Regulars / Ones to Watch 2019

Haein Kim’s animated comedy Peepin’ comes from a place of honesty

Illustrations:

Alva Skog

Haein Kim’s animated comedy Peepin’ comes from a place of honesty

Look out for the Ones to Watch eye in this article to find out more about Haein

A technically competent animation is no mean feat, but a technically competent animation that’s also hilarious is a rare find. For the Sydney-based animator Haein Kim, the combination of skill and humour is seemingly effortless. In her latest short film Peepin’, Haein brings her personal experiences to life through an entertainingly expressive animation. Beyond its laugh-out-loud comedy, Peepin’ also reflects the race-related issues that overshadowed the Korean-Australian’s childhood. While it was this impressive animated short which solidified Haein’s place in 2019’s Ones to Watch, we’ve long admired her other work which includes commissions for the likes of MTV, countless hand-drawn illustrations, and, she’s even a self-described “amateur ceramicist”.

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Set in the playground of a suburban Australian school, Peepin’s narrative mirrors Haein’s own upbringing in Sydney West. In conversation with It’s Nice That, Haein explains: “Sydney West is a poorer region of the city. I grew up amidst lots of white people that were pretty racist and growing up in that environment as an Asian was a struggle, but it really informed my work.”

We asked Haein to share a bit more about what it was like for her growing up. “Here’s a pic I found of me and my little sister during primary school,” she responded. “My mum did the classic mum style and always bought us clothes three times too big when we were in kindergarten so we could grow into them throughout the years, as evidenced in my little sister’s oversized uniform.”

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Currently working as an animator for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Haein graduated in 2017 alongside Peepin’ collaborator (and boyfriend) Paul Rhodes. While Haein developed the character design, Paul worked on the technical story structure, as well as producing the film’s soundtrack and background design. “I think our work really complements each other,” says Haein. “And because he’s my boyfriend, it’s a lot easier to say, ‘This doesn’t look right’, rather than saying that to someone I don’t really know.” Though Paul adds technical skill to the animation, the genius of Peepin’ lies in the utterly engaging storyline and characters – all of which come directly from Haein’s personal experiences.

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“With all my films, I draw inspiration from my own experiences. Everything comes from a place of honesty”

The film follows the protagonist, Dorian, who is relentlessly teased by her classmates Kimmy K and Jae Lee. The film’s opening scene sees Kimmy K daring Dorian to lick her spit in the promise of being her “best friend”. Enticed by that all-important title, Dorian does the deed, only to be greeted with rejection and a taunting “fatty boomba”. Despite this seemingly sad opening, Haein’s talent for developing delightfully expressive characters elevates this tale of bullying into a rib-tickling comedy.

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Part of the reason Peepin’ feels so effortless is down to the characters’ believability. “With all my films, I draw inspiration from my own experiences,” says Haein. “Everything comes from a place of honesty. The opening sequence about licking the spit – that actually happened to my little sister. It was actually, ‘You have to step on my spit if you want to be my best friend’, but I remembered it as licking the spit.” The character of Kimmy K is even based on a caricature of Haein’s older sister , who used to tease Haein when they were younger.

When we first spoke to Haein, we were desperate to know where the inspiration for Kimmy K came from. Here at the It’s Nice That office, Kimmy K will go down in history as an archetypal animation character with her cheeky expressions and gleeful tone. We may have even found ourselves quoting her once or twice since our first viewing of Peepin’… So imagine our excitement when we heard that Haein based the character on her elder sister. As you can see below, the character resemblance is absolutely incredible.

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Even though our interview call is connecting us from opposite sides of the world, the conversation with Haein feels comfortingly familiar, like talking to an old friend. We laugh about how cruel our elder sisters could be and discuss the strangeness of growing up as alienated, Westernised Asians. Haein puts it plainly: “I grew up wishing I was white but now I feel like, fuck that!” She’s calling from a holiday retreat in a rural area of Australia called Kangaroo Valley. Though the countryside setting is beautiful, it is also isolating as the only non-white person there. And even though the big cities have large populations of Asian communities, Haein is acutely aware of the lack of representation across mainstream culture.

