Interview with Eusong Lee – “Will”

| February 3, 2014

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If there’s something that Eusong Lee’s alarmingly simple short animated film Will does, it is recreate the sublime effect of how we choose to remember trauma. Though it’s been nearly fifteen years since the events of 9/11, the heart of Lee’s powerful and elegant 4-minute short film is the juxtaposition between the real and the wished.

Made at CalArts School of Film and Video, the Student Academy Award-winner is featured in the second season of Film School Shorts is currently available to watch online. We caught up with Eusong over email to discuss design, the film’s reception and his time studying at CalArts.


Hi Eusong. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your film Will.

I am Eusong Lee, originally from Korea and Canada, and currently living in LA. I went to California Institute of Arts for the Character Animation Program. Currently I am working at JibJab as a director and a designer, and also working as an illustrator and filmmaker on my own [projects]. Will is a short film about a girl who is dealing with the loss of her father from the incidents of 9/11. The film was made when I was in third year at CalArts, back in 2012.

9/11 is touchy, even 10 years later. What inspired you to make Will?

I was inspired by a song that musician Julian [Kleiss] played at his concert, and his song was inspired by a page from a book called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I actually avoided reading the book and just read the single page that inspired Julian. It basically had this idea of ‘going back in time’. Then I storyboarded the film several times over and over, came up with a reasonable metaphor to make [going back in] time part of the story. I did a lot of research and visited New York as well. The mood I could feel from the area was a big inspiration. Yes, that was the craziest part when I visited New York. As soon as I stepped into the World Trade Center Area, there was a deep, heavy mood in the air, even 10 years after the incident. Another big inspiration were voicemails from people in the towers at that time. I could find many of them on YouTube and every single one was very selfless, caring and assuring their love for their family or lovers. All of those were big inspirations.


You told me once that, as a self-described “outsider”, you had a different perception of the events of 9/11. Can you explain? How did that affect the way you approached Will?

I was very young. I saw it happening on TV when I was a kid in Korea. As far as I remember, I didn’t really understand what was going on. The loss of people was a hard concept to grasp at that time too. It felt like a faraway world’s story from where I was. Now that I have grown a tiny bit more, the sense of losing someone is quite more clear and realistic to my mind. Regardless of whether it is tragic, natural, sudden or expected, I think no one can measure or compare the weight of loss. When I was approaching [Will], I revisited my memories of loss. Of course, it’s not so pleasing.


Tell us a little bit more about Julian Kleiss and his music.

Julian Kleiss is a super talented musician from Austria. I met Julian when I was in my first year at CalArts. He was playing on a grassy knoll in front of a dorm. I found out his room was right next to mine, so we hung out from time to time. I really enjoy watching a musician playing music. As far as I know, he was already very famous back in Austria. Julian had so much life and innocence in the most passionate way about music. Julian always brought pure joy within his music and peacefulness in his personality. I asked him if we could collaborate when we were in first year and I thought it was the right time when I heard his music by the end of second year.  His album came out recently and of course, it is a very, very, good one.

One writer described Will’s aesthetic style as “trendy minimalism.” Is that accurate? How do you feel about that kind of terminology and categorization?

Yeah, I saw that. I’d say it is quite accurate. I hope I don’t sound like I have a big ego or something, but I do have mixed feelings about it. The writer [wrote] very, very good words about the film and he meant it in the best possible way. And I really appreciated it. There is nothing wrong with being categorized. I do see graphic aesthetics and minimalism quite often, so it definitely has become a trend. Maybe I am simply part of the digital artist generation, so it could be just a natural thing.


However, my choices of art direction were definitely not because it’s “trendy” or “hip”. Making an animated film (or live action) requires efficiency, especially when it’s one person doing everything. Graphic, simple but still elegant, designs will let you keep up pace with film production, so my decision was made. In the beginning, I had a more traditional and rendered feel to the character designs, since I came from very academic training. In the process of simplifying my design, I tried my best to be original in the way that made the most sense, but I guess everyone else was doing that too. Haha!

