Hwang Hyo-kyun deceives people for a living. The more his audience notices his work, the worse job he's done.
"The fact that we can get an audience to be convinced by its realism and focus on the story ... (that's) what makes special effects so cool," he said.
He has worked on the special effects, props and makeup for hundreds of films and television shows. This includes many of South Korea's most notable films, like the zombies of blockbusters "Train to Busan" and 2020 sequel "Peninsula," as well as the props and makeup in Bong Joon-ho's films "Okja" and Oscar-winner "Parasite."
Striving for perfection
Hwang's latest effects will appear in the next installment of Netflix's popular South Korean zombie series "Kingdom" -- a show he believes launched him and his CELL team to special effects fame. This special episode, airing July 23 and titled "Kingdom: Ashin of the North," stars Jun Ji-hyun, one of the country's best-known actors.
The series premiered in early 2019 and follows a historical narrative, mixing in elements of horror and politics. In it, a mysterious "resurrection" plant turns the people of Joseon-era (late 14th - early 20th century) Korea into zombies.
Hwang and the CELL team have provided the special effects since the start and worked closely with the show's creators to come up with a bespoke concept for a Korean period zombie. He factored many different elements into his creative thinking, including the zombies' social statuses when they were alive. "Commoners would have farmed a lot, making their skin tanned," Hwang said. "The king or court ladies who worked in the palace would see the sun less, making their skin lighter."
He said his team tested many zombie looks and styles; many didn't make the final cut. "There was a zombie that had died in the winter, so we painted the tip of the zombie's nose and ears black to make it seem like they had frostbite," said Hwang. "However ... the zombie unintentionally looked rather comical instead of real."
That level of detail means more time in the makeup room, especially for the zombies requiring more closeup shots. For example, a team of 10 people worked on the king's makeup for around three hours every day. For more "average" zombies, requiring just the addition of wounds and rotting skin, it took the team about an hour.