Posted : 2013-07-23 17:01
Updated : 2013-07-23 17:01

Mr. Go's visual effects master talks about his 3D gorilla

Ling Ling

Jung Sung-jin, visual effects director of "Mr. Go," poses at the office of his company, Dexter Studios, in Paju, Gyeonggi Province.
By Yun Suh-young

Huh Young-man's "Mr. Go," a tale about a gorilla who goes on to dominate Korean baseball, was a cartoon character that seemed impossible to portray on-screen without using animation. That was, of course, before it was actually done.

"Mr. Go," a three-dimensional (3D) film, was a highly anticipated work because of the sophisticated computer graphics required, which hadn't previously been a strong point of Korean cinema.

Thanks to a talented team led by Jung Sung-jin, the film's visual effects director, Mr. Go matches expectations and then some.

The digitally-created protagonist Ling Ling, a circus gorilla who becomes a baseball prodigy, is stunningly believable, from his movements, to his expressions, to the swirling of his fur, which display an attention to detail comparable to that in a Pixar film.

The movie, which was filmed entirely in 3D, took three and a half years to make and a budget of 22 billion won (about $20 million), including 12 billion won spent on visual effects. It remains to be seen whether the filmmakers can get a return on their investment in the box office.

Jung sat down with The Korea Times to talk about his now-famous digital gorilla and the struggles he went through to create him.

Employees at Dexter Studios.

Q: You have been credited for the visual effects of highly-reviewed movies such as "Old Boy" (2003) or "Take Off" (2009). How different were the challenges presented by "Mr. Go?"

A: I think this was about the 80th film I was involved in and it was completely different from any other work I did before.

First of all, it wasn't a movie that was filmed in 2D and later converted to 3D, but was shot in 3D from start to end. This required more sophisticated stereoscopic effects. Not a lot of Korean filmmakers have the experience of handling the required level of technology in works like Mr. Go. We had to figure it out ourselves and that was the most challenging part.

Creating a dynamic, moving animal in 3D was as difficult as it sounds. We wanted to make it as close as we could to a real animal, because if we couldn't, the film would end up looking like a clumsy, children's movie.

We needed a gorilla that looked as if it jumped right out of Africa. Our gorilla also had to express emotions, not in a cartoonish, exaggerated way, but in a way that conveys nuance.

I am confident that that our gorilla is the only one that can express human-like emotions convincingly.

"Mr. Go" revolves around the story of how the circus-performing gorilla, Ling Ling, goes on to dominate Korean professional baseball after being
scouted and signed by the lowly Doosan Bears.
/ Courtesy of Dexter Studios

Q: I heard you created some of the technologies used in the film from scratch. A separate company called Dexter Studios was established to do this. Can you describe these technologies, how they were developed and applied?

A: We thought about using the tools that were already available in the market, but didn't because we found them to be too error-prone.

We ended up creating our own program. It took about a year and a half to research and develop these technologies. We hired six software experts to create the program and were also consulted by Kim Tae-yong of the "Rhythm and Hues Studios," famous for its work in "Life of Pi." This was critical in developing the technology we used to depict Ling Ling's fur. It was a pleasant surprise that one of the influential figures in cinematic computer graphics was Korean.

Q: So the core visual-effect technologies used for "Mr. Go" were previously non-existent in Korea?

A: Yes. The country just doesn't have many experts working in this field. In order to create these kinds of software, the developers have to be outstanding. It's not something that can be done fresh out of college.

Our developers are mostly computer graphic majors from Seoul National University and some have doctoral degrees in the visual simulation field.

But mostly, these kinds of talented personnel study abroad and get a job there. There's no reason to come back because they usually get paid better overseas. There are a lot of Koreans in companies like Microsoft and Pixar. Those who stay in Korea go to computer game companies.

Q: It must have been difficult then to find the right people to work on this film?

A: It was indeed very difficult. We ended up working with more than 500 people on visual effects alone. They were experts from different fields — engineering, art and animation. They shared a passion for doing something that was never done before. We had 14 cooperative firms involved and the entire staff (180 people) from Dexter Studios worked on this film.

Wei Wei and Ling Ling

Q: Can you briefly explain the film-making process in a way that readers can understand?

A: It's a very complicated process but I'll try to make it sound simple. To portray the movement of the gorilla, we installed motion-capture devices on the actor and recorded the movement. Then we digitized the motion data and inserted it into the program inside the studio. This allowed us to re-create the exact same setting as that from the field. We then erased the features of the actor and replaced them with our digital gorilla.

Q: There were two gorillas in the film. Were they created separately? And also, there was a scene where a helicopter flies above a packed baseball stadium as an enraged Ling Ling climbs the scoreboard. Can you describe the making of this scene?

A: The two gorillas are completely different. They were created separately, which means we had to go through the process I just explained twice. If you see carefully, the size of the gorillas and the texture of their fur are different.

The Ling Ling on the scoreboard scene was created by computer graphics. If you watch the film, there appear to be three different baseball stadiums where the team plays, but actually only one was used for filming. The helicopter, the crowd, the house where the sports agent lives, and the circus in the desert in China where Ling Ling was recruited were all computer graphics.

Q: I heard you visited several zoos to study the gorillas. Did you draw and take memos?

A: I filmed them. I would stay at a zoo for an entire day from morning until it closed. I visited three zoos in Seoul, San Francisco and Tokyo.

I went to Seoul Grand Park every week, but the species of gorillas there weren't exactly the animals I envisioned. Nor could I see them well.

I stayed three days in both the San Francisco Zoo and the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. I just sat there filming and observing. It was honestly a tedious process.

Q: Chinese production company Huayi Brothers invested $5 million in the making of the film. What stoked their interest?

A: I think it's because the main character was a digital creature. The film could go global because it featured animals.

Also, director Kim Yong-hwa is a big name in China, where his previous movies like "200 Pounds Beauty" (2006) were big hits. Kim also had China in mind when he cast Chinese actress Jiao Xu.

Q: Has there been a buzz in China over "Mr. Go?"

A: I think we are getting generous reviews online, especially about the visual elements. Chinese moviegoers seem to be more enthusiastic about 3D movies than the moviegoers here.

Whereas "Mr. Go" is being shown in 5,000 theaters in China and all of them in 3D, only 20 percent of the 1,000 theaters showing the movie in Korea are doing it in 3D.

The Chinese seem to empathize with Ling Ling and Wei Wei (Ling Ling's owner played by Jiao Xu) who came to Korea to earn money after surviving from an earthquake. The Chinese have experienced two big earthquakes recently, so the plot might have touched them emotionally.

Q: What do you think of the future prospects of Korea's visual effects industry?

A: I think the visual effects industry won't confine itself to the domestic market but expand globally and become relevant in bigger markets such as Hollywood or China.

Stereoscopic films like "Mr. Go" should succeed so that more 3D films like these could come out. That's why we feel a lot of responsibility as a pioneer.

I hope the Korean film infrastructure will develop in the process. The younger generation will find and develop their creativity but in order to reflect that on screen, we need a firm infrastructure for the visual effects industry.

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