Ace animator gets free rein on 'Reign'

Special to The Times

The strangely elongated characters in minimal costumes featured in "Reign: The Conqueror," the Cartoon Network's sci-fi program based on Alexander the Great, bear the distinctive look of Peter Chung.

The Korean-born Chung is best known as the creator of "Aeon Flux," a Japanese-influenced fantasy-adventure that ran on MTV from 1991 through 1993. Madhouse, one of Japan's top studios, asked Chung to design their adaptation of Hiroshi Aramata's series of novels "Alexander Senki" ("Alexander's War Chronicles") -- although it's virtually unheard-of for a foreign artist to work on a Japanese production.

Chung talked about "Reign," part of the "Adult Swim" bloc on the Cartoon Network, and other work at the mid-Wilshire headquarters of TokyoPop, the company that distributes "Reign" on video.

"I came on to the series as a character designer, but I ended up doing background and prop designs, as well," he explains. "Rather than doing clean model sheets, I did a lot of rough conceptual work, and their artists went over my drawings, showing the characters from different angles and in different poses. They needed me to generate ideas, and since the show had so many characters and locations, that kept me busy.

"I did a lot of research into Macedonian design: The armor and architecture were very interesting and visually appealing," he continues. "At first, I did historically based designs, and they said, 'Oh no, no, no, this isn't what we want at all!' They said don't worry about anachronisms -- they wanted kind of an 'Aeon Flux' version of Alexander."

Chung clearly didn't worry about anachronisms: A casual mixture of past, present and future pervades "Reign." Tall Macedonian warriors clad in armor, leather straps and codpieces fight robots with swords; the followers of Pythagoras materialize and dematerialize as they search for the mysterious and powerful "Platohedron."

Chung says the elongated, minimally clad figures reflect his personal tastes: "I think my biggest influences are the Viennese Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, the French comic book artist Moebius and a number of Japanese animation artists, especially Kaneda Yoshinori. I've always liked designing characters with an emphasis on the anatomy, rather than on the costume. When you're drawing realistic characters, if you start drawing a lot of complicated clothing, the drawing becomes about the clothing, rather than the person."

The biggest problems Chung faced on "Reign" involved differences in the Japanese artists' approach to defining anatomy and animating facial expressions. "I think they had trouble adapting my designs for the faces. I tend to draw more structure in the face, using lots of lines and very few shadows or highlights," he says thoughtfully. "The Japanese tend to draw faces without lines, using shadows and highlights to create volume. They ended up using both -- lines and shadows and highlights, but Japanese animators like to draw a lot of detail.

"One thing I tried to do in my designs was give Alexander more of a range of expressions," he adds. "I did drawings of him smiling and laughing, which they never used. He never really changes expression, but that's part of the Japanese approach to animation. A lot of strong Japanese lead characters are very reserved, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot going on inside them. Sometimes you can get more involved in a character's inner state if you have to put some effort into reading it."

After completing "Reign," Chung worked on "Animatrix," a compilation feature based on the world of the "Matrix" movies. The Wachowski brothers have commissioned nine short films from different anime directors, each of whom offers a personal vision of the "Matrix" universe. Chung wrote, designed and directed a 16-minute segment entitled "Matriculated." "Animatrix" will be released on DVD in June.

Having just completed that project, Chung is concentrating on developing an idea for an independent feature. Meanwhile, on "Adult Swim," Mondays to Thursdays at midnight, the Pythagoreans continue to search for the "Platohedron" while Alexander and his pals, Hephastion and Ptolemy, conquer the known world -- and win American fans.

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