Shin sprints to keep Korea on top

Akom production house bursts with activity

SEOUL — The building for South Korea-based Akom Prods. sits in a far-flung, sleepy suburb in the southern part of the capital, in a seven-story structure quietly nestled beside a residential apartment complex. Few would suspect this as the building of the company that help brings to life, with nearly 180 freelancers and employees, America’s beloved and beleaguered, delightfully dysfunctional Simpsons family.

One might similarly misread Nelson Shin, the founder of Akom and the man who brought large-scale animation gigs to Korea and pushed legions of Korean animators into American primetime — you know them as the huge block of Korean names that runs in every episode’s end credits.

Shin is a slight yet robust man with a surprisingly powerful, brusque voice; he speaks with a polite confidence and natural authority bolstered by years of success. He actually resembles, a tiny bit, the Simpsons characters Akom draws, marked by a cute upturn of the upper lip, a shock of somehow youthful white hair, and a generally happy demeanor.

He has reason to be happy — and proud — as the man who jumpstarted an industry here: 72% of the $2.3 billion Korea generates in exported animation each year is material originally outsourced by foreign producers. “The Simpsons” is generally recognized as having been the catalyst.

Although animation work for “The Simpsons” is shared fairly equally with competitor Rough Draft Korea today, the “big bang” for Korean animation came in 1985, when Shin established his Seoul studio and put South Korean animators on the map with projects such as “My Little Pony: The Movie,” “The Transformers: The Movie,” and then “Tiny Toons Adventures” and “The Simpsons.”

It’s hard, hard work, as production manager Ji-yeun Yi makes clear in her tour of Akom’s facilities. The company generally has 12 weeks to finish a “Simpsons” episode. Yi calls this “simple,” and Shin says it was “a piece of cake” compared with “The Simpsons Movie,” which will reach theaters this summer.

Akom’s 20 dedicated Simpsons animators (out of the company’s 50) are busily finishing up the feature film for America’s favorite family; accordingly, there are countless boxes, special-delivery sleeves and desks filled to the brim with sketches, notes and other memoed minutiae.

Rendered by gender

Most striking are the boxes of immense folders, 4 inches to 8 inches thick, each holding the drawings for a single scene of a “Simpsons” episode. Rows of mostly female, headphoned, humming computer jockeys scan, paint and layer the drawings atop one another in the computers, element by element.

A floor below, it gets more old school — there is nary a computer (nor a woman) in sight — with older men manning aged, wooden easel desks marinated with years of scribbling, scratching and erasing. Here is where the crucial “keyframes” are drawn, which the mostly younger, female animators in the adjacent room weave together with their “between” frames that are all sent upstairs to the computers.

Both Shin and Yi dismiss the notion that cheaper labor offered by China and Vietnam might eventually spell trouble for their industry, now that Korea’s cost of living, higher wages and rising fortunes mean expenses are going up.

“Smaller studios send work directly to China because it’s cheaper,” Shin says, “but in the long run, they don’t keep a consistent level of quality, so it bounces back to Korea.”

Shin believes the high demand of maintaining quality and the particular, peculiar “Simpsons” look while under the gun will keep the hands that draw “The Simpsons” unquestionably Korean for a long time to come.

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