Before shooting started on Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite, the film’s production crew had trouble finding one of the film’s pivotal locations: the luxurious home of the wealthy Park family. The chances of finding the right house were small, but the chances of finding a two-story house in an ideal location were even smaller. 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 from Dexter Studios, a visual effects studio in Seoul, added a second floor to the house using computer graphics based on the blueprints, complete with a staircase and garden that had been digitally landscaped. The streets in the neighborhood were also created in 3D and digitally merged with the film. During the four months of pre-production, more than 200 artists at Dexter worked on the project and approximately 500 VFX shots were used in the film.
“In the industry, we call it ‘invisible VFX,'” said Kang Jong-ik, CEO of Dexter Studios. “And it’s often more difficult to create digital images that blend into the existing landscape.”
Kang began his advertising career in the late 1990s, when computer graphics were first adopted in South Korea. He later founded his own studio and focused on films. One of his first – 1998’s The Soul Guardians, a psychological thriller about a religious cult — was the first ever Korean feature film to actively use computer graphics. “It was a revelation,” says Kang. “People called it ‘Hollywood style’ back then.”
In 2011, Kang joined Dexter, which was founded by director Kim Yong-hwa, whose Mr Ga (2013), a comedy about a baseball-playing gorilla, was the first South Korean film to be shot entirely in 3D.
Dexter is now a producer of several local blockbusters, including 2021’s Escape from Mogadishu and that of 2018 Together 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 Zodiacwhich will be released in the US later this month.
In 2010, only 10 percent of VFX work in Korea was for foreign content. By 2017, the number had jumped to 56 percent, according to the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, due to 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 approximately $45.2 million, and is primarily 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 grow five times from 2020. VFX companies are now building virtual production studios, while conglomerates such as CJ ENM and SK Telecom are investing in the market. Leading technology companies such as Samsung and LG are collaborating with film studios to expand their investment in the development of high-definition LED screens.
VFX is being used more aggressively in Korean movies and dramas than ever, regardless of genre. In Big beta drama series about a casino magnate set in the Philippines and currently streaming on Disney+ in Korea, Gulliver Studio, another Seoul-based VFX studio, made headlines for its use of aging technology, which includes artificial intelligence to detect changes in appearance of a character and voice-over time and recreates images without using special equipment during shooting.
“The technique had been used in commercials before, but we were the first to try it in a drama series,” said Jeong Jai-hoon, CEO of Gulliver Studios. “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 is also at the forefront of virtual manufacturing. Seoul-based XON Studio recently teamed up with SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile carrier, to create virtual studios using large LED walls that can mimic an extensive variety of environments.
“The need for virtual production increased significantly during the pandemic,” said Jang Won-ik, CEO of XON, recalling the time when many Hollywood VFX studios were closed. “Given the quality and reputation of Korean production worldwide, there were demands from Hollywood studios to use virtual studios in Korea with local production crews. The plan was to shoot the necessary scenes through virtual studios with minimal crew in Korea and sign off by the director in the US.
The company is currently testing the feasibility of connecting virtual studios in two different locations: Goyang and Pangyo.
“There’s some latency, but we think it would be technically possible (to film in two studios at the same time),” he says.
Chang says that if the virtual studios succeed, companies can film 24 hours a day in different locations around the world, given the time differences, which could cut 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, which are geographically closer to Hollywood, offer tax incentives for major movie productions.
Gulliver Studio, which earned a 2022 Special Visual Effects Emmy for Netflix’s mega-hit Squid game, has attracted requests from worldwide studios for collaboration. Jeong believes that the quality of VFX artists in Korea has improved significantly over the past decade, but believes there are still 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 compared to major studios in Hollywood,” he says. “We are the best in Asia. In fact, many overseas companies in Japan, China and Thailand are requesting 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 movies and dramas during the COVID pandemic, the size of VFX companies has also expanded.
After the success of 2022 We’re all deada high school zombie movie, Westworld, another Seoul-based VFX studio, will release the ambitious drama series Black knight on Netflix in May. The company started in 2018 with 10 employees. As of 2021, it will house 170 employees, largely thanks to its partnership with Netflix.
“We did everything from A to Z,” says Son Seung-hyeon, CEO of Westworld. “And because we have broad experience, we are good at solving problems.”
Many in the industry say tax breaks are a great way to promote the country’s VFX industry and ensure that local businesses remain globally competitive. Currently, depending on the scale of production, the country offers up to 10 percent returns through tax breaks, a number that many in the industry believe should be increased. But an official at KOFIC, a government-run film organization, says there is no immediate plan to provide additional tax breaks or support for local VFX companies.
There are also complaints that the government favors global VFX players over local companies. In 2019, the Seoul government brought on Scanline, which has done VFX for Hollywood tent poles The batter And Godzilla — by offering various incentives. Following the announcement, local companies complained that they were being discriminated against by the local government in favor of foreign players.
“From an artist’s perspective, opening Scanline was an opportunity to work on projects on a global scale,” says Chae of the Korea Tourism and Culture Institute. “I think the government has been trying to raise wage standards in the industry and develop the VFX industry. But because the scale of the industry 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, shot in the company’s virtual production studio. Westworld is currently working on director Na Hong-jin’s next feature film, Heapwhich will be included in virtual production.
Dexter’s Kang believes that despite the industry’s success, there are certain limitations that come from the scale of production in the Korean VFX market. Budgets, he says, need to be increased for the Korean VFX industry to evolve.
“Compared to Hollywood, the budget for film production in Korea is still small,” he says. “If the total production cost exceeds 20 billion won ($15 million), it will be considered a blockbuster here. Compare that with avatar2, which is almost $400 million. The size of Korean film is still only about 10 percent of Hollywood production.”