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March 14th, 2022 | by Mathieu Gayet

“Coming from traditional animation, I had to learn a new creative vocabulary” - Sunghwan Lee (IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES)

South Korean XR production company GiiÖii and Studio Shelter present at SXSW 2022 their latest project, IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES. A unique take on exploring our heritage through the story of a 300-year-old old house that descended from Sunghwan Lee’s (the film director) ancestors.

How IHYANGJEONG started

Sunghwan Lee - Actually, I didn't know anything about the newly emerged genre of virtual reality. Also, I was an animator who loves 2D animation to its extreme. I remember the first time I met GiiÖii. I had a brief meeting with my boss, Jung-woo, and GiiÖii's CEO, René Hyewon. Conversation was going smoothly, anticipating that maybe we could make something interesting if Shelter, who is always pursuing something new and exciting work, and GiiÖii, who has a lot of experience and planning skills for VR, work together. I couldn’t agree with them more, too. But suddenly, Jung-woo looked at me and said, ‘Sunghwan, you have to do this.’ I was surprised and said ‘What?’ I had no choice but to panic as I had no understanding of 3D at all. Actually, it was just in time as I was planning to move due to an apartment noise issue with a neighbor, and I was thinking of turning this situation into a work. My colleagues listened to me, and the work was based on the story I had conceptualized. This is how my first autobiographical story and my first VR work began.

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Exploring memories with virtual reality

S. L. - If you experience IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES, you can feel how confused I was by simply listening to the narration as the subject moves back and forth and so on. I was not clear about what to do with VR as it was my first VR project, so I just started drawing the spatial environment I experienced. While drawing, the space we live in felt like a combination of square frames. Many things that can be seen in IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES are contained within the frames. And I even tried to express the past, people, and themes through those frames. Although there is a small amount of fantastic imaginary space in the spaces I drew with VR drawing, most of them have been transformed from real spaces or that have been restored which have disappeared.

S. L. - I also tried to make the spaces really realistic because I wanted to take those spaces out of my memory and make it as a record. All objects and spaces reflect their actual size as they were made to fit (my) human scale. A text itself is rough but it has strangely persuasive power when it meets this realistic space within the piece. This combination plays a powerful role in eliciting empathy from the audience.

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IHYANGJEONG: the power of animation in VR

S. L. - In fact, my first impression using VR was a shock which came from the absence of the conventional grammar of film, especially the concept of cuts.. In traditional animation, directors use cuts to take control of what she/he wants the audience to see, whereas VR creates a space and lets the audience decide what they want to see and where they want to go. So I needed to carefully take the audience into account for IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES. It was awkward as I was not used to it, but understanding this concept has changed the way I work.

S. L. - VR is just another genre in terms of the grand concept of “art”, and even the VR technology itself was developed longer than we think. However, VR has a long way to go to be generally accepted by the public and when the time comes, the new future that it will bring to us is highly anticipated to the extent that it is hard to imagine how diverse it will be. In the near future, we may experience another “renaissance” thanks to the widespread generalization of equipment.

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Directing an immersive story about relationship

S. L. - Of course, I saw NAMOO directed by Erick Oh. It was very impressive. I happened to meet Erick in the clubhouse and asked a question about utilizing Quill for VR. Actually we were in different shoes, but it helped. The biggest difficulty for me was to overcome my hand resisting new things and to do VR drawings. In particular, in Korea, it is extremely difficult to find someone who can guide me, so I spent a lot of time and energy studying the tool (Quill) by myself. Whilst getting acquainted with the tool, directing was another issue.

S. L. - Actually it went smoother than I expected and I thought. I honestly poured out the stories and images in my head and connected them and it went surprisingly natural, maybe because it is based on my own story. If NAMOO is a story about a grandfather, IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES is a story revolving around a relationship in which the conflict between the main characters, me and my father, turns into understanding, and a new house is at the core of those changes. It reminds me of Tim Burton's BIG FISH. I couldn’t feel anything or understand Big Fish when I was young, but when I got older and watched it again, I remember I was crying profusely.

S. L. - In Korea, there is a culture called “Haeng-rok”, which simply records the actions of parents before and after their death. For me, IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES is part of such a record. So it's a bit rough as I honestly put my heart into it, but I expect it to be able to get closer to the audience.

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South Korea and the attraction of virtual worlds

S. L. - Currently, many companies and artists are jumping into the metaverse in Korea. Governments and companies are also likely to expand the level of support/investment. IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES was also funded by government support. Looking at the domestic trend, it seems that the distribution of VR equipment is accelerating at a rapid pace. As a large number of consumers are emerging, if this leads to expansion of development and investment, we expect that the market will change faster than expected.

IHYANGJEONG, a world premiere at SXSW 2022

S. L. - It's incredibly exciting to see my first VR work being shown at one of the most renowned festivals and even being selected in a competition section. At the same time, I am a bit nervous in front of the audience since it is a work that was made so honestly (from the bottom of my heart). The story of IHYANGJEONG: CARVING WITH MEMORIES is something that many people can sympathize with, especially for us who live in this contemporary era. And I think that it is an issue that someone must talk about. I hope that this work could be a small consolation to the ones who live with countless problems in the city that are difficult to solve by themselves.

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