• Interview


After Venom, Thanos and Payakan, The Time Has Come for Korean Creatures

Mar 28, 2023
  • Writerby Bae Dongmi
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Chang Jungmin, Modeling Artist on AVATAR and Managing Director and 3D Production Head at VA Studio


What would a CGI creature look like in a Korean film if it was made by the very same VFX artists who worked on <Avatar>? Many would rush to the nearest theater to see it with their own eyes. We do not have to wait long to see it happen. Chang Jungmin, a 3D modeling artist who worked on some of the visual effects in Hollywood blockbusters <Avatar>, <Avatar: The Way of Water> (hereafter referred to as <Avatar 2>), <Avengers: Infinity War>, <Avengers: Endgame> and <Spider-Man 3>, was scouted by Korean VFX company VA Studio (hereafter referred to as VA) as a managing director and head of 3D production. This is a good news for the industry, as well as for him, as he hopes he could "contribute to the development of the CGI industry in Korea." We met Chang Jungmin just four days after he left New Zealand’s VFX company Weta Digital, where he worked for 16 years. In his backpack, he was still carrying a copy of the <Avatar 2> art book that his colleagues gave him as a parting gift.




This is your first time in Korea after 6 years spent in New Zealand. Isn't the weather too cold here?

= This January, I took a month off, the first vacation I took since I joined Weta 16 years ago. I stayed in Korea for a month, so I’ve re-acclimated myself already.


- And how are you doing these days?

= I’m finally back in Korea, 23 years after I left in 1999. As I am still not done settling into my new house, my mind is already busy planning what I will do at VA. Research and data analysis for the project assigned has already begun, and we are currently in need of visual artists, so we are recruiting. Since my knowledge and skills will naturally be different from those of our employees, I also have to run some training sessions.


- Are you planning some sort of seminar for your staff?

= Instead of holding one or two long seminars, I would rather instruct our employees so that they can improve their skills every day. I would like to establish an environment where every employee can find some satisfaction working with us and be excited about our next projects.


- When you appeared on tvN's show <You Quiz on the Block> on February 8th, you said that you were working at Weta, and now you are the Managing Director and Head of 3D Production at VA Studio. How did you feel when you quit Weta, where you have dedicated that many years of your life to?

= To be honest, nothing special. My friends there also asked me several times, “How do you feel like after working there for 16 years?” But my answer was always the same: "Nothing special, surprisingly." (Laughs) Whether this is because I see this as nothing more but the continuation of the same VFX job I’ve been doing, or because of my plan for the future, or even because my brain doesn't have the space to process all this, really. Even when I was on my flight back to Korea, all I did was work: researching, organizing appointments and to-do list for the coming weeks.


- Was <Avatar 2> the last film you worked on at Weta?

= We already finished working on <Avatar 2> in the middle of November 2022. After that, we worked on other titles. <Godzilla> series are in preparation for Netflix and I did some CGI work between then and my Christmas time off. After I returned, I worked on some creatures for <King Kong> series.


- You seem to have found your niche with 3D creature modeling.

= I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the case. Most of my time is spent on modeling digital characters. For instance, I created digital doubles (CGI characters modelled after an actor in order to digitally replace them in stunts that would be too difficult or dangerous to film with practical effects – Ed.) of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) for <The Hobbit> trilogy, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for <Avengers: Infinity War> and <Avengers: Endgame>.


- You said that you usually spend a lot of time studying muscles and bone structures to make your characters look realistic. The character of Ronal (Kate Winslet), which you worked on for <Avatar 2>, is a pregnant woman. How did that aspect change your approach?

= Actually, Ronal was not that difficult. That said, her pregnant belly is never the same from one sequence to the next. Director James Cameron would demand a little more belly in one sequence, and then in another sequence he would find it to be too protruding and ask for it to be downsized. As for the muscles, I had to render a lot of them for the fight between Colonel Quaritch (Steven Lang) and Jake (Sam Worthington). Cameron’s direction was to make the two characters look like martial arts fighters, when they are choking each other and delivering punches, I had to do a crazy amount of the work only for their arm and leg muscles. You cannot see it clearly because it is an underwater scene blurred by foam and quick movements. But without these articulated muscles moving, the audience will instantly know it is CGI. To see the final version of that scene looking natural and not clashing with the rest was extremely satisfying. Cameron appreciated the result as well.


- You also supervised the character models of Tsireya (Bailey Bass) and Aonung (Filip Geljo), the children of the chief of the Metkayina clan. Was there anything you paid particular attention to while working on these young characters?

