Creating a world with her hands
She knew she had made a mistake.
It was Yoo Lee’s first day during her second year at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and her enrollment should’ve felt like a grand relief of triumph and progress. After all, Yoo had grown up wanting to be a fashion designer, especially after seeing Christian Dior’s costume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City when she was 10 years old.
But on that first day, her disillusionment with fashion became clear. This realization did not stem from the labor of the craft but rather the tone of the industry.
“As much as I love fashion, it’s very much commerce, and there’s a lot of competition and it’s not very collaborative,” Yoo, a graduate student studying animation and digital arts (who is currently on a year of leave), told the Daily Trojan. “There’s a lot of cattiness that comes with fashion. It was very much like that in the classroom. And I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be great.’”
Her options to change course were limited, but she attempted anyways, looking to transfer into environmental or furniture design. Yoo’s father, however, wanted her to make “an independent living after graduation.”
He gave her an ultimatum: go back to Korea and do whatever she wanted or stay in Los Angeles and study fashion. Yoo chose the latter.
A GIFT OF REMEMBRANCE
Yoo had made her mark in the fashion world, spending 20 years in the industry and even starting her own company, Saja, making garments right out of her living room.
But Yoo had fallen out of touch with fashion, noting that “as somebody who is creative, it wasn’t enough.” When she gave birth to her daughter Sky, Yoo found herself with a lot of emotions that she wanted to express.
“It wasn’t easy for me to become a mother. I lost two kids on the way, so it was a very profound moment for me like seeing her face,” Yoo said. “Because I didn’t grow up in America, I didn’t know any lullabies and so I couldn’t sing to her, but I made up this rhyme, and I wanted to preserve it so when she grew up she would remember me [and] remember this moment.”
Yoo didn’t know how to animate in 3D or 2D, so she relied on what she already knew from fashion: the art of breathing life into cloth, clay, buttons and twine, otherwise known as puppet fabricating.
For her very first stop motion film, Yoo tailored a doll in her daughter’s likeness. She reached out to a friend who had experience in musical composition and asked him to create a song for the film and record Sky singing it. The result ended up being a two minute music video dubbed “Sun Went Down, Moon Came Up.”
The creation of the video was the most fun Yoo has ever had, she said. Her friends suggested she learn Dragonframe, a stop motion animation software. So, she did and eventually closed her fashion studio for six months to focus on animation.
The choice to focus on stop motion animation, specifically, came from her love of texture. It’s a feeling she can’t get from 3D or 2D animation, Yoo said, that while the art form is gorgeous, she doesn’t see herself working at a computer all day.
“I’m a tactile person — I love texture, I love visuals,” Yoo said. “The fact that you get to hold your animation in your hand and the sets in front of you … you just fall in love. And it’s kind of creepy, but they’re no longer puppets. They really become your real characters. They have their own personalities for the duration of animation.”
Yoo went on to do two more music videos. One of them was an ABC song that has gained over 6 million views on YouTube and the other was a video about the tooth fairy to comfort children as they lost their baby teeth.
But after she had recorded a total of three music videos, Yoo found herself at a crossroad. She could either take up stop motion as a very expensive hobby or pursue her craft as an animator.
She committed to learning the work, applying to the School of Cinematic Arts’ John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts program a week before the deadline.
A TEST SURPASSED
At first, Yoo suffered. She was new to learning the fundamentals of animation and would often leave USC at around 2 a.m., scarcely seeing her family. Her husband and daughter cheered her on, allowing her to power through the hardship.
Yoo’s work ethic and ability to graciously learn from her mistakes was something professors Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger recognized in her.
“She came in from the fashion business, which was really unique for one of our students to come in from another career,” Patterson said. “And she was really open to learning and learning to adapt her skills in design and visual design to animation and stop motion because she was very craft oriented.”
Yoo was in Reckinger’s second year animation course when she developed the idea for a short film based on Alba, her neighbor back in New Jersey. Yoo had put off animating it until she felt like she was up to par with her skills, but the moment she brought the film to fruition, it “changed everything” for her.
The film, titled “A Poem by Alba,” is about an elderly woman living in isolation. It was inspired by Yoo’s own feelings of sadness of not being able to visit her parents in South Korea because of coronavirus restrictions.
“I know, when I watched it reminded me of my mother when she was older. And the sense of humor too, I think is what makes it very real, rather just sentimental,” Reckinger said, describing the film. “I like the way she tweaked this very poignant story in check with a sense of humor. And in that she appreciated Alba with other quirks and oddities and roughness, and she presented her as she was.”
Jarrod Chatham, a graduate student studying animation and digital arts, helped Yoo with digital compositing for “Alba,” which entails working with blue and green screens and layering different elements unto the film. For Chatham, Yoo’s ability to work with her characters and bring depth to them is something that stands out to him about her, noting that her connection with the characters makes the story richer.
“These people are not perfect. They’re deeply flawed people. They’re also disadvantaged people, and she wants to give a voice to these people,” Chatham said. “She wants to create characters about them, so people in the future can learn about them to hear their stories. And I think, for me, it’s a very selfless act.”
‘PRECIOUSNESS OF TIME’
Yoo lives by one rule: Live life with no regrets.
“I learned a lot from dogs because when you love dogs so much, you get to know the preciousness of time because they don’t live long, and you know, they love you so much in a short time,” Yoo said. “So I really appreciate time, so I always think about context in terms of my deathbed, and I say, ‘Is this something I’m going to regret if I don’t go for that I should have done?’ and if the answer is yes, I always go for it. There’s no question about it.”
At the beginning of the interview, Yoo said she wanted to tell others out there that it is not too late to start something new.
“I want people to know that it’s not impossible, if people have passion for something,” Yoo said. “I did it in my late 40s, so anybody can do it.”
And Yoo is on her path to further realize her dreams. The stop motion animator is now embarking on a new journey as she prepares her upcoming stop motion project with a LAIKA fellowship from Film Independent’s Project Involve program.
“Through this grant I get to work with all the Film Independent fellows, and I looked at their bio and their IMDb, and I’m flabbergasted,” Yoo said. “But I also know that I’m equal amongst them, and so it’s great, and they accept me as one of them. I think that anything is possible, it’s just your mindset. So that’s what I would tell anyone — it’s never too late to go after it.”