(c) Images were courtesy of Atelier Gokujou Animation & Pine Jam
The curtain rose this summer season and some of us–it’s never too late to get your tickets for the performance–thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Kageki Shoujo!! And I had the pleasure of covering this series, which kept surprising me at every turn. For those who aren’t acquainted with the series and might’ve skipped it in our summer preview, the series follows a group of first years of the centennial class of Kouka School of Musical and Theatrical Arts, the entrance step into joining the all female theater troupe of Kouka–heavily inspired by the famous Takarazuka.
While there’s much excitement to be found in a story about passionate young women pursuing their ambitions, I’d say Kageki Shoujo’s true strength lies within the immersive dive into the girls’ psychology, their personal trials and the overcoming of those. The first season gave us a deep character study and introduction of the main cast and set the stage for what will be an incredible second season–can we please have confirmation already?!
Setting precedents in the industry, Kageki Shoujo’s director, animators and writers did a splendid job in its sensible portrayal of delicate–and real–topics such as child sexual abuse, social anxiety, bulimia and the resulting trauma of these experiences. With all that said, imagine my surprise (and actual gasp!) when I stumbled across Atelier Gokujou Animation’s Tumblr and managed to directly interview the animator behind this hidden jewel! So without any further ado, below is the full interview with Jacob, the man behind Atelier Gokujou Animation who worked with Pine Jam to bring life to Saiki Kumiko’s manga.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in the animation industry and consequently the Japanese industry.
Back in school I remember, there was a specific point I became entranced by the idea that through animation you could bring a character to life. That singular idea overwhelmed me. These characters in anime existed inside of this framework, and in that same sense, I could draw and animate those characters, craft narratives with them, and if I stayed true to their personality, I could work with these characters. I imagine it is similar to how people feel when writing fan fiction or making fan comics. It is this sense of connection where you are bringing this character to life, acting through them, creating stories for them, and seeing how they react.
That simple idea spiraled into every aspect of animation. If I want to craft stories for these characters I need to storyboard out things, I need to write their dialogue, and learn to animate these things. Through that, I slowly learned animation piece by piece. And of course during this time I was going to school for art, and learning how to carry over all those skills into animation. From there I worked on creating a portfolio of animation, building that up, learning more and more as I went along. It was a slow process and for a time, I was simply working and living, animating in my free time.
During this time I wasn’t on any social media, and art seemed to be a very personal thing to me. It seems almost silly to say, since now we see how important having an online presence can be for an artist, but at the time I was just wrapped up in exploring my ideas. After a few years, and plenty of rejection from nearly every studio I had applied to, I had started to see that I should get out and start sharing my work with people. Part of the difficulty at the time was that I worked in and wanted to make “anime style” work. In the West, it seemed fruitless, every animation studio at the time was based around cartoon animation, and the international basis for animators to work with Japanese studios was non-existent. So, I had kept making personal work, learning and practicing the style of animation that I was so passionate about. From there over time I had more and more opportunities to work with the anime industry, as well as people who shared a common interest in the style of work we wanted to make.
It was a lot of patience, and a lot of personal motivation to keep doing what I was passionate about, until everything lined up! Part of what I try to do now is present animation to people outside of the industry, in a way that is easily digestible, and that can feel obtainable if you have passion and determination. I hope that in the future we can create even more circumstances to expand the international talent pool of animators.
Was there a specific anime or anime(s) that were a strong influence on you–that so enraptured you that they made you want to choose this career?
There are a few distinct memories that come to mind. I remember being pretty young and going to a dinner party in one of my dad’s coworker’s house. They had a son who was out for the night and after the party I remember they let me go down into the basement to play his playstation or something. He had some copies of Akira, and I remember flipping through them and just being really shook up by the art. Something really surreal happens when you are confronted with Japanese anime and manga for the first time! It is unlike anything you had ever seen, and there is no point of reference in your mind to contextualize everything. It is a surreal complex mix of being disturbed, fascinated and in awe with the complexity and artistry of the work.
