Peter Chung

Peter Chung was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1961. He's worked as a storyboard artist on the
Transformers animated series, as well as an animator on Rugrats. Most people will know him as the creator of the groundbreaking cartoon series Aeon Flux. Since then he's contributed to the Matrix mythos, when he wrote and directed The Animatrix - Matriculated, and directed the Chronicles of Riddick animated spin-off movie Dark Fury. We caught up with him as The Complete Aeon Flux Animated Box Set (MTV) was due for release on DVD...

Darren Rea: How did you originally get started in this industry?

Peter Chung: I was always into animation. I studied animation at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts]. I've actually been making animated films since I was 16. It was always what I wanted to do and I got my first job when I was 20 and I've been doing it ever since. I always knew that what I wanted to do was to create characters and write stories - do the whole thing, you know, write, design and direct.

It took a while. It took about ten years of working in the industry doing other things like learning the craft, doing storyboards and designing characters, before I finally got to write and direct my own character which was Aeon Flux.

DR: Aeon Flux is the series that you're probably best known for. Looking back over your career what would you say is your favourite work?

PC: Oh, definitely Aeon Flux. It was a very rare case where I was really given a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. I don't know if I'd be able to do that again on MTV. It was the time when they were first starting to produce their own programming and they really didn't know what restrictions to impose on me. They really let me get away with a lot. Lack of experience on their part worked in my favour.

DR: Did you find being writer and director gave you more creative freedom, or did you find that undertaking both roles was very demanding of your time?

PC: I never really enjoyed the process of doing it. I've always been motivated by the need to tell a certain type of story. It's all about the product, it's not about the process for me. It's all about the finished result. I'm not really interested in talking about the process, or getting absorbed in the process. I think that's a problem with how a lot of animation is done. It's such a laborious process and people focus entirely on the process and apply it to stories that are all the same. There's not a lot of thinking going into creating different kinds of stories - just a lot of ways of telling the same story.

DR: If you could only write or direct, which would you prefer to do? Where do you feel most at home?

PC: Ultimately, I get more satisfaction out of writing. Although, the process of writing is even more painful than directing. Erm... That's tough.

It's frustrating to write something, which I did in the case of Aeon Flux, which is then directed by someone else - not all of the Aeon Flux episodes were directed by me. It is frustrating to see your ideas being interpreted by another director, especially when you know you would have directed those episodes differently.

Either way, if I'm just stuck with doing one or the other, I'm not really going to be satisfied. I've been on the other side too. I've directed from other people's scripts. Dark Fury was an example of that.

DR: Did you find it hard bringing someone else's script to life?

PC: It wasn't very satisfying, ultimately. I mean, it was easier to do because I wasn't responsible for the entire process - I could bluff off the responsibility by saying: "Well, it's like that in the script." But, there was less of a feeling of satisfaction at the end when you are looking at the finished product.

DR: With animation you don't have actors turning up late or storming off set. Is that a huge relief?

PC: You do have those problems, actually [laughs]. We have animators. Animators can be very temperamental and you sometimes have to coddle them. Some of them are great, and very professional, but not all of them are.

DR: What would you say is the biggest problem in the industry?

PC: The biggest problem is never having enough time. Even though it's a very time consuming process, and we do usually have a lot of time, it always feels like there's never enough.

And of course, there's never enough money [laughs]. And not enough talent.

DR: Do the studios treat animation differently these days, or do they still have the attitude that it's something for kids?

PC: It's strange in my case because I do a particular kind of animation which is unusual, at least in this country [USA]. Yes, I find it very difficult.

I'll give you an example. I wanted to make Aeon Flux as an animated movie, which seemed to make the most sense because the idea behind the show, and the character originally, was to do things that you couldn't do in live action. For example, making her look the way she does and having the characters dress the way they are. It's something I wanted to do in animation, but I don't know if I'd do that in live action - you couldn't get away with it.

That was very frustrating for me, because they wanted to do an Aeon Flux movie, but they wanted to do it live action and change it to the point where it wasn't that close to the source material any more.

In that sense, yes. I think that there's not really an understanding on the part of the studios on what the advantages are of using animation. All they tend to see are the disadvantages - like it takes a lot of time and maybe has less appeal to a wider audience - although it's strange that they'd make that last argument, because a lot of the top grossing films are animated movies.

DR: Why do you think that Hollywood seems to have a habit of getting it wrong when transforming comic book characters into live action movies? And do you think that the live action Aeon Flux movie fell into a lot of those traps?

PC: Yes, it definitely fell into a lot of those traps. I think they tend to take things too literally - which when you're doing something in comic book or animation, you are really working on a much more mythical level. And you can't help it because drawings are, in a sense, symbols.

