: In LA, I started work as an assistant because I thought it would be better for me to do the animation. Since I came to U.S., I thought I should work for famous animators, learning at the same time. I was drawing the middle part that the other animators left out. I was making enough money at the time. I don't know how these people found out, but I was offered a job with generous money from a company which was drawing Pink Panther. The people there after seeing my work, they asked me, you are such a good artist, why do you insist on doing assistant work? And the president offered me work and told me to work on animations instead. I stayed there for six years and worked on Pink Panther short films and commercials as well, and Pink Panther is still a character I'm very attached to.
NS: So maybe I can draw Pink Panther for you.
AR: That would be great!
NS: Quick sketch.
AR: I know that Pink Panther has a special place in your heart. Is he your favorite character to draw?
NS: Oh yeah, yeah, because I really like Pink Panther long time.
AR: I don't think I've ever had anybody draw me before. I'm a little bit scared, I have to be honest.
NS: You have a great smile.
AR: Thank you, sir! Oh my god, this is too cool, me and the Pink Panther. And you can do it so quickly as well, 'cause you've done it however many millions of times?
NS: Yeah, I forgot now, but anyway I can draw something for you. Now this is his hand over your shoulder.
AR: This is gonna get pride of place in my house. I'm gonna get this framed. An original Nelson Shin.
NS: And the other one, this is your finger, ok? So you hugging him on back, you know?
AR: Do you miss not drawing him anymore for TV?
NS: Yeah, it's kind of miss, but I'm so busy... Now they become businessman instead of artist, you know? But sometimes returning to draw something with the oil painting. I'm actually from oil painting artist at the beginning, I put Nelson Shin in Korean and signature, Nelson Shin. What's today? What do you think?
AR: I love it, thank you so much!
NS: Pink Panther is actually me, ok?
AR: Ha ha, Nelson that's fantastic, thank you! I love it! Thank you very much!
AR: So this is your creative department then, Nelson, which must be really nice that you're in charge of your own destiny here. You don't have to do what somebody else tells you to do. This is your latest series, right? And it's meant to be the Wizard of Oz, except in a cartoon series.
AR: I can't believe no one's ever come up with this before.
NS: Well, always we have to get something new. But it's kind of hard to do, you know, because need a lot of people, so we creating this over a year or so.
AR: I guess you've got all the same characters there, right? You've got Dorothy and Scarecrow and Toto and the Tinman. Who's this?
NS: This is Jun.
AR: There was no Jun in the Wizard of Oz!
NS: No, yeah, this is new. This guy gonna help Dorothy. Yeah.
AR: And he's meant to be her boyfriend, I suppose?
NS: Yeah, yeah. That's the main, you know. Still we creating lot, you know. This is maybe some of them, 50 times we try to make the right personality look characters.
AR: I guess, you know, talking about concepts that you've come up with yourself, Transformers -- perfect case in point, right -- I mean you started that from scratch and made it into a TV series?
NS: Twenty years ago I created all the concept, color concepts and the decepticons and all the robots because, well, we didn't know which one is which. So I made autobot is orange color and decepticon is purple color.
AR: Ah, takes me back. Transformers, robots in disguise.
AR: Behind me here are characters from your movie "Empress Chung," which was recent in the last couple of years or so, and it was the first full-length feature you did entirely from scratch, right? You wrote the script for it even. It was really your baby. Tell us about your experiences of doing that movie.
NS: I've been working solely on animation for 47 years. With such a long experiences, if I just continue OEM production, it puts down my dreams and hope as a creator. I cannot fulfill my dreams by taking OEM work from overseas. At first, we didn't make "Empress Chung" only for Korea. Actually, when we started, we initially targeted Hollywood and Europe as well with the international story line rather than a Korean storyline. For instance, I raised a dog in the studio. It was originally a Korean dog called SapSalGae, which is included in the Korean story. We also have a turtle in our studio, which is included in the story as well. A bird called Finch which is included as well. Since this bird was too small, I had it enlarged with a brush. This piece of work is based on a Korean story, but targeted for an international audience.
At the same time, the Korean peninsula has been divided for more than 55 years, almost nearing 60 years now. I am working now in South Korea. I thought it would be better if half of the film was made in Pyongyang instead of making the whole film in South Korea for the sake of cultural exchange. Of course, the government is not interested in me. Personally, since we were making a Korean film, I though it would be good if both Koreas could work together. So, I met some people from North Korea in an overseas market called Mid-Asia, raised this idea and they agreed. In fact, I went to Pyongyang with it many times personally. Production was made in North Korea and planning was done in the South. After the production, I took it back to the South and finalized the cost in. Therefore, this movie has significant meaning. It is not simply making a Korean film, but introducing both Koreas overseas culturally through a film. This was a fantasy that was realized.
AR: We remember when everybody was talking about the Korean wave in the 1990s, when it really took off and it involved movies and pop songs and also animation, but it seems to be on the wane at the moment. Do you think that it still has the same influence -- Korean animation that is -- in other parts of Asia and indeed the world?
NS: Currently the amount of work from the U.S. has great effect on South Korea. They just focused on work. Now, the work from U.S. has slowed down, and work started to go to Southeast Asia. People who worked hard previously have left as the workload from U.S. decreased. Currently, new development in South Korea is there are about 160 universities with animation classes. Many students study animation. I do not know where roughly 6,000 animation graduates per year from these universities go, but they do not come to our industry. A lot of them, a large part are probably doing 3D work or either involved in character development for commercials, some of the people are involved in production domestically, but there is not enough work. It's tough to make a living in this industry in South Korea at the moment, as a lot of the OEM work is sent to Southeast Asia.
NS: This is you. That's your picture right? It's beautiful, beautiful lady. Then one style like Simpson drawing.
AS: I look like Apu's sister on my way for a shift at the Quick-e mart.
NS: This is almost like, exactly you, see? Then another one. This another version from the other artist, and here's another one here.
AS: Oh my god! That's Marge. I'm Anjali, it's Marjali. Thank you so much, oh that's fantastic. I feel very honored indeed, thank you very much, that was marvelous, thank you! E-mail to a friend
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