I only ever really felt that feeling full force, in that basement with Akira, and the first time I watched NGE and End of Evangelion. Part of it is that there is such a strange quality rooted, I believe, in the philosophy behind the work. It is rooted in the artist’s expression of their fears, their ambitions, their feelings about their place among their culture, and finally how they can use art, and animation to express that. It was about telling a story, and I was fascinated by the ideas those stories explored. I suppose it says a fair bit about how I felt as a teenager and why those works resonated so much with me, but that’s how it goes! Those works put in me a deep desire to make my own art, and to aspire to work alongside those animators and directors.
What kind of education did it take you to get where you are today?
So I got a BFA in illustration at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, which has a history of turning classically trained artists. Interestingly enough, of my time spent there I really gravitated toward printmaking; I really loved learning about the old formats of printmaking, things like stone lithography and etching. I honestly didn’t take up animation til about my third year, and before that I was struggling a bit to find my niche. From there it was a long process of learning, making mistakes, and spending a lot of personal time studying and practicing animation. After that I just found myself constantly exploring ideas and trying to make things work in whatever capacity I could.
What would you say were the most significant projects you were involved with and could you share a little about them?
At this point it may be easier for me to talk about failures rather than successes! I have been part of more than a few animation projects that have fallen apart, or did not reach final approval from a funder or publisher. Out of that frustration came a lot of resilience, and a determination to be passionate about the work and to do everything I could to put my best foot forward on a project.
Like with any job, in some capacity, I feel like there is a reputation to be carried. With Kageki, I knew my Production Assistant (P.A.) was sticking his neck out, and taking a chance hiring someone outside of Japan. If working with me was a struggle, if I fell behind, or if my work was not up to par–it not only makes me look bad, but it makes him look bad, and it makes a studio hesitant to hire outside of their comfort range. Now I try not to hold that weight over my head, but it was something I was certainly mindful of. I felt that if the studio would find me reliable, there was a great significance to that.
What did your day look like during the production of Kageki Shoujo!!–?
Animation production has plenty of phases of production as you can imagine. As an animator I was involved in Layout (LO) as well as making the final lifework for those LO scenes. In layout I was assigned a block of an episode, given the storyboards, and tasked with creating the key frames of each of those shots, as well as rough drawings of the background. You can think about it as preliminary rough work, or planning the framework of each shot. It was standard to average about a single cut every day. Try to imagine that in some shots you have one character in the frame speaking, with little motion. In a different scene you could have a room full of students all doing their own unique motion! In that instance, it may take more than a day to plan and draw out an entire cut, while on other days work could move smoothly through more than one cut.
To get down to brass tacks, we are talking about a ten hour work day of drawing being pretty common, with overflow if the schedule demands. That time is broken up with cooking, cleaning, taking care of the cats, stretching and exercising. I’m a bit of an audiophile, so I am constantly digging in the crates for new music! At the moment I’m on a deep dive through old PC visual novel OSTs. Shout outs to Shonan Beach FM out of Japan for playing a fantastic collection of music from the 40s-50s as well as KEXP’s various shows! I also burn through audiobooks pretty consistently. During Kageki I re-listened to the Dune books, listened to a bunch of Hercule Poirot books, and a few Stephen King books!
Pine Jam is a smaller studio known for taking on challenging projects. What are some of the peculiarities–advantages or disadvantages–of working with a smaller studio as opposed to one of the big operations?
I remember thinking when I began work on Kageki, that while I thought the show had an interesting premise and strong characters, I thought that the show would not do well outside of Japan. There are many productions that seem to exist inside of a bubble in Japan. At times I felt that the show really catered to a Japanese sensibility and that while there would be a positive reception, I didn’t think it’s success would extend outside of Japan. Pine Jam I think got to take a chance, and really take the helm on the creative direction for the show, which produced a fantastic result. I do think that because of the smaller studio size, we had aimed to create a show for a niche audience, and it just so happened that there is a passionate international audience that was receptive to both the shoujo genre, as well as the performing arts premise. Watching it I was taken aback by how well the narrative weaves in and out between characters, as well as diving into depicting the subconscious thoughts and feelings of its characters. I attribute that to the director Kazuhito Yoneda.
(c) Images were courtesy of Atelier Gokujou Animation & Pine Jam
How much freedom are you given when it comes to expressing character reactions in a scene?
