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'Deceiving audiences is our job'

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Hwang Hyo-kyun, left, and Kwak Tae-yong, heads of Technical Art Studio CELL, the country's leading special effects makeup company, pose during an interview with The Korea Times at the company in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province on July 23. Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul
Hwang Hyo-kyun, left, and Kwak Tae-yong, heads of Technical Art Studio CELL, the country's leading special effects makeup company, pose during an interview with The Korea Times at the company in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province on July 23. Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul

Leading special effects makeup company charts new path for Korean films

By Park Ji-won

Over the last 100 years, the Korean film industry has grown rapidly, becoming the fourth largest in the world by box office receipts worth $1.6 billion in 2019, according to a report by the U.S. Motion Picture Association following the U.S. and Canada (combined), China and Japan.

The saga of director Bong Joon-ho's award-winning thriller "Parasite" (2019), which stunned global movie fans by clinching four Oscars after winning a Golden Globe, and the Palme d'Ore at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2019, showed Korean cinema's potential for success. It became the first Korean film to win at the Oscars.

Along with Bong, a few Korean filmmakers such as director Park Chan-wook have achieved worldwide renown for their masterpieces. Their stellar accomplishments overseas have strengthened Korean films' reputation.

But behind the glory, there is a special effects makeup company which Bong, Park and other esteemed directors rely on. Technical Art Studio CELL is the largest and the most sought after specialist group in the film industry, having participated in about 190 films and dramas since its foundation in 2003. "Parasite" and "Kingdom" are two of the screen works they have participated in. It claim to be unrivaled in Korea, and maybe in Asia too. It has received numerous trophies at the Asian Film Awards, the Daejong Film Awards, and the Blue Dragon Film Awards.

"Our job is deceiving audiences," said Kwak Tae-yong, co-head of Technical Art Studio Cell, said during a recent Korea Times interview. "We use various ingredients and elements to make things look real. Basically, we visualize ideas suggested by directors."

Many would think that their employees' job is to only put "zombie" makeup on actors. But their work goes "beyond" people's imagination. In addition to prosthetic makeup, they make special props, dummies, and animatronics which many would think were the real thing. For example, the device to spread toxic gas in the film "Exit" (2019) and baskets which actors use for their escape were their work. They also made a robot for a lead role in the science fiction film "Doomsday Book" (2012) directed by Kim Jee-woon.

"We make almost everything that is not available in the art department. For example, not only did we simply make dummies, we put machines inside them so that they appear to be moving like real living beings. We could make slim people fat while transforming Asians into Whites with makeup," Hwang Hyo-kyun, co-head of the company said.

Of course, using computer graphics is an option to come up with surreal visuals in the film, but sometimes special props and makeup are necessary to protect actors from injury and help them act more naturally when interacting with objects.

A scene from
A scene from "Parasite" Courtesy of CJENM
Actress Lee Jung-eun wears special effects makeup for
Actress Lee Jung-eun wears special effects makeup for "Parasite" Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL

"In the film Parasite, we made the stone with soft materials so that the actor didn't get hurt when he was hit by it," Hwang said.

"We created the peach in Parasite as well to better show the peach fuzz. But more importantly, we made the object largely because it was not the harvest season of the fruit when filming," Kwak said.

Kwak stressed that his company has outpaced others in its skills in creating stuffed animal characters, which surprised Hollywood special effects creators.

Staff at the shooting of the Netflix film
Staff at the shooting of the Netflix film "Okja" Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL

"When we made the stuffed characters for Okja with international staff, Erik-Jan de Boer, the visual effects and creature supervisor for the film, praised our skills. We made the lighter ones after receiving data about the character's form in computer graphics and made it into three-dimensional patterns, which is not common in Hollywood. We put some machines inside the character so that it can be seen as running naturally. I heard that some Hollywood films have also started to adopt the method after us," Kwak said.

But it is not as simple as it sounds to come up with quality outcomes that directors want. When it comes to zombie makeup in shows and films such as "Kingdom," (2019) "Train to Busan," (2016) "Alive," (2020) and "Peninsula" (2020), for example, they had to do countless test makeup runs to create an original and unique zombie appearance.

"Every director wants a new zombie look different from those in other films and dramas. Also, as the zombie itself originates from Western culture, we had to try every possible way to find the perfect zombie look to go naturally with Korean actors. We had to try countless kinds of makeup," Hwang said.

Korean film industry grows

The quality of the company's characters and animatronics didn't happen overnight. It was built up alongside the development of Korean films.

As there was no infrastructure to create films after the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, creators had to build the foundation of film production from scratch. But as the country's economy grew, the government and private companies invested in the cinema.

"We luckily rode the wave of the Korean film boom. So we were happy to contribute to the development of the industry and experienced a lot of changes in the field," Kwak said.

