Korean-born animator Peter Chung hasn't been in the public eye much since his groundbreaking Aeon Flux series ended its run on MTV, but he's been steadily working behind the scenes of animated projects ever since he graduated from the California Institute Of The Arts in 1981. Chung spent the '80s doing layouts, storyboards, and design work for Ralph Bakshi, Disney, and a variety of animation studios; among other things, he directed the pilot short and the opening title sequence for Rugrats. Aeon Flux was his big breakthrough; he wrote, designed, and directed what started out as a series of short, quirky animated pieces for MTV's Liquid Television, and became a deeply weird animated series in its own right in the mid-'90s. After the series ended, he continued to direct commercials for Pepsi and MTV, and he lent his signature look to the character and background design for Alexander, a futuristic science-fiction Japanese series nominally about Alexander The Great, as seen through a lens that allows for Pythagorean ninja-disciples and robotic demon-horses. The series, retitled Reign: The Conqueror, began airing on the Cartoon Network earlier this year. Chung also recently directed an animated short for the Wachowski brothers' animated Matrix tie-in anthology The Animatrix (due out on DVD in June) and has been developing a feature film. Chung recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Aeon Flux, Reign, his design style, and why communicating artistically with others is more important than pleasing himself.
The Onion: Reign looks very much like one of your projects, but your involvement was limited to design work. What's it like putting such a strong visual stamp on something you're not controlling? How does that affect the way you relate to a series?
Peter Chung: There are many ways I could answer that, I suppose. In this particular case, it was different from a lot of other shows I've worked on as a designer. I've done a lot of work in the U.S. as a character designer, but in Japan, it's much more of an auteur role, where they really want your individual style on a project. In the U.S., it's much more collaborative. What was good about Reign was that they really liked the idea of things having an eccentric, personal style. And for me, that was great. A lot of that has to do, usually, in animation, with the ability of the animators to adapt to the drawing style of the designer, and they did a very good job, they tried very hard, to follow my original drawings. Whereas often, in American productions, they will try to simplify or adapt a designer's drawings to what the animators can draw.
O: Do you prefer the auteur method over working collaboratively?
PC: Well, as a designer, I like having the freedom and the license to design the way I want. So for me, working with the Japanese is better, at least from a designer's point of view. Now, working from the point of view of an animator, I think the animators had a lot of difficulty adapting to my style.
O: You tend to broadly exaggerate your characters' physical characteristics, especially their height and their musculature—is there any particular symbolic or aesthetic reason?
PC: That's a hard thing for an artist to try to analyze. I could kind of try to pick it apart, but the simple truth is, that's the way I draw. I mean, I can tell you about my influences—my favorite artist is Egon Schiele, the German Expressionist. If you look at his drawings, they're very economical, very expressive. The first time I saw them, I thought they were perfect for animation. So I did make a conscious effort to try and adapt that approach to drawing. The other thing is… I was going for a style, when I was doing Aeon Flux, that was much more dependent on expressive drawing as opposed to lots of surface detail. In Japanese productions, they like to put a lot of highlights and shadows on things, to make things look very rendered. Each drawing has to stand out individually as an illustration. Having been trained in American animation, I wanted to have characters that were very realistic, but not so loaded with detail that they were going to be hard to move.
O: Your characters, both in Aeon Flux and in Reign, tend to dress in a way that's half formalized costume, half fetish gear. They often don't wear much, and what they wear is elaborate and stylized. What are your fashion influences?
PC: Well, I struggled a lot, when I was doing Aeon Flux, with how far to push the costumes, and how realistic to make them. I think a lot of illustrators realize—and you see this a lot in American comics as well—that if you draw costumes realistically, it's very difficult. You end up spending all your time trying to create believable drapery. So the tendency is to draw skin-tight costumes that mold around the body. This allows you to use the body more. You see this with classical sculpture, and dancers. You try to use the expressive qualities of the human body more—that's why sculptors prefer to work with nudes, as opposed to trying to make the clothing look accurate. Otherwise you end up concentrating on the clothing and not the person. The same is true with animation—I think of my animated characters as dancers. I want to be able to use body language as much as possible.
O: Your visual style was influenced in part by German Expressionism, and in part by Japanese animation, but what about your storytelling style? Aeon Flux told stories in a very unusual staccato way.