While there is some room for experimentation, the expressions we aim to capture are outlined from the beginning in the storyboards. Beat by beat, we map out how a character feels from frame to frame, and work our best to pull out that emotion from the drawings. I think the difficulty comes from understanding the character, and trying to consider how they wear their emotions from drawing to drawing. Ai as a character does not hold back showing her anger or dissatisfaction in something, and her reactions are genuine, often uncontrollable. Hoshino is good at wearing a strong demeanor, and while you may be able to chip away at her temperament, you have to do a lot to cause her to boil over. To a certain degree, you have to be able to sit back and let the character dictate how they feel in a scene. With the manga as a reference, these characters’ personalities were quite understandable early on!
Which was your favorite scene to work on during the Kageki Shoujo!! production?
My favorite shots, in any animation, are often detail shots. Shots that highlight a small action, small moments that feel very human and really help to ground a character in their world. I find those shots always carry with them a little extra quality of communicating something ethereal. A shot of Hoshino’s hair blowing in the wind, or Yamada chasing after someone through the rain. They encapsulate the mood, the characters feelings, and the story in these nice little packages.
And what about the most challenging one?
I had to dig deep for the crowd shots. Whenever you have to draw a background with 20 students, it feels like a never-ending task. It is a battle of attrition at that point. You need to make sure from shot to shot, every one of those characters is in the same position in their line up, and you need to make sure you draw them properly! I am very familiar with all the background characters designs even though you never see some of them speak!
Some say a parent has no favorite child. Does that resonate with you? Or do you perhaps have a particular character which you held extra fondness for animating?
Without a doubt, Sarasa was one of the easier, and more fun characters to work with. Her way of behavior, the way she moves and talks. It was apparent even in the storyboards the type energy and personality she brought to the production. I could imagine how she wanted to move in a scene–and not to say that she isn’t capable of complex emotion, but the face she wears in any given scene is meant to reveal her inner feelings. I think having a character like this is so important to an animation too! Consider that a character like Sarasa is the entry point for a viewer in the show. Any age of person can sit with an episode, and through Sarasa, understand the context of what is happening in any given scene. While some characters may not outwardly show emotions, have cruel intentions, or be playing coy, Sarasa is there with the viewer trying to understand what is happening and to provide a genuine reaction. What she lacks in subtlety she makes up for in charisma and determination.
How much work or study goes into understanding biodynamics, or the physics of objects (how they move, how weight and density affects movement, anatomy, how characters move in space), is this something you have to study specifically or is it something you learn intuitively through experience?
This is a difficult question. If you can imagine, animation is tied in a lot of ways to the camera, and to video. For example, animation runs at 24 frames per second, the same as what film was shot on at the time, and the same frame rate as how humans perceive reality. Things like changing the camera’s depth of field, using pans or zoom-ins for a shot, are all informed by the techniques and visual language established in film. So really, when we want to show something, say someone firing a gun, it operates under a set of rules based on how a camera works. In this example imagine the difference between a modern camera that can shoot hundreds of frames per second, and an old 24 fps film camera. In the modern version, you will see the spark and flash, the bolt mechanism working in slow motion, the bullet casing slowly flying through the air, the smoke cloud forming, and the figure slowly taking the impact to the shoulder as the gun bucks. In the old camera, everything will happen in an instance, and we are only left with impressions in our mind. In that, we have to artistically interpret timings, and enhance the details in a way that leaves a strong impression. The bullet casing exiting the chamber would only be seen for a second, so we would throw a glinting flash and draw the casing spiral quickly out of frame. With the figure, the buck of the rifle shot would happen in an instance, and the importance would be focusing on how he slowly re-balances himself after the shot.
It is all these little details we try to break down part by part, and a good animator can subdivide, and understand the different layers of timing and physics at play. But again, it is a lot of trial and error, testing and retesting timing and drawings. At the end of the day it comes down to experience. Every new cut I work on, presents a new problem, working with a new object, a new material, presenting a new action. As an artist you try to understand those things, and it’s not uncommon for me to act out an action, to feel the poses, or figure out how someone would do something. It is not uncommon for studios to go shoot reference photos, and on certain cuts, I will receive photos of objects from every angle, to help draw them. It is a lot of playing with and experimenting with drawings. Even still, I can see the gaps in my knowledge that simply are filled by years of experience.
