Sitting in his lively studio in western Seoul, veteran animator Nelson Shin is clearly proud of the fact that he's helped animate The Simpsons since the show first aired in 1989. The iconic cartoon propelled his production company Akom into becoming an overseas contracting hub for a lineup of Saturday-morning classics, including X-Men, Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs.
But when a California-based production studio asked Shin to animate a dark commentary about labor practices in Asia's cartoon industry the edgy title sequence for the The Simpsons' episode "MoneyBART" he and his staff raised a rare protest. The sequence, created by Banksy, the pseudonym for an unidentified British graffiti artist known for his anti-Establishment pranks, ran during the opening credits a regular slot known to Simpsons fans as the "couch gag" because it's a joke thrown in as the Simpsons family is seen gathering on the couch at the start of each episode. It depicted a dungeon-like complex where droning Asian animators worked in sweatshops, rats scurried around with human bones, kittens were spliced up into Bart Simpson dolls, and a gaunt unicorn punched holes into DVDs.
Shin was disappointed. The satire, he and other animators have since argued, gave the impression that Asian artists slave away in subpar sweatshops when, in fact, they animate much of The Simpsons every week in high-tech workshops in downtown Seoul. "Most of the content was about degrading people from Korea, China, Mexico and Vietnam," Shin fumed. "If Banksy wants to criticize these things ... I suggest that he learn more about it first."
It's no secret that the animation work for many American and European cartoons is doled out to low-wage studios in developing nations. At its height in the 1980s and '90s, South Korea was known for its work-for-hire agreements in which artists animated the storyboards that foreign clients sent to them. But even though South Korea's wealth keeps wages high by regional standards, the country's animators still make one-third the salaries of their American counterparts earning the South Korean industry a reputation for pumping out episodes on tight deadlines at reasonable prices.
When working on The Simpsons, Shin receives storyboards, coloring instructions and voice tracks from Film Roman, the show's California-based studio, and then churns them into an episode, typically within three months. Other Korean companies have followed his lead, especially in the 1990s: Rough Draft Korea, based in Seoul, helped with Beavis and Butt-head and SpongeBob SquarePants, Yeson Corp has worked on King of the Hill, and Sunwoo Entertainment helped animate Captain Planet. But Shin is credited with being an industry leader, having been called a "godfather" of South Korean animation since he founded Akom in 1985. Before that, he created the Star Wars lightsaber blade and worked in Hollywood on shows such as The Pink Panther and the Scooby-Doo franchise in the 1970s.