Pixar animator proves it’s never too late to follow ‘Joy’

July 10, 2015
Jae Hyung Kim (Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Jae Hyung Kim (Deborah Coleman/Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

By Tae Hong

Ten years ago, Jae Hyung Kim had it all figured out on the outside. He was a first-year medical resident at the historied Yonsei University in South Korea, elite career on the horizon.

It was on the inside that he housed constant doubts about whether he’d chosen the right path.

So he took a risk. He quit the hospital and moved to America to pursue what he loved — animation. Good thing, too, because now he’s found a home in Northern California as a Pixar animator.

The latest film on which he worked was “Inside Out” — a title, funnily enough, that reflects so much of his own experience — directed by Pete Docter and released last month to critical acclaim and box office success. Kim, 41, spent a good chunk of his time molding the characterization of Joy, the captain of the emotion squad.

“People tell me I’m more Anger than Joy,” he laughed. “I’ve been denying that.”

He’s certainly a bit of Grit, if that ever were an emotion (it’s not) — he was 30 when he left that prestige of a promising medical career, wife and kids in tow, for San Francisco and Animation 101 at Academy of Art University, driven by little more than his gut.

“At the time, I thought, I’m not only going to work until I’m 40. I’m going to be working a long time,” he said. “If I don’t enjoy my work, it’s going to be difficult. That was a thought I had a lot.”

“If I could start from the beginning and maybe work in animation, if I quit my hospital job, then I thought, ‘I think I will be able to be happy,’” Kim said.

Jae Hyung Kim (Deborah Coleman/Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Jae Hyung Kim (Deborah Coleman/Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

The first “Toy Story” came out when Kim was a college student in Korea. He remembers it as the film that sparked his interest in animation. It was 1995, and the movie was a spectacle of its time, the very first full-length computer-animated feature.

It was like nothing he’d ever seen before. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before — the film redefined the limits of animation.

“That left an impression on me,” he said. “I didn’t think to myself, ‘I have to become a Pixar animator,’ but it did stay in my head.”

That CGI became the craft he learned and the craft he works.

Following entrance to Pixar as an intern in 2006 on the cusp of graduation from the academy and a short departure to Blizzard Entertainment, a video game developer, before his return, Kim went on to help animate “Cars 2,” “Brave” and “Monsters University.”

Through all of it, Kim struggled to learn a language he did not speak and a culture he had never experienced. What drove his enthusiasm was the work — he said each project is a lesson and a new skill.

For “Inside Out,” which depicts a disaster that befalls a group of emotions as their host, a young girl named Riley, suffers a difficult move from an idyllic suburb to an unwelcoming San Francisco, a mixture of 3D and 2D styles were employed.

Kim said the animation — especially for the emotions, as they move so differently from humans — was a departure from Pixar’s usual style, with more of a dependence on a “cartoony” look and a dependence on 2D design sketches.

“Characters begin as models with no emotions,” Kim said. “I give them life and allow them to tell stories. When I see them in action later, they feel like your babies.”

If he has a goal, it’s to keep doing what he loves, and to keep getting better and better at it.

Maybe directing’s in his future, too, but that’s for much later.

“If I have a story I want to tell, then that will be the right time for me,” Kim said.

For the time being, he’s already working on Pixar’s next film, “The Good Dinosaur,” which will paint the friendship between a young boy and a dinosaur.

“It’s a completely different film than ‘Inside Out,’ but it has the same amount of heart,” Kim said. “You can count on it.”


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  2. Ehsan

    March 15, 2016 at 6:36 AM

    Wow, That is so beautiful!