Korean American Animator Will Kim Creates Moving Watercolor Tales


There is no space to walk around Will Kim’s home studio in South Pasadena, Calif. due to a mosaic of watercolor paintings lying on the floor for drying purposes. The 30-year-old Korean American animator digitally scans each painting individually and spends about 10 hours every week arranging hundreds of jpegs on a film editing software. After completing a project, he tosses out his precious paintings, much to his family’s dismay. Kim tells KoreAm that he can’t afford to hold onto past works as his garage holds more stacks of paper than his sons’ toys.

Born in Los Angeles, but raised in Seoul for the first half of his life, Kim belongs to a rare breed of animators who painstakingly draws every frame in a film and does not work as part of an animation studio. For a 2-minute animated film, he paints over a thousand watercolor stills.

“I’ve invested thousands and thousands of dollars in art supplies. It’s not even the brushes—it’s too many watercolor papers,” Kim tells KoreAm in a phone interview. “But in this highly digitized animation era, I still paint frame by frame on paper because there’s something that a computer cannot mimic on paper.”



Several film festivals—such as the Los Angeles Film Festival, Tribeca and the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity—took notice of Kim’s unique and colorful animated brushstrokes. Last month, Kim’s short film Waiting won best animation at the Asians on Film Festival before getting accepted into this year’s San Diego Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 5-14.

Described as a “visual poem” by the creator, Waiting is a tribute to Kim’s late friend Simon, who died after a long battle with a rare blood cancer. The short film is based on a series of dreams in which Kim is visited by his dear friend’s spirit and beautifully captures the absence and longing a person feels when a loved one departs from this world.

“In the film, there’s this moment where I’m in a surreal place trying to hug this spirit—it’s an empty hug at the end of the film. I had a hard time letting go, but at the same time we know his spirit was still here,” Kim says.

A father of an infant and a toddler, Kim multitasks between his duties as an artist, professor and caregiver at his home studio. He admits that the nature of animation is labor-intensive; some projects take up to a year to finish from the first sketch to the end product.

“I would spend a good couple of weeks doing sketches and working on the idea. Sometimes I would hold my baby while writing stuff down on my phone. It’s difficult,” Kim says. “You can’t be a perfect father and artist at the same time.”

As a freelance animator, Kim has used his artistry to also help raise awareness about environmental issues. For the 2012 documentary film Amazon Gold, he provided watercolor animations that illustrate an Amazon rainforest dying due to destructive gold mining and highlight the importance of forest preservation. The United Nations screened the documentary during its climate change conference last year.

To have my animation featured at a UN conference was a huge moment for me, says Kim. He adds that the experience opened his eyes to the different paths animators can take to get their work distributed.

“Getting hired by Disney is not the only option,” Kim says, expressing hope that young, Asian animation students will keep an open mind and consider other platforms to share their art.

After earning his BFA in character animation at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Kim decided he wanted to not only be an animator but also an educator. The following year, he enrolled as a graduate student at UCLA’s Film and Television program and earned his MFA in animation. At 24 years old, Kim began a tenured teaching position at Riverside City College, noting that he was not much older than his students, who came from diverse backgrounds and cultures. As the only Korean American professor in the college’s fine arts department, he hopes to inspire others who are different to pursue animation, which historically is a field dominated by white males. His students with disabilities and students from different countries fear that they won’t be successful, but Kim says that he understands what it feels like to be an outsider, and believes they can overcome barriers the same way he did.

“I first came here to the U.S. in 2000 when I could barely speak English. I had to write down every word in order to communicate in high school,” he says. “I try to inspire [my students] and tell them wherever you come from, you can do it. It makes me feel special that I can give a positive impact and influence on my hardworking students and my two sons.”


To view more of Will Kim’s artworks, visit his official website willkim.net or his Instagram.

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