Hankyoreh visited Dexter Studio’s Sangam-dong office in Mapo-gu, Seoul, on August 9. Despite the hot afternoon sun, Dexter Studio felt cool and calm. In fact, it appeared quieter than usual thanks to a handful of staff members away on summer holiday. Nevertheless, the most of staff at Dexter was working on visual special effects (VFX). They were transfixed on their monitors as if someone had preserved them in amber. According to one staff member, Dexter was working on a Korean film titled “PMC” and a Chinese film titled “Sunshine Lover”. The overall atmosphere inside the office was almost tranquil, a stark contrast to the excitement and media hoopla surrounding the “Along with the Gods” series (Along with the Gods 1 and 2), which was counting down towards reaching 10 million viewers each. When Hankyoreh entered the lobby, “Ling Ling” (main character in “Mr. Go”) greeted the crew with open arms.
Despite almost everyone saying that producing two feature films at the same time was impossible or too risky, Dexter took a chance and created two of the top movies in Korean cinema history. But how did it do it? What was its secret recipe?
Dexter Studio’s CEO, Director Kim Yong-hwa, who recently returned from his Asian junket tour (to promote the movie) for Along with the Gods, had a simple but convincing answer. “Everything began with fur,” said Kim. Fur? In 2011, Kim decided to open Dexter Studio with Jeong Seong-jin, one of the experts in VFX technology in Korea, and supervisors Kang Jong-ik and Kim Wook because he wanted to create some convincing gorilla fur using VFX. As a feature film director, Kim had already established himself thanks to the success of “200 Pounds Beauty” and “Take Off.” So, for his next challenge, Kim decided to do something special. He started working on “Mr. Go.” Kim contacted top Hollywood studios to get a better idea for how much it would cost to produce a two-hour movie with a gorilla featured as the main protagonist. Based on the quotes he received, Kim estimated that it would cost KRW 70 to 80 billion in VFX costs alone. “Considering the size of the Korean box office industry, the cost was too prohibitive. So, I made a decision. I thought I should do the VFX using Korean technology,” Kim said.
Box office sales-wise, the KRW 22.5 billion “baseball gorilla movie” was a total flop when it was released in 2013. It did, however, give Dexter a chance to get its hands on new technology and experience money could not buy. Kim explained, “Our staff worked on creating the perfect fur for two years. After that, we knew nothing was impossible. The technology of creating delicate hair with every single strand moving like real fur became one of the most important assets for Dexter.” Soon, investors came knocking with new offers and opportunities. Seven years in, Dexter has increased the size of its staff from 50 to 340 people. It has also successfully produced Along with the Gods, which film critics and the public have hailed it for using some of the best VFX technologies in Asia. Viewers with a keen eye may have noticed the gorilla doll sitting inside Heo Chun-sam’s home from Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days. “We put that gorilla doll inside Chun-sam’s house intentionally to show that Dexter Studio’s achievements can be traced back to Ling Ling the gorilla,” said Kim.
In fact, most of Dexter Studio’s success after Mr. Go featured furry animals such as tigers, wolves, and lions. Kim added, “After that, we focused on developing technologies to properly render things like hair, fur, fire, and water. Our staff often says that the simplest of things can be the most challenging. Fur, fire, and water have non-linear movement patterns. This means that they require some of the most sophisticated technologies in VFX. If you can recreate fur, fire, and water successfully, you can do everything in VFX.” For his fledgling company, Kim created a “10% rule” – investing 10% of all revenues in research and development activities. This resulted in more than 80 brand-new in-house programs, including ZENN (rendering program for hair and fur), ZARVIS (rendering program for water), and ZENV (rendering program for digital environments). Along with the Gods was Dexter Studio’s opportunity to showcase all of its technologies and production capabilities. The audience marveled at vivid renderings depicting the imaginary underworld of hell. Most notable was the Hell for Murder, which featured fire and magma, the Hell for Indolence, which featured judgment by water, and Hell for Violating Filial Piety, which featured powerful sand storms. In order to produce Along with the Gods, 90% of which was created using CG, Dexter divided the movie into 11 parts and assigned 70 to 80 people to each part.
So, how did Dexter Studio use VFX technology to produce the movie? Jeong Ji-hyeong, a Compositing Supervisor at Dexter, used the scene involving a tiger running towards Haewonmaeg. “First, we create a rough 3D animation of the tiger and its movement. Second, we do something called ‘match move’, which involves calculating the location of each tree, plant, or rock and computing camera movements to turn them into data. It’s like creating a path for a virtual camera to follow. Then, we configure the specific body shape and color of the tiger. We work on the joints and do what we call ‘rigging’ to plant each strand of hair. Once that’s done, we make the tiger move along the path we created for the virtual camera. When we feel like we have a correct rendering, we superimpose it onto a scene filmed using a physical backdrop,” Jeong explained. When he clicked his mouse to demonstrate a tiger created with the steps he described, a tiger started to move powerfully, almost as if it was ready to jump off the screen.
Although they started out rendering animals, these programs are also used to recreate the movement of people. Dexter has the only “body scanner” in Korea with 108 cameras capable of scanning a person for CG applications. All 108 cameras are soon expected to receive an upgrade to more powerful video shooting equipment, allowing operators to scan the movement of people with greater precision.
Dexter is confident that its technology is more than 90% as competent as the technology major Hollywood studios use for VFX. Jeong said, “The CG work for most movies produced in Korea was done at Dexter Studio. Notable films featuring Dexter’s CG work include “The Pirates,” “Warriors of the Dawn,” “1987: When the Day Comes,” and “Believer.” When we were making Mr. Go, it took us two years. In contrast, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days took us only six months. That shows how much progress we’ve been able to make on the technical side over the years.”
The remarkable success of the Along with the Gods series, with 20 million viewers in total, has given Dexter Studio’s staff an added sense of pride and responsibility. Assistant Manager Kim Bo-gyeong said, “Before the Along with the Gods, series, it was difficult to explain what I did for a living. Now, all I have to say is that I work at the company that made Along with the Gods. We were all so happy when we saw each of our names listed on the ending credits.” Kim added, “We want Dexter Studio to become a model and something young and upcoming creators in the cinema industry can aspire for.”
In recent years, Dexter Studio has started to grow at a much faster pace. Now, it showcases its VR content at various film festivals, and it even supplies VR products to theme parks across China. It also acquired Livetone, a sound mixing and editing company, to create synergy with its VFX businesses. Dexter Studio CEO Yong-hwa Kim said, “Dexter Studio will continue to target the Asian market as it matures into a comprehensive creative company that develops, manufactures, invests, and distributes VR content. Our ultimate goal is to become the Walt Disney of Asia.” Kim and Dexter Studio have just turned the halfway point with the Along with the Gods series. Their stories are still very much in progress.
In regards to the Along with the Gods series closing in on 20 million viewers in aggregate, Kim said, “Movies are about turning our imagination into reality. But what Along with the Gods was able to do was beyond our imagination. I think that’s what makes films and movies so intriguing and wonderful.”