= Compared to adult characters, these ones have a skin with no asperities or wrinkles, and their muscles are less developed than those of adults. I mostly referred directly to the body frames of the respective actors.


- I instantly found the character of Tsireya beautifully designed, despite some initial distinctiveness as Mackayna clan. She is a character we have never seen before.

= In the concept arts (illustrations conceived in pre-production. -Ed.), Tsireya looked different. More like a goldfish, or even an alien. That's why I tried to create a model that looks cuter than the concept arts and to keep the features of the actress. My work on this character wasn’t difficult, and I was very satisfied with the final version once the texture was applied. And she looked beautiful.


- You seem to pay a lot of attention to the features of the actors. Seeing the beauty mark in the corner of Ronal's lips, I could immediately recognize the actor, Kate Winslet, who did the motion capture performance for this character.

= Exactly. I decided to render it because Kate Winslet has a beauty mark right there.





- James Cameron probably had already approved Tsireya’s appearance from the concept arts, but he must have liked the way you designed her model even more, no?

= Other companies stick to concept arts, but Weta always strives to improve. If I find the concept arts lacking, I don’t hesitate to tell the director, “This is going to be an uphill battle if this is what we are aiming for. We need to incorporate some of the original features of the actor if you want this character to look realistic and recognizable.” I have yet to meet a single director who doesn't like this idea. Because in the end, it all serves the movie.


- Could you talk about the creatures Akula and Payakan?

= Akula is a creature whose design was based on the shape of a shark, with a three-pronged mouth. It’s easy to miss it in the movie because the mouth never stays open long, but there are a lot of details that went into that mouth alone. It was originally planned for me to only work on Akula, but my friend who was supposed to work on Payakan left Weta and so I had to take over his job as soon as I finished working on Akula. (Laughs) Normally, working on a creature takes longer than a digital character. However, Akula was completed in 4 weeks. In case of Payakan, it took eight weeks. We had to create a system for the mouth, like the inside has to open up as well when the outer mouth opens. In addition, the scales had to be rendered like a mosaic, but for the simulation to work well underwater, the scales had to fit perfectly, without a single overlap. There was also a sequence where one character goes inside Payakan's stomach and finds its neural spine, so we had to show the inside entirely. Because of all these aspects, Payakan is the creature I spent the most time working.


- You did a lot of projects at Weta, so I was wondering for which character do you have the fondest memory.

= I Payakan is the most memorable one. Payakan is such an important character in the film. It is not every day that you see a creature like Payakan, an original character, with its own arc.







- Your father, Chang Wan, is a painter. He was trained to the Western style. So you were in contact with visual arts at an early age, yet you did not major in fine art.

= I could see first-hand the life of a western-style painter is not easy. My father also ran an art academy – he knew trying to make a living as a painter might mean condemning yourself to a lot of troubles, unless you become a world-greatest artist. The second reason I did not choose fine art was because my father is allergic to the oil paints. Oil paint is very pungent, and it would give me a headache every time I entered his studio. Even though both of my parents are painters, I hated getting my hands soiled with anything since I was little. If you draw, your fingers will all turn black from a pencil or charcoal. If you paint in the Western style, it’s impossible not to get paint on your hands. When you sculpt, you have to use clay, so your hands get all cracked. Still, what I could do best was drawing. I figured it would be appropriate for me to major in industrial design or visual design instead of fine art. That's how I found myself studying industrial design at Hongik University, only to realize industrial design had the same problem. After the designing part itself, you have to build a real model, but wearing a gas mask to paint was not something I enjoyed. Your hands are ruined, and you may even develop some respiratory diseases. And then computer graphics came into this world! It can be done with a mouse or a tablet pen, and your hands never get dirty.


- The film that made you dream of becoming a VFX artist is Steven Spielberg's <Jurassic Park>. When and where did you first saw this movie?

= I couldn’t talk about my life without mentioning director Steven Spielberg. First of all, in 1978, when I was four, I saw <Jaws> at the Scala Theater (a theater in Chungmuro, Seoul that closed in 2005 – Ed.). With the trained eyes we have today, the shark looks like a doll, but back then it seemed so real. And the impact it had in the industry was enormous. <Jaws> became my favorite movie and I must have seen it more than 20 times. In 1984, <E.T.> was a worldwide hit, and this was once again a movie directed by Spielberg. In 1993, <Jurassic Park> came out to the world. I would often go see movies, so I assumed the movie would be another box office hit even before its release in Korea. I had also read in movie magazines <Roadshow> and <Screen> that the dinosaurs had been created with computer graphics. Before <Jurassic Park>, the majority of creatures in films were made with puppets in stop motion, so <Jurassic Park> was the first time I saw CGI creatures. The first appearance of dinosaurs on screen at Central Theater was surely jaw-dropping. ‘Now we can see real dinosaurs on screen. How can their movements feel so natural and realistic?'


