Visionary filmmaker Erick Oh talks artistic inspiration, Oscar-nominated animated short ‘Opera’

Photo of Erick Oh
Siyong Song/Courtesy

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History is made up of revolutions, but perhaps not in the way we assume. These aren’t the kinds of revolutions that toss out tradition and build new social orders. They may wear different costumes or sing in a new tongue, but their choreography is the same. They’re the kinds of revolutions that bend and twirl, rotate and revolve on a fixed axis in an infinite loop.

The cyclical curve of human history underscores the acclaimed animated short film “Opera,” directed by Erick Oh. Oh’s film unfolds as a colossal 8K-sized animation installation project that traces humanity through interconnected vignettes on a massive, meticulously crafted pyramid.

“As soon as I made my decision to portray our society and humanity, it was so natural for me to come up with this triangular design,” Oh shared in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s a very iconic representational image of our society.”

In the span of nine minutes, “Opera” leaves no historic stone unturned, depicting a swath of social issues, such as war, racism, religious conflict and class disparities. The film’s brilliant execution allows it to be played and replayed, looping until the end of time. Oh crafted “Opera” as a map of the human experience, rich with both big and little stories. Each viewing yields new observations and details that prick your attention.

Given the awe-inspiring visuals in “Opera,” it’s no surprise that Oh served as an animator at Pixar Animation Studios. In animated films, Oh attested that the animator works in a similar way to that of an actor in a live action film.

“(Animating) in the animation industry or production means you are giving life to the character you are performing, you are acting the character out,” Oh said. “So it’s very much like acting, right?”

Oh’s favorite character that he’s brought to life can be found in the film “Finding Dory.” The filmmaker served as one of the lead animators for the octopus, Hank (Ed O’Neill). Hank became one of the most expensive Pixar characters in the company’s history, but it was a labor of love — Oh and the other animators worked diligently to create believable movement and a unique personality for the character, venturing to aquariums in Monterey Bay to observe the movements of a real octopus. 

“I animated him for about two years of my life,” Oh recalled fondly, “so it’s almost like my baby.”

Collaboration was a crucial takeaway from Oh’s time at Pixar. He fondly recalls working alongside incredibly talented artists and colleagues with abounding industry experience. Each day at work, he learned something new or sharpened one of his skills.

In his Bay Area home, Oh’s sincere love and appreciation for the studio glowed over Zoom. “Pixar has been the best animation school I’ve ever taken in my life,” he beamed.

After working as an animator, Oh felt prepared to venture into directing. “The transition was super smooth,” he admitted, “because I kind of already knew what type of story I wanted to tell deep in my heart.” 

Oh’s vision veers a little darker than the family-friendly audience often associated with animated movies. His short films grapple with heavy, complicated and mature topics — as seen in the nature of history in “Opera” and the meaning of life in “Namoo.” He admits the short film is not the ideal form to tackle such subjects, but all the same, there are pros and cons hanging on commercial feature films as well as lower-budget shorts.

“You know, nobody’s losing a lot of money even if (the film) doesn’t sell in the market,” he joked.

Nonetheless, in commercial films marketed toward a family-friendly audience, Oh affirms the importance of these movies as they touch upon very real things in our lives, such as dreams, love, hope and family. Amidst the wonder and magic, both types of animated movies, at their core, speak to real-life experiences.

“I think we are all trying to say something, speak the same language,” Oh said, his admiration for other filmmakers apparent. “The way we execute or approach it is just different.”

For Oh, the desire to tell stories is inextinguishable and fuels the development of new skills. In “Namoo,” he ventured into virtual reality storytelling, realizing that the story about the character’s life would be more suitable in an immersive medium. Despite his unfamiliarity with this technology, Oh felt inspired to adapt to his vision and realize it in the most authentic way.

“When you are motivated and inspired to tell a certain story, you will get energy to learn new things,” he says. “The fastest way to learn a language is when you have a lot of things you want to say.”

Oh creates movies that are unforgettable, lodged in people’s hearts. “Opera” snagged Oh’s first Academy Award nomination, and it definitely won’t be the last. His passion for storytelling and innovative vision kindle a promising future for the filmmaker.

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].