Animation films cut across boundaries by appealing to all age groups because they teach us life lessons through breathtaking visuals, endearing characters and immersive storytelling!

Heewon Jeong, our next pathbreaker, StoryArtist at Laika Animation Studios, Oregon, is part of a team that tells stories in a “visual” way based on the script, characters, film language/mood.

Heewon talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her inclination towards Art while growing up that paved the way for her dream career in Animation.

For students, never underestimate yourself, and never compare yourself to others. Be the best what you can be by constantly challenging yourself !

Heewon, can you walk us through your background?

I was born and raised in South Korea, a country with a high rate of educational fever.

As a “good girl,” I attempted to obey all of the rules, especially that students should take the “best path” that society has laid out for them. I was stressed most of the time at school, and one day in junior high, I realized that this was not the life I wanted to live for the rest of my life.

For me, drawing was the only way to de-stress. The most vivid memory was drawing on the chalkboard during class breaks. I used to spend time with my family and friends watching videos when I was a child. Winnie-the-Pooh, old Disney classics, and 90s anime movies for children were my best buddies. Even though my entire family and friends share diverse interests, I feel as though we are all united while watching movies and animation. It was the same when I drew on the chalkboard. I wasn’t the most outgoing student in class, but my drawings serve as a means for me to communicate with my peers. Teachers, classmates, and others from different classrooms came to me and we talked about the drawing.

As an introvert, movies, particularly animation, provided me with a means of communicating with other worlds and people. All those precious memories are the cornerstone of my journey of art.

I am a bookworm! I also enjoy listening to music whenever the chance comes. All these activities assist me in absorbing creativity from around the world. I even make some playlists for specific books! I am currently reading “The Plague” by Albert Camus.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my BFA in Computer Animation from Ringling College of Art and Design.

I made a three-minute thesis film called “Helicopter Mom” for my college graduation. It’s a single-person CG animated film. I had to go through all of the 3D animation processes in order to figure out what part of the animation I was most interested in. Because the animation industry is so divided and specialized, there are several departments inside it.  You can make the story, or you can design the characters, or create very cool computer special effects.

Following graduation, I am currently employed as a storyboard artist at the “Laika” animation studio in the United States. My job is to visualize the script so that everyone in the studio can see how the finished product will look. It’s a job that requires a lot of attention to detail when it comes to cinematography, but it’s also a lot of fun and rewarding!

What drove you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Since I was a child, I have enjoyed watching animation with my family. However, until high school, it was just something I did in my own time. I was one of the most introverted kids in the class. Like many others, I wanted to be involved in a friends group but had no idea how to. On the whiteboard, I drew some animation figures; Disney was the most popular genre at the time. I just did it for myself during the break, but one day, a classmate asked who drew it. That was me, and then people came to me and talked about the drawing. That was the time I realized that I can communicate with people through my drawing. Art has been another language for me. It is the way I see and interact with the world.

I could not identify what I wanted to focus on because the animation industry was so divided. We had a story structure lesson where we learned about story structure. The irony is that I was one of the class’s worst students. I redid the entire project five times and still received a C on the first one. I cried so hard and thought I had no gift, but I did not give up. For the last class, the professor clapped her hands at my work. That was the first time someone applauded my work, and she explained that “narrative” and “cinematography” are tools for telling stories. The same acting and scenario might be seen in different ways depending on the film language

It is just like our lives. I thought the C grade was my lowest point, but from a different perspective, it’s just a seasoning for my artistic path. A little adversity adds to the richness of a story. I want to tell people stories that show you that you can achieve your dreams.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I had a lot of problems with my family after I opted to study animation in the United States. I was depressed because my family could not afford to pay my tuition. I didn’t want to give up, though. No one in the world is forced to give up their dream. As a result, I looked for alternatives. I know that if I believe in something strongly enough, the chance will come.

Yes, I was correct. The Korean Student Aid Foundation has a program named “Dream Scholarship.” It is a program that provides financial assistance to students from low-income families who wish to study abroad. It was not the easiest option. I had to maintain the required grade, and on top of that, I had to devote my after-school time to English and sketching. In the end, I was chosen as one of the scholarship recipients.

How did you get your first break?