Something I’ve always wondered: the film is full of modern technology, but the aesthetic style is, for lack of a better word, retro.  I’d say that the way the main characters are drawn, for example, and their wardrobe seem locked in the 1960’s. Was this an intentional choice? How does that affect the way we perceive a modern event?

I was more oriented to the feeling that the design gives you. One thing I wanted [was] the father to be a very reliable and strong father. Wide shoulders and the big shape of his design was meant to be a little bit old-fashioned: a strong father figure. Once the shape language is down, you come up with clothes that go along with the shape, and it should be smooth. The daughter is a lean, fragile, sensitive character: so, a bit exposed, short pants and T-shirts worked well as they are casual. I didn’t really think of the era of things, but there is something very typical and strongly impressed [in the] feeling from designs, which feels a little old fashioned and retro. I was more drawn to those things.

Where’s the little girl’s mother?

She is doing good. Probably in a different room.

The mother was there in the first pass of story. By the time I was doing a third story pass, it seemed too complicated for a 3-4 minute short film. So I just simplified it to the daughter and father and focused on them.


Did Will evolve throughout the filmmaking process in ways you didn’t expect when you started? Was there anything about Will you doubted throughout the process?

I feel like this could be two different questions. Well, this short film was going to be a music video project for Julian and I was going to finish it in 4 months. However, the more I researched, I realized how big this project actually was. Research alone took 3-4 months. And I ended up making [over the course] of one year. So, that was something that evolved and grew over the process. The scale of responsibility was necessary to deal with the 9/11 incident.


I didn’t have much doubt. But I had fears, such as what if someone told me, ‘What do you know about this event, you have no relation, no direct connection or any sort to this incident’ ? There were people who asked me why I made this film, or [that I shouldn’t] make this film. As much as the topic is personal and sensitive, I had to be very careful, respectful and bold at the same time. It sounds complicated but that was some sort of doubt and fear.

What part of Will are you most proud of? If you could change one aspect of Will, what would it be?

I really tried my best at that time. It is better to have it just be what it is right now. If I would touch it right now, I am sure I would ruin the innocent passion I had back then.

Audience reaction: what’s it been like?

Luckily, a lot of people loved it. And I thank them back as much as I can. There were people who teared up in front of me. Also, I’ve gotten letters from actual victims with deep and sincere appreciation. Even people who were not connected with the incident have given me very kind comments and their stories. One of my favorite stories was about a father who watched the film with his daughter. They watched the film after dinner and the next morning, when he was about to go to work, his daughter told him to not go to work. I do feel almost bad that I made the daughter worry, but…I am also happy that it had impacted people in a way. Apparently his wife blamed him for watching such a film with his daughter. Oh well.


You took home a Student Academy Award for the film. In retrospect, what comes to mind when you remember that experience?

I learned a lot about live-action people. They seem to have quite a different vibe from the animation industry. Nothing better or worse, just quite a different world. I do believe that there are some mindsets and spirit differences in the production process. That was the most interesting thing: meeting all the amazing and experienced people from the industry and newcomers like me.

Actress Quvenzhané Wallis and Eusong Lee, winner of the silver medal in the animation film category for “Will,” during the 40th Annual Student Academy Awards on Saturday, June 8, in Beverly Hills.

Actress Quvenzhané Wallis and Eusong Lee, winner of the silver medal in the animation film category for Will, during the 40th Annual Student Academy Awards on Saturday, June 8, in Beverly Hills.

Ever considered live action filmmaking?

Yes. But I think there are more things to break in the animation world.

Can you tell us a bit about your family? Are there any other artists in your family?