The way superheros characters are dressed, for example, has a lot to do with creating an iconographic image, but if you literally had somebody dress up like that it would look ridiculous.

The way around that is to create a whole world in which everything is portrayed in that iconic way. And the ones, I think, that fail are those that plop this iconic character in a very realistic, every day environment. And that's kinda goofy to me.

DR: CGI is still not at a level where it's believable yet, but when it is do you think that this would help animated movies to be better accepted by the studios?

PC: No, because it's not about realism for me. I think that the comics that are the least successful, for me anyway, are the ones that are painted and rendered and made to look like scenes that have practically been photographed. I find those the most distracting. The more you try to make them realistic, the more preposterous it becomes. Keeping the graphics very stark and iconic I think works a lot better.

If you compare Jack Kirby's superheroes to Alex Ross's... With Alex Ross I'm always aware of some model posing in his studio [laughs] wearing some goofy costume. Whereas, with the Jack Kirby drawing, the drawing is the character. It's not a drawing of a guy dressed up as a character, the drawing is the character. That's the strength of the medium.

If you look at a Pixar animated film the characters are what you see on the screen. What you see on the screen - it's not an actor playing the character - that's the character. That's the advantage of animation over live action.

DR: It doesn't seem to be the rule when you take a live action movie and create an animated spin-off, though. Animatrix and Dark Fury both seemed to work well, and Genndy Tartakovsky's Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series was impressive.

PC: I think there are successful versions of things that have been adapted to live action. It's hard to do, though.

DR: In Aeon Flux we are offered yet another dark, miserable future for mankind. Why do you think it is that writers always seem to picture the future as a bleak place?

PC: I've found this myself. I think that movies in general tend to try to convey as much as possible by amplifying contrast in every aspect. That's why movies are always filled with sex and violence - much more so than people's ordinary lives. I think it amps up the level of tension in a movie. I see it being done for that reason. You want to create an environment which is going to be more dramatically compelling.

Most of the movies that we see made about the past are also fraught with lots of violence. We see endless scenes of people fighting each other with swords [laughs]. It seems like most historical movies are focussed on that stuff, whereas ordinary life wasn't like that - that was the exception.

DR: Stylistically there seems to be quite a lot of retro elements in the design of Aeon Flux. Trevor's lab has large levers with big yellow knobs on them that look like they belong in the '60s Batman TV show. Was that your intention from the start, to give the show a retro feel?

PC: Well, I never really thought of Aeon Flux as being set in the future. It was more like an alternate present. I was really interested in talking about the world we live in. I made a deliberate decision not to say how many years in the future it was set.

I think when you set it in a specific time and place then it becomes less relevant. You can say: "It's their world, their time and their problem." Whereas I wanted to talk about our world and our problems.

Going back to the mythical level that we were discussing earlier, it's the structure of what's happening - the relationship between the characters and the ideas - not the specific date and location and so forth.

I think a lot of science fiction on film and TV falls into that trap of trying to treat their stories literally. Then you tend to get caught up in a lot of arcane trivia about that world and it seems that people tend to focus on those things. Like, where are the Romulan's from? Or the fact that the Romulans are more technically advanced than the Klingons - and things like that. And Trekkies are obsessed with things like that. And this is the point. All that stuff is fictional, it has nothing to do with anything. You get obsessed with these fictional details, which are really, ultimately, arbitrary.

DR: Do you find that when you are selling an idea to a studio head, that those are the sort of elements that they demand of you too?

PC: Well... they do. And I think it's a big mistake. They think, for example, that an audience needs that in order to feel grounded. And I think that a lot of viewers maybe do need it, which is probably why a lot of people didn't understand Aeon Flux. But I think that the people that do appreciate it do so for the reason that it's not about creating some fictional world. It's really about projecting ideas that are taken from our world. It's really talking about life as we live it now, amplified.

DR: If you weren't working in the film making industry what would you be doing?

PC: Maybe I'd be a painter... like a fine art painter. But I don't know if you'd still consider that the same field.

DR: What are you working at the moment?

PC: I'm going to be doing a short film for The Terminator - in the same way we did Animatrix on the back of The Matrix. They are preparing Terminator IV right now.

I am hoping to do more with Aeon Flux in animated form. The studio did agree to have me develop more animated Flux, but we'll see how that goes. I'd love to do an animated version of what the Aeon Flux movie should have been. The live action movie is very different to the animated series - but in spite of that there are a lot of people who seem to enjoy it. It's not really an adaptation of the animated series. It's its own thing with the same title and I'd like to see an animated Aeon Flux movie.

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Kate Dauman and Brian Bosak at Greenroom Digital

The Complete Aeon Flux Animated Box Set (MTV) is released to own on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment on the 13 February 2006

Order this DVD for £19.99 by clicking here

This interview was conducted on 09 February 2006

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