- Isn't it the giant dinosaurs with long necks that appear first in the film?

= That's right, Brachiosauruses. (laugh)


- You still remember the name!

= Well, this is Steven Spielberg I'm talking about! (Laughs) The director who changed my life and led me to the film industry. Watching <Jurassic Park>, I thought how happy I would be if I worked with computer graphics. From then on, I have searched the best path to study CGI. There were a few academies for CGI in Korea at the time, but most of them were only teaching you how to produce commercials. I chose to study abroad as it was the only way to learn the kind of CGI you could see in Hollywood movies.


- That's how you ended up studying at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

= There were many visual effects studios in San Francisco, and some CGI artists who were currently employed there would teach at the university in the evenings. To put it differently, the actual skills and methods employed at visual effects studios were shared directly with the students. And it is at this school that I met my life savior: Professor Kim Seyong, a former modeling artist at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), which made <Jurassic Park>. It was really amazing to see a Korean working for ILM, and I had to take his classes. And I chose to learn more about modeling just like him.


- In which respect did you think so?

= All creatures and digital characters are made of muscles and bones. A modeling artist must know anatomy. These so-called models we create are made of a lot of lines we draw ourselves. How you draw these lines can make or break a creature or digital character. If the number of lines is insufficient, you will end up with an odd shape. Also, all it takes is for one line that should have been drawn horizontally to be drawn vertically, and the whole shape will be wrong and break. I pursued this path with fascination.


- Now it feels like we are talking about medicine.

= I once believed that I could just work as a thoracic surgeon. (Laughs) Anyway, this is how I started majoring in modeling. I’m one of Professor Kim Seyong's third generation of students. And one of his first students was none other than Lee Gwi-han, the CEO of VA Studio.


- After graduating from this art college, you had to make another important life decision: returning to Korea or staying abroad?

= After I started studying modeling, my wish was to see the images I produced on a big screen. So I naturally decided to enter the Hollywood film industry. In addition, I was a very good student. Let’s say when my homework was to draw 10 human body models, I would spend the whole week drawing 30 of them and then submit 10 best among them. When I graduated from Hongik University, my GPA was under 2, but in San Francisco, I graduated with a GPA of 3.9 out of 4.0. Of course, no VFX studios abroad will look at your grades; they hire based on your portfolio. Still, I was diligent and had good performance in class. And as soon as I graduated, I received an offer from Professor Kim Seyong to work together. He was the head of a small animation studio called Wild Brain at the moment. I worked there for three years, and then Lee Gwi-han, who was a supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, asked Kim to dispatch me there because he needed more people with experience for <Spider-Man 3>. With these two vouching for me, I entered Sony to work on <Spider-Man 3>. I wouldn’t say I worked on an important character, but my skills were acknowledged, and I did a lot of work for <Spider-Man 3>. That changed my life.


- Was it your modeling work on Venom (Topher Grace) the turning point?

= Yes. Before working on Venom, I also worked on the Green Goblin (James Franco), along with Korean VFX artist Choi Jangwoo. It turns out that he also graduated from Hongik University's Industrial Design Department, and I remember the two of us working on this together. And then I was assigned Venom.


- Your work at Sony in the US is impressive, so what was your motivation to move to Weta in New Zealand?    

= I also thought I would stay at Sony. However, the <Chronicles of Narnia> series, whose visual effects were supposed to be handled by Sony, was snatched by another company. There were many VFX companies in the UK, and the British government was providing a lot of tax cuts to these companies to support the industry. These companies were then able to lower their bids, and Sony had to face a huge blow when the third The <Chronicles of Narnia> slip through its fingers. There were suddenly too many artists for few projects at work. I even remember spending a month without being given any task, just killing time, still receiving salary. In the meantime, I heard from CEO Lee Gui-han about a film of an unprecedented scale that was in the works. Sony, ILM, and New Zealand's Weta were shortlisted, and it was Weta that eventually won. Weta posted a lot of job ads. They needed many artists due to James Cameron's new film and the video game <Halo>. I submitted my application and Weta asked me to join them. I could have stayed at Sony longer, but I made up my mind to direct my life to a new place. I asked what project I would work on if I accepted, and they said I would be in charge of a film directed by Cameron. At the time, <Avatar> was called <Project 880>, and <Avatar 2> was called <Project 881>. (<Project 880> was a scenario based on an idea Cameron first conceived in 1995 - Ed.) So, I took all my family and we moved to New Zealand.  


