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Animation School Graduate’s Film Shines a Light in Darkness

Redemption is a new short film written and directed by Academy of Art University alumna Seora Hong (2017). The drama, which took first place in the 3D animation short category at the school’s Spring Awards, is making the round in the festival circuit. So far it’s been selected for four festivals and has taken two prizes.


Serious Topics

It’s a gray San Francisco day. A man stands at the edge of a city rooftop. He seems to have lost all hope. He looks down at the street below and lets his cell phone fall to the pavement, preparing to meet the same fate himself. But before he takes the final plunge, he is met with an unexpected reason to carry on.

This scene from Redemption opens the film, and demonstrates Hong’s ambition to take on serious subjects: depression and suicide. But Redemption’s theme is ultimately presaged by its title, delivering a hopeful message to viewers.

“It has the potential to go really far,” says Catherine Tate, director of 3D animation in the School of Animation & Visual Effects. “I mean, we’re talking maybe the Oscars. It was such an impressive, collaborative effort.”


Another Milestone for StudioX

The film, which started out as Hong’s MFA thesis five years ago, was produced in part in the Academy’s innovative and acclaimed StudioX. The program is a student-run, faculty-mentored effort that allows young animators to participate in a real-world animation and VFX production environment. Students work with real clients, on real films and games, with real deadlines, and real problems to solve.

Films in which StudioX students have had a hand include Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station and many more, including a number of award-winning student productions.

‘Opportunity to Flex’

Redemption was brought to StudioX by Derek Flood, associate director of visual effects, who was attracted by its powerful message. He saw it as a great opportunity for students to flex their animation skills.

“It gives me shivers every time I watch it,” says Flood, who supervises the computer graphics animation arm of StudioX. He worked closely with students throughout the making of Redemption. “We have kind of a thing in Studio X where we always try to…develop something and push what we’ve done a little bit further than we had before. So that was definitely the case with this piece.”

Over the course of several semesters, Studio X students meticulously added details to the animation, like individual pebbles on the street below the building’s edge, or the woven texture of the main character’s shirt. Students also used a method for 3D matte painting to create the film’s impressively realistic shots.

“We’re not just trying to make beautiful images, we’re trying to make powerful images that make the audience get kind of lost in the story,” says Flood.


Stark Palette

Redemption doesn’t just touch on some dark themes. The film is almost exclusively rendered in black and white, underlining the melancholy storyline. Flood points out that this stylistic choice was actually an added artistic challenge, making the work more impressive as a portfolio piece.

“That’s actually difficult for computers, to do things only in black and white and not being reliant on the bright saturated colors,” says Flood. “Really getting the tonality of the concrete, and the bricks, and the human skin, and everything, was really a great way to show off our students’ skills.”

Inspiration Close to Home

Hong, originally from South Korea, says Redemption was inspired by a fire escape outside her San Francisco apartment.

“I was sometimes looking at it and thinking of weird questions like, ‘What if the balcony breaks when escaping?’ or ‘What if it is too hot to touch it while there is fire?’…because it looked too fragile to me,” says Hong. “I stuck to the object, and I started to make the story, thinking about what can happen related to the object. It was a starting point of this story, and I kept developing the ideas, listening to advice from my roommates and instructors.”

The film’s message, while at times dark, is an important one. And that’s why so many people have been able to connect with it.

Shared Experience

Animation & Visual Effects
MFA alumna Seora Hong

“This piece spoke to people,” says animation school student Brian Gabel, Redemption’s lead producer. “If it’s not an experience that they went through personally, it’s an experience of someone close to them. It’s identifiable, whether the person and anyone who watches this has contemplated the idea of suicide or not.

“The fact is that we all face depression, we all face really hard times, we all face big decisions, and no one should have to go that route. That was a part of my life as well. When I was much younger, I contemplated suicide, too…. But at the same time, I’m glad I faced that hardship, because it brought me to where I am today.”

The Journey

Hong hopes audiences will identify with Redemption’s central theme of getting a second chance, despite the film’s dark opening.

“I hope audiences feel warm-hearted while they are watching the film,” she says. “The film starts with depression but ends hopefully. So if someone is struggling, I hope they can overcome the difficulties of that moment.”

Images courtesy of Seora Hong

Original article by Greta Chiocchetti of Academy Art U News,

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