Korea leads Asia in vfx, starts charge on H'wood

The homeland of Samsung and Hyundai prides itself on being ahead of the curve in new technologies, from mobile phones to next-generation Internet services. Now, after a decade of trial and error, Korea looks ready to assume its place as a center of low-cost, high-quality CGI for feature films.

Japan may still hold an edge in animation, but Korea is now considered by most observers to be providing the best-quality computer-generated effects in Asia. Pushed along by the demands of Korea’s domestic film industry, which has experimented with genres of all types in recent years, local CGI firms have slowly built up experience and know-how to the point that they are now attracting attention from abroad.

Producers from Hollywood have started to contact us after seeing the effects in Korean films, and then they discover that our prices are far below what is charged in America or the U.K.,” says Jacky Son of In Sight Visual, one of the territory’s leading firms. “To date we’ve only been negotiating, and we need to improve our lines of communication, but we expect to start work on our first international project this year.”

Although Korean companies have little experience in very high-end effects of the sort that appear in “Transformers” or the “Harry Potter” series, they excel in low- and midlevel work and are anxious to step up to the next level. When Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 production “The Host” contracted San Francisco-based the Orphanage to digitally create the amphibious monster at the heart of the film, some local firms felt slighted. More recently, productions like swordplay fantasy “The Restless” (imaged by a wide consortium of Korean firms) and the English-language monster movie “Dragon Wars” (by Younggu Art) have showcased what the local industry is capable of.

More common CGI tasks include digitally blending studio shots and location footage, or filling in backdrops and buildings for period-set stories. Among the six projects being worked on by In Sight Visual’s 28-person staff is “Modern Boy,” a 1930s-set tale that re-creates colonial-era Seoul.

A list of Korea’s other leading CGI firms include Mofac Studio, EON, Digital Tetra Inc. (DTI) and Younggu Art, all of which are based in Seoul. A large number of smaller firms have also crowded the market in recent years, despite having received comparatively little government support.

“Everything this industry has accomplished has been done in just 10 years,” Son says. “Considering that, you have to be optimistic about what the future holds.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more