Sakura-Con 2016 – Designing/Working in the Anime Industry with Hiroyasu Kobayashi and Shigeto Koyama

After the The Anthem of the Heart screening, this panel was probably my favorite to attend because of the materials shared and the quality of guest and audience interaction. This was the second panel for Hiroyasu Kobayashi and Shigeto Koyama of Studio Khara. The Japan Animator Expo short, “Obake-chan,” played while we entered and through the start of the panel. Since I had missed out when they were available online the previous year, I was excited to see some choice excerpts here.

Unlike their previous panel, where an overbearing translator for the official, newer Eva works continually interrupted the convention translators, this one had an English translator and a Japanese translator who seamlessly kept the talk going.

Aspects of Animation Design and Q&A

*Any transcription below is provided first through a translator’s words, then paraphrased as needed by me.*

It didn’t take long after “Obake-chan” and a brief re-introduction for Kobayashi and Koyama to invite attendees up for questions. They also showed us a few gifts they would hand out for particularly interesting questions.

Q: About Japan Expo, is there any way you plan to release the works commercially outside of Japan?

A: Unfortunately, all the different shorts are not being shown anymore. They were available online to watch for a while. They’ll come back online again, and we can tell the director there are requests to see them again, even particular ones. Right now there are no current plans to partner with Funimation or Cartoon Network, but if there is an opportunity, we might explore it.

Q: Can you tell us something about the next Evangelion, if not about FLCL 2?

A: We’re making it. We are continually working on the next Eva, but it’s difficult to meet the director’s, Anno’s, standards. It takes a lot of work to bring it to you. Speaking from the standpoint of Studio Khara and our 10th anniversary, we plan to do something special to celebrate.

Q: What influenced your art style, and where do you get your inspiration for mecha design?

A: My inspiration for mecha design are different for each project I work on. I think it’s important to take into account the theme and style of the show. Personally, I think mecha should have horns, like in Gundam. For example, you might be familiar with Captain Earth, there is a giant robot named “Earth Angel” who has horns. They’re not to be cool. If you look closely, the shape is the same as a stag beetle’s horns. It’s a story about summer with children. Anything I design will have some background meaning to it.

Q: I love in your shorts the mechanical and organic designs with their references to old cars, movies, and pop culture. Is that something that comes to mind spur of the moment, or is it something you’ve always wanted to do and sneak into a project?

A: I think I definitely was influenced by pop culture or what I’m watching or thinking about at the time. For example, when we both had the opportunity to go to Comic-Con in San Diego, you’ll see many interesting things there to take with you the next time you make a design. Going out and doing everyday things, you’ll notice things that stay with you that you incorporate next time. When we are planning our concept meetings, we might have them together, Anno-san, Imai-san, we’ll bring up something we think might be okay, and the others will want to go with it.

Q: You’ve all had the opportunity to work on many designs ranging from background to robots to character designs. How do you find the right balance in creating a design that your key animators can comfortably work with and draw to a sense that there aren’t too many errors? When you come up with a concept for a design, how do you balance what’s interesting for viewers, and something easy for key animators to work with?

A: That’s an interesting question. Figuring out the right balance when designing something for animators to work with is very difficult. The approach varies a lot depending on your experience as a designer. There are people in particular I look up to, like Sadamoto, and their designs are almost perfect. They’re beautiful when animated and moving, but also amazing as static, illustrations or posters. They’re great either way and that’s not easy. When I see Sadamoto’s posters, it really affects me, and I’m watching and learning from that person every day. For example, and to give more detail about this–going into a specialized area of the answer–in Japanese animation, when you do the design, the most important part of the character is not their entire body, but their face and through to the upper chest area. That’s where the focus really is. If you give them amazing shoes, it’s not going to be shown. What’s important is their face, clothing, and hair showing in the shot and figuring out how to design that. In Eva, there’s the plug suit, which is simple, but really distinctive. Whether you see the full body, or just the top, you can tell immediately it’s a plug suit because of the distinctive top and chest. It’s important to pay attention to those small portions, details, that’ll make a distinctive impact on the viewers.

Q: With mecha design, particularly nowadays, if it’s not made by Studio BONES or Sunrise, it’ll likely be in CG. You’re keeping with the hand drawing ways, 2D. Why is that?

A: To give a simple answer, there are a number of studios who don’t have the animators on staff to keep the level of high quality consistent. In that situation, CG will give a higher quality. The reason Studio Khara is still drawing mecha is because we have some super animators on staff who can do it. It used to be in Japan, a lot of people could draw mecha designs, but that kind of animator is getting fewer and fewer. It’s pretty much your market if that’s something you can do. They’re definitely a precious resource, because we want to continue making the mecha shows, like Evangelion.

Q: The CG used in “Cassette Girl” was impressive. How did you render the lines? Did you invert the mesh, handle in the shader? How did you handle the shadows that fell on the characters?