My father used to be an engineer and now he runs a company that makes parts for cars. My mother is a world history/geography teacher. I have an older brother and he is a motivational speaker. It’s funny how me and my brother ended up in such occupations, but I believe there is a lot of influence from our mother, who is both an educator and storyteller at the same time. That’s how history works, I guess. And my father’s hobby was photography and editing videos. I had a lot of his influence alongside with my mother’s influence. I have a cousin who is an illustrator, on my mother’s side. Other than that, on my father’s side, most of my other cousins are doctors, lawyers and bankers. And somehow I ended up in animation. Often they told me that, “We don’t have much artist blood in our family. It’s weird and awesome.”

Art by Eusong Lee: "no strings"

Art by Eusong Lee: “no strings”

In general, how do you motivate yourself when you’re frustrated with a project?

I ask myself ‘how bad do you want it?’ and tell myself ‘keep going’.

What keeps you up at night?

Eminem, Monster drink, wine and low light keeps me up at night. And of course, the desire to finish what I started on that day is important.

Name three artists in any medium that inspire you.

Daisuke Tsutsumi. AKA Dice. He is the man. Dice is an art director at Pixar. Beyond being a great artist, he has spread good influence around the world with his art. Projects that he has done have built libraries in Africa, helped his homeland Japan, as well as kids around the world by charity. I admire his lighting, skills, interpretation and understanding of the art side of animation. But more than that, what he does as an artist to people is more inspiring. “If you make people dream more, do more and learn more, then you are a leader.” I think Hemingway said that. I do think he is a good leader on many aspects.

He is the one who I was very impressed by. I can think of many names who I pick up great things from, but I think he is the only one who is my hero.

What’s the meaning behind your blog name, “King of Pine?”

King of Pine is what my name means in Chinese characters of my Korean name. Most Korean names are based on Chinese Characters. It’s just how it is. It was given by my grandfather.

Art by Eusong Lee: "fights"

Art by Eusong Lee: “fights”

What was your relationship like with your CalArts’ instructors?

Um, I was very open and also open to disagree with some instructors in the healthiest way possible. I am sure I was just a quiet kid. I listened to them carefully. But I was also busy coming up with my own way of doing things. It doesn’t mean I was being a rebellious kid. It’s just that learning rules from good teachers and breaking/interpreting them was my job at the time. So I’d say I had a healthy relationship with professors.

What was the most surprising things about CalArts when you first arrived? Were you considering any other schools before CalArts?

I knew I wanted to make animated short films, so Calarts was perfect. The biggest thing I learned was that there isn’t one way to make great work. I came from a very academic way of approaching drawings, paintings and visual art in general. I was into very traditional conté life drawings. But I met people who I felt like they were geniuses. Some really stood out with innocent passion to create and be professional at the same time. And of course, they really made their own way of making art. CalArts broke entire thoughts I had about what makes good art.

Art by Eusong Lee: "hide and sick"

Art by Eusong Lee: “hide and sick”

What is your advice to prospective film students picking a school?

Knowing your own personality and the personality of the school is very important. Just like some jobs often require a specific personality, different art schools have people with specific common personalities. I don’t know how schools pick people so accurately. You could go to another school to be a painter or designer. But if you want to direct, let your own voice and stories out, and do your thing, Calarts is the place.

What have you been working on since Will?

I make illustrations as I always do and I started working on another short film right after Will. But, right now, I have to figure out complicated visa stuff so everything is on hold. Still, I think about  stories a lot and different projects I’d like to do. That’s my personal side and I started working at Jibjab right after my third year at CalArts. I have been working as a designer and director. JibJab has another up and coming branch called Storybots. We are developing big things here and I am excited to give it my best!

Filmmaker Eusong Lee

Filmmaker Eusong Lee

What’s next?

For now, I am going to try to do what I can do alone on my personal work. Now that I have a full time job, making a short film is a very hard thing. But I can still make foundations to make films in the future, such as comic books, scripts and new styles of art. I think my next goal would be doing a comic book or scripts. Either way, it’s good filmmaking practice, I believe. Also, I must travel more.

Watch the film:

Eusong Lee is a Los Angeles based Director/Designer. He currently directs and designs shorts at JibJab/Storybots. Also, Eusong is actively making his own artwork to be used in his filmmaking.

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