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Interview with Kangmin Kim, Director of Stop Motion Short Film, "Deer Flower"

Kangmin Kim animating the dream sequence from Deer Flower. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

The experience of childhood is something like existing within a waking dream. In childhood, as in particularly vibrant dreams, the distinct and unique experience presents itself to simply exist in each moment without explanation or reflection – to become fully and wholly enveloped in each and every moment, the option of operating outside of which is somehow nonexistent. In that special time in one’s life, moments simply are. And yet, childhood, like dreams, is a fragile and temporary reality. It’s not until one “wakes” from childhood, by entering adulthood, that one can reflect upon and appreciate the past and, in retrospect, realize just how odd and unusual certain experiences might have actually been. Korean filmmaker and animator Kangmin Kim captures this feeling beautifully in his outstanding short film Deer Flower.

Deer Flower tells the semi-autobiographical of auteur Kangmin Kim’s childhood experience of dealing with persistent illness and of taking one of the remedies his parents bought for him – deer’s blood.

The model for the deer puppet made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

“I attempted to translate my own experiences on screen and to reinterpret my memories to cinematic experiences using stop-motion [and] 2D animation,” says Kim. While incorporating these mediums, Kim also employs a variety of styles of stop motion, primarily paper cut-out and 3D puppet.

In the course of its run at animation festivals, Deer Flower has won numerous awards including the Best Animated Film at the Aspen Shorfest 2016, the Best Animation Short for the Melbourne International Film Festival 2016, the Grand Prix at the Busan International Short Film Festival 2016, as well as being nominated for an Annie Award at the 44th Annie Awards. It was also screened at more than 60 film festivals all over the world, including the Annecy Film Festival, Sundance, Clarmont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, and South by Southwest.

The primary puppets from Deer Flower made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

I recently had the chance to chat with Kangmin about Deer Flower and some of his other work in the stop motion medium. In our interview, Kangmin discusses his unique artistic style, the challenges he faced while making Deer Flower (as well as how they ended up pushing the film’s style into a unique and exciting realm), his creative collaboration with his wife, and his next film, JEOM. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: Deer Flower has such a unique style and aesthetic in every aspect – from the character design to the use of extreme close-ups in highlighting the microscopic (such as the mosquito in Deer Flower) to the scenes of subtitled 2D animation. One of the recurring visual motifs throughout this and several of your other films that I find especially interesting and unique is your usage of extreme close-ups spotlighting intricate biological details and processes, such as the scene where your protagonist in Deer Flower drinks deer blood. Can you speak a little on your style of filmmaking? What choices - creative and otherwise - did you and your wife make on Deer Flower that contributed to the unique style and substance of the film?

Kangmin Kim: I am still trying to develop and change my style in filmmaking processes, so it is not easy to say what my style is. However, I have been trying to play with the lines between narrative and non-narrative, realism and uncanny, and 2D space and 3D space.

The puppet of the young boy and his parents made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

My main technique is stop motion but I like to combine different techniques in one film. When I juxtapose different images and techniques in one sequence, they create their own strange and unexpected energy. It might be uncomfortable for some audiences, as it interrupts the flow of story. However, I don’t think that my animation needs to be particularly kind and considerate of all audiences.

My wife contributed to Deer Flower by helping me make some of the props. She did not, however, do the main design. I have been collaborating with my wife and I have learned some techniques from her such as watercolor painting and she has been helping make some props.

Sets and puppets from Deer Flower made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

A.H.: In making Deer Flower, were there any creative, budgetary, or practical limitations – either self-enforced or enforced by an exterior constraint – that contributed to crafting the final film?

KK: Yes, there were some limitations. I got funding from a content agency in South Korea and I did production in Los Angeles. Even though it is short film, we needed lots of hands to make it, but I could not hire anyone in Los Angeles because of tax problems and I could only hire help for the project from South Korea because of the agency’s policy (in fact, I believe that I am the only Korean working in the stop motion industry), but since I was working in Los Angeles I ended up not hiring anyone and doing mostly everything by myself which I did in one year. I was also doing some freelance jobs at that time so it wasn’t easy to handle the schedule.