CGI has been an increasing presence in anime, and motion capture is starting to be used more and more. What do you see as the role of hand-drawn animation in anime going forward, and how will it integrate with these technological changes?
So in my spare time I like to play fighting games. Arc System work’s Guilty Gear franchise in particular has been pushing a hybrid 3D that emulates 2D animation for about 8 years now? The game used to be hand drawn sprites. They shifted into using 3D models, but posing and distorting them to emulate frame by frame their 2D counterparts. The effect is really fantastic, and the intricacy and the artistry behind the technique is really a technical marvel. The odd part is that the cost and time to produce something that emulates 2D animation takes so much more time and effort than it would to simply draw it by hand! The pay off is that we are seeing a level of new artistry that comes from that technical knowledge, and having a new level of control in animation that cannot be reproduced by hand animation. If you go and watch some of the win screen animation in GG:Strive you will see characters blink, and their pupils dilate and re-adjust to light, or there will be camera movement, traveling up a guitar, then into a forced perspective pose, then into a really lovingly crafted end pose. It is a new form of animation, informed by the techniques of traditional animation! The thing is, that even before something in the computer is created, a drawing is produced. Storyboards are drawn, actions are laid out on paper, drawings are made and passed around studios. There will always be a need for the knowledge of an animator. How that knowledge manifests may be different in the future, but there will always be a demand for people who understand what makes “anime” a unique form of animation.
At the moment I still believe the chief concern is getting Japanese studios to invest in expanding their capacity to work digitally. The craft is still tied to a paper based workflow, which, while I understand the tradition and artistic value of, may be hindering the growth of animation production. Understandably so, the acquisition of computers, tablets, and software for an entire studio, is a lofty expense.
(c) Images were courtesy of Atelier Gokujou Animation & Pine Jam
What skills would you say are the most important for an animator?
Sadly, there is no golden kernel of knowledge I can give to you that hasn’t been said. These days, the materials and resources to learn anything you want are at your fingertips and that alone is an overwhelming sentiment. Learning art, learning animation–if you put in the time and effort you can carve your own path and find your own way.
I find myself thinking about this often. When I worked in restaurants, I wanted things to be done properly, I wanted to be viewed as someone reliable, and someone always willing to help out. I didn’t want to work there my whole life, but that didn’t mean I didn’t put my best foot forward every day. And during those times cleaning at the end of the day, I found myself daydreaming about working on animations, and making up new ideas.
Before anything you need to understand what it means to put in a day’s work. If you work an 8 hour day on your feet you understand at a basic level what that means. From there you need to translate what that same 8+ hours would look like working on art. It is a totally different head space, it requires a different kind of discipline, and on top of that you gotta take care of yourself.
Having a good work ethic, being clear headed about what your goals are, and working backwards step by step on how you will get there, will get you where you want to go. Be patient.
What are your tools and softwares of choice?
Pencil and paper will always mean the most to me. Drawing by hand and having a desk full of papers is a joy. That being said, it is also the worst! Scanning everything in, just to notice you made a mistake and you have to go back and erase by hand, then re scan it to check if it is fixed is a nightmare! Digital animation is the strongest tool in the new generations tool kit. Artists in their teens growing up with a tablet, know the intricacies of programs that I know maybe 30% about! Primarily I use Clip Studio Paint for animation. Japan mainly uses the Adobe Suite in animation. If you can imagine, they work hybrid, both digital and scanning in paper, so photoshop .psd’s are the standard format. Clip lets me import and export photoshop files like it’s nothing. Before Clip I used an old version of photoshop primarily to do animation, so the change of program was easy. Likewise, compositing, editing and all that is done in After Effects and Premiere.
As an animator, what would you say are some of the challenges most often faced within the industry?
