In the outskirts of Seoul lies the Gasan Digital Complex, a sprawling business district full of luxury malls and hyper-modern glass office buildings. Occupying the entire 17th floor of the stylish Mirae Tower — literally translated as “Future Tower” — Studio Mir feels much smaller than the animation campuses scattered across Hollywood and Burbank.
Still, it’s here in this office that Studio Mir produced some of the most critically-acclaimed animated shows of the last decade, including The Boondocks, The Legend of Korra and Netflix’s 2016 collaboration with DreamWorks Animation, Voltron: Legendary Defender, soon to return for a second season.
A South Korean animation firm, Studio Mir was enlisted to create the look and feel of the critically-acclaimed reboot of World Event Production’s Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Polygon traveled to the company’s South Korean headquarters in Seoul to sit down with Studio Mir and discuss its work on the show’s upcoming second season, as well as the studio’s own history and future.
Considering South Korea is one of the many countries spread across Asia that provide work-for-hire animation contracts for popular animated shows like The Simpsons, Animaniacs and Bob’s Burgers, it has been fascinating to see a company like Studio Mir emerge from a market that remains largely anonymous to consumers of animated TV shows. Even street artist Banksy once collaborated with The Simpsons to produce an opening credits couch gag that lampooned the South Korean animation market, depicting it as nightmare, authoritarian factories producing mass-marketed Western cartoons for a consumer market.
The gag was decried by South Korean animators in an article featured in Time. This is the kind of environment where Studio Mir — with its diverse and impressive résumé — comes from. Whereas animation studios in the U.S. and Japan consistently receive praise and accolades for their artistic merit, other foreign animation firms suffer from a more negative perception.
Inside the animators’ studio
Upon entering, it's clear that Studio Mir’s facilities are effectively divided in two. The well-crafted lobby, complete with wooden walls and framed awards and accolades, gives way to glass doored meeting rooms and business spaces. Meanwhile, animators work in more traditional office quarters, filled with drawing tablets, storyboards and towers of empty coffee cups, along with bookshelves full of art books, design materials and drawing references. It’s there, among personalized cubicles, that the animators at Studio Mir are busy working on the second season of Voltron: Legendary Defender.
Voltron: Legendary Defender is a modern reboot of the American Voltron series, itself created from licensed footage of the Japanese cartoon Beast King GoLion. The American Voltron from the ’80s was made from edited Beast King footage and dubbed over with original dialogue to create a new storyline in which five pilots control individual lion mechs, who together can combine to form the Legendary Voltron, defender of planet Arus.
2016’s Voltron on Netflix isn’t made from cut-up footage, instead featuring completely original animation from Studio Mir that blends CGI with Japanese anime-esque designs and fluid action sequences, creating a space opera of epic storytelling and scale.
Arriving at the studio, I was told my interview would be in the CEO’s office, just through the central hallway. On my way, I walked past a glass-walled meeting room where, after the interview, the space would be filled with animators sitting down for a table read of Voltron.
"We have table reads for the scripts here as well," Studio Mir's business translator, Sandy Lee, explained to me during the office tour. “I think they're assigning parts right now.”
In the office of Studio Mir's CEO, I met Kwang-il Han, animation director and executive director at Studio Mir, and Seung-wook Lee, head of business development and also an executive director. The company’s CEO and founder, Jae-Myung Yoo, happened to be visiting Studio Mir’s brand new Glendale offices in California at the time and unfortunately couldn’t join us.
Both Han and Lee have been with the studio since its inception, Han having worked with Yoo at MOI Animation on Avatar: The Last Airbender as an animator in the show’s second season, and as animation director for The Last Airbender’s third season. Despite the enormous impact of The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, the company feels tucked away in anonymity, even as it works on the next big hit.
Studio Mir’s story begins in 2010 when the studio founder, Yoo, a twenty five-year veteran in the industry, started Studio Mir with the intention of bringing together the best animators in the country. The company’s name comes from Mir, the Soviet space station. Meaning “peace” in Russian, Mir was the first space station launched into space for long-term human habitation, before the launch of the International Space Station. Citing the space station’s scientific breakthrough and collaborative spirit, Studio Mir debuted with 20 members working on the company’s first project: The Legend of Korra.
“Since we were a brand new company, there’s hardly a case where we would normally get such a huge project like Korra. However, Yoo and [Avatar] creators Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino shared a working history that stretched back to even before the prequel series, Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Lee and Han explained, via translator.
As it turns out, Yoo was an animator who worked on the pilot for Avatar even before the show was picked up by Nickelodeon. Yoo, Bryan Konietzko, and Michael DiMartino created the pilot for The Last Airbender in Korea’s JM Animation, where Yoo was working at the time. Following the show’s success, Yoo’s working relationship with the Avatar team was formed, allowing his newly formed studio to begin working on Korra.
“It was purely their trust in us, based on the foundation of Avatar’s success, that made it possible for Studio Mir to begin working on The Legend of Korra,” the directors said.
If you are unfamiliar with Avatar: The Last Airbender or its sequel The Legend of Korra, the two stories are set in a fantastically rich world complete with geopolitical strife, Asian philosophy and a cast of multifaceted young heroes. In the world of Avatar and Korra, fantastical martial artists known as “benders” wield the elements of air, fire, water and earth as a form of combat, and balance is kept by the Avatar, a leader capable of mastering all four elements. Korra in particular became famous for introducing one of western animation’s first bisexual heroines in the show's eponymous hero, Avatar Korra. Studio Mir’s history runs through both shows, forming perhaps one of the most interesting list of credits in animation.
