Cannes: How South Korea Became a VFX Powerhouse

Before shooting began on Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite, the film’s production crew had trouble finding one of the film’s crucial locations: the luxurious home of the wealthy Park family. The chances of finding the right house were slim, but the chances of finding a two-story house with an ideal setting was even slimmer. As a result, the film’s art team created a set — a one-story house that would become the Park’s mansion and the film’s main setting.

Later, artists at Dexter Studios, a Seoul-based visual effects studio, added a second floor to the house using computer graphics based on its blueprints, complete with a staircase and a garden that was digitally created. The streets nearby also were made in 3D and digitally merged with the film. During the four months of preproduction, more than 200 artists at Dexter worked on the project and roughly 500 VFX shots were used in the film.

“We call it ‘invisible VFX’ in the industry,” says Dexter Studios CEO Kang Jong-ik. “And it’s often more difficult to create digital images that blend into the existing landscape.”

Kang started his career in advertising in the late ’90s, when computer graphics were first applied in South Korea. He later set up his own studio and concentrated on films. One of his first — 1998’s The Soul Guardians, a psychological thriller surrounding a religious cult — was the first Korean feature film ever to actively employ computer graphics. “It was a revelation,” Kang says. “People called it ‘Hollywood style’ then.”

In 2011, Kang joined Dexter, which was founded by director Kim Yong-hwa, whose Mr. Go (2013), a comedy about a baseball-playing gorilla, was the first South Korean film to be fully shot in 3D. 

Dexter is now a producer of several local blockbusters, including 2021’s Escape From Mogadishu and 2018’s Along With the Gods franchise. The studio specializes in securing original IP of popular novels and web comics and provides VFX for major Korean and global titles, including director Tomasz Baginski’s fantasy adventure Knights of the Zodiac, which will be released in the U.S. later this month.

In 2010, only 10 percent of VFX work in Korea was for content from overseas. By 2017, the number jumped to 56 percent, according to the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, owing to the increased demand for VFX work from China. The institute’s 2019 report “Study on Tax Incentives System of VFX Industry” values the domestic VFX market at roughly $45.2 million, and it’s mainly led by five or six players.

Elsewhere, the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism predicts that the domestic market for Artificial Reality will jump five times compared with 2020. VFX companies are now building virtual production studios, while conglomerates such as CJ ENM and SK Telecom are investing in the market. Leading tech companies such as Samsung and LG are collaborating with film studios to expand their investment in developing high-definition LED screens.

VFX is used more aggressively in Korean films and dramas than ever, regardless of genre. In Big Bet, a drama series about a casino mogul set in the Philippines and currently streaming on Disney+ in Korea, Gulliver Studio, another Seoul-based VFX studio, made headlines for employing de-aging technology, which incorporates artificial intelligence to depict changes in a character’s appearance and voice over time and re-creates images without using any special equipment during shooting.

“The technique was used in commercials before, but we were the first to try it in a drama series,” says Gulliver Studios CEO Jeong Jai-hoon. “We developed a special 3D mask and AI voice tool using compositing technology to create an image of the veteran actor in his younger years.”

South Korea also is leading the way in virtual production. Seoul-based XON Studio recently partnered with SK Telecom, the country’s top mobile carrier, to create virtual studios using large LED walls that can re-create an extensive variety of settings.

“The need for virtual production rose significantly during the pandemic,” says Jang Won-ik, CEO of XON, recalling the time when many Hollywood VFX studios were closed. “Given the quality and reputation of Korean production globally, there were demands from Hollywood studios to utilize virtual studios in Korea with local production crews. The plan was to shoot necessary scenes through virtual studios with a minimum crew in Korea and sign off by the director in the U.S.”

The company is currently testing the feasibility of connecting virtual studios in two different locations — Goyang and Pangyo.

“There is some latency, but we think it would be technically possible [to shoot in two studios simultaneously],” he says. 

Chang says if the virtual studios succeed, companies can shoot 24 hours a day at various locations around the globe, given the time differences, which can reduce costs.

Global expansion is one of the main goals of VFX studios in Korea. But time differences and language barriers are still major hurdles for Hollywood studios to partner with local studios, especially when English-speaking countries like Canada and New Zealand that are geographically closer to Hollywood are providing tax incentives for major film productions. 

Gulliver Studio, which earned a special visual effects Emmy in 2022 for Netflix’s megahit Squid Game, has attracted inquiries from global studios for partnership. Jeong believes that the quality of VFX artists in Korea has substantially improved in the past decade but feels that there still are some challenges.

“We also lost many talented artists to global studios after the release of Squid Game,” he says.

Dexter’s Kang agrees that Korean VFX artists are competent and offer broad skill sets, adding that savings are another selling point for the industry.

“The quality of Korean VFX artists has caught up about 80 percent with major studios in Hollywood,” he says. “We’re the best in Asia. In fact, many overseas companies in Japan, China and Thailand are asking for business partnerships with our company. Korea’s competitiveness lies in its ability to create high-quality work with relatively smaller budgets.”

With the rise of Korean films and dramas during the COVID pandemic, the size of VFX companies has expanded as well.

Following the success of 2022’s All of Us are Dead, a high school zombie flick, Westworld, another VFX studio in Seoul, is set to release the ambitious drama series Black Knight on Netflix in May. The company started with 10 employees in 2018. As of 2021, it houses up to 170 employees, largely due to its partnership with Netflix.

“We’ve done A-to-Z,” says Westworld CEO Son Seung-hyeon. “And because we have broad experiences, we’re good at problem-solving.”

Many in the industry say that tax incentives are a great way to promote the country’s VFX industry and ensure local companies remain globally competitive. Currently, depending on the production scale, the country provides up to a 10 percent return via tax incentives, a number many in the industry think should be increased. But an official at KOFIC, a government-run film body, says there is no immediate plan to offer additional tax incentives or support for local VFX companies.

There also are complaints that the government favors global VFX players over local companies. In 2019, the Seoul government attracted Scanline — which has done VFX for Hollywood tentpoles like The Batman and Godzilla — by offering various incentives. After the announcement, local companies complained that they were being discriminated against by the local government in favor of foreign players. 

“From an artists’ perspective, the opening of Scanline was an opportunity to work on global-scale projects,” says Chae at Korea Tourism and Culture Institute. “I think the government attempted to elevate the industry’s wage standard and develop the VFX industry. But because the industry scale is still relatively small, it became a competition between the local players and foreign players.”

Dexter is currently working on The Moon (working title), an ambitious sci-fi drama produced by Blaad Studio about a man abandoned in space, which was shot in the company’s virtual production studio. Westworld is currently working on director Na Hong-jin’s next feature, Hope, which will be shot in virtual production.

Kang at Dexter believes that there are certain limitations that come from the production scale in the Korean VFX market despite the industry’s success. Budgets, he says, need to increase in order for Korea’s VFX industry to continue to evolve.

“Compared to Hollywood, the budget for film production in Korea is still small,” he says. “If the total production cost is over 20 billion won ($15 million), it’s considered a blockbuster here. Compare that to Avatar 2, which is almost $400 million. The size of Korean film is still only about 10 percent of Hollywood production.” 

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