A: First, about the shader, we were using a shader to draw the lines. In Japan, there are only two shaders that everyone uses. Among those two, the best is called Pencil Plus. Regarding the shadows, they’re really difficult. The shadows in that short were edited so heavily, it was close to hand drawing those shadows.

Q: What do you think about a game called Super Robot Taisen?

A: You’re probably asking about Earth Angel or other mecha in that game? In Japan, that game is very popular. We haven’t played it because we’ve been busy. Since Japan is gradually putting out fewer anime, the Robot Taisen games might go away and become Bishoujo Taisen. America might need to make the next Voltron.

Q: I think a lot about the differences in western and eastern aesthetics. What’s a fundamental difference in how East and West approach animation and character designs with aesthetics in mind?

A: That’s a good question. When it comes to character design, a well-known difference is the nose, of course. Americans draw proper noses sticking out of faces. Japanese, if possible, would like to do without noses completely. If you look at Japanese figures, you’ll notice there’s almost no nose, or projection from the face. If you look at American comic book figures, even the beautiful women figures have noses, noses sticking right out. This might be an un-crossable goal between the two. Particularly in Japan animation, it’s really difficult to have them draw the nostrils. We have two on our faces, but you hardly see them drawn in animation. For the visual design of people, I think that’s a big difference. For example, if those of you studying how to draw manga-style character designs, try erasing the nose if it doesn’t look quite right.

Q: Do you have to be good at math when making anime? If so, what kind of math must you learn?

A: Neither of us are good at math. The first time I got a 0 on a test was a math test. For example, there are some examples when math comes up. When animating, you have a time sheet to stick to. You have to use some math there; that’s pretty hard. Sometimes, when you’re dividing the 24 frames, you’ll make three frames per second, or four, and you have to keep track when flipping like that. There is a famous director, Amemiya, who made Ninja Slayer and others. That director is actually really bad at math. How he decided which frame per second was key was to take a 24-sided dice. The ones that came up was what he used as key frames. Because he did this, the movement that showed up was very strange with sudden jumps. But he liked that effect. So, you don’t need math. Do make sure to calculate your salary correctly!

Q: If you were to reduce a production to its bare minimum, what are the core essentials to make a good animation?

A: That’s a good question. I think that parts we would choose to do away with for a reduced version are different from person to person. For example, on “Obake-chan,” which you saw when entering, it doesn’t have background art, color, or character design. We did away with those parts and it was pretty cheap to make. It’s difficult to decide what to keep and what not. “Cassette Girl,” that was CG, full animation, full motion–that was pretty expensive and we were scolded. We did our best to reduce the number of characters and reduce the number of designs, but it’s still difficult. It really takes money for those aspects of the design. That’s all the director says lately. He says we’re spending too much money, that we need to make it cheaper. That might be because we were involved with these short films and we spent too much money.

Q: Can you tell us the story behind the ending of Panty & Stocking? Will there be more?

A: That wasn’t what we originally planned to do with P&S. Originally, the director had drawn storyboards, and in the end, Panty is scattered all over the place. Among the staff working on it, we rose up and rejected it all at once. The director sort of clapped, and said do what you want to do. It was originally created to be the kind of show that it is, but I hear a lot that American fans want a sequel. There are people who don’t want sequels sometimes, who are against a sequel, for example, to FLCL. No improvement to the perfection. I thought maybe they’d object to P&S 2. Would you rather see P&S2 and Gurren Lagann 2? I think within animation where the story comes to a strong ending, comes to a good place, there’s less of a need for a sequel. A sequel is not something we haven’t thought about. It’s a show that has stuck with us as an important work. We’d like to do some kind of continuation. That’s about all I can say.

Q: What do you say is the biggest difference between anime then and now?

A: What I like hasn’t changed very much between past and present, so I haven’t gotten that feeling of change. Do you mean the ways of making it has changed? Can you pin down what kind of past anime and present anime?

Q: For the past, Miyazaki’s Heidi of the Alps had limited staff, and for the present, many studios now present works each season, sometimes more than one.

A: One aspect you might’ve noticed this effect in is the really talented animators are becoming less available. They can go into other fields, like video games, where they might make more money. There’s a scattering of talent. The other aspect where you mention more complicated art work seems more of a design problem. That might be because the current sponsors of the show won’t be satisfied if it’s not complicated enough.

Q: Which anime now are you really enjoying watching?

A: This is difficult to answer. In fact, it’s a trap question that’s unfair. I’m not really watching anime right now. I don’t think they’re all that good. In fact, what we’re watching now is an American animation called Star vs. the Forces of Evil. Also, Disney television series are more interesting to us than those in Japan, like Star Butterfly, Gravity Falls, and Frozen the television series, which is more interesting than the movie. Studio Trigger and Khara both really like American animation. Maybe we should pick up and move here! If we move here, we would have no problem finding macaroni and cheese, and broccoli soup. It’s difficult to find either in Japan. There’s none in Japan.

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