How Parasite Uses Brilliant Design and Invisible VFX to Transcend Language
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has left an indelible impression on cinema with such films as Snowpiercer, The Host, and Mother.
His most recent film, Parasite, has been called genre-defying. Thematically bleak but blackly comedic, timely, and rife with social commentary, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, took the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and has been nominated for 6 Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Foreign Language, Best Director, and Best Editing.
Hailed as the South Korean film that could make history, the praise lavished upon it is well earned—especially when you look behind the scenes at the elaborate and elegant production process.
Lucky us, Bong’s longtime editor, the now Oscar-nominated Jinmo Yang, generously shared his inspirations for the film, and gave us a detailed look at how he and Director Bong (as Jinmo refers to him) worked together to craft this modern masterpiece. (This article is spoiler-free).
The tools serve the story
As most of you reading this know, Avid is the NLE of choice for most contemporary Oscar-recognized Hollywood films. But, as some of you might already know, Jinmo cut Parasite on Final Cut Pro 7 (that 7 isn’t a typo). But despite FCP 7’s age, it was more than capable of handling ProRes HD proxies of the Alexa 65 masters, with After Effects alongside for timing and pre-visualization of the numerous invisible VFX shots.
Most notable among the many American directors and editors Jinmo looks to for inspiration, David Fincher is largely responsible for the technique Jinmo used to give Bong the freedom to not just choose the best takes for his carefully choreographed shots, but to choose different takes within a shot—even when the camera is moving. It’s a process Fincher used extensively during The Social Network to replicate Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, shooting a stand-in for the second twin and replacing his head with Hammer’s in post.
But to paraphrase Fincher, it’s never about which tools you use—it’s about how you use them in service of the story. Looking at Parasite, even with a trained eye, you’d never imagine that more than a third of the movie contains some sort of VFX. “The whole film is only about 960 cuts, which seems like more because of all the camera movement,” Jinmo says, “but we had about 400 VFX shots.”
“Why so many VFX shots?” you might wonder. The scenes all look so straightforward.
As a spoiler-free overview, the story tracks through numerous highly-detailed set pieces, including the expansive and expensive-looking house that functions as the main location.
There’s also a cramped semi-basement/street-view apartment that serves as the main secondary location.
There are occasional shots inside a driving car.
And there is a striking sequence filmed during a torrential downpour, where the camera sweeps through the city, from the tony neighborhood of the privileged to the sewage-flooded streets where the underclass live.
But even with the sweeping camera movements through the surrounding landscape and within the house, few may suspect that much of it was created in post.
Bong and his production designer, Lee Ha Jun (also Oscar-nominated and with whom he previously collaborated on Okja), created what they describe as “a universe inside this film” in the main house, which was constructed in strict accordance with the detailed vision of Bong’s script.
“The main house, the mansion, was actually a set,” Jinmo explains. “We built the main floor of the house in a backlot and for the second floor it was all green screen outside. When we shot toward the outside from inside, everything beyond the garden was all VFX.” Similarly, all of the driving scenes were shot with the car against green, Jinmo revealed, in much the same way Fincher shot the car scenes for Zodiac.
The physical layout of both the mansion and the semi-basement apartment at the center of the film are as essential to the story as the characters. Lighting, color schemes, fields of view, spatial limitations (or a lack of them)—all play major roles in drawing the viewer’s attention to character and theme, while remaining undetectable.
The tools are only as good as the user
That said, if you’re going to rely on VFX, you’d best know what you’re doing. Just as Hitchcock was famous for meticulously storyboarding his films, Bong has everything planned well before the camera rolls—because he has to. “Director Bong doesn’t shoot coverage,” Jinmo explains. “He already knows what the shots should contain and how they should cut together.”
But even with a vision as clear as Bong’s, not every take will be perfect, especially when there’s so much complex choreography involved in the on-screen action. It’s part of why having an editor onset is so important to Bong’s process, and part of why Bong’s trust in Jinmo’s expertise with VFX has allowed him the flexibility he enjoys in post-production.
Jinmo, whose family emigrated to the US from South Korea during his junior year in high school, attended Bard College in New York, where he initially aspired to become a director. Unlike some of the bigger film programs at schools like USC or NYU, Bard’s film program was geared more toward smaller-scale movie making where students function as more of a jack-of-all-trades, performing all the roles in their student productions.
“I had to do everything myself—I had to make my own CG, VFX, I had to make my own music. But amongst many different elements, VFX turned out to be the one I was most drawn to. I went on the internet for tutorials to learn Final Cut Pro and After Effects.”
His first professional film job was serving as the sound assistant on Todd Solondz’s film Palindromes. But he found that he enjoyed working in After Effects and decided that combining his VFX and FCP abilities could make him a valuable asset to directors on the set, giving them immediate access to previsualized VFX using their actual footage from the video tap.
“I thought that if I learned to be an on-set editor, I would get to spend a lot of time with the directors and learn from the best of them for my future career as a director,” Jinmo says.
As often happens with those who work both hard and smart on productions, they’re noticed—and offered subsequent jobs. Shortly after Palindromes, Jinmo met Korean director Myung-se Lee, who was working on setting up several Hollywood projects that never quite went through, but the two developed a good relationship. When Lee returned to South Korea to direct Duelist in 2005, Jinmo went with him and served as the on-set editor.
“Time passed so quickly and ten years flew by,” he says. “Along the way, someone suggested I set up my own studio and become a main picture editor. My first feature as editor was in 2015 on The Beauty Inside.”
The South Korean film community is a tightly knit group, and soon Jinmo met Bong, with whom he worked as both the on-set and the VFX editor for Snowpiercer. Jinmo went on to become the main editor on Bong’s next movie, Okja, which required both creating animatics prior to the shoot and extensive on-set editing, given that the title character, a CG super pig, was added in post.
