Alex is a Sophomore from Seoul who created an original animated film, Reaching Our Star, with the help of his mentor, Matthew. The work is innovative and personal, blending real life video with animation to create an immersive, clever experience. He has submitted his work to a variety of film festivals, and has already been named a Finalist at the Korean International Short Film Festival, and a selection for the National Film Festival for Talented Youth.
Read on to learn more about Alex, but first, check out his work!
What is your name and what year are you?
My name is Alex (my Korean name is Jihwan). I am currently a Sophomore at the International School in Korea.
What is your dream?
Well, before I started the project, I was actually very unsure about that. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But while I was doing the project, I realized that creating a film is really fun. It's kind of like a mix of art and science and technology. So I want to pursue a dream where I combine the worlds of art and technology.
How did you first learn about Polygence?
Well, my mom discovered it on the Internet, and she had me take a look at the website. I was like: this is pretty good! I looked at some of the past projects, and it seemed like it was very passion-oriented instead of instructor-led. I liked the freedom.
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So what attracted you to Polygence’s research program? And did you come to it with a specific project in mind?
Because I had a background in storytelling, when I started Polygence, I wanted to write a research paper on the correlation between cliches and stories. (such as overused story structures like the 3 act structure)
At the same time I was also working on a children’s storybook. It was simply on a digital canvas, so there was no video medium going on there. It was just illustrations. One day I told my mentor Matthew about it and he was really, really supportive.
He wanted me to become more ambitious about what I'm passionate about, so he asked me if I wanted to pivot so that the storybook was the focus of my project, instead of a research paper. And I did prefer the children's project that I was working on.
He started to make some suggestions on how to make it bigger and more ambitious than I had initially planned. I was like, yeah, let's go for it!
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Where did the idea for a living Storybook come from?
Well, the whole idea of bringing a children's book to life in video format was inspired by Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. The basic premise of the movie is bringing a comic into the big screen in the most accurate and true to comics version possible.
And I really enjoy teaching children. Last summer, I taught a group of third and fourth graders how to edit videos, and I grew very attached to them. It was very fun.
I remember telling them stories about my time as an elementary school student, and that kind of got me thinking: what if I do an entire fictional story for children?
During Polygence I realized that this can turn into a video, and in that way, it can become more accessible to people as well.
What was the process like building the storybook?
I started the project in April, and it ended in December.
I have a sketchbook that I used to draw the thumbnails, sketches of certain frames that I would be using and I would also write down notes of what sound would go at that moment. and what kind of animation could be implemented.
This is actually where the whole sound effect part of the video was developed, because we didn't want it to be a silent movie. So I wanted to go into creating sound, even though I was not very familiar with it.
Matthew, my mentor, had some experience with it, so he was able to help me research about how to add in sound effects that made the video more immersive.
Drawing was like 75% of the actual process. The animations were drawn at 8 frames a second. Meaning that I probably drew at least…well, I drew a lot! (Editor’s Note: that’s over 3,000 frames he had to draw!)
It was a pretty painful process. But I’m glad it came out looking pretty good.
It sounds like quite the intensive project - how did you balance it against your other commitments?
Right, this was happening during my school semester - it was so busy. I was also doing a school sport as well.
During that time, I would first do all my school work, and then, if I had time, I would work on my project as much as possible.
Even at school. I would bring my tablet to school so that I could fill in some gaps during my breaks.
When winter break came I was like: “I have so much time to work on it now”. So I just non-stop worked on it until I was finished with it.
A true labor of love. Talk to me about what it felt like completing your film?
Working on this was a great joy, even just meeting with my Mentor to talk about gave me so much joy. My mentor was as passionate about the project as I was, and helped motivate me.
I imported all the animations into Final Cut Pro, which is a video editing program, and I did all this work repeating the animation cells to make it loop, layering them on top of real life footage, to make it seem like a children's book is coming to life. I even used a green screen to put my hand into the animation, which was something I had never tried before
As a last step, I put into Ableton, which is a sound editing program. I added all the sound effects, all the dialogue.
I voice the frog, as well as the dog. I altered the sounds a bit, so that there's like a differentiation between the characters.
