From Storyboarder to Soldier — Bert Youn's Atypical Journey as an Animator

Text, Script  & Narration by Nate Kan
Photos by Marat Shaya
Audio by Elphick Wo

When Bert Youn started out drawing as a kid, he never knew where his passion would take him, but a decision to go to arts school would eventually take him down a path that would lead him to work with Pixar, Disney, Cartoon Network and…the Korean military. The story to becoming a successful artist — or animator, in Bert’s case — is never picture perfect and he shares his with the honesty and insight that only years grinding it out in an undervalued industry can provide.

Bert Youn at his Downtown Los Angeles store, The Good Liver.

“Along the way, I would find friends that had similar skills I would say like drawing skills, and we would group up and try to make comic books and shit like that during my childhood. So I always knew that I could use my skills to do something in the future, but I never thought of it as like—as a serious thing until I wanted to get out of normal studying and all that.”

 

It’s a familiar story. A kid finds a creative outlet, works at it and years later, grows up to be a world-famous artist. Well, not quite so simple.

 

Bert Youn, whose work you might be familiar with if you’ve watched Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, certainly had a knack for drawing as a kid.

 

But the story of an artist finding success is rarely a squeaky clean 3-act narrative that ends according to plan. From the very beginning, Bert’s encountered obstacles of varying sizes.

His family members were all doctors, and his father, in particular, was an engineer who’d gone to a good school. This meant a lasting pressure on the young Bert who didn’t enjoy or excel at studying. Understandably, the pressure would eventually reach a boiling point. “That led me into rebelling against my parents, saying ‘hey, enough of this. I’m going to art school,’” he remembers.

 

Despite the classic narrative of a family full of professionals against a kid that just wants to make cartoons, Bert was thankfully able to make his decision and follow through with it. His decision to go to a high school specialized in the arts was met with neither firm opposition nor unbridled support. “It’s not really like my parents were against any of the ideas that I had, so it was pretty easy for me. But again, there wasn’t any like full on support too, you know? They didn’t really give a shit about what I wanted to do.”

The Gods of Pixar

His mind made up, Bert’s next step was to search for schools He landed on CalArts, which was founded by Disney and therefore, highly specialized in animation. Bert explains it as being a general art school, but one that exists specifically to “support the idea of making animation as art,” meaning the ultimate goal of the various artists that attend is to collaborate and produce animated works. 

 

Not expecting to get in when he initially applied, Bert was taken by surprise with both an acceptance and along with it, the decision of what to major in. “Oh, I could try animation. This is what I was into, come to think of it,” he says, recalling both the school’s founders and his own childhood full of Disney animated classics. His studies there opened his eyes to the industry and deepened his interest in the art. “I’d say that the curriculum of the school and the department of character animation changed me into what I am now.” 

 

It also helped to narrow down some of his many options.While CalArts is geared towards producing animation, the art has come a long way since Disney’s 1928 production of Steamboat Willie. Animated 2D or 3D features of today have so many different specialized roles that go into realizing the finished work.

The character animators Bert mentions, for example, are tasked with bringing a pre-designed character to life with a pencil or mouse. Those more inclined towards design become character designers, those more into storytelling become story artists. For those who are into story but have weaker drawing skills, they can become writers. For any budding artist or student getting their feet wet in the industry, the number of possible specializations can be daunting…

 

Especially if industry recruiters show up at your school for a screening.

 

“They saw my film, they liked it,” Bert humbly puts it. “They were asking me what kind of field I would want to get into if I pursue my career towards animation and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’m into everything; I’m into filmmaking in general, I’m into telling stories through my drawings. But if I get a job I need to choose very specific field. Do I want to animate? Do I want to storyboard? Do I want to write? Do I want to design characters? Props? I didn’t know.”

 

Faced with so many possible directions in a field he was passionate about, he left his decision to the Gods or in this case, the people at Pixar.

“I told them, ‘I don’t know. I’ll take whatever you guys want me to do you guys be the judge,’ and they put me in the animation department, which made me an animator.”

 

So began Bert’s internship at Pixar, known for the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, and Inside Out, among countless others. But as many know, Pixar has always been about making films using CG animation. Where traditional animation was about frame by frame drawings of 2D characters, often overlaid on a pre-drawn background, 3D animation, on the other hand, involves taking pre-made 3D character models and rigging them with skeletons. These skeletons are then, along with the models they’re attached to, manipulated over the course of several frames to depict motion.

 

And with every opportunity and year spent in the field, you tend to find out more about what it is you want and where you want to go, as Bert experienced during his internship. 

“Support the idea of making animation as art.”

He found animating at Pixar to be as he describes it, more like puppeteering. He also found he needed to be drawing and that he didn’t care for being stuck in front of a computer all the time. With his direction shaped that much more, he returned to school for his senior year and made a film that explored his interests in drawing and filmmaking, making it heavier on storytelling, storyboarding and writing.

