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Interview

PRINCESS AYA Director LEE Sung-gang

Nov 26, 2019
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
  • View425
“I wanted to tell a story about loving again”


Leading Korean animation author LEE Sung-gang, who made My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2002), Yobi, The Five-Tailed Fox (2007) and Kai (2016), took on a new challenge with his fourth feature, Princess Aya. More specifically, he incorporated 3D animation and the ScreenX technology into the musical animation format. Princess Aya, who was born in a small nation, is under a curse that turns her into an animal. Along with Prince Bari from a powerful neighbor nation and to whom she was married for political reasons, Aya unravels a plot hatched by the regent. This film is also the second title made in collaboration with YEON Sang-ho, from Studio Dadashow which is responsible for feature animation The King of Pigs (2011), and REDPETER FILMS CEO LEE Dong-ha, who produced TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) and Psychokinesis (2018). We sit down with LEE Sung-gang, who went to meet the public at the Bucheon International Animation Festival following last year’s Busan International Film Festival, to talk about his new film.

This film marks your second collaboration with YEON Sang-ho’s animation house Studio Dadashow after Kai. When did you start working on this project?
At first, I thought our collaboration with YEON Sang-ho would be limited to Kai. First, the project of the film Kai was made possible thanks to its low budget, and yet, the box office results weren’t really good. It was a big disappointment. On top of that, after completing work on Kai, even Dadashow was in a position where it was worn out, because they have been making animation for a long time. And so I thought, “I’d better be quick to pitch my next project to them before Dadashow and YEON Sang-ho grow more tired… While he’s still in the confusion”. (laughs) Fortunately, the likelihood of investment from the CJ CGV ScreenX team became higher and so we started working on the film.


One of the experiments that stand out in this movie is ScreenX (ScreenX is a screening format that expands the screen onto the side walls of the cinema for a 270-degree projection). It is the first title to make use of the ScreenX format all the way through it, and also the first animation film made for ScreenX. Wasn’t it daunting?
Naturally, this technology was new to me as well. When it was first suggested to me, I wondered how it would be possible to direct an entire movie in ScreenX. And since figuring out how to stage the film with these two side screens was key, I delved into several ScreenX films introduced by CJ CGV. Having watched these films, I could see that it is a technique that expands your field of vision, and that it would be possible to use it as a technique and special effect by taking advantage of the side screens, for instance to make it look like you are crossing a tunnel. We selected such techniques and applied them as we saw fit to the sequences of Princess Aya. That is the extent of my involvement. The people who did the actual 3D animation work have gone through a lot more trouble. Because, you know, at the end of the day that means creating three times as many frames. Close to half of the budget went to making the ScreenX version.

Where did you find the right balance between artistic integrity and mainstream appeal?
I realized with Kai that a film isn’t made mainstream just because we said the focus would be on its popular appeal. When I think about it, Kai had a good storyline. As I see it, it is great both in terms of conflict structure and themes. It’s just that it didn’t do it justice, what with it being a low-budget production, and so we were left with a lot of regrets. Now I think that when the budget is low, even the artistic elements are mainstream enough. There was no need to compromise the artistic vision. That’s why, when we were planning Princess Aya, I said we would have to make up to some degree for all the creative parts that didn’t make it into Kay, and everyone agreed.


With its story and its visuals, the film also recalls your debut, 
My Beautiful Girl, Mari.
Since we didn’t have much budget, we were torn between several drawing techniques. Drawing the frames that look as if painted, as we did for My Beautiful Girl, Mari, seemed doomed to failure. So, we did away with the painting style and opted to add a sense of depth to the drawings by clearly defining the highlights and shadows, in such a way it seems to be cut out of colored paper. Although we paid attention to that aspect, the concept behind the drawings was to maintain a simple sense of color. Such method was very helpful in reducing our budget.

It was also your first experience doing musical sequences. Any difficulties?
At first, people told me to do it by looking at my own choreography. Is that even possible? (laughs) I actually did the choreography for the simple singing scenes in Yobi, The Five-Tailed Fox. But I thought something like that should be done by a professional. So for this film, we looked for a choreographer right from the start. Everyone expected it would cost us a lot, but it wasn’t as much as we thought. The choreographer worked with the team to create the choreography of the musical numbers with the help of videos, and then they built on that to produce the frames. The key point was to make it so that the gestures of the characters wouldn’t look excessive and seem cringey to the viewers.


You have continuously developed until now a universe of films led by teenage boys and girls. Is there a secret to keeping such sensibility?
This film started out from my current desire to escape from my hard life, but, you know, I couldn’t have escaped from reality by drawing old protagonists. (laughs) So the choice of teenage protagonists came about naturally. That period is when we are pure and feel our heart racing for the first time.

This film has many hooks such as the casting of BAEK A-yeon and Jin-young from GOT7. What would you like to try for your next project?
I would like to try making a musical once again. Having tried making one already, I know now how fun it is. Producing animation can also be an extremely tedious job. On the other hand, incorporating musical elements seems to give it a sense of liveliness. For my next film, it would be great if I could put more songs. And also, I would like to make fantasy stories, not realistic ones. I would like to try a bit harder to do love stories too. The structure of love stories is simple. There is a situation where they fall in love for each other, and then they overcome it, whether they understand each other or go their separate ways. However, I guess such a simple plot is the point of the story. Getting people to have a clear understanding of a simple story is something I would like to try harder.
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