It took around a decade for all the stars to align for Erick Oh to make an animated short in tribute to his late grandfather. He needed both time to think of exactly what he wanted to say in just ten minutes, and the right medium in which to present it.
He knew the time had come after Oh discovered a program called Quill that enables artists to easily draw, paint and animate environments for a virtual reality headset. He also knew he was ready to tackle this project after the birth of his niece.
“In the decade-plus since my grandfather died, I’ve had to say goodbye to others in my family. But as I held my sister’s newborn in my arms I realized that this is all equally connected,” Oh told TheWrap. “The ending is connected to a new beginning.”
Oh’s desire to explore new boundaries of artistic expression and to reflect on the influence his loved ones have had in his life are at the heart of “Namoo,” one of the most personal films on the shortlist of contenders for the Best Animated Short Oscar and which is now available on HBO Max. The short shows the life of an artist via a tree that is filled over time with mementos, from toys and drawings to romantic keepsakes and work responsibilities.
But as the artist suffers loss and heartbreak and settles into the realities of life, the branches of the tree shift and change. The trunk cracks and wears down and some parts of the tree even break off, taking certain parts of the man’s life with it.
“The way the tree adds and removes things in it represents how what we value and prioritize changes as we go through life,” Oh said. “There are things that at some points in our life we think are very important, but there comes a point that we may realize that those things were not as important as we thought; and sometimes we rediscover things in our lives that we put away and ignored but then come to treasure again and which we pass on to others.”
Oh received an Oscar nomination last year for his short film “Opera,” which depicts several vignettes of stick figures in a repeating loop of actions with each vignette making a commentary on the repeating loops of human history. Oh designed the film so it could be viewed as a short film or an art installation, wanting viewers to be able to appreciate the film in ways beyond the format of a movie.
“From the moment I started exploring this story I had for years in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to present it in a form beyond linear storytelling,” he said. “This really is a spiritual journey into oneself, and I wanted the audience to be a part of the story, and I really love VR and how immersive it can be, so it was just the perfect pairing of technology and narrative.”
In the same way, Oh developed “Namoo” as both a short film and a VR experience, using Quill to give the film a soft-brush, watercolor art style that is reminiscent of “Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems,” a series that Oh worked on as an animator at Tonko House. The style, along with the design of Quill, meant that the tree, along with each item in it, had to be repainted for each segment of the man’s life to account for changes in time of day and season since there was no lighting software available.
But the attention to detail allowed Oh to make “Namoo” a multifaceted experience. Viewers watching the film from a VR headset could walk around the tree and look closer at it as the toys and sketches from the artist’s childhood are buried, worn down, and resurfaced as he goes through his adult life. And at the end, as the artist moves on, the viewer is lifted alongside him into a starfield that seems to stretch into infinity.
“I spent several years involved in fine art and that always involves finding the right medium for the right idea,” he said. “I think every story and every idea has a medium that it is best for, and I kept that idea as I started animating. Some ideas work best as a novel and others work best as a poem.”
The details that Oh slips into every second of “Namoo” come directly from his past, with many of the keepsakes in the tree coming directly from his own childhood. So while many viewers may find different levels of meaning in “Namoo,” Oh has reserved a special level of meaning for his family in both Korea and the U.S.
“It was such a therapeutic experience for all of us. I just remember my mother was crying for about 10 minutes. This was, after all, a tribute to her father, and she could recognize all these very specific memories I infused into the story,” he said. “It’s a universal film but it comes from a very personal space.”