 

What followed after his last year was an apprenticeship at Disney that would prepare him for work as a storyboard artist in a studio: “That’s how I got into storyboarding and animation. As I said, I was into film making in general and storyboarding is more close to filmmaking because you’re boarding out the entire film, you’re boarding out scenes, you’re choosing shots and camera moves, and you also get to write.”

 

Following his apprenticeship with Disney, his newfound direction would land him on Cartoon Network’s hit show Adventure Time for three seasons. During that time, he worked as a storyboard artist and revisionist, writer, and even voice actor on one episode.

From Storyboarder to Soldier

However, in 2009, life would throw him an unexpected curveball. After three years of grueling work animating for TV, however, it was also a way out.

 

He was drafted into the Korean military.

 

“Around that time I was visiting my parents out in Korea for Christmas. I haven’t seen them for like a year, or so I went to Korea, and as I was going through immigrations, they were asking me if I had a Korean name. I told them who I was and they checked something off a list they had,” he explains. “And when I got home, the Department of Manpower Of Korea or something like that was calling my mom saying that they were noticed that I entered the country, and now it’s time for me to go into the army and serve for two years.”

 

Suffice it to say for someone just visiting his parents for the holidays, the prospect of serving a country’s army that’s technically still at war with North Korea doesn’t sound very appealing:

 

“I was like ‘fuck no, I am not gonna go through that!’ I’m a U.S. Citizen, why do I need to go through this?”

Bert explains how the South Korean conscription laws are constantly changing to address alleged widespread draft dodging by South Korean citizens. “People take advantage of it. Some people purposely flee to the United States to get — get a green card or citizenship to avoid the military duty out there.”

 

Yet, the complexities and issues of dual US-Korean citizenship aside, Bert was left with a dilemma he couldn’t avoid. Trying to contest his conscription in Korean court would become a long and basically unwinnable battle, and although he had the option of leaving, it would result in a ban from the country for quite some time.

 

In the end, he decided to enlist. Now, despite what the greater public might fear about serving in the army, there are a lot of roles that don’t necessarily involve being on the front lines. Bert was fortunately able to commute from home as opposed to being posted to a base full time: “I had a better deal where I could just be stationed in a courthouse rather than being based on an army base in up north somewhere.”

While Bert was dealt a significantly better hand than what could have been, his military experience was by no means easy. He talks about the amount of frustration he encountered, something he nonetheless learned to deal with. “For me it was that thing that you where just needed to empty your head and just follow what they needed me to do — just empty my thoughts and just move along.”

 

Bert’s decision certainly tested him, but although it was an obstacle that couldn’t be surmounted, it did lead to detours toward unexpected and unplanned destinations. He had left the States to do more creative things, but suddenly having to sign off on two years of his life, the experience was dragging away all of the enthusiasm he had arrived with. It was also pushing him toward the light on the horizon.

 

“Experiencing that got me more and more involved with what I really wanted to do. So yes, it definitely pushed me to do creative things out there.”

 

And that’s just what he did. Taking advantage of his time in Seoul and his more flexible arrangement with the military allowed him the chance to align with three other friends. “I ended up opening up a design studio/animation studio that focuses on design, film-making, and any type of film content.”

For Bert and his friends, the creation of Studio Spiyo became a meaningful outlet given the state of the Korean animation industry. He relates how Korea has become known as the country that does a lot of animation for American TV shows. As expected, the work was tedious, derivative and usually poorly-compensated. For someone who had trained at a specialized animation school, apprenticed at both Pixar and Disney and worked on a hit Cartoon Network show, it wasn’t the best use of his experience and expertise.

 

 “I knew what was going with the animators and Korea but there were very disappointing results coming out from animation directors out in Seoul. Everything coming out was just still stuck in the 90s, and I know a lot of friends that wanted to pursue animation. But because of the industry being this way, a lot of people would lose interest and eventually get into either design, product design, graphic design or fine arts, which was sad to see.”

A shot of The Good Liver’s exterior.

It’s an especially unforgiving path for an artist, particularly one that wants to see a craft advance beyond what the industry is willing to accept and pay for. As he continues to struggle with getting a show of his own green lit, Bert echoes a familiar sentiment, albeit through the voice of an animator: “In animation, the only way to do your own thing, to produce something 100% you is very very difficult. You either need to have a studio back you up to create your own show or go completely independent and do smaller scale stuff, which can kinda starve you to death.”

 

He warns that this path can ultimately make an artist hate animation and as a result, lots of artists take the other route which involves creating shows for studios or other clients. For him, however, the urge to create something of his own was now pushing him to different answers, some even outside of animation. “I needed to create something on my own, and I’ve been thinking about what that could be for awhile. Would it be a brand of my own? Would it be a design studio that I run? I didn’t know. I was confused.”

