Animator JiHee Nam talks about finding her style and working for herself

The CalArts graduate discusses her latest short film, her creative process, and the challenges she’s faced so far in the industry

JiHee Nam is an animator and motion graphic designer currently based in LA, who says that when she first saw an animated film she couldn’t believe that these other worlds could be created. “It intrigued me that the subjects were able to do things that I wasn’t able to do in my world such as dynamic movements, or falling off a cliff,” she says. “I think that was the moment I realised that I wanted to be a part of whatever was going on inside that world.”

Beyond being able to create her own worlds, Nam also saw animation as a way for people to communicate and bring people together. “I think visual communication is the best way to have audiences understand whatever artistic issues you are trying to explain to them,” she explains. “And I think this can play a big role in our current society as there are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings that could be addressed through visual art. Since I’m not a great speaker, animation helps me express my thoughts.” 

Gif from Knife Hanging From A Tree by Jihee Nam

Nam studied for her masters in Fine Arts in Experimental Animation at the California Institute of the Arts and graduated last year. “One of the reasons I chose to go to grad school was that I missed making films, but I needed the motivation to do so. The two years at CalArts influenced me a lot,” she says. “Being surrounded by cohorts with the same passions and interests, and instructors in the field, definitely helped me reflect on my past works.” 

Before her time there Nam also felt her films had “no style or personality”. “Being in school really helped organise my thoughts and identify the ideas that I was most attached to. And what I got from studying there was to just create and produce, and to put it out there,” she reflects. “Things that you think may not work, might work for others so just dive in and make it happen.”  

Knife Hanging From A Tree is one of Nam’s most recent works and is a film based on a traditional Korean saying, directly translated to, “Let me stab the persimmon, since I can’t have them.” The animator says it’s a way of saying that if you can’t have something, you’ll make sure no one else can have it either. “In my film synopsis, I mention ‘sour grapes’, which could also be phrased as ‘what goes around comes around’. There was also an intention to show the ecosystem of the world, where humans are like animals, they have their specific interactions and that they can create a change in their surroundings.”

In the film Nam’s style is fine, detailed and thoughtful. Her use of colour is particularly pleasing as she flits between monochrome scenes and shots bursting with vibrant colour. “There is a clear distinction between coloured versus uncoloured, and the reason for this depends on who the character is and where they are set in the film,” she explains. “The uncoloured scenes are to depict the antagonist as being simple, someone who is busy thinking about what they want in front of them but not thinking about the consequences of their actions and desires. On the other hand, the coloured scenes are representations of the society, or reality, that the antagonist will never see.” 

The film is an extension of the kind of work Nam enjoys creating, which is typically a mix of illustration and animation, all the while keeping things simple. “Usually the style I go for is having a subject in a blank space that does all of the movement,” says Nam. “I’m very intrigued with the Japanese style called ‘ma’, which is a technique for negative space and gaps, where things are minimally described to emphasise the emotions in the scenes. I enjoy those small sudden movement changes, and engaging in a push and pull with the audiences.”  

Most of Nam’s ideas come from noting down her thoughts, which means works can evolve from the most obscure of things. And when creating her animations, Nam unusually doesn’t use storyboards. “It might sound a little disorganised, but I tend to animate what I come up with on that day specifically. If I feel like I want to animate this today, then I have to do it, it doesn’t really matter whether it wasn’t planned out two or three months ago,” she explains. “I animate things without any plans first and then choose the final scenes out of them to put in my final cut. If they are not short films but for gifs, I tend to come up with it on that day and finish it within two to three days.”

What is consistent is how, whatever the project, Nam starts with line drawings, and then decides whether they would look good as a moving image or an illustration. Her main medium is Photoshop and one technique she’s picked up recently is using the lasso tool to animate. “It’s used by dragging to trace any shapes you want to create or select a specific image. I just draw using them, it does take me a bit more time to finish my projects, but it feels like the shapes make more sense, and it makes it easier to express gradient colours.” 

Nam believes one of the biggest pressures put on creatives, apart from a lack of time, is the constant challenge of producing new ideas and feeling current. “It’s hard and I’ve felt that. Let’s say I take a month off of animating, I lose the grip for sure. So that is a constant drive to keep working and creating, whether it be small or big. But that is tough because, sometimes you lose motivation,” she explains. “On another side, there was a brief period in which I worked in a non-animation industry, [where] they don’t really care about your artistic style or issues, and it is all about business. It was very systematic and there were specific rules regarding the style that they wanted you to follow.” 

For Nam, the experience working somewhere where she had little or no creative freedom helped make the decision to go freelance all the more easy. “I clearly saw the difference between commercial design and experimental animation,” she says. “It helped me realise that I wanted to pursue a career in making films.”