In French there’s the term ‘jolie laide’, or pretty-ugly, to describe a unconventional hottie whose attractiveness hinges on a crooked nose or a scraggle of teeth. In Japan the phenomenon of kimo-kawaii (cute-gross) illustration has ballooned in popularity in recent years, with even Sanrio, the creator of kitsch queen Hello Kitty, getting in on the creepy character game (see Kirimi-chan, an anthropomorphic salmon steak). There’s something about human nature that means this intersection between sweet and weird, sexy and repulsive, really gets under our skin. And it’s at this oh-so-freaky juncture that the work of animator Jun Seo Hahm sits, waiting to lick your hand affectionately – or bite off all your digits.
“In the advertising industry, where I once worked, there is a term ‘3B’, which means ‘Baby, Beauty and the Beast’,” Jun Seo tells It’s Nice that. “They believe 3B things easily catch peoples’ attentions. I try to draw cute, sexy and strange creatures in one image. If an image is all about cuteness, it is little boring. I sometimes feel like I am looking for shapes, forms and images, rather than drawing or making them. With little bit of exaggeration, I am asking if attraction based on instinct could be superior to aesthetics.”
A digital artist, Jun Seo is currently studying for a a PhD that explores the space between art and technology, focussing on artificial life. “I draw life-forms, and then make them look fancy, movable, alive somehow,” says Jun Seo. “I’m trying to learn about new technologies and apply them to the looking ’fancy, movable, alive’ part.”
Jun Seo starts by drawing organisms in pencil then looks through his sketchbooks to see how he can make characters from the parts or which shapes could move in an interesting way. “When drawing life forms and organic forms, I am not trying to make my drawings represent or describe animals or plants in real world. I am trying to draw something that looks like bits of some animals or organs or imaginative creatures,” Jun Seo explains. Some of these studies end up as very short 2D animations like the Karnival series, or as 3D animations that show how body structure informs walking patterns, as in Walking Follows Form. “As a former biologist wanna-be, I think my process is one of reverse-biology,” adds Jun Seo.
Textures – from wet-look silicone to a fleshy, almost-intestinal softness – are particularly important to the gross-out aspect of Jun Seo’s animations. Using a rendering technique called Sub Surface Scattering (SSS for short), Jun Seo achieves the semi-transparent look of materials like wax, milk, and skins. “I like the organic look of the SSS and use the technique a lot, but I don’t usually use super-realistic, bumpy skin-textures, so that my creatures can be left in symbolic realm, rather than the real.”
Terrifyingly, Jun Seo has plans to move his work from the screen to real life, experimenting with sculptural works using 3D printing, mould-making and, God forsake us, soft robotics. When in ten years our robot overlords have cutesy faces and wet-look skin, remember you saw them here first.