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How South Korea Became a Powerhouse in Visual Effects – The Hollywood Reporter


Before he started filming the Oscar-winning Bong Joon Ho parasiteThe film’s production crew had difficulty finding one of the crucial locations for the film: the luxurious home of the wealthy Park family. The chances of finding the right house were slim, but the chances of finding a two-story house with an ideal environment were even less. As a result, the art team for the film created a set – a bungalow that would become Mansion Park and the main setting for the film.

Later, artists at Dexter Studios, a visual effects studio in Seoul, added a second floor to the house using computer graphics based on his blueprints, complete with a staircase and digitally created garden. The adjacent streets were also made in 3D and digitally integrated with the film. During the four months of pre-production, more than 200 Dexter artists worked on the project and nearly 500 VFX shots were used on the film.

“We call it the ‘visual effects invisible’ in the industry,” says Dexter Studios CEO Kang Jong-ik. “And it is often more difficult to create digital images that blend with the existing landscape.”

Kang began his advertising career in the late 1990s, when computer graphics were first implemented in South Korea. Later he established his own studio and focused on films. One of his first works – 1998 Soul guards, a psychological thriller surrounding a religious cult – was the first ever Korean feature film to actively use computer graphics. “It was a revelation,” says Kang. “People called it ‘Hollywood style’.”

In 2011, Kang joined Dexter, which was founded by director Kim Yong-hwa, who Mr. (2013), a comedy about a baseball-playing gorilla, was the first South Korean film to be shot entirely in 3D.

Dexter is now a producer on several domestic films, including 2021 Escape from Mogadishu and 2018 with the gods franchise. The studio specializes in securing original IP for popular novels and web comics and provides visual effects for major Korean and international titles, including director Tomasz Baginski’s fantasy adventure. Knights of the Zodiacwhich will be released in the US later this month.

In 2010, only 10 percent of visual effects work in Korea was for overseas content. By 2017, the number had jumped to 56 percent, according to the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, due to increased demand for visual effects work from China. The Institute’s 2019 report “Studying the Tax Incentive System for the Visual Effects Industry” estimated the domestic VFX market at $45.2 million, mainly driven by five or six players.

Elsewhere, the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism expects the domestic market for artificial reality to jump five times compared to 2020. VFX companies are now building virtual production studios, while conglomerates like CJ ENM and SK Telecom are investing in the market. Leading technology companies such as Samsung and LG are collaborating with movie studios to expand their investment in the development of high-resolution LED screens.

Visual effects are used more aggressively in Korean movies and dramas than ever before, regardless of genre. in Big beta drama series about a casino tycoon in the Philippines and currently airing on Disney+ in Korea, Gulliver Studio, another VFX studio in Seoul, has made headlines for using de-aging technology, which involves artificial intelligence to depict changes in a character’s appearance and voice over time and recreate the images Without using any special equipment during filming.

“This technique has been used in commercials before, but we were the first to try it on a drama series,” says Gulliver Studios CEO Jeong Jae-hoon. “We developed a special 3D mask and AI voice tool using compositing technology to create an image of the veteran actor in his younger years.”

South Korea is also leading the way in virtual production. Seoul-based XON Studio recently partnered with SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile carrier, to create virtual studios using large LED walls that can recreate a variety of settings.

“The need for virtual production has increased exponentially during the pandemic,” says Jang Won-ik, CEO of XON, recalling a time when many VFX studios in Hollywood were closed. Due to the quality and reputation of Korean productions worldwide, there were demands from Hollywood studios to utilize virtual studios in Korea with local production crews. The plan was to shoot the necessary scenes through virtual studios with as few crews as possible in Korea and to sign the director in the US. “

The company is currently testing the feasibility of connecting virtual studios in two different locations – Guiyang and Pangyu.

“There is some latency, but we think it will be technically feasible [to shoot in two studios simultaneously],” He says.

If virtual studios are successful, Chang says, due to time differences, companies can shoot 24 hours a day in various locations around the world, which can reduce costs.

Global expansion is one of the main goals of VFX studios in Korea. But time differences and language barriers are still major obstacles for Hollywood studios to partner with local studios, especially when English-speaking countries such as Canada and New Zealand that are geographically closer to Hollywood offer tax incentives for major film productions.

Gulliver Studio, which won a special visual effects Emmy in 2022 for Netflix’s megahits Squid game, has attracted inquiries from Universal Studios for the partnership. Jeong believes that the quality of VFX artists in Korea has improved greatly in the past decade, but he feels there are still some challenges.

“We also lost many talented artists from global studios after the release of Squid game,” He says.

Dexter’s Kang agrees that Korean VFX artists are competent and offer broad skill sets, adding that the savings are another selling point for the industry.

“The quality of Korean VFX artists has captured about 80 percent of the major studios in Hollywood,” he says. “We are the best in Asia. In fact, many foreign companies in Japan, China and Thailand ask for business partnerships with our company. Korea’s competitive advantage lies in its ability to create high-quality businesses with relatively smaller budgets.”

With the rise of Korean movies and series during the COVID pandemic, the size of visual effects companies has also expanded.

After the success of 2022 We are all deada high school zombie flick, Westworld, another Seoul-based VFX studio, is set to release an ambitious drama series. black knight On Netflix in May. The company started with 10 employees in 2018. As of 2021, it has up to 170 employees, largely due to its partnership with Netflix.

“We’ve done A-to-Z,” says Westworld CEO Son Seung-hyun. “Because we have vast experiences, we are good at problem-solving.”

Many in the industry say that tax incentives are a great way to boost the country’s visual effects industry and ensure local businesses remain globally competitive. Currently, depending on the volume of production, the state provides a yield of up to 10 percent through tax incentives, a figure that many in the industry believe should be increased. But an official with KOFIC, a government-run film body, says there is no immediate plan to provide additional tax incentives or subsidies to local VFX companies.

There are also complaints that the government favors global VFX players over local companies. In 2019, the Seoul government attracted Scanline – which did visual effects for tent poles in Hollywood such as Batman And Godzilla Providing various incentives. After the announcement, local companies complained that they were being discriminated against by the local government in favor of foreign players.

“From the artists’ point of view, opening Scanline was an opportunity to work on projects on a global scale,” says Chae of the Korea Institute of Tourism and Culture. “I think the government has tried to raise the level of wages in the industry and develop the visual effects industry. But because the industry is still relatively small in size, it has become a competition between domestic players and foreign players.”

Dexter is currently working on the moon (working title), an ambitious sci-fi drama by Blaad Studio about a man abandoned in space, shot at the company’s virtual production studio. Westworld is currently working on director Na Hong-jin’s next feature, Hopeswhich will be filmed in the virtual production.

Dexter’s Kang believes that there are certain limitations that come from the production scale in the Korean VFX market despite the success of the industry. He says that budgets must be increased in order for the visual effects industry in Korea to continue to develop.

“Compared to Hollywood, the budget for film production in Korea is still small,” he says. “If the total production cost is more than 20 billion won ($15 million), it is considered a major business here. Compare that to Avatar 2, that is, approximately 400 million dollars. Korean film volume is still only about 10 percent of Hollywood’s output.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.