2012 Sundance Filmmakers: Kangmin Kim

January 20, 2012


Production still from 38º-39º

Hyphen continues its interviews with the Asian American filmmakers attending this year's Sundance film festival. Kangmin Kim, like Andrew Ahn, is also a CalArts grad. While Ahn's interest is in social realist cinema, Kangmin's interest occupies the completely opposite end of the cinematic spectrum -- stop motion animation. 

Kangmin Kim 

Could introduce yourself to Hyphen's readers?

I was born and raised in Incheon, South Korea and graduated from Samsung Art and Design Institute, a school established the electronics company. My studies were in communication design -- book design, calendar, 2D print design. The summer before graduation I made a music video, which was the first time I used the stop motion technique. I filmed it with a small Nikon digital camera, but the project changed my life. Originally I was going to work for Samsung after graduation but after the music video, I wanted to do more stop motion animation and that lead me to attending CalArts where I got a BFA and MFA, both in Experimental Animation.  

Your Sundance film, 38º-39º, takes place in a Korean public bathhouse, which is about as creative as a setting for a stop motion film as I've ever seen. Tell me about the source of your inspiration for the work. 

The film was my CalArts thesis film. The concept came from when I was in South Korea, from going to public bathhouses with my father and friends. However, since I came to the US, I only go to the bathhouse alone. 

Still from 38º-39º

There are public bathhouses in the US? Where?

LA Koreantown and there are many of them! One day I was in a very small and old one, with hot steam, spooky air that made me reminisce about my childhood. You know, I have a very big birthmark and when I was a kid, I scrubbed the birthmark over and over to try to make it go away and it never did. So for me, the birthmark symbolizes many things that come from my father and mother; that's why the character in my film tries to scrub the again and again.

My goal has always been to make experimental, narrative films. I didn't want to make a "clear" film, instead I wanted the audience to feel the emotions from images, not plot. Characters are not important to me, the bathhouse is more important. I consider myself as a designer, not an artist. I don't know how to tell a story, I only know how to make visuals, so from the filmmaking process I learned how to make a movie. Since this was a two-year project, I had to do everything, and sometimes I simply lost my mind. This film did not have a storyboard at all, I just drew in my sketchbook for inspirations until I made the set, then once I had the camera in front of the set, I just let my inspirations control the process. Since this was the last student film in my life, I didn't want to have any limitations. During the day I drank tea and listened to music, and at night went to the set and just played with my characters all night. 

Your film features a dizzying amount of visual effects and very lush colors. How many shots did you use all together to assemble this film? How long did the process take?

I can't count how many shots I used. Originally I wished to use 35mm, but it was too expensive. While making this film it was most important to show the texture of the air, because of this I created most of the effects in camera, not in post. In the finished film, probably 99% of the effects you see were filmed in camera. Everything was in my set; [I] used a lot of lighting system[s], even made my own filter including transparent plastic, which I put in front of the camera to give different lighting effects. And that's also why I didn't use any camera movement. For texture, I used watercolor paper to assemble the bathhouse set. I tried to play with 2D and 3D space, this meant using 2D props in a 3D sets, some shots look like drawing animation, some look like stop motion animation. 

Kangmin Kim working on the set of 38º-39º

Computer generated animation is most probably the most popular genre of animation right now. What made you fall in love with stop motion, a decidedly more analog and more painstaking way of creating an animated film?

I love the texture of stop motion, it's from real life, it takes objects from real life. When I watches computer animation, I feel very different, something about doesn't feel alive. I want to create with real things for my animation. It just has so many possibilities. Most importantly, with stop motion, I can never know the outcome. 

Now that your film is in Sundance, what's next for you? 

Since the Sundance acceptance came, I've been getting so many calls from other festivals that want to show my film. So I'll try to show this at as many festivals as possible. After that, maybe work for a motion graphics company and do more on how to combine stop motion with 3D technology. As an international student, I have a one-year stay period, and I need to get another type of visa to stay in the US, which is one of my reasons for applying to film festivals so I can qualify for an artist visa. Already Sundance has given me alot of opportunities and I'm grateful for that. 

Watch the making-of video of 38º-39º below:

TIMELAPSE from my thesis from KANGMIN KIM on Vimeo.