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  • Seung-hoo IHM, Senior 3D Animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks
  • by KIM Su-bin /  Apr 22, 2019
  • “Acting skills is the most important thing to a character animator”

    Released at the end of last year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has swept the animation categories of the major award ceremonies with its rich and unique style, taking home a Golden Globe, an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award. Senior Character Animator Seung-hoo IHM from Sony Pictures Imageworks was in charge of breathing life to the expressions and gestures of the film’s characters. After a degree in physics, he worked for a while at a video game company until one day, at the age of 32, he suddenly decided to go abroad to study animation. It has now been a decade since he started working as an animator in Hollywood in 2008, contributing to works such as Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Ted 2 and Ghostbusters (2016). As he is now participating in the post-production of The Angry Birds Movie 2, we met with him to talk about his work on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

    What was your role on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?
    I worked as a senior animator for about a year. The team I belonged to mostly developed the acting of the protagonists. Since the acting is extremely important to effectively convey a story, I enjoyed working on it.

    Which scene proved to be the most difficult to animate in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?
    All the scenes were a technological challenge, but if I had to choose one it would be the group fight sequence in the last part of the film. Most of the characters of that scene are fighting in the air, and it had to be represented with dynamic camera work. On top of that, we had to deliver the right emotion and story. And when we were confronted with technological difficulties, just finding the cause would take a great deal of time. We were working with such huge files that there have been instances where the computers crashed and we lost our work.

    Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was acclaimed for incorporating the conventions of comic book storytelling to animation as well as for its fresh style.
    With most 3D animation films, animators simply have to focus on the characters’ motions themselves, but with this film it didn’t consist only of that. We had to insert one by one various elements from comic books, such as sound effects, speech balloons and action lines, and create them by hand. It was done so to make it look as if they were illustrations drawn frame by frame. 

    You have been working as senior character animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks since 2015. How did you come to work there?
    I studied animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California. This school is famously known for its so-called “Pixar Classes”, where Pixar animators themselves teach their trade to the students. The character animation techniques I learned back then drove my career toward Hollywood animation. Sony Pictures, along with Pixar and Disney, has always been in the top five of the places where I wanted to work after graduation, owing to the high quality of the animation features they produce. After seven years of trying, I finally had the pleasure of joining them.

    What kind of work a senior character animator usually does?
    Usually, animators working on a feature length animation handle details such as characters, effects, fixing and crowds. As for the character animators, they focus on delivering the story through the acting of the characters. They convey the story with the facial expressions as well as the body gestures. The title of ‘senior’ is attached to the employees who have been around for a long time and have thus gained a lot of experience. Since in movies we always work on a tight schedule or on extremely challenging scenes, we also have to serve as mentors to the junior animators.

    What competence is the most valuable to a character animator?
    Since we have to portray the emotions of computer-generated characters, the most important thing is acting skills. It also requires patience, because you have to sit long hours at your desk. And given the fact it’s a job where we use 3D software and various technologies, an excellent comprehension of technologies is needed as well.

    I heard that, at the age of 32, you quit your position as a web designer for a video game company to study abroad animation…
    I was working in an office in Korea, and at some point I had the feeling that my life had become stagnant. As I found myself in a situation where my work was getting less and less interesting, with no promotion in sight, I realized I had to find a way out. At first, as I only wanted to take a break, I was looking for a place abroad where to take a language training course, but then I realized that at such a late age it would be worth the time and money to learn something new. And having always dreamed of studying 3D animation abroad, I decided to do just that.

    How did you come to choose character animation as your career?
    At the time, in Korea, the jobs offered in 3D animation were not divided into specializations. There were many positions for people doing both modeling and animation. So when I studied abroad, I took my plane thinking I would learn everything there is about 3D animation, but once I arrived at the school I was told we would all focus on and specialize in one field only. As it was a period where there were a lot of 3D modelers of Korean descent in Hollywood, I too wondered whether I should major in modeling. On the other hand, animation has that fascinating role of bringing to life virtual characters that really touched my heart. The fact that it is a field so difficult to master that even a lifetime is not enough brought out my competitive spirit. Fortunately, a decade later, I can proudly say that I’ve never looked back.

    What kind of film would you like to make in the future?
    I don’t know yet if it will be a personal project or something made within a studio, but if the occasion presents itself I would like to try taking on a leadership role. I would be even happier if such a work would elicit a lot of positive response from the industry.
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