 

Bert describes and lives the constant battle shared by creatives of all walks as one that tests that very passion to create: There’s serving a personal creative freedom to define and explore the art for oneself, and there’s serving and surviving within the confines of the industry built around that art.

In the case of the latter, authentic creation is hard enough when you’re working for a client. What’s worse is when the potential of a project is stifled by the rigid hierarchy of a company. Under poor leadership, talent gets misused and the results, along with the reputation of the studio, are affected. Bert sums up the sentiment perfectly: “It’s painful to see all these people that are so talented working on shit shows?”

 

For all of his honesty, Bert gives an unflinching perspective of his side of the creative industry and even given he’s committed to it for so long.

 

It’s a constant reminder that for those inclined, yes, it can be a simple matter of pushing hard for years. You can keep climbing the ladder of a company that has the rungs—and funds— to accommodate your growth and your ambitions, but for many creatives like Bert, the path to a very personal sense of success and achievement is never a straight line.

 

There will absolutely be moments of great clarity and “flow,” but there will inevitably also be forks, obstacles, and complete dead-ends.

“If you tell an interesting story, you can draw people into anything.”

But if there’s a good story to tell, or many, an artist will stay alive long enough to tell it, however convoluted their path might be. They might have to change gears and make a career pivot to stay afloat both financially and motivationally, but that passion will always endure in some form.

 

In Bert’s case, he’s perhaps realized his passion doesn’t have to be actualized in a single field:  “My conclusion was that ‘hey, if you tell an interesting story, you can draw people into anything.’ That is the same thing with films, animation, design, products. It related to everything, so to me, story became everything, and that’s how I wanted to start a retail that focused more on storytelling than any other spectrum.”

From Animation to Retail

Now, retail might seem like a complete 180 with regards to his creative ambitions, but if anything, it’s one of those very pivots. He hasn’t abandoned animation, far from it. He’s both currently developing a show of his own while also helping a friend at Cartoon Network.

 

But in the meantime, he’s also steering clear of the forms of the industry that could snuff out his passion. His entry into retail with The Good Liver, a shop specializing in history-rich home goods, is an outlet for many of the stories he’s encountered traveling to Japan and backpacking through Europe.

 

For him, it goes back to the simple magic of good storytelling. All the artistic elements can fit the story like a glove. But if the story that makes those elements effective is weak or not even worth telling, it’ll lose the audience.

 

Bert makes a good point about common pitfalls with current visual storytelling. If a film is shot and designed well, but its story is weak, people won’t be interested. “Same thing with our products, it’s interesting to see how people come in and see our objects that we sell, be really into the design, but not quite into it enough to buy it,” he explains. “But once you start telling about the story and the important facts about the object — the history behind it — they immediately get into, and it completely changes the product for them. It sits in their mind in a completely different way once the story is told.”

 

It’s an apt comparison. The story does change the perceived value of the work.

Sure, with most mainstream Hollywood-produced comedies, the audience can suspend disbelief and chuckle along. But human stories, as stylized representations of reality, will be picked to pieces if they try to present themselves as anything resembling serious cinema by falling short on story.

 

A forceful but under-invested actor as the main character, a gaping plot hole, a jarring cut. All of these can bring an audience out of a story.

 

Likewise, animation and cartoons can similarly fall victim to their own aspirations of quality visuals over strong narrative. All the “eye-popping” effects in the world alone cannot emotionally sell the viewer.

 

Yet, it’s absolutely captivating when things click.

 

When cartoons and animation can tell a story that is unflinchingly real, even if the images are far from the truth, they have a unique tendency to crush our misgivings. We stop thinking about them as being “just for kids” and allow them to speak directly to our emotions. Animated films will, if given a chance, draw up uncontrollable feelings of sadness, anger or sympathy for characters and their struggles, sometimes more than a live-action film could.

The interior of The Good Liver.

A shelf full of artisanal items sourced from around the world.

The Good Liver selection of pens is on point.

And when it does this, it leaves audiences moved and with a profound respect for the work they’ve just experienced, something Bert wants to leave his audience with after they’ve heard the stories he’s shared.

 

Whether it’s in an animated story or the one behind an item from his shop.

 

“It’s like the feeling you get once you finish a film screening to an audience and getting positive feedback to the film that you created. It’s such a rewarding feeling, and that’s probably the main reason why I got into animation. You’ve successfully told the story in the way you wanted to tell the story, and people are reacting; People are shedding tears, they’re laughing at the jokes you created. That’s the most rewarding thing for me as an animator, being in animation, being a writer, being a storyboard artist. I think the store kind of brings that experience in a way where I could tell little stories here and there and change people’s minds. I felt a very similar feeling to it.”