By: Mark Russel
Like a lot of young people, I used to be a big fan of animation. Of course, back in the 1970s and '80s in North America, Disney and Warner Bros. dominated the Saturday morning dial, but even then, I realized that a lot of my favorite animated programs were coming out of Asia. I did not know much about those shows, but I could tell they were very different than Western programs that were so much more common.
Cut to the 1990s, and when I finally made it to South Korea, I was pretty psyched to realize how much of my favorite animation, new and old, Western and Japanese, was actually being made there. In fact, at its peak in the mid-1990s, Korea accounted for nearly 50 percent of the world's animation, including "The Simpsons", "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", and "Spongebob Squarepants". Companies like Nelson Shin's Akom worked on animated films like "The Transformers" (the 1986 cartoon, not the Michael Bay explosion fest) and the "My Little Pony" movie.
Korean animators were some of the busiest on the planet back then, however they were mostly subcontracting for other countries, not making their own, original content. Even back in the 1990s, though, animators knew Korea could not remain only in the subcontracting game. Korea was growing richer quickly, and so were labor costs. Meanwhile, the competition from developing countries was growing. Clearly, Korea's days as a subcontractor were numbered.
Fortunately, the Korean government also realized how important a strong animation sector could be (thanks in part of the 1994 report that said over 95 percent of content exports were then in animation). It helped started the Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival in 1995, and provided more support for struggling animation upstarts. And so early on, there push was on to make Korea the creator of original content.
The first attempts to move into original content were mixed at best. Movies like Lee Seong-gang's "My Beautiful Girl, Mari" (2002) won praise all over the world and the Grand Prize at the 2003 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, but did poorly at the box office in Korea (although the film did so surprisingly well on DVD). "Wonderful Days" (2003) excited people with their cutting-edge mix of 2D and 3D effects, but the story was just not strong enough, and the film flopped.
Gradually, however, the animation biz found its legs, figuring out the secrets to strong storytelling and original style. The first big successes were in television, especially with programs geared toward younger viewers (Koreans have always valued educational programming and children's content).
In 1994, there was just one university animation program, but today there are many, and scores of private institutes teaching animation. As this new generation of talent grew up, nurtured by the successes Korea has having in movies, music, and the other arts, they began to produce 3D and other types of animation for the new age.
Today, Korean animation is a $300 million market at home, with $80 million coming from exports. Dozens of animation Korean companies are producing TV series and other content that is popular all over the world, both on their own and in partnership with international companies. "Pororo the Little Penguin", begun in Korea in 2002, soon took off overseas. "Jang Geum's Dream" was a 2006 series that followed up on the hugely popular live-action TV series "Jewel in the Palace" (aka "Dae Jang Geum"). "Mug Travel" was both a TV series and a movie release.
Redrover's 3D series "Bolts and Blip" in particular has done well, making it onto TV around the world, with another program, "The Nut Job" on its way. "Bolts and Blip - Movie" will be released as a feature film.
Korean animators are also an important part of the top Western animation companies, such as Yeon In-kyung and Chung Gwang-jo, who worked on Dreamworks Animation's "Megamind". Joh sung-yeon is a prominent animator over at Pixar.
After years of struggle, the Korean animation industry has grown into a major player and creative force in the world. There is still much to be learned, but Korea has a special niche, and will certainly continue to grow and shine.
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