In 2017, I was accepted to Ringling College of Art and Design for a bachelor’s degree in computer animation. I learned how to use 3D animation software, as well as cinematography, design, and animation techniques. I put my faith in my professors, sought feedback from my friends and family, and worked extra hours after school. All of my hard work paid off, and I graduated in 2021 with the opportunity to work as a storyboard intern at Laika Studio.

As a member of their story team for the three months of the internship, I gained a lot of story skills and cinematography skills. As a result, I now work as a storyboard artist in the studio.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

* Challenge 1: Financial challenge. Since my family could not afford the tuition for college, I was about to give up going to my dream college. But I looked for as many scholarship opportunities as I could and eventually discovered one at the Korean Student Aid Foundation. I was able to attend college because the scholarship paid for my entire tuition.

* Challenge 2: It was difficult for me to adjust to my new life in the United States. The culture, the food, and the language were unlike anything I have ever experienced.  I had strong homesickness once, and my mom told me that I am always welcome to come back to Korea. It is not what I ended up doing, but knowing that there are people who always support me gave me motivation to not give up and keep learning. 

* Challenge 3: Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition in which a person believes they are not good enough no matter what they have achieved. I used to become depressed by comparing myself to others. I always set the bar high, and I felt like I would never be able to meet it. However, all of the syndrome and mental problems were in me, and I realised that I have the ability to eliminate them. I built a fresh comparison for myself. It doesn’t matter whether others are doing better than me; all I have to do is be better than I was yesterday. I discovered that transferring all of my anger and depression into motivation was the key.

Tell us about your current role as Story Artist at Laika Studios

I am working at Laika Studio in Oregon, USA. I come to the office by 9 AM and do some rough art sketches to wake up my hands. The story team’s goal is to visualize images from the given scenario so that people in the studio can see/visualize what the final image will look like. It requires drawing skills for sure, and we must consider the script, characters, film language/mood and cinematography as well. Since animated films are a form of visual media, we need to think about how we can tell the story in a “visual” way. Because the animated film is a visual medium, we must consider how the “visual” aspects may help tell the story. It is also a collaborative profession, so you will need to be able to communicate properly with others and your coworkers.

Since I am pretty new, I have to study a lot after work as well.  I watch a lot of movies and break them down shot by shot. I consider why the filmmaker used that camera movement in that location, as well as the type of shot or lighting they have… I used to have trouble comprehending camera movement because we have to represent the entire 3D world into a 2-dimensional drawing. So, regardless of genre, I attempt to see and understand more films and movies, and I constantly communicate with my supervisor and team!

Can you share with us some of your work from your portfolio?

You can visit my Portfolio at : https://heewonjeong.weebly.com/ 

How does your work benefit society? 

Animation appeals to me since it is a medium that everybody can enjoy. I used to believe that animation and cartoons were solely for children because of my restricted perspective. However, it is not.  It appeals to people of all ages, and there are always lessons to be learned. Every story has its own conflict and we see how the characters are solving the problem. As the one who got hope from them, I hope you all share the same hope.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There was a scene in my thesis film, Helicopter Mom, where the daughter had to climb up a tree to save her mother. The tree is tall, yet she is small. Even her mother was concerned and doubted that she would be able to pull it off. The tree branch broke when the daughter grabbed it, and she slipped. While everyone expected her to fall, she grabbed another branch and resumed her trek up the tree. It was a three-minute movie, and that particular scene lasted less than a minute. But while I was working on the sequence, I felt like her. I am sure I will face a lot of challenges along the way, but one door closes and another one opens. The secret is to believe in oneself and to never give up.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Trust yourself. I know it is a cliché, but I never really trusted myself. I am from a humble family background and never imagined myself working in my dream industry in the United States. Sure, not everything will go according to plan, but if you have faith in yourself, I am confident you will find a solution. Have some confidence and go out and see the world!

Future Plans?

First and foremost, I’d like to learn more about every aspect of the story in feature animation! I want to work hard and become a great story artist while also aiming to create comics.  Because a storyboard is made up of an image board, I believe storyboarding and comics have a lot in common. I hope that one day, my work will have a good impact on people. Above all, I want to spread a positive message over the world so that people can be encouraged.