- Looking back, were the methods used at Weta different from Sony’s?  

= They are very different. The role and responsibility of the modeling artist is much more important at Weta. Before going to Weta, I had seen <King Kong> in theater, and it was Weta who did the CGI. Even in close-ups, King Kong's (Andy Serkis) face didn’t look strange and the facial expressions remained very natural. King Kong is a gorilla, he has many wrinkles around his eyes. When you want to render rugged details on a surface with CGI, you use a technique called ‘Displacement map’. It's actually like a flat texture, but it employs a method of coloring to make it look bumpy. In other words, it's a technique that tricks our eyes, but I was convinced that King Kong's wrinkles around the eyes were rendered with a displacement map. But then, wasn’t the wrinkles moving three-dimensionally instead of staying flat when King Kong's expression changes? I was there in the theater thinking, ‘Does Weta have any specific technology to modify the displacement map? This is awesome!’ I wanted to know how they did it. So as soon as I joined Weta, I asked them to show the model they used for King Kong. Didn’t I explain earlier that a CGI model is made up of lines? Well, looking at King Kong's model, his face was composed of so many lines drawn so tightly that the screen was almost entirely black. Because the lines were drawn with precision rather than using a displacement map, the wrinkles were rendered more naturally even when they were moving. Weta creates models that have two to three times as many lines as those made by other companies, including Sony. At Weta, the modeling department does a lot more than at other studios, and the modeling artists have a lot more responsibility.  


- What made you decide to leave Weta, where you gained so much experience?  

= One reason was my concerns about the health of my retired parents, and another was that Weta, which I loved so much, has changed a lot. I also wanted to find a position in Korea that would make me feel like I’m contributing. Korean shows have become very popular on streaming services over the past few years. So I thought, with the improvement of the production environment, maybe now is the time where we can finally make movies that feature digital characters or creatures. Last October, on the exact day I started thinking go back to Korea, I got a phone call from Lee Gwi-han. He told me, "I'm moving to Korea as the CEO of VA. Would you like to join? We will have many projects featuring digital characters and creatures, I need your help." I could also relate with the direction CEO Lee wanted for the studio. He was not to limit itself to Korean films but to take on some projects overseas, and I’d like to challenge. VA is one of the companies I wanted to work, and now Lee Gwi-han is joining? I had to get on board, no need to think twice! I was also confident that I would definitely bring some changes to the company.  At Weta, I already had experience working with the best in the field. Other films cannot afford the production value seen in <Avatar> or <Avatar 2>. If that’s the case, I would have to continue to do lower quality work. I didn’t want to do that. It seemed much more rewarding to grow with a company, as partners.  


- I This is a feeling that only those who have already achieved their goals can have.  

= It can be very distressing if a person does not have a new goal. (Laughs) And I've always thought that I should share all the knowledge and know-how I've accumulated. I hope that I could contribute to the development of Korean CGI industry, and VA meets all these conditions. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of a withered heart and go back to square one, dedicate yourself entirely to a new life being content with your job? Now going to work feels like going to a playground. I think about how to have fun, not what to make.  


- Do you have any plan as to how you will operate the system at VA?  

= Korean VFX studios are very different from Hollywood's. Hollywood's VFX studios employ 1,000 people, Korean studios only have one-tenth of its workforce. The key here is how efficiently I’m going to transplant the things I have acquired so far to best suit our situation.  


- I Among the Korean films you've seen recently, is there any that caught your eye for their visual effects?  

= I found the CGI in <The Witch: Part 2. The Other One> and <The Hunt> pretty well done.    


- What kind of work do you plan to focus on in Korea?

= I am good at creating digital characters and creatures. Digital characters or creatures have been done in Korean films, but they never took the center stage. If there is a scenario that is centered on digital characters or creatures, we at VA are confident to handle it, so please contact us. I plan to do everything in my power to produce visuals with a quality on par with Hollywood, and to achieve that, my priority is to train our employees.  


- I can see you have a strong passion for Korean movies and series.  

= Of course. I probably wouldn't have come back to Korea if it was to only work on foreign projects. I hope I can do my part for the growth of Korean contents.  







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