PC: That's a very complicated question, because there's been so many things that have influenced me in that area, including graphic novels, particularly the work of Moebius. I like very visual storytelling, storytelling that doesn't rely on dialogue. When I was initially doing Aeon Flux, the episodes had no dialogue at all. That may have been influenced by spending a lot of time watching Japanese animation that wasn't translated, trying to understand the stories purely through the visuals. I found very often that I preferred to watch Japanese animation that wasn't translated. It kind of forces you to become more active in trying to determine what's going on. But a lot of my favorite directors work that way—Hitchcock and Kubrick and Antonioni. They work very precisely through their visual design.
O: Was it at all a disappointment, or a limiting factor, when you started doing half-hour Aeon Flux episodes instead of shorts, and had to start working with dialogue and more conventional plots?
PC: It wasn't a question of compromise or of disappointment. Not at all. The half-hour shows with dialogue, for me, led to a lot of things—more character development, more complex storylines—which would have been impossible in the shorts. People think that that was imposed on me, and it wasn't. It really was what I wanted to do with the characters. The stories were many times more complex in the half-hour shows. Not all of the shows came out as I wanted them to—I'd say half of them came out well, and half fell short of what I had in mind—but I guess that's to be expected on a TV schedule.
O: Did MTV have any influence over what you were putting on the screen? How much creative freedom did you have?
PC: When we were doing the shorts, they had hardly any influence at all. They had never done any animation before, so it was completely unknown territory for them. When we got into doing the series, there were a lot of restrictions imposed in terms of content, their broadcast standards and practices. Their censors interfered a lot with what we could show. And that was disappointing. But at the time, I took it as a challenge.
O: Did they ever suggest you should stop killing off your protagonist?
PC: No, that was never an issue.
O: How close was Aeon Flux to your ideal project?
PC: It would have been more ideal if they'd given me more time and money. I mean, apart from that, at the time, it was exactly what I wanted to do. The way it turned out wasn't always exactly what I had wanted.
O: You worked in various capacities on a lot of American shows, from Transformers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and in your bio, you make scathing comments about all of them. Did you work on anything before Aeon Flux that was artistically satisfying or rewarding?
PC: It's hard for me to feel any kind of attachment to any of that, because really, when you're working that way, you're usually not in a position to have much influence. What you try to do is find a small way in which you get your own personal satisfaction, get something true out of it. My work up to that point had been divided up into grunt work on shows that were on the air, and development on projects that were much more personal, but which never got produced. I would say I enjoyed working on those projects, except that they weren't getting made. Aeon Flux, in that way, was a breakthrough.
O: How do you define an artistic success? What makes a particular project satisfying for you?
PC: A lot of different things. You always start off with a particular intent, a desire to get something across. And you don't really know whether you've done that until you finish a project and people look at it. It doesn't sink in until people start giving you spontaneous feedback, and you find out whether what they're saying sounds similar to what you had been thinking. The first person you have to please is yourself, but at the same time, for me, animation is a collaboration, and you're working with a lot of artists, and you're trying to convince them to apply themselves toward an idea that you have. I think somewhere along the line—when I was younger, I was much more into pleasing myself, but as I do more work and it's more widely seen, I feel more concerned about whether I'm communicating.
O: When you're working, are you conscious of trying to do something unusual and different, or are you just following a personal aesthetic regardless of the outcome?
PC: For me, I would say it's become unconscious more than conscious. It's an inevitable part of doing animation—the constant struggle against people who ask, "Well, why are you doing animated stuff? Why not just make it live-action?" You have to justify what you're doing to the audience, and the studios, and the investors. And sometimes, I ask myself—I have to come up with very good reasons why I'm doing things in animation. So I'm constantly tailoring my thinking toward how best to use the medium. My feeling toward a lot of Japanese animation is, "Well, why don't they just do this in live-action? It's not a very good use of the medium." I feel like animation is a distinct medium, and it doesn't have to be an imitation of live-action, nor does it have to be traditional musical comedy, an imitation of a Broadway show. The medium is so much more adaptable, there are so many ways to tell stories in a non-literal way, in a more metaphorical way. That's what's driving me, and driving my projects.