Dreams come true, Disney style
Colorblind Kim designing animation characters
By Lee Hyo-won
A child has a passion for drawing but his hopes of going to art school are dashed by red-green color blindness. But our hero does not give up, and decades down the road he is designing vibrant characters at one of the world’s biggest animation studios.
It sounds like the stuff of Disney dreams, but this is the real story of Jin Kim (Kim Sang-jin), the first Korean to become a character designer at the Mickey Mouse empire.
Though he seems to have come a long way, the artist does not seem to mind his inability to distinguish between red and green.
“I’m not sure whether I would have become an animator had I actually majored in art,” Kim told The Korea Times in Seoul, Thursday. “I wasn’t particularly crazy about cartoons or animation, though ‘Peter Pan’ was my favorite film as a child. I think I was very lucky, and one thing led to another.”
The soft-spoken artist was perhaps too humble. His story, like all fairytales, upholds meaningful lessons, and demonstrates the virtue of taking action.
Due to restrictions in local college admissions policies at the time, Kim was unable to enter art school and so majored in economics instead. After graduating, he still had a lingering desire to partake in the creative process. When he came across a hiring notice by a small Korean animation studio he felt it was his calling and put together a portfolio.
He gave it a try, and got in.
“It was a really shabby portfolio, so I imagine they saw potential in my drawings rather than valuing the quality of the work itself,” he said.
Nevertheless, the artist went on to create animations featuring the iconic cartoon dinosaur Dooly and Lotte World’s raccoon mascots Lotty and Lorrie, before moving to Canada to work on TV animation.
Color blindness, in fact, was not a big problem, he says, during his long stint as an animator.
“I thought being an animator was a tailor-made job for me. Some artists do like to use color, but animators mainly create black-and-white sketches for assigned scenes,” Kim said.
How did he get into Disney?
The Canadian studio he worked for closed down, and Kim saw Disney’s hiring notices. Though doubtful about his television animation background he nevertheless gave it a try, and got in. (It seems providence was also on his side as one of the tests involved reinterpreting a scene from his favorite childhood film “Peter Pan”).
After working as an animator on films such as “Fantasia,” “Tarzan” and “Chicken Little,” he debuted as a character designer with the box office smash “Tangled.”
What must aspiring animators keep in mind?
“Creativity is the key. You must make continuous efforts to be imaginative while polishing your drawing skills. Korean artists are often criticized for their lack of originality. So no matter how trivial or technical an assignment seems, artists must try their best to be original.”
Designing the cast of ‘Tangled’
Kim whipped up an interesting cast of characters in “Tangled,” and each member, as intriguing as she/he is, was difficult to design.
For example, Rapunzel was almost saved by a Jack Black-type rather than the dashing -- yet slightly unctuous -- thief Flynn Ryder.
“The template for Rapunzel was pretty much set since Glen Keane planned the film 10 years ago. But the other characters were still a blank slate,” said Kim.
“Designing characters is very different from being an animator. You must look at everything from a larger picture, and make sure that all the characters can harmoniously coexist in one world.
“Though antiheroic, homely characters have been the dominating trend since ‘Shrek,’ I agreed that it would be better to stick with something traditional for Disney. But still I wanted fun, fresh, three-dimensional characters.”
The production thus set out to create “the hottest” hero ever, and all the female staff at Walt Disney were asked to post pictures of their favorite male celebrities. Among them, David Beckham was a particular favorite; fans might be able to discern similarities
between Flynn and the footballer.
But even more perplexing was creating Mother Gothel. “She’s this greedy, selfish woman but at the same time a mother figure to Rapunzel. She’s very complicated.”
It wasn’t until Kim heard the character’s song “Mother Knows Best” that he came up with the 1940s Hollywood screen siren motif.
“The most challenging part is coming up with ideas. Ideas don’t always come at a whim. You have to mull on it day and night. But it’s wonderful, taking part in something new and exciting every day, and moreover, making a living doing something you love.”
And so, Kim returns to the sketching board with new missions to accomplish.
Fans will be able to admire sketches by Kim and other Disney artists at the exhibition, “Dreams Come True: The Art of Disney’s Classic Fairy Tales.” The showcase runs through Sept. 25 at Hangaram Design Museum, Seoul Arts Center, Seocho-dong.