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[Herald Interview] Erick Oh hopes for Oscar nomination for short animation ‘Opera’

Director Erick Oh (Beasts and Natives Alike)
Director Erick Oh (Beasts and Natives Alike)

The highly anticipated “Minari” isn’t the only film to watch out for as the announcement of Oscar nominations draws near. Korean director Erick Oh’s “Opera” could also be in the running for best short animation.

As Oh awaits the announcement of Oscar nominations on Monday, he shared the creation story behind the film and his journey as an animation director.

His unconventional film “Opera,” which won him the Minister’s Award at the 2020 Korea Contents Awards, is an 8K massive-scale animation installation piece reflecting on life, society and history.

“The world around us is filled with so many social issues, political conflict, terrorism, racism, polarization, pollution and natural disasters and so on. Then, I wondered if we are repeating this cycle. Are we actually getting better? Are we learning from the past? With this question in my mind, I started designing the world and concept of ‘Opera,’” said Oh.

“I’ve been always interested in pushing the bar of animation and trying different ways to fully take advantage of what the medium of ‘animation’ is capable of. I think this is coming from my fine art background. So I decided to bring animation out of the digital screen and take it to physical immersive space. That’s how I came up with this unique way of storytelling in ‘Opera,’ which is more of an installation art piece, rather than a traditional animated movie.”
“Opera” (Erick Oh website)
“Opera” (Erick Oh website)

It took Oh four years to complete the film as it was an independent project that he worked on on the side with a group of friends and artists sharing the same vision. According to Oh, more than half of the production was done without any money involved.

As for the chances of an Oscar nomination, Oh remained uncertain, but has confidence in his work.

“I believe in the piece and the message it carries. It‘s a story of our life, humanity, society and life. So I’m sure it will resonate with everyone. But the biggest hurdle is that this piece isn‘t a conventional narrative film. All the rest of the nine films all have traditional storytelling. I’m very curious how this is going to be viewed by the Oscars,” said Oh.
“Opera” (Beasts and Natives Alike)
“Opera” (Beasts and Natives Alike)

“Opera” is also the only Asian work to make the short animation short list, despite other animations like Kim Kang-min’s “Kkum,” winner of the Ottawa International Animation Festival, enjoying international success last year.

“It‘s more a matter of fitting into the academy’s own criteria. Of course, the quality should be high, but I learned that they tend to support films that touch upon social issues or bring awareness to the audience,” said Oh.

Oh, born in the US, came to Korea at age 2 and grew up here until he graduated from Seoul National University, where he majored in fine arts.

“I grew up as a big animation and cartoon fan. My childhood is filled with Disney and (Studio) Ghibli animation,” reminisced Oh. “Looking back, having a childhood in Korea allowed me to be exposed to both Asian and Western cultures and animations: Japanese animation and Disney animations. Those became my inspirations to set my dream.”

Oh then studied film at UCLA and joined Pixar in 2010, where he worked on several notable films including “Finding Dory” and “Inside Out.”

“I just loved Pixar so much, their philosophy and their culture. More importantly, Pixar is the studio that made innovation in animated filmmaking, so I wanted to learn from the best,” said Oh.

In 2016, Oh left Pixar and joined short film company Tonko House, where he directed the animated TV series “Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems.”

Growing up in Korea and working in the US, Oh reflected on the Korean animation industry which he thinks has a lot of talented artists and directors, but does not yet have a market for animation not targeting a young audience.

“I think a director and producer who deeply understands both Korean and American cultures should play a big role in creating something that is originally Korean but universal enough to be enjoyed by an international audience. I’m talking about the very first step. Once there is a successful case, the market will open and more international interest will come to Korea. Then, I believe that we have plenty of talents who could follow each other‘s footsteps to keep producing beautiful original Korean content, targeted at the global audience,” said Oh.
“Opera” (Beasts and Natives Alike)
“Opera” (Beasts and Natives Alike)

Meanwhile, an offline exhibition for “Opera” is coming to Korea later this year.

“‘Opera’ is originally designed to be showcased in a gallery space, and fortunately Korea is one of the few countries that can open galleries and exhibitions because Korea really did a great job managing this pandemic situation. We are planning to utilize projection mapping technology so it’ll be a full immersive experience for the audience,” said Oh.

Oh also recently finished his first virtual reality project “Namoo” and is directing the original Netflix series “Oni.”

“All three projects are different: exhibition, VR and TV series. But I don‘t see any walls or boundaries in between. I just see ideas and stories. I’d love to keep exploring.”

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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