Tito W. James: How long have you been coming to Annecy?
Erick Oh: This is my fourth year. My first time visiting Annecy was in 2009. So this year is almost like a 10 year anniversary visit. It’s been fun as always. I’ve met a lot of friends, colleagues, and co-workers. That’s what Annecy is all about.
TWJ: Tell me how you developed into an animator.
EO: Like a lot of people in the industry I grew up as an animation fan. I loved comics and cartoons. I was raised in Korea by the way. So, I was exposed to Asian animation including Japanese anime at the same time as Western, Disney, style animation. Those were my childhood inspirations and I’ve always wanted to be a part of the animation industry. Everything was smooth and natural almost like I was meant to be this person from the beginning.
TWJ: Did it help that a lot of animation is produced in South Korea? Typically, American studios will come up with the concept and characters and then outsource the actual animation to Korea.
EO: That’s true. However, my opinion Korea is going through a transition. There’s a lot of talented artists there but they’re still figuring out how to create their own original content.
There are many outsourced production companies located in Korea but now they are finding a way to create their own stuff. I think it’s a very exciting time for Korea.
TWJ: I look forward to the boom of Korean animation (Koranime?). South Korean culture is unlike anything else in the world. Obviously there’s the fun stuff like K-Pop but then there are also illustrators like Kim Jung Gi.
EO: Ah yes, Kim Jung Gi!
TWJ: Yeah, his work is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I’d be blown away to see something like that in animation. But I digress. After being a fan how did your animation career come about?
EO: Well, I went to art school and got an art degree in Korea. That’s where I made my first animation by myself and that’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do. Then I moved to the United States and studied film. I was lucky enough to work at Pixar right after school. I worked at Pixar for about 7 years as an animator. I started on Toy Story 3 and worked all the way to preliminary work on Coco. After that I went to work at Tonko House, which is where I am right now.
TWJ: Can you describe Tonko House for our readers?
EO: Tonko House is still a very small company. It was founded approximately four years ago. The company was created by ex-Pixar artists including myself. When I was at Pixar four or five years ago me and several other artists worked on a short film called The Dam Keeper about a little pig and Fox. Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo were art directors at the time and I was serving as an animator. We just teamed up and created this short. The Dam Keeper got great recognition everywhere this biggest was of course an academy nomination. It was sign for us that it was time for us to try something new. It gave us the push to actually leave Pixar and start our own company.
TWJ: The Dam Keeper is quite stylized. Is that look something that Tonko House wants to do moving forward?
EO: Yes and no. We’d like to try a verity of new styles. For example, one of our new projects will be stop-motion. We want to do a full range of techniques including CG, 2D, hand-drawn, and stop-motion. The Dam Keeper describes a lot about who we are as artists but that’s not only who we are.
TWJ: I understand. Everybody loves Pixar’s films but one of the critiques has been that they are stylistically similar across the ages. It excites me that Tonko House will have artistic variety and there won’t necessarily be a house style.
TWJ: I think my first exposure to your work was the short film Heart. I remember seeing that at like 1:00am in college and it freaked me out. What was inspiration for that piece?
EO: That was my thesis project at UCLA after I’d moved to the United States. UCLA was a three-year program. During those three years I had a lot of fun creating lots of short films. The last short film I made was heart.
At that time there was political friction between North and South Korea. This is still an issue, but conflict was ultimately the core theme of Heart. Why do we do this to ourselves to each other? Where does this conflict come from? That was the main subject matter of the film. The short grew and became a way to express any type of conflict. It could be a conflict in your heart. It could be about romance, friendship, family, religion, it could be about anything. The heart is a symbol of what you believe is important and everyone is chasing after that.
TWJ: The characters are very abstract and yet they are very expressive. Do you have a special approach when trying to make inhuman characters feel human?
EO: Wow, I’ve honestly never really thought about that. I’ve just tried to feel it out and do what felt right. This may not be the exact answer to the question but I’ve always been a big fan of metaphors, symbols, and surrealism.
I want to create something that’s very far from what we run into in real life but at the same time is natural and familiar. For the short I was inspired by the inside of the human body, very deep ocean, and outer space. These things already exist in our life. They are a part of us even if they aren’t visible.
TWJ: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
EO: I’m only a few steps ahead of you guys. We’re all still searching for what works and why. You’ll never be completed. At every stage you are exploring. When it comes to aspiring artists, having a voice or vision is the key. Yes, technique and craftsmanship are always important but add on top of that your own perspective. It may sound abstract but I really believe in that.
I get so many reels and portfolios with a lot of great artwork. But I always lean towards someone with a unique voice or vision. How do you find your voice? There’s no answer honestly. There’s so many ways to find your own voice so just look around you, listen to people, see how the world works, and examine your own life. Focus on what you are trying to say through your art.
I would like to thank Erick Oh for taking the time to do this lengthy interview.