While it’s been nearly a decade since Avatar: The Last Airbender left the air, it’s important to remember that it debuted as one of the highest rated animated television shows within its demographic. As one of Nickelodeon's top-rated programs globally, The Last Airbender represented a milestone series for the network, garnering critical praise, huge viewerships, cult status and even a contentious live-action adaptation from M. Night Shyamalan. To say Avatar: The Last Airbender was a success seems like an understatement, even now.
Originally conceived as a limited series, The Legend of Korra went on to air for four seasons. Taking place decades after the events of The Last Airbender, Korra updated the show’s universe, taking place in a fictional 1920s-esque era that introduced steampunk technology to the world’s established “bending” martial arts, as well as a new team of heroes led by the new avatar Korra. Korra's finale in particular drew wide critical appreciation when Korra was implied to be in a same-sex relationship with another character on the show, Asami. Konietzko and DiMartino later confirmed that this interpretation was the one they intended.
When asked about Korra’s ending, Han and Lee acknowledged its cultural impact, but ultimately decided to not comment.
“We are well aware of how the show has been received in a socio-cultural context, but we, as the animators, don’t feel we can comment much on the show’s story,” they said, recommending I seek out Korra co-creators Bryan Konietzko, and Michael DiMartino if I wanted more.
But while the studio doesn’t intervene with either Korra or Voltron’s story, both of which were dictated by Western writers and storyboard artists, Studio Mir was involved with Korra’s pre-production and storyboarding stage. This allowed for the company to have more creative control in directing the show’s famously intricate and highly choreographed martial arts scenes. Han, a fan of Jeet Kune Do — the martial arts style of Bruce Lee — often used real-life martial arts choreography as a reference for Korra’s exhilarating and intricate fight scenes. The same attention to hand-to-hand combat scenes can be seen on Voltron, albeit with more lasers and robots.
“We actually had a martial arts director who could provide us with references. He was the same guy who worked with us on The Last Airbender, and he helped out on Korra, so for about nine years [he worked with us]. However, he was very old and retired midway through Korra. Actually, the creators Brian and Mike did some of the action choreography themselves to provide references, so that was fun.”
So then how did the studio jump from the fantasy, martial-arts story to the epic sci-fi, space opera Voltron? “Most of the crew on Voltron, Joaquim [Dos Santos] and Lauren Montgomery, as well as the episode directors, were all part of the Korra team,” explained Lee. In fact, it was also then Nickelodeon senior vice president Mark Taylor's move to head of TV production at DreamWorks TV that brought the gang back together, as they say. “[Mark Taylor] gathered all the Korra crew, including Studio Mir, from Nickelodeon, to create a post-Korra project, which was Voltron.”
The biggest question facing Studio Mir is whether Korean or other foreign animation studios can become as big as firms located in the U.S. and Japan. “Those two markets, Japan and U.S, they are the top markets in animation and the reason is because they have a strong, stable, local domestic market to start with, even before thinking about globally,” said Lee. “That’s not the case for Korea because of the small population size, and we don’t have a mature market that consumes animation here the way it is consumed in the U.S. and Japan. There’s a lack of diversity in merchandising, as well as the poorer perception our audience has towards animation.”
I asked if any of the shows Studio Mir has worked on have aired in South Korea. After some thinking over, the two directors explained that the first season of The Legend of Korra got a very quiet release on Nickelodeon Korea.
What about The Last Airbender?
Update: After the publication of this post Studio Mir clarified to Polygon that The Last Airbender aired in Korea to a bigger reaction than Korra on EBS, a major Korean educational channel. This meant that a majority of the show’s fan base was younger children. In addition, season 1 of Voltron was very recently aired on the cable TV channel, Olleh TV, but like Korra, it was a very quiet release.
As a result of South Korea’s less-than-hospitable domestic market, Studio Mir has largely looked — and thrived — abroad. “That’s why we partially want to go more globally, and maybe come back to the domestic market and bring that success back here.” With credits on The Boondocks (season four), Guardians of the Galaxy (the animated TV series and related shorts) and the feature film Big Fish and Begonia for Chinese directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, Studio Mir’s global focus appears to be paying off.
I asked how the studio handles the perception associated with South Korea’s work-for-hire animation industry, best-known for producing animated labor for foreign companies.
“We get that question a lot because we work on shows from other studios,” explained Han. “It is a perception we also face with as creators. However, that kind of perception was broken after working with [Studio Mir founder] Jae-Myung Yoo, because whichever project he was working on, he poured his heart into it and took ownership of it creatively, even if it wasn’t an original work. It’s inspiring for us to learn how you can take ownership of a project creatively, so we think that [for] whatever project we are on, regardless of it whether it’s our own product or another studio’s.”
As for plans in the near future, Studio Mir was more coy, refusing to divulge details of any upcoming projects in the immediate future. “We’re going to be on the safe side and not say anything here,” the directors said, but Studio Mir is intent on expanding its roles to encompass the full scope of production, from pre- to post-production, a first for the ambitious studio. In the meantime, the new season of Voltron: Legendary Defender will continue Voltron’s fight against the Galra Empire on Jan 20, 2017 on Netflix.
The second season of Voltron had only just been announced when I spoke with Studio Mir, but I was eager to ask about how they envision the company’s direction in years to come. These plans apparently involve the CEO’s vision to develop a kind of “cultural city,” an amusement park complex imagined by Studio Mir.
The way the studio describes it, the amusement park would be something like Disneyland, populated by Studio Mir’s original characters and mascots, but it would also hopefully train young animation talents, and create a kind of animation campus, a la the Walt Disney Company.
“But that’s very long term,” the team explained. For a company that’s already gone from fantastical worlds of magic to robot space lions, those goals don’t seem so out of reach.
Matthew Kim is a writer whose work on culture, entertainment and technology can be seen at such publications as VICE, Kill Screen, Inverse and elsewhere. He also once wrote about finance, but that’s neither here nor there. You can follow him on Twitter @LawofTD.