1. Design & Illustration
  2. Inspiration

Soyeon Kim: Organic Designs, Handcrafted Motion

In this second part of the Yellowshed series, I speak with artist Soyeon Kim about her artistic versatility, the excitement of buying chips and the importance of never abandoning a best friend. If you missed it, check out Part 1 of this interview; where we speak with Todd Hemker, the other half of the Yellowshed team.

Connecting the Dots

To some she’s Kim and to others she’s Dottie. But to the world of illustration, animation and film-making she’s Soyeon Kim, a Korean-born artist that is the other half of the Yellowshed design, illustration and animation team.

For her undergraduate thesis project in 1996, Kim set out to make "Circus," a six-minute animation film that was created using 4-5 layers of dots, a technique known as pointillism. This "dotting" took her the entire year and, according to her blog, "[her] poor arm gained some kind of abnormal muscle cramps that lasted for a while." She posts under the name "Dottie" on her blog and I couldn’t help but think what a clever nickname for the woman who tortured her poor arm for the sake of her thesis.

The truth, though, is that isn’t where the nickname came from and she only picked it up within the last few years. The actual story is that ordering food and drink was a nuisance when it came time for her to give her Korean name to the cashier, so her friends bestowed her with "the perfect American name." A Dottie was born.

I am not the only one to connect the dots (sorry) and appreciate the irony in this story, though. Todd Hemker, her husband and partner in Yellowshed does as well because he often jokes about the connection. All joking and irony aside, nothing changes the fact that the name on numerous animation, illustration and film-making awards is Soyeon Kim.

Teaching the Teacher

Born in Korea in 1973, Kim spent most of her time indoors drawing and playing with her toys. She is the perfect hybrid of her parents: both are educators-her father a history/politics college professor and her mother, a grade-school teacher. Both once dreamed of being artists themselves. They, however, grew up in wartime Korea and because of this, had to make sacrifices that prevented them from pursuing their artistic dreams. Kim is living that dream now, having achieved worldwide recognition for her animations and illustrations as well as having the honor of teaching her craft to students at California State University Long Beach and California Institute of the Arts.

Kim was a student before she became the teacher, of course. While studying painting in junior-high, Kim decided she wanted to make her art "move." There were no animation schools in Korea at that time so she began practicing on her own using a book. It wasn’t until she was in college that she was able to enroll in a 3-month animation workshop. It was there in 1995 that she made her first animated film, a collaborative effort called "To-Mak" (Survival). The experience was difficult for her because she was "young and stubborn about what [she] wanted to do."

All these years later, however, Kim sees things through more mature eyes, "I really appreciate the experience that I had with my teammates: various points-of-views, and diverse opinions…compromising between us was not easy." Everything worked out in her favor, though. The film won 2nd place in a Korean TV network’s film/video competition. This was the first of what would be many film and animation awards for Kim and although she doesn’t remember how it felt to win it, the experience as a whole makes her smile, "Those memories make me laugh. How silly that all sounds!" Long gone is the young, inexperienced amateur. Kim has achieved as much success in these last 15 years as some people do in their entire career.

I hope to be an artist that someone can respect and look up to (especially my students), but I don’t look for any type of fame, fortune, anything that makes [me] ‘big & famous’.

An Old Friend

In 2001, Kim and Hemker, by now her husband as well as business partner, started Yellowshed, an illustration/animation/design studio that is based out of their Marina del Ray home. While together they have achieved much commercial success having worked together on Hollywood films such as "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs," Kim achieves great things on her personal projects as well. Most recently, a personal project called "Father and Sister" won the Best Animation Award at the Jersey Shore Film Festival. The film, a humorous piece about what happens when a Catholic priest, nun and bumble bee all find themselves in a church at the same time, was a labor of love a long time in the making.

She began- and abandoned- the project in 1999, having decided that the cut-out animation technique method was too difficult and time consuming to pursue any further. Not to mention all of the challenges that arose because equipment she was using-a 16mm Oxberry camera. She considered the work to be great experience in doing something and put her puppets away in a box where they stayed for the next 10 years.

After finding the abandoned pieces and storyboards in a closet one day, Kim decided to resurrect the project, this time using her usual modern tools of a scanner, Photoshop and After Effects. Picking up where she left off so long ago wasn’t easy, though. "I had so many concerns and doubts about finishing it. I often heard from my friends that I shouldn’t live in the past, and I should move onto new projects, starting fresh. But leaving any incomplete project made me feel like [I was] abandoning a best friend from childhood. Having some sort of ‘obligation’ to finish the film was the reason for both motivation and frustration during the production." She completed the film in 2010 and to date it’s been screened at over 30 film festivals this year with nearly 20 more schedule throughout the end of the year, including the famed ‘Hollywood Film Festival’ taking place in Beverly Hills from October 22-25.