Time will always be the challenge. It is important to understand the context of what your role is at any given time. During the Layout phase you are given your body of work and given a time limit to complete that work. You have the freedom to improvise or to really work on adding detail to an animation or to a drawing, but you have to balance that against your time limit. There are times I took a gamble, and said “I really think I can make this cut shine if I put in extra time and effort.” That work paid off, and I think the shot came out great! Just as many times I rolled the dice, and the director didn’t want to take a scene in that direction, and the work was rejected. Without those types of aspirations I think we would be missing out on a lot of things that make animation really something special. Of course, on the flip side you see that it is a gamble of an animator’s time and effort. The looming deadline always makes you wanna play it safe, but without that ambition and without that drive for creativity, nothing interesting would ever get created.
As fans and consumers of the anime industry, we’ve come across many individuals concerned with the extremely demanding (and ‘easily replaceable worker’) Japanese work-model within the anime industry. Do you have any personal experiences or opinions that you can share with us about this? And do you believe there’s anything Westerns fans can do to positively impact the industry?
I think the previous sentiment can be expounded a bit here. In the example where an animator takes a chance to make a single cut of animation shine, we can see that there is a skew between an artist’s individual creative ambition being pressed against the strict structured nature of production. The animator doesn’t have anything to gain by taking that type of gamble. The shot may come out nice, and they may be commended for their work, but there is a deeper discussion in that. Animation used to come from a creative group of artists who were pushing and constantly defining what their individual and collective interpretation for what animation could be, and how it could be produced. Those artists were experimenting, they were making impractical decisions not out of any hope of monetary success, but because they were passionate about exploring their ideas.
Fast forward, and we are looking at an industry that churns out animation. It is not difficult to imagine the boardroom discussion about what is popular, what might turn a profit, and what is a safe gamble, when discussing ideas for producing a new anime. That is its own problem. But if we turn the dial further we see how that manifests in the workplace. The “best” worker is no longer the most ambitious or creative or experimental individuals. Rather the “best workers” keep their heads down, they don’t take chances, they deliver what is desired on time, and without hassle. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the idea that being a cog in the production machine is a bad thing, but when we discuss the idea of being “replaceable” this is the sentiment that comes to mind. When we talk about high turnover rates we are talking about stress and burn out.
Animators are talented, skillful, passionate, and creative individuals. Is that passion and that creativity being ignited and stimulated in their workplace? A large part working in the industry is saddling and carrying that workload. Once you see it, and you understand the time and effort it takes, you either learn to carry that weight and responsibility, or you fold. That determination, and that will to push through the hard times, has little to do with being a skillful artist though. I consider myself a slow animator, and what I lack in raw talent I have to make up for with hard work. On the flip side you could have a very talented artist who simply lacks the incentive to want to do the work. The biggest concern is that animation exploits those most passionate about the art, and works them until they are so worn down, they don’t care about making animation anymore. It seems to be a two fold problem. What I want to see most, is a generation of new creative individuals making the kind of animation we have never seen before, and I worry that the animation industry is turning those people away before they even get a foot in the door.
And what advice would you give to anyone who wants to venture into this industry?
There is a quote from an old interview with Hideaki Anno that always stuck with me. Essentially it says that to be an artist or animator, the first thing you need to do is go and live your life. It seemed to me he was saying to experience the world around you; through that you will find yourself and your place among things. Explore what you are interested in, spend time experiencing the world with the people you care for, rally behind those things you are passionate about. As an artist we take those experiences, every small detail, and feed that into the work you create. How can you write a love story if you have never experienced love?
Lastly, but not least, any last words you’d like to share with our readers about working as an animator?
Animation is something that brings joy to a great number of people. In difficult times, it seemed more important than ever, and I greatly value being a part of production. As someone who is passionate about the importance of art, I find it all surreal. As an art form, animation has the means of reaching a great number of people all over the world. To me, this is about being involved in creating something that will leave a positive, lasting impression on people, no matter their circumstance.
And if you’d like to watch Kageki Shoujo!! The entire first season is available for streaming on Funimation.
On behalf of the entire RC crew we’d like to thank Jacob for making time for us. Through the show and what he shared with us, I already counted myself as a fan of his work, but through our interview I also became a fan of him as a human being. It was a pleasure to interview him and I can’t wait to see him grow and expand within this incredible industry we so much love!
And lastly, a super special thanks to Enzo and Pancakes!