After that, I was finally done with it after 8 months of working on it. I was so happy to get it done with, but also very, very proud of myself actually for spending so much time on one thing. Before, I would generally drop this type of project mid-way through, once I started to feel tired, but I was proud of myself for going through with it. I was very thankful to my mentor, Matthew, for helping this small project become something so big.
We’re so proud of you for breaking through! What was the process like of submitting (and getting recognition) at Film Festivals?
I submitted it to several different short film festivals, and it got selected as a Finalist for Best Animation in one of them (Korean Short Film Festival).
It was a great way to start the year, because that was literally on January First. I was so happy, thinking: “this year is going to be great!”
I would generally go through a list of film festivals and see which ones I wanted to try submitting for. Ultimately, I submitted to 11. In some cases it was like: “Oh, this looks good - I can go to Italy!”
Many of the results are coming out much later this year, so I'll have to wait and see. Maybe I’ll get to go to Italy!
How would you summarize your overall project experience?
I liked the flexibility of it. When I first heard the term “Research Project”, I was very intimidated because it seemed like a lot of writing and a concrete pathway that I had to work within.
But for this project, I was able to choose what kind of outcome I came up with and that flexibility alleviated a lot of pressure. I was able to work on it with however much time I had without really worrying about it. And it was just a really great experience overall.
Talk to me a little bit about the background of you and your mentor. And then where you think that Matthew helped you the most.
So when Matthew and I first met, it was awesome because it was clear that he wanted to get to know me as a person first, before working on the actual project itself.
He really wanted to know what I'm interested in. He also talked about what he's interested in, so it was almost like talking to a friend, but he's a mentor as well, and he gave me so much advice: how to improve composition, how to improve on the interactivity of the video itself, or to make it more immersive.
He has a background in art as well. So he was able to help me with all the different parts of art with which I’m not familiar yet.
And more than anything, he was someone that encouraged me throughout my entire journey and helped me to stay motivated. He made me feel so proud of myself for working on the project, as well. For every piece of progress I would make, he would tell me: “these parts are so good…or this part you can alter in this way and it can become even better.”
So, having that kind of interaction helped me to become more ambitious, to make a product that I felt proud of as well, and that I feel excited to show other people.
How is Polygence’s learning style different from what you do in school?
It just felt…richer. Polygence felt more focused on me rather than what I’m supposed to learn.
So I got to choose what I learned basically through the process and my mentor was there to coach me instead of teach me. So the end of my project felt very earned, because, ultimately, all the ideas all came from me. It was bigger and better executed thanks to my Mentor, and it was just great to have that support while working on such a big project.
I just really enjoyed the process. I’m glad that I have the ability to stay in touch with him. Whenever I get selected for a film festival, I’ll let him know. He’s also open to me asking him more questions about how I can make this more public and accessible.
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I’d love to hear a bit more about some of the peak moments in your experience. What was the most memorable moment?
There’s a part in the film where my hand reaches in to grab onto the character and it affects the animation. That part was very confusing to me while working on it. The process was kind of hard to learn, but once I learned it, I was like: “Wow! I never thought I would be able to do things like this.”
Once I did that I showed it to my family and my mentor. They were all very surprised by the effects, and how good it looked! So that was probably my most memorable moment.
What would you say was the toughest part of your experience?
I had difficulty figuring out how to conclude the story because it had to be cohesive to the theme and it had to resolve all the character arcs and also give a satisfying conclusion.
I went through multiple different scenarios in my head: what would fit the story best, and I decided to have it end with the frog, who is trying to reach the star, finally get it and then bring it back, and actually give it to the mentor that was helping him
That was the story itself, and it was supposed to parallel me and my mentor: where the mentor helps me to reach my goal. And I do reach my goal, and I give acknowledgement and thanks to my Mentor.
I thought that was like a fitting conclusion. because it's both reflecting on how our relationship was in real life, and also resolving the story in a way that made sense.
What are three words that describe how Polygence made you feel?
What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about doing their own Polygence project?
I would say: keep it to what you're interested in rather than what you’re supposed to do, because something that you're interested in will not only be a better learning experience for itself during the entire process, but also it will also be something that you will feel more motivated to do!
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