By the time Parasite came along, Jinmo and Bong had a close working relationship built on mutual trust, shared artistic sensibilities, and creative ways of using technology as part of their process.
In fact, it was Jinmo who presented Bong with the idea of “stitching together” different performance takes to create a single shot. “When he’s on the set, he’ll look at the takes to see if he has everything he needs in one take—the right timing, the right action, the right camera angle—which tends to be in one of the later takes. But then, when we’re working together in the edit suite, he may prefer one actor’s take from an earlier performance because he likes the rawness or the freshness.”
One of the bigger challenges inherent in Parasite is the choreography of complex action scenes. Many of them require at least four characters to interact in a single setup, and Bong prefers to rehearse the action with the stunt actors or doubles in order to keep the principal actors’ performances as fresh as possible. Adding to the complexity is the lack of coverage—which makes it even more important for him to have the flexibility to “fix it in post.”
“We don’t go into the shoot planning to do those effects,” Jinmo explains. “It’s something we use sparingly, but it’s helpful for me to be able to achieve it in After Effects, because then we can present that to the VFX house for reference to show them how it can be done. Because I’ve done this many times, I’ve trained myself to be able to easily spot the point in the segment where we can best achieve the desired effect.”
It’s yet another reason why having an on-set editor is critical for Bong. Even while knowing how he wants a sequence to play out, once he sees the actual rehearsals with the choreography, doing pre-vis on the set helps him better determine camera placement and angles.
Jinmo’s not the only one who has found clever ways to use applications on the set. “In our very first meeting for Parasite, Director Bong took out his iPad and opened up SketchUp (a 3D modeling application used in design and architecture, in addition to film and VFX).
In SketchUp, he had a 3D model of the mansion, along with 3D versions of the actors, which he could place in the model. He was able to control the camera and the actors, as if it was a video game,” Jinmo says. “He could take me around the mansion and show me where certain key moments happen. In that regard, he used this program in a very effective way.”
Building a successful career takes more than tools
Cutting an Oscar-nominated movie on FCP 7 and After Effects isn’t exactly the norm for Hollywood. But just as Parasite has defied easy categorization, both Bong and Jinmo have built successful careers that have taken unpredictable paths.
“When I started editing, I decided that I needed a way to make myself uniquely valuable,” Jinmo says. “I thought that being able to create makeshift VFX on the set for the directors so they could get a better sense of how their ideas were working would be a selling point for me.”
Using FCP and After Effects dates back to his years at Bard and even though, as an editor who would like to cut Hollywood films, he knows how to use both Avid and Premiere, he still prefers FCP. “It’s comfortable for me to use, and very simple.”
Something else that’s worked in Jinmo’s favor is his familiarity with so many different aspects of filmmaking, also attributable to his one-man-band approach from Bard. If you’ve read some of our other interviews with top-tier editors, you may have noticed that many of them speak to the importance of understanding music. Tom Cross (whose work on La La Land Jinmo especially admires), Joe Walker, and Nicholas Monsour all emphasize how feeling the rhythm and musicality of a film are key to the cut.
As was the case in Parasite, where the rhythm of the cutting was crucial both within sequences and to the film as a whole. It’s all part of the elaborate choreography, as the characters’ lives become increasingly intertwined and increasingly difficult to disentangle. Jinmo used a temp track for cutting and his ability to feel the rhythm of the film meant that once he’d handed off his cut to the composer, he never needed to go back in to adjust picture to the final music.
Unlike some director-editor teams, where the director may go on to other projects while the editor creates the first cut, Bong and Jinmo actually sat together on a daily basis for the three-month post-production process, creating a director’s cut that was essentially the final cut.
Because Bong’s initial vision is so clear and because without coverage there are fewer options to explore, the director’s cut is all about choosing the best performance takes and honing the rhythm.
Few directors are that sure of themselves, and those who are seem to have come out of well-regarded film school programs. Ari Aster, whose film Hereditary we covered, is an AFI alum who, like Bong, extensively storyboards his films and shoots without coverage. Bong himself attended the prestigious Korean Academy of Film Arts.
“It used to be that people didn’t want their kids to go to arts schools,” Jinmo says. “They wanted their kids to be doctors or lawyers. But as the Korean film industry has become so successful—in large part because of the quality of the film schools—going into the arts has become much more accepted.”
Jinmo’s desire to work on Hollywood films is no secret. In addition to his admiration for David Fincher and Tom Cross, his biggest inspiration is none other than the great Walter Murch. “Whenever I get stuck, I open his book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje.”
Jinmo says. “I would tell every editor, everywhere, that they should read his book.” He also finds watching American movies of the 1970s and ‘80s instructive. “I think it’s important to watch classic movies, not just the recent ones.”
Bong is likewise a film scholar as well as a “director’s director.” Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die) cites Parasite as his favorite movie of 2019 and the jury at Cannes, including directors Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) unanimously voted for Parasite to win the top prize.
Taking inspiration from the classic films, Bong is releasing a black-and-white version of Parasite for projection at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. He’s been quoted as saying that he’s always wanted to make a black-and-white film after watching Murnau’s Nosferatu, which he described as “a very pure state of film, like a salmon swimming upstream.” It’s a testament to his and Jinmo’s commitment to using techniques and technology in service of the story.
Jinmo’s idea to sell himself to American directors by using his VFX skills underscores how humble he is by thinking that it’s those skills he has to market in order to compensate for English not being his first language.
But with the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or, and now with the Oscar nominations, Bong and Jinmo are poised to take their places in film history as their collaboration reaches an international audience.
Which proves, yet again, that in the hands of true artists, the visual language of film transcends that of spoken language. As Bong himself said in his Golden Globe speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”