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Australian identity is a crucial theme in Haein’s work. “Over here, when describing someone who’s white, people will say, ‘That person is Australian’, but they won’t point to any person of colour and describe that person as Australian,” she says. “It’s more like, ‘That person is Asian, that person is whatever.’ I find it frustrating, because it feels like I’m not able to identify as Australian even though I grew up here and there are so many other people from other ethnicities who feel the same.” As a result, Haein creates an all-Asian cast in Peepin’ to portray a different kind of Australian identity. “I don’t think I’d be able to tell a story from a white perspective.”

Although we touch on serious topics such as race in our interview, Peepin’ is anything but sombre. The animator crafts her ideas around societal issues into a highly entertaining story that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Instead, the film indirectly comments on representation, or the lack thereof, through witty character development.

These sketches document the evolution of Haein’s thoughtful character development. Each illustration shows how the animator has drawn out certain personality traits by accentuating some characteristics. While Kimmy K became more pouty and brooding with exaggerated lips, Dorian became more naïve through her wide-eyed expression.

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While Haein voices the character of Jae Lee, she pulled in favours for the voices of Dorian and Kimmy K from her voice actor friends who also work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “I was poor and I said I’d buy them dinner if they did the voice acting for me,” says Haein. As professional voice actors, Sarah Harper and Gerard Proust equip their respective characters with high spirits to accompany the colourful visuals. While Kimmy K’s voice is full of determination and sass to suit her bossy character, Dorian’s voice brims with hopeful promise in her quest to be a best friend and no longer a “fatty boomba”.

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“It feels like I’m not able to identify as Australian even though I grew up here and there are so many other people from other ethnicities who feel the same”

Haein recalls that Gerard “literally improvised everything”. Even though there was a script, Gerard “put so much energy into it and brought out this sassy character all by himself, which was great.” After the voices were recorded, Haein finalised the character sketches. With a love of drawing pen to paper, she first creates a “thousand iterations of everything” until instinct calls to say that a character is perfected. Since all the character development is worked out on paper, the animator either scans in the drawings, or directly interprets the hand-drawn figures straight onto screen. And when it comes to producing the actual animation, Haein devises a set of key poses to outline the character’s movement from A to B. Using a set of codes, the animator then programmes the movement, cleaning up certain lines and adding aspects of colour and shading along the way.

Through these sketches, we get a glimpse into Haein’s organised and experimental process. Though these preliminary sketches are static, the sense of movement from sketch to sketch is evident through subtle iterations.

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Most notably, the characters’ movement in Peepin’ is full of style. In one particularly memorable scene, Kimmy K slips down a bumpy slide, her body warping with the curvature of the slide as she does. Throughout the film, the story is strengthened by these moments of exaggerated perspective and foreshortening. This kind of style is influenced by Haein and Paul’s interest in zines and Peepin’s aesthetic is evidently informed by this 2D graphic language. “We really like the comics community,” says Haein. “We love going to zine fairs and seeing all the flat images on paper. That’s what we want our work to look like, flat but moving at the same time.”

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MTV Ident

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MTV Ident

With this single-planed perspective, Peepin in undeniably fascinating to watch. With advancements in AR and VR, more and more animators are moving towards a 3D style of animation. Haein, on the other hand, has gone in the opposite direction. The film’s flat graphics create a sense of fun that translates the frame-by-frame punchiness of a comic strip into moving image. Other key influences include the Japanese artist Misaki Kawai and impressionist turned cut-outs master Henri Matisse. Though Haein’s work possesses similar infusions of block colour and dynamic line, the clearest distinction that overlaps across all three of these artists is their sense of intuition.

Plagued by time pressures during Peepin’s production, Haein relied heavily on her sense of intuition to complete the project. Along with the help of other budding animators, Haein and her team completed the now award-winning animation in just a few months. Peepin’ has since toured Pictoplasma and Flickerfest; it won the best short student category of the KLIK animation festival in Amsterdam, not to mention it was nominated for the best short animation at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. These accolades, along with Haein’s captivating storylines and characters, clearly mark the start of a great career for the animator. With hopes of taking Peepin’ to our TV screens as a fully-funded short series, Haein also hopes to transfix us once again soon.

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