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‘Princess Aya’ Director Says Korean Animation can go Further

Lee Seong-gang, one of Korea’s most experienced and successful animation directors, says he was forced into experimentation with his fourth feature “Princess Aya,” which plays this week at the Busan International Film Festival, in the Cinema Today-Panorama section.

“There were some investments we could secure only if we make it as a ScreenX movie. It was not a choice, but a must,” Lee told Variety. “I loved the idea.” ScreenX is the CGV-developed format in which film content is simultaneously projected on two side walls as well as the main screen. While several live action, and effects-heavy films have used the system, “Princess Aya” is the first animation to be originated that way.

“My first impression of ScreenX was nothing more than ‘expansion,’ but as I later realized, it can also make audiences feel as if they are in a narrower space, because the three screens make a 270-degree angle. It is more entertaining, rather than being cinematic,” Lee said.

Known as the godfather of Korean animation, Lee debuted with the critically-acclaimed feature “My Beautiful Girl, Mari” in 2002. It was the first Korean animation to win the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. His second, “Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox” in 2007, was less auteuristic and commercially more successful than “Mari.” In 2016 he delivered “Kai.”

Produced by Yeon Sang-ho, director of megahit zombie actioner “Train to Busan,” “Aya” a fantasy love story – and also a musical. It involved K-pop talents, singer-songwriter Baek A-yeon, and popular K-pop boy band GOT7’s Park Jin-young, as the princess and the prince, respectively.

“I wanted to make a film that could deliver happy vibes to audiences, both through its narrative and its form. That’s why I chose to make it a musical animation, and casting singers as voice actors became necessary,” Lee said.

“Most investors are not confident about Korean animations. Projects with global elements may have better chances, but not many of them turn out to be profitable,” Lee said. “Yobi” was made with $2.6 million, while “Kai” cost less than $700,000. Lee says the production cost for “Aya” was somewhere in between.

“There should be more animation directors that make low budget features and expand the base,” said Lee, who believes too few feature animations are produced in Korea. “Animation directors these days tend to try to make one very successful animation in their lives.”

Currently developing a TV project, Lee sees hope in digital streaming platforms. “There are different ways of producing, distributing and making profit from animations now. Web animation is likely to work, just like how web series are working out. I hope to work with online platforms as much as I can,” he said.

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