Despite the awards her work has won (and will no doubt continue to win), Kim is a down-to-Earth homebody who loves date nights with her husband, long walks and playtime with her two border collie rescue dogs, Darby and Zippy who are her "best friends" and the models for their canine animations.

Labor of Love

Nature is Kim’s primary source of inspiration, "[One of my favorite things to do is] look at nature and find interesting shapes and patterns from it." She’s currently wrapping up another animated film project inspired by her love of nature- this one being 14 years in the making. It’s about an elephant and called "Ahco on the Road" and it’s slated for release in the summer of 2011. This is another project that she’s left and come back to as her schedule and life circumstances have allowed. It is her favorite personal project, though, so she never gave up on it. "It has been a huge part of my life, on and off, on and off… so many times during all [of the] other studio work and teaching jobs. I think that I can finally release my elephant to the wilderness next year!"

Regardless of whether she is working on personal or commercial projects, Kim’s favorite part of the creative process is the designing and "transforming the words into shapes and colors." Prior to getting to the best part, though, Kim goes through the same processes that other creatives do when it comes to solving their client’s briefs. Even before diving in, she schedules a series of what she calls "checkpoints" where she will keep the client up-to-date and involved at every stage of the process so that there are no "last minute surprises and disastrous changes." In the past these surprises and requested changes have included things like requests to copy another artist’s work and demanding a "brilliant" completed project with a completely unreasonable timeline.

Given her busy schedule between Yellowshed work, her teaching schedule and other personal projects, one would assume that Kim has a sophisticated scheduling system to keep her on track. That couldn’t be further from the truth. "I tried some software and digital management tools, but I ended up using the old-fashioned way: a notebook with hand-written notes, scribbles, and doodles." When it comes to creating their art, however, it’s a combination of traditional and digital tools. Kim seems to prefer the more traditional methods, though. "I still love to draw and paint using pencils, paint brushes, and any other traditional tools that I find. Then I move onto digital tools: scanner, tablets and Adobe Photoshop software to modify them. [It’s the] same hybrid style for the animation process as well. It’s mixture of traditionally drawn and digitally created motions. One rule that I have is to use digital options as tools, but keep the design and motion as hand-crafted and organic as much as possible."

Talk Is (Not) Cheap

This interesting mixture is what got Kim and Yellowshed noticed by the likes of Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, Frito Lay and MCL Restaurant & Bakery. The latter are a couple of her favorite projects because the client gave them full creative freedom, "They pointed out what they like about our work, and wanted to see how we apply our art style into their products." The result of that freedom was the 2008 Frito Lay ad campaign "Cart Talkers" (which won the 2009 American Graphic Design Award sponsored by Graphic Design USA magazine) and the follow up campaign "Shelf Talkers", both depicting bags of Frito Lay chips talking to a complementary dipping sauce. On her blog Kim describes the feeling she got when she saw her illustrations in a grocery store for the first time: "One day, I went grocery shopping, and I noticed something very.... familiar...when I was about to pick up a bag of chips..... My illustrations!! So yes, I got the Lays chips that day with excitement!"

The Frito Lay project was one that Kim worked on outside of Yellowshed. In fact, Kim says that even though she and Hemker work well together, she always tries to keep one personal project on the side because "there are times [when she] wants to push more into [her] own direction." When working through Yellowshed, both she and Hemker are creatively involved from start to finish. She enjoys taking on different roles in the process from time to time and because of that, she really enjoys collaborating with other artists and directors as well. In fact, one of Kim’s biggest pieces of advice for those just starting out in illustration and animation has to do with collaboration, "Collaboration is consistent process of complimenting each other and compromising oneself. Once the partners find each other’s strength and weakness, [you can use that] complimenting process [to] maximize what that collaboration can produce."

It is because of this ideal that Yellowshed produces the kind of unique work that they do. "Versatile" as Kim calls it. She says that she is always amazed at how Hemker handles space. She designs the elements and loosely places them in the larger picture of the piece, and then she hands it off to Hemker who then visualizes it and transforms it into three-dimensions, thanks to his architectural training.

While work done through Yellowshed has a recognizable look, Kim’s personal work doesn’t always possess that same recognizable quality. "In my personal projects I used to (still occasionally attempt to) find the concept, try new medium [and] new approaches that are very specifically designed for that particular project [and] I still try out new techniques in illustrations and animations to expand the possibilities of art-making. [The] design process is where I feel completely free to try anything in most cases. So if I would like design something, I would try and try until I get the results that I am looking for."

"I hope to be an artist that someone can respect and look up to (especially my students), but I don’t look for any type of fame, fortune, anything that makes [me] ‘big & famous’. If everything that we wish for comes true… life will be so predictable, and boring! I like my life to be full of the unexpected and the unknown. I like discovering them one by one, piece by piece." Kind of like cut out pieces of paper, long forgotten—though not abandoned— in the back of a closet.

Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.