The cost of films and dramas has grown immensely in recent years. At the same time sales of the nation's content industry have increased. Sales reached 58.13 trillion won in the first six months of last year, up 3.1 percent compared to that of 2018, according to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Creative Content Agency. The size of the film industry reached 6.1 trillion won in sales with 226 million customers in 2019 according to the Korean Film Council.

TV networks and cable channels have also expanded investment into content creation. tvN's TV series "Arthdal Chronicles" (2019) invested the most, reportedly spending 3 billion won per episode while the upcoming "Sweet Home," a Naver webtoon-based Netflix original series to be released within this year, is also known to be spending the same amount of money.

Props used in
Props used in "Ashfall" (2019) Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL

The change in media consumption in recent years also gave a boost to the market. The surge of online video streaming services represented by Netflix, gave the creators the chance to easily present their pieces in front of a global audience online. In addition to the facilitation of digital distribution, Netflix has been erasing boundaries between online media and traditional distribution channels such as theater and TV, by actively investing in making original series by joining hands with local film and drama production companies, and distributing them through its streaming channel.

Bong's "Okja" (2017) was one of the examples. It was created with financing from, and was distributed by, Netflix, something unprecedented for a Korean film. Netflix's other original series "Kingdom," a horror thriller web drama series made with local production companies, enjoyed huge popularity among international viewers with its quality visuals and addictive zombie-centered storyline. Netflix reportedly spent 2 billion won ($1.6 million) per episode for "Kingdom." Recently, crossover projects are starting to be carried out on other platforms as well. Wavve, one of Korea's video streaming services, is known for investing a huge amount of money in "SF8," and original science fiction series.

High customer demands on quality films

Korean films are not comparable to Hollywood films in terms of financing and diversity. But backed by the efforts of skilled and sophisticated Korean workers over the decades, 1,100 quality and variety films, ranging from action to science fiction, are being released every year.

Over the years as the industry grew and quotas on foreign films were eased, more Koreans were able to enjoy movies from overseas including Hollywood. And they gradually had higher expectations for the quality of Korean films. So, for many directors, who wanted to show dreamlike visuals, computer graphics and special effects became necessary elements for them.

CELL works on an average 20 films per year ― most of them requests from popular directors. Also, many renowned Asian filmmakers have become their customers. Hong Kong directors Tsui Hark and John Woo and Taiwanese director Wei Te-Sheng have been CELL's long-time collaborators.

Kwak said the reason for the popularity of CELL is that their work is economical in addition to being highly skilled and on a large scale.

"In sum, working with us is economical. We create quality products at a low cost, which is a bit sad though…I never believed the old saying, 'Koreans' handicraft skills are very good.' But whenever we work with staff from other countries, I realized the saying is correct. Korean staff are very diligent and devoted to their work with more sophisticated skills than many other people in the world… Above all, as we can find easy and quick solutions with skills accumulated over the last 20 years, and with many staff, two to three times larger than other special effects makeup companies in Korea, it is possible to finish our projects without outsourcing."

Such a reputation is rooted in the sacrifices of like-minded staff hoping to push the Korean film industry to the next level.

"In the late 1990s, some staff worked for years without getting paid just to learn special effects makeup skills," Kwak said.

The expansion of the Chinese film industry is also a threat to the Korean content sector. Now, many Chinese production companies invest massive amounts of money in their original films and dramas and are not hesitant to hire Hollywood staff for graphics and special effects. But Hawng and Kwak are determined to work for Korean films first, to keep the trust of Korean directors who hired them in their copmpany's early stages.

"If we are not available to join their overseas projects, Korean film directors, who have been working with us for many years, cannot create their films. Prioritizing local works over overseas projects is not about the money. It is more about the trust and the quality of Korean films," Hwang added.

But they are also open-minded in working on overseas projects as it is necessary to survive.

"Many people like Korean culture. So we also need to open our minds so that we can come up with content that can be consumed by international audiences and open up overseas markets. I believe crossover working can improve our expression as well," Kwak said.

They hoped that their works can be an exemplar for other industry workers so that they can learn and benefit from them as they did in the past.

"We learned many work skills from overseas videos. So, someday, I hope that our know-how can help other people to better make their special effects, makeup and props," Kwak said.

Hwang Hyo-kyun, left, co-head of Technical Art Studio CELL, oversees special effects makeup being put on actor Lee Jung-jae in this undated photo. Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL
Hwang Hyo-kyun, left, co-head of Technical Art Studio CELL, oversees special effects makeup being put on actor Lee Jung-jae in this undated photo. Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL
Kwak Tae-yong, co-head of Technical Art Studio CELL, wears a fake leg in this undated photo. Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL
Kwak Tae-yong, co-head of Technical Art Studio CELL, wears a fake leg in this undated photo. Courtesy of Technical Art Studio CELL
Park Ji-won


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