Cal Arts Spotlight on Thinkwell Intern Suhyun Cho

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Due to many influences, the work of all CalArts students undergoes changes during their time at the Institute—whether it’s through mentorship from faculty, interactions with fellow students, access to new technology, or exposure to new ideas. The following two stories about artists from Korea and China reveal how a CalArts education can alter an artist’s outlook and practice.
Exploring a New World in Stage Design
Before coming to CalArts in the fall of 2012 as an MFA student in theater, Suhyun Cho was a rising star behind the scenes of Korean opera and theater. Actually, he made the scenes, designing the sets of important shows when he was still in his 20s. Cho’s credits include the set for Madam Butterfly for the National Opera Company of Korea and for Turando, another Puccini opera, at the National Arts Theater of Ansan. His designs ranged from the strikingly minimal to more elaborate efforts utilizing multi-leveled platforms for performers and colorful screens, abstract backdrops, and fantasy-based landscapes.
But a few years ago, one of his former professors at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, where Cho earned his BFA in 2006, saw the future of scenic design trending toward video. Theater artists were beginning to create and project images onto props, walls and backdrops to produce animated scenes–all aimed at engaging audiences in new ways. At the time, CalArts was one of only three schools that trained designers in this field, called video for performance, and in 2012, Cho applied to and was accepted by CalArts.
While Cho had mastered scene painting techniques and other traditional set-building skills in Korea, creating video for the stage requires practical knowledge of many sophisticated software programs and interactive tools, and at CalArts, Cho has become proficient in Cinema 4D, Isadora, Max/MSP, and other media manipulation software used to create dynamic scenic environments.

“I’m no longer just a scenic designer. I’m an interactive designer.” — Suhyun Cho, MFA-3 Theater

At first, Cho says that his teachers and fellow students praised his work for its beauty, but they also thought it too realistic and traditional. “So I changed. I started to merge my traditional painting skills with experimental and interactive video, projecting video onto paintings.” For example, on a recent project, he collaborated with Hind Bin Demaithan (Theater MFA 14), an Emerati artist born and raised in Dubai, in which Cho created paintings based on her poetry. He projected moving images onto the canvases, including one in which Bin Demaithan appears to be looking through a window. “I’m trying to communicate her deep-felt struggle ,” Cho says. “I want viewers to think about her life and what it means to be a female in the Arab world.”

“I hadn’t been interested in making art pieces before. I was just interested in making designs. Now, I’m interested in both theater and art.” — Suhyun Cho, MFA-3 Theater

Immersing Himself in Theater
Growing up in Seoul, Cho was a fan of big-budget fantasy adventure films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He decided to study scenic design toward the end of high school after reading a magazine article about art directing for the cinema. “It said that if you are interested in designing movie productions, you should study scenic design for the stage,” he says. But Cho had little interest in the theater and considered dropping out of Seoul Arts after three months. A professor challenged him to finish out the year, and after diving into the scene shop and building actual props and sets while reading the plays on which he was working, his interest in theater grew.

“I began to ask myself, ‘What are these shows about? Why are they popular with some people but not others? What can I do to make them better?’” — Suhyun Cho, MFA-3 Theater

While Cho says that he wasn’t an exceptional student, after graduation, he was hired as a scenic supervisor at Seoul Arts, in charge of design and production for numerous student shows. “I wasn’t the best at designing,” Cho says, “but I had a good relationship with people, especially people younger than me.” The job lasted three and a half years, during which Cho worked days at school and nights on his own designs.
Theater director and Seoul Arts faculty member Hyo Kyong Kim took Cho under his wing, hiring him to design one of his shows and recommending him to other directors. Kim urged him to explore video as a scenic design tool, and in 2007, Cho began incorporating video projections of photographic imagery into his stage designs. The images brought new dimension to his sets, but by 2010, Cho began to burn out from the job’s demanding nonstop grind.
In January 2011, Cho left Korea and travelled around the world for more than a year. He never lost his interest in theater, however, and toward the end of his travels, he began putting together a portfolio, with the intention of pursuing an MFA degree. “I believed that expanding my education would be the way to greater fulfillment,” Cho says. At a theater conference in New York in early 2012, he met CalArts faculty, who saw in him the makings of a visionary scenic designer.
Undergoing a Transformation
“Suhyun is a very mature, focused, and kind person—this was obvious from the first time I met him,” says Theater faculty Peter Flaherty, director of the Theater for Performance program. “At the time, he was already a mature person and my instinct was that he would pour himself into the program. His transformation is well under way and his commitment to learning his craft is unwavering.”

“Suhyun has developed in a very short time into a very exciting, emerging video artist and designer. I eagerly await seeing his work evolve over the coming years and beyond.” — Peter Flaherty, CalArts Theater

“At CalArts I found there are tons of ways to engage the audience,” Cho says. “You’re not just providing the background, but creating an immersive experience. Video is the best medium in which to design that experience.
“CalArts has encouraged me to make my work more abstract and meaningful,” says Cho. “I’m still finding my style while focusing on learning programming language. The only way to make my own video content is by learning how to write code. That will enable me to generate unique content and images.” Mastering computer programming could also lead to opportunities in areas related to theater, such as theme parks and other live entertainments, areas that Cho has recently explored.
In May, Cho presented a video projection at the annual CalArts portfolio review, in which students display their work to representatives from entertainment companies. He impressed a recruiter from Thinkwell Group, a Burbank-based design company whose clients include The Walt Disney Company and Universal, and after two interviews, Cho was hired as a paid summer intern, to develop interactive video designs for several projects.
“The entertainment industry wants to find people who are skilled in video technology as they create more immersive experiences at theme parks or in theaters,” Cho says. “Thinkwell is one of the biggest design companies with a video and interactive department, and tries to incorporate new technologies into its projects to provide spectators with new and immersive experiences. Anyone who works at Thinkwell can share ideas, and even as an intern, I was able to join most of the important design and production meetings.

“I want my work to be more immersive, in which there’s no distance between the audience and the show, It should feel like the show is happening all around you. I’d like to create an environment in which the audience changes the show, so that there is a different result every night. I don’t know how to do that yet. That’s why I’m at CalArts.” — Suhyun Cho, MFA-3 Theater

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