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[Herald Interview] Kim Hye-sook stresses passion as key to being good animator

May 15, 2023 - 16:34 By Lee Si-jin
Animator Kim Hye-sook (Kim Hye-sook)

“The world compliments those who have a clear dream early on and achieve their goals by working hard. I felt that is how I should live as well,” said Kim Hye-sook, a San Francisco-based Pixar senior animator, in an online interview with The Korea Herald earlier this month.

“But that is not how I became an animator,” she said. “I was just an ordinary student who loved to read comics after the class was over.”

Growing up in the small county of Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province, borrowing comic books and tracing the beloved characters were the joys of her life, Kim recalled.

“My hometown was so small that it didn’t have a PC bang -- internet cafe where people often play PC games. If there had been a PC bang, then my life might have changed greatly,” the animator said with a big smile.

Her childhood hobby eventually became her biggest interest, Kim said.

Hoping to learn more about the world of comics, she majored in animation at Kaywon University of Art and Design. Even then, she never expected this would lead her to become an animator.

After interacting with overseas content creators for the first time in 2003 when she was nominated for various international film festivals such as Madrid International Animated Image Festival, Berlin Short Film Festival and more, Kim realized how much she desired to become an animation specialist.

“People have various opinions about what are the factors that make a good animator. Some emphasize active communication skills or a long list of awards. Others might say it is the amount of time spent on the work. I think the creator’s passion and love are the most crucial qualities for the upcoming creators,” Kim explained.

The 40-year-old Pixar animation specialist stressed that one's background or past career do not count much.

“Diverse people work in our field. There are some people with sports or athlete background, a high school student who came right after his graduation, a computer game lover who wishes to make his own game character, a bank employee, a guard and even a sociology professor,” Kim said, her face beaming.

“What the animation production studios -- especially those in the US and Canada -- were interested in were the artists’ portfolios," she said. With passion for their work, animators can develop infinitely, she noted.

There are also no set rules or guidelines to becoming an animator, Kim feels.

Though she has built a brilliant career in animation -- working at Sony Pictures, Imageworks and Pixar and being part of smash-hit films including “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018), “Over the Moon” (2020) and “Buzz Lightyear” (2022) -- Kim said she is living a “cursed life” with an insatiable thirst for quality projects.

A still image shows an animated scene by Kim Hye-sook in "Buzz Lightyear." (Kim Hye-sook)
Kim Hye-sook (left) uses herself as a reference to create "Over the Moon" lead character Chang'e. (Kim Hye-sook)

“Our work has no right, final answer. I always see things that could have done better,” Kim said.

The animator shared that she often wishes she had done something completely different after completing a film, so that she could be “100 percent satisfied” with it.

“But I have never had a chance to work in such project. I love my work so much, but it gives me a lot of pain as well. Some days, I become irritated. But I also feel immense joy. It’s like the emotional change you experience when you have a crush on somebody,” she said, quoting “Parasite” star Cho Yeo-jeong’s acceptance speech at the 2019 Blue Dragon Awards, in which she compared acting to unrequited love.

“Having worked in animation for 16 years, now I have learned that spending time on working on my skills is more meaningful than becoming entangled in such complicated emotions,” Kim added.

Though she is harsh on her works, Kim said that she enjoys watching non-Pixar films.

"Those times are precious, because I can wholeheartedly enjoy those splendid projects. Strangely, I am back on my ‘work mode’ when I watch live-action movies and dramas,” Kim said.

“There are some unique scenes in which the actors' energy is delivered to the audience. That’s the moment where I rewind the scenes multiple times to observe the stars’ action,” she explained, adding that Netflix’s “Kill Boksoon” was the latest film she enjoyed.

“My husband hates me for it. He wishes to watch movies without any rewinds,” Kim said.

“But I just can’t stop myself from doing it. The scenes are too inspiring for me to ignore. I think these are some of my sources of inspiration."