The puppet for the father character from Deer Flower made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

However, my biggest limitation was production space – I had one small room in my apartment where I couldn’t use any big tools for fabrication. In order to compensate, I used a 3D printer for props and puppets because of space and budget, which marked the first time I used either a 3D printer or Maya to help create my films. That’s actually why the puppets in Deer Flower are crafted in a low poly style. However, think that these limitations ended up pushing creative boundaries in a good way.

When I juxtapose different images and techniques in one sequence, they create their own strange and unexpected energy. It might be uncomfortable for some audiences, as it interrupts the flow of story. However, I don’t think that my animation needs to be particularly kind and considerate of all audiences.

The final puppet of the boy alongside an initial concept sketch by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim. 

A.H.: One element of filmmaking that fascinates me the most – especially in animation – is the process of creative partnerships and collaboration. You have a very interesting creative partnership, as your creative partner – Seulhwa Eum – is also your spouse. I can only imagine how personal each of your films must be to you both. What does your creative collaboration look like with your wife? In what areas do your skill-sets complement each other? Do you divide particular aspects of the work between yourselves on the overall production for any given film or do you work together in tandem on all aspects of the production?

KK: I do mostly everything by myself but I know what areas of expertise my wife has very strong artistic abilities in. I also feel very comfortable to discuss my ideas with her, even if I know they are bad ideas. That’s the reason why I like to collaborate with my wife – because she is the only one person who gives me strong critiques about my films that I know I can trust. And actually, we don’t divide the work up among ourselves – I just find her when I need her.

Kangmin Kim animating a scene from Deer Flower. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

A.H.: In your interview with “It’s Nice That,” you say that in your filmmaking you “always try to work hard to make something that’s different, better and stronger with more advanced style and more mature filmmaking than the previous one.” In what ways did you challenge yourself on Deer Flower and how would you like to challenge yourself and your filmmaking in the near future?

KK: Like I mentioned before, I have been studying and experimenting in the 2D space and 3D space. In 38-39°C, I made 3-dimensional sets and flat cut-out puppets, but for Deer Flower I made 3-dimensional puppets and set with some flat props. That is the main difference between those two projects and it’s also an example of how I challenge myself to come up with new and exciting ways to make my films. I also referenced the Japanese animation Tekkon Kinkreet when I worked on 38-39°C and I also referenced the Korean film The Memories of Murder (by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho) because I wanted to put realism in Deer Flower even though it is animation. I specifically wanted to create realistic sequences for the scene where they cut the deer’s horn.

Two of the car props from Deer Flower, made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

Two of the car props from Deer Flower made by Kangmin Kim. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

And yes, I mentioned that before in that interview, but I have changed my mind. I tried really hard to make better film when I worked on Deer Flower, but now it is all depends on time and budget. Deer Flower took almost one year to finish and it took a lot larger of a budget to make than 38-39°C.

It should be said that 38-39°C was my thesis so I used spaces and equipment for free at my school. It is not easy to make new films as a freelancer after school. I have been trying to budget the time to create my new film, JEOM, as I could use only one month for the film’s production because of commercial jobs. In that timeframe, there was no possible way to create new film that had better quality images with lots more detail than the shots and images in Deer Flower.

A.H.: Are you and/or your wife working on any new projects that you can tell our readers about?

KK: Yes, we have just finished a new short called JEOM. The film is actually the sequel to my thesis film, 38-39°C38-39°C is about me and my father whereas JEOM is about me and my son. It is a full cut-out stop motion film with CG. It will be premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2018.

This is the link to trailer for JEOM:

Kangmin Kim holding the poster for Deer Flower. Photo courtesy of Kangmin Kim.

You can discover more of the work of Kim and his wife’s studio – Studio Zazac – by visiting their Vimeo, Instagram and website.

For more behind-the-scenes material, you can go watch Kim’s process of constructing the puppet of the young boy by clicking here. You can also see many more behind-the-scenes photos by going to Kim’s Instagram.

You can learn more about designer and painter Seulhwa Eum’s work by visiting her Vimeo.

You can discover more of Deer Flower’s audio designer and composer, Daniel Eaton’s work by visiting his Vimeo, website, SoundCloud, Facebook, and Instagram.

You can watch Deer Flower by going here.

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