Monday, April 6

Alumna brings reality to 3D worlds with live-action cinematography

UCLA alumna Arem Kim brings her cinematography background to her work as an animation layout designer. She places the camera to best highlight one aspect of a scene, such as a character’s emotions or a particular relationship. (Courtesy of Olivier Dubard)

Arem Kim’s interest in animated films was sparked after she watched Disney Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”

The UCLA alumna said she was particularly inspired by the different camera perspectives in “Ratatouille,” enabling her to travel with Remy around the kitchen floor, sewer and streets of Paris, seeing the world through the rat’s eyes.

Kim is currently working in the layout department of Sony Pictures Imageworks, with her most recent projects involving “Smallfoot,” releasing Friday and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” releasing Dec. 14. While studying cinematography at a live-action film school in South Korea, Kim said she had not considered a career in animation until she realized that there was more to the art than 3D drawings seen onscreen. Although Kim primarily focused on live-action films, she said she became particularly intrigued by the camera work in the Pixar animated films, prompting her to specialize in animation as an MFA film student at UCLA, and to later become a layout artist. The term was first coined for earlier 2D Disney animations to define the role of character placement onto a background, but has since been transferred into the 3D world to describe the function of a cinematographer in animated films.

“As a student filmmaker, there were many times that I was frustrated with the possibility of what I can and cannot do,” Kim said. “3D animation is actually the perfect tool … I don’t need a big crew, I don’t need a lot of money … I can do it just by myself in the room with my computer.”

As a layout artist, Kim said her process begins as soon as she is assigned a short film sequence. After figuring out the main focus of the sequence – such as a particular emotion, action or character relationship – she decides the camera setup and rough plan for each shot, placing the camera from different perspectives using a program called Autodesk Maya. Based on a 2D storyboard, Kim lays out the characters and props onto the animated set, running the sequence through multiple rounds of edits to achieve the director’s vision. Jessica Giang, who is also a member of the layout team, said she likes how being a layout artist entails working directly with the director and supervisor, enabling her to bring in some of her own ideas for the film.

The work of a layout artist is more complex than just understanding basic cinematography, Kim said. It’s easy for a layout artist to fall back on following the storyboard’s composition, Giang said, but layout artists must also have the autonomy to make the composition stronger for each shot to effectively match up. It’s important to have knowledge of different lens and camera movement, such as close-ups and wide shots, in addition to continuity, eye direction and beautiful composition, Kim said.

“Visual storytelling is I think the most important thing in animation … everything needs to serve the story,” Kim said. “In live-action … a beautiful shot can come out of luck, but in animation, every single detail is designed.”

Last year, Kim worked on effectively using visuals to convey the heartbreak in an emotional flashback sequence in “The Lego Ninjago Movie.” During the scene, Lord Garmadon’s ex-wife Koko leaves him, taking their son with her. In order to convey the characters’ emotions, Kim said she used multiple point-of-view shots and shallow depth of field, thereby detracting attention away from the background and towards the characters. She also added a slow drift of the camera pulling away from Garmadon towards the end to create an effect of both the camera and the audience leaving him behind, just like Koko did.

“The best shot in an animation is … when you can convey the emotion in the story to the audience with only the visuals and the camera movements,” Kim said. “I spent a lot of time designing the composition of the shots because I wanted to make sure the audience feels what Garmadon feels at the moment.”

In order to create more effective, believable shots in 3D animation, Kim said she takes inspiration from live-action films. An animated 3D world allows for more unrealistic scenarios; however, if the laws of physics from the real world are disregarded, maintaining the audience’s suspension of disbelief can be problematic. For example, a computer-generated camera should always move with the weight of a live-action camera, Kim said. Her co-worker Olivier Dubard, a matte painter at Sony Pictures Imageworks, said it’s important to learn from live-action movies in order to create realism in a full computer generated environment.

“The danger about CG is that you can have a tendency of forgetting that in the real world, there are certain things you can’t do with the camera because of physical and gravity limitations,” Dubard said. “(Kim) comes from a live-action background so she knows what it means to shoot, she knows what it means to hold a real camera … She’s really resilient and adamant about the fact that cameras need to look real and believable.”

Kim said she is always looking to take on more challenging projects in the future so she can continue growing as an artist. Because most of the animations she has previously worked on have been for children, she said creating for different audiences would push her to learn more. Someday, Kim said she hopes to be involved with animations geared toward adults or young adults.

“Many times, animation comes as comedy or action, and I wish there was more than that, like horror movies or something like that,” Kim said. “I like what I’ve done so far, but I want to explore more different genres of movies and different types of stories.”

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