Homer Simpson, his dysfunctional family and his friends from the middle-of-the-road American town of Springfield were sent to South Korea long before exporting jobs overseas became a hot-button political issue in the United States.
A stone’s throw away from a highway that tears through Seoul and upstairs from a convenience store called “Buy the Way,” Homer, Marge, and the rest of “The Simpsons” have been brought to life for about 15 years at South Korea’s AKOM Production Co.
The company has been animating “The Simpsons” at its studio in western Seoul since it premiered as a TV series in 1989.
Behind every blunder by police chief Wiggum, beer downed by Barney and wisecrack by Bart is a team of about 120 Korean animators and technicians who create the 22-minute episodes based on an elaborate storyboard and animation instructions from the show’s creators, Film Roman, in the United States.
AKOM gets the storyboard, camera and coloring instructions, as well as the voice tracks. It then turns out the episode about three months later. Music and other finishing touches are added back in the United States.
South Korea is one of the leaders in what is known as original equipment manufacturing (OEM) animation where a cartoon is drawn according to a storyboard provided by a client.
Nelson Shin, chief executive officer of AKOM, said “The Simpsons” ended up in Seoul because of the high quality of work.
Harder than it looksAnalysts say cheap labor also helped and industry estimates show that South Korean animators are paid about one-third of what their U.S. counterparts make.
When Shin first took a look at the yellow characters with bulging eyes and four fingers he thought it would be easy to animate the Simpsons. But now he thinks otherwise.
“When it comes to Bart’s spiky hair, if you make one mistake in drawing or pencil thickness, the animation looks funny,” Shin said. The elaborate stories and the range of emotion shown by each character, it turns out, make “The Simpsons” an exceedingly difficult show to draw, he said.
“The characters are really delicate and subtle,” Shin said.
For example, a typical cartoon has about six different mouths that can be attached to a stock face figure for talking. On “The Simpsons” the main characters have about 27 different mouths, Shin said.
If AKOM has trouble finding the correct way to show something, such as Krusty’s scar from heart surgery, another take of the scene will be produced after a phone call with the United States.
Dialogue difficultiesAfter several hundred episodes, production runs smoothly. On one floor, a staff of mostly young women sit at computers as they scan animation cells, add colors and put the final technical touches on the show.
They work with storyboards that show pictures drawn in the United States.
But dialogue can pose a problem.
At first, the Korean staff had difficulty understanding the show’s humor and the cultural references, Shin said.
“There was so much slang in the show. I looked up those phrases in my dictionary and I couldn’t find the meaning,” Shin said. “Bart speaks to his father and says ’Hey, man.’ This is so disrespectful for us with our Confucian culture.”
Shin sits in an office, decorated with cartoon figures, where his dogs bark for attention and an Emmy Award for his studio’s work on “The Simpsons” sits on a shelf.
Two floors below him is a room with dilapidated furniture and out-of date audio visual equipment. Attached to the desk of animation director Kim Jun-bok is a hand-drawn picture of a six pack of Duff Beer, the preferred brand of Springfield’s ludicrous lushes.
'Just one family to me'Over one of Kim’s shoulders is a drawing that includes almost all the show’s characters and on a shelf above his desk is a book in which each character is drawn at various angles, as if standing in a police line-up.
“I cannot really say there is one character I like more than others. They are all just one family to me,” Kim said.
“The Simpsons” is one of several U.S. animated TV shows made in South Korea, and in recent years other Korean animation studios have also been animating “The Simpsons” along with AKOM.
Shin, who teaches animation at a university, is one of the pioneers of the craft in Korea. He went to the United States in the 1970s and worked on shows such as “Scooby Doo” and was also responsible for animating the light sabers in the first “Star Wars” movie.
He started AKOM in 1985 and one of his biggest projects --a full-length animated film based on a Korean tale called “Empress Chung” -- will hit cinemas in South Korea later this year.
There are worries in South Korea that OEM work is filtering out to other parts of Asia such as China and the Philippines where labor is cheaper.
But for now, fans of “The Simpsons” should know that each time they see Homer choking Bart and Lisa belting out the blues on her saxophone, there is an animator in Seoul who brought that image to life.