I’m in the lobby of the “Lotte Hotel World” in Seoul, Korea waiting for the breakfast buffet to open. It’s 6:15 am and I’m surrounded by a large delegation of Belgian Korean War veterans. There is a serious typhoon raging outside and the hotel’s power has just flickered and gone out. It’s dark. All I can hear are the voices of confused, elderly Belgian soldiers. And I smell pancakes. Welcome to another day in the surreal life of your favorite preschool TV creator. (Unless you happen to prefer Keith Chapman.)
I’m here to attend some meetings in Seoul at the Broadcast Worldwide Exhibition and to make a presentation at the Chuncheon Animation Festival. I was invited here by Dr. Heung-Soo Park who runs an animation studio called the Gangwon Information and Multimedia Center, or the more catchy “GIMC” for short. I first met Dr. Park in May at Prix Jeunesse where he was giving a speech on the future of 3D TV animation. I was very impressed by Dr. Park and we had dinner in Munich and we’ve been friends ever since.
I also participated in something called the “DICON Asian Animation Summit Bidding Program” and saw a dozen or so pitches from a range of Korean and Chinese companies and was asked to offer my two American cents. Probably the most difficult note I had to give was to one poor guy who pitched us his project while wearing a baseball cap with the word “DRUNKEN” written on it in large block letters. I explained to him as gingerly as I could that everything was important in a pitch, including one’s choice of headgear.
The other members of the jury included a few more Americans, a variety of regional broadcasters and some representatives from the Chinese Ministry of Culture who, I must say, were quite hip and friendly. The following night we all went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant inexplicably named after the Greek island of Santorini. After failing to communicate any other way, we resorted to having multiple standing toasts with our Chinese colleagues. We then ended the evening by making typing fingers at each other which (I think) meant, “I’ll e-mail you” but, upon further reflection, could just as easily have meant, “Would you like a neck massage?”
Between my meetings I wandered the streets of Seoul looking for, and eating, dumplings. Now, I know that dumplings aren’t Korean but they do sell a lot of them here and they are just about perfect. They also come in far more shapes and sizes than I have ever encountered. I even discovered an underground market deep in the bowels of Seoul that discounts all of their dumplings at 7:00 pm sharp. I felt very proud of myself for landing three small Styrofoam trays of lotus-shaped pork dumplings for a mere 10,000 won. I smuggled them back to my hotel room, watched CNN, and ate them all with a cold bottle of Asahi from the mini bar. For a brief moment I think I attained dumpling nirvana.
Unless you have been living in a salt mine, you know the Koreans are obsessed with cute, smiling, stubby, rounded characters. There is even a publication here called, “I Love Character.” I have been trying to think of a new word for the ubiquitous Korean fascination with all things cute and so far the best I can come up with is “ubicuteness.”
PROPER USAGE: Walking around the Coex Mall I was struck by the ubicuteness of smiling, stubby, rounded characters.
The Koreans are great at designing characters. In fact, they are so preoccupied with character design that they often neglect some of the basics of storytelling in their show bibles and even in their finished series. Most of the pitches I saw here had very complex back-stories but no real narrative arc. I found myself repeating over and over again that a big part of a show creator’s responsibility is to actually know what will happen in their show.
There’s also an almost complete lack of appreciation for the value of a good educational curriculum in a preschool series, though the Koreans are certainly not alone in this. (Yes, I am talking about you, Europe.) Maybe it’s because I’ve had such a good, long run with Dr. Laura G. Brown but I honestly can’t even imagine making a preschool show without the wise counsel of a good kid shrink. And we don’t do formative research testing on every single Little Airplane script because a network makes us do it, ladies and gentleman. We do it because it makes the shows better.
Lastly, there’s an unusual tendency in Korea for characters in preschool shows to stop doing whatever they were doing and suddenly start laughing. I found this really odd.
But the truth is I love Korea. This is my second trip here in a year and I suspect I’ll return again quite soon. The people are gracious and welcoming. The quality of the design and animation is among the very best in the world. And the desire (and the need) to progress from an animation service industry to an IP-creating (and owning) country is running very deep and strong in Korea at the moment.
The Korean studios have been animating American shows long enough. They know they’re great at it and now they want something more. They want to sit at the high-stakes international tables of MIPCOM and KidScreen with their own great properties and say, “Look everybody, WE made this!”