Won Hee Jo studied Multimedia Design at Hongik University, and illustration at HILLS (Hankuk Illustration School). Since graduating, she’s made a selection of picturebooks, most of which deal with emotional themes. Won Hee’s work has won her a CJ Picture Book Award and a Special Mention in the BolognaRagazzi Awards.
In this post, Won Hee talks about ‘Teeth Hunters’, which received a Special Mention in the Fiction category of the 2017 BolognaRagazzi Awards. This intense picturebook, which deals with the emotional subject of animal cruelty, is published in Korea by Iyagikot.
The ‘Teeth Hunters’ book trailer
Won Hee: I started writing ‘Teeth Hunters’ after watching a documentary film in which an assortment of elephant tusks were laying around on the ground. It was so unrealistic; it was beyond cruelty. To think that these were the teeth of such a large number of elephants. Killing elephants for their teeth? Why? It was not for the sake of survival, but for the sake of decoration!
Through drawing, I wanted to portray the weird and uncomfortable feeling I had after watching that documentary film. Three images came to mind: a teeth market, a human being hunted, and elephants as teeth hunters.
Instead of relying on stories, my work usually takes off from an image or from a short movie clip. That is when I can picture in my head what a finished project would look like (including what colours I would use). Sometimes those images pop into my head vaguely. But for ‘Teeth Hunters’, the images were so vivid that I decided to use them as a starting point to unfold the whole story.
To get the flow of a story, I normally draw different scenes with a pencil. This is very rough. I write out what I definitely want to include in the final images. During this process, I mix up the order of images in different ways to make the story more interesting and more natural.
Once I’ve found the flow, I focus on details. Instead of a pencil, I work on the images with my computer. As far as my work is concerned, colour scheme and composition are more important than the actual drawings. So it is more efficient to work digitally than with a pencil.
When I started my first storyboard for this book, I focussed on not taking this serious issue too seriously. I came up with the story of a child who, before his tooth is pulled out, promises teeth hunters that he will give them the tooth he loses naturally when he’s seven years old. In other words, I wanted the story to end peacefully.
I came up with this first story to reflect my hope: that I did not want hunters to kill elephants for the sake of their tusks. However, the story did not reflect this very well. So in the second storyboard, I focused on the commercialisation of tusks. I came up with the story of elephants processing human teeth to make tusks which they would then attach to themselves where their old tusks used to be. Again, I thought it did not convey my hope very well.
After going through a few modifications, the final (quite serious) version of the storyboard was completed. It was to reveal the reality of human beings seen through the eyes of children.
In the process of finalising the storyboard, I refined all the scenes. With the overall colour and layout in mind, I tested various scenes to the point of ‘this is it’.
I think my ‘this is it’ moments are heavily influenced by the movies I watch. Sometimes I ended up using the very first version of a scene I came up with, having gone through so many tests. So, of course, I sometimes doubted whether this long ordeal was worth it. But then I realised that if I had not vigorously tested out the different options, uncertainty would be hanging over my head. So now, I just think this is what I must do.
In the past, it took me a lot of time and energy to make my images by hand. Now I do it digitally. It’s more efficient, and I really enjoy it. With colouring, I set some restrictions which must be followed. Within these restrictions, I tend to free myself by selecting a variety of techniques.
I wanted ‘Teeth Hunters’ to be tense and unfamiliar. So…
- Instead of making cute elephant hunters, I used the colour contrast in a way that I feel is reminiscent of a soldier (whose nationality is vague).
- Even when you see the characters up close, I wanted their emotions to be obscured. In addition, I wanted the movements of the characters to be rigid and unnatural.
- I made the background and other elements as simple as possible.
For this book, I mostly used traditional Korean papers and watercolours (scanned in). From time to time, I also used markers and felt-tip pens. To differentiate (i.e. to invoke unfamiliarity) between teeth and other commercial products, I drew them on a piece of smooth paper and then created collages digitally.
‘Teeth Hunters’ is not a book that would make a reader feel great when reading it, and they may not like to read it again; it is so tense in every scene.
I like to be relaxed while working, so if I were to do this book again – though I would not like to do so – I could probably make it more peaceful by using dry materials that could be perceived as more two-dimensional, rather than using watercolours.
But actually, if I really did go back, I would probably go through exactly the same process and end up with a similar outcome!
This project was a very meaningful one for me, and I’m so glad I was able to tell the story in the way I had originally intended to.
All the hard work and obstacles I overcame during this project will become a part of me, and I believe the experience will guide me through future projects. I’m not yet sure what my next project will be, but I hope it will be another one that I can take to completion.
Illustrations © Won Hee Jo. Post translated by Gengo and edited by dPICTUS.
이빨 사냥꾼 / Teeth Hunters
Won Hee Jo
Iyagikot, Korea, 2016
‘This almost wordless picturebook with powerful, intense illustrations tells an inverted story that will make children think about man’s cruelty to animals – and to other humans…
The effect of this book is profound. The message conveyed by the strong images – that we should treat other humans and animals as we would like to be treated ourselves – succeeds in not being clichéd.’
—The BolognaRagazzi Award Jury