Ken Pak talks about going from Disney animation to children’s picture books

June 17, 2015
Ken Pak (Courtesy of Ken Park)

Ken Pak (Courtesy of Ken Park)

By Tae Hong

What Ken Pak remembers of his childhood in Howard County, Maryland, are the quiet farmlands, the trees and the birds.

So impressionable were they that, decades after he left, to animate and illustrate at DreamWorks and Disney, Pak — now a freelancer — has revisited the nature of his past in a series of children’s picture books.

“Have You Heard the Nesting Bird?,” his first book with writer Rita Gray, and “Flowers Are Calling,” their second effort, both received critical acclaim, with the former becoming a finalist for the Advancing Science, Serving Society/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the children’s category this year.

“This charming and unusual nature story contributes something new to the overstuffed field of bird-related picture books,” Kirkus Reviews said in its assessment of the book.

Pak’s a fan of birds. He’s always liked them; he can name every bird that flits about his San Francisco neighborhood, and maybe half a dozen back home in Maryland.

“I like to look at birds, and I like to study them and remember their birdsongs in particular,” he said.

His parents are immigrants from South Korea. After the Paks settled in Maryland, they became heavily involved with the Korean American community, with his father, Pak Sung-soo, serving as the vice president of the Korean Veterans Association in Maryland.

Meanwhile, a young Pak spent a lot of time in his head, reading books, watching television and fantasizing about becoming a Disney animator like the people who’d brought some of his favorite characters to life. Art became an immersion.

“My parents encouraged it, but they were wary of me becoming an artist,” he said. “They were immigrants. They wanted their children to be successful, and the arts weren’t understood that well. It wasn’t associated with a successful career.”

He proved them wrong — while studying at Syracuse University, a young Pak caught the film bug. He went on to study animation at California Institute of the Arts before landing his first job out of college at DreamWorks in the days before computers, when he would draw everything by hand.

(Courtesy of Ken Pak)

(Courtesy of Ken Pak)

Years later, he’d go on to work on feature animations at Disney.

“Up to that point, I was just doing whatever people told me to do, what I needed to do,” he said. “At Disney, I was entrusted to work on my own style. I started drawing and painting the way that felt more natural and more fun.”

After rejoining DreamWorks in its Pacific Data Images office, Pak’s wife suggested he start blogging, putting up illustrations of the birds he so liked to draw.

The hobby proved to be a good distraction from work. Eventually, Pak was contacted by an editor to illustrate a children’s book — “Have You Heard the Nesting Bird?”

Soon after that, DreamWorks PDI closed down. Pak turned to working on his picture books full-time, sparked by the creative freedom they gave him. His other effort, “The Dinner That Cooked Itself,” is a twist on a Chinese fairytale.

“In animating, you’re limited to only a certain range of storytelling,” Pak said. “Many, many scriptwriters will tell you there’s only a few stories you can tell with a movie. You repackage them over and over again.”

“Whether you’re a little kid or an older person, when you pick up a book and read it, time is made,” he said. “You put aside a chunk of your day to do it.”

Growing up surrounded by nature in Maryland affects his work most of all, especially the way he grew up with four distinct seasons.

“Howard County was farm country. It’s very different now, but back then, there were just people, sheep, and all these old train stations and old houses. We loved it,” he said.

Those memories will seep into his next releases, a series of self-written and illustrated books about the seasons starting 2016.

“I want my readers to slow down,” he said. “We live in a, I think, crazy world. So many things happen, and every second you turn on your smartphone and you hear news about whatever is happening. What my books offer readers is just to slow down. Think about what’s around you.”

(Courtesy of Ken Pak)

(Courtesy of Ken Pak)

(Courtesy of Ken Pak)

(Courtesy of Ken Pak)