Interview with the leading force of K-animation, Jae Myung Yoo of Studio Mir
"One petty scribble changed my life," The leading force of K-animation industry loved by Netflix
Studio Mir, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has now grown to be a partnering studio of Netflix, one of the most influential global streaming services. The success story of a man behind this boutique Korean animation studio would have been easily criticized as a "cliché Korean dream" if it were a film scenario. We met the man of this story, Jae Myung Yoo, on the last 3rd at Chungmuro, Jung-gu, Seoul.
- You became a master animator thanks to a piece of scribble in class. Your life story feels like a fantasy from a comic book.
I had to make a living, that's all. It wasn't that of a grand dream like you see from a comic book. I got into an animation studio because I was hooked by 1000 bucks they offered. And to be honest, that sheer stability of monthly pay was something you can't resist (laugh). Having a big dream is important, yes, but doing what you are best at is crucial. I say this to the newcomers to set achievable goals for a living, instead of chasing grandiose dreams.
- But your career tells me that it's more than a means of living.
I recall my first breakthrough in the US animation industry. I made a directorial debut for the Jackie Chan Adventures 1999 animation, starring and following the story of action star Jackie Chan. Then I won an Emmy award for best animation on Nickelodeon's "The Avatar: The Last Airbender." One thing led to another, and we worked for Riot Game's League of Legends and Legend of Korra, a sequel to The Avatar: The Last Airbender. I didn't mean to brag about myself, but here I am.
A perfect success story of a high-school graduate didn't have a hopeful start. He had to overcome the stereotype of Korean animation studios being the service work company, which was prevalent among the global content industry. "Korean animators are skillful but not creative" was a decade-old impression. So he had to start with breaking down this stereotype. Yoo mentioned that there is actually a fine line between the US's creative work and Korean's actualization skills, and "in fact, we didn't even try to challenge ourselves because we were already limiting ourselves that we are not capable."
- Was it difficult to be free from the "work-for-hire" label?
It was around when we began the production of <The Avatar: The Last Airbender> from the studio before Mir. Back in those days, we only said three sentences, "Yes, Of Course, Why Not." We did as were told, literally. But suddenly, it dawned on me, "why should we?" We had confidence that we could do better if we can handle the preproduction as well, creating lively characters, settings, and the story ourselves. We even proactively proposed our ideas from character development.
- So how did it turn out?
We were actually surprised they accepted our proposals easily. Their culture is open to new, better ideas. Come to think of it, we were the ones who framed ourselves that we are not creative enough. That framing is quite something.
- That change of thinking led to you as the CEO of a small animation company working closely together with Netflix, so what is this show that you are working on?
It is Witcher, one of the most popular original Netflix shows, with over 76 million views worldwide last year. We are currently making an animated film. Even the CEO of Netflix Wilmot Reed Hastings praises Witcher that "it will continue for many, many years to come." It was definitely a hit for them, announcing its view counts, which is a very rare occasion.
- That's really something to celebrate.
The key to this collaboration is not that it is a Netflix show, but that Studio Mir is helming the entire production from developing designs, settings, and storyboard. This means that we are acknowledged as artists rather than a service company, which is really important for the whole Korean animation industry.
- So we shall look forward to seeing this dragon(Mir: Ancient Korean word for dragon) soaring to the sky someday.
Korea had a late start, but we are on the right track in terms of every field, such as POP, Webcomic, games, etc. As K POP has risen to its popularity by making a new trend combining ours and global pop trends, K-Animation will rise to the mainstream in the global market. Though we are just out of the starting line, I really make a haven for cartoons, webcomic, and animation, like the San diego's Comic-Con, aka. Geek's wonderland.
It all started with one sketch that made him CEO of a renowned animation studio. What would be the next picture he has in store for us? Yoo’s grand scribble for 2020 is just getting started.