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"Saving Anime": A Conversation with LeSean Thomas

The creator and director of <cite>Cannon Busters</cite> discusses the challenges of producing original anime at Otakon 2016.

Anime fans in the Western world often dream of moving to Japan and creating their own animated series, but precious few Western artists have managed to make a name for themselves in Japan’s homogeneous society and grueling animation industry, let alone helm their own projects.

LeSean Thomas, a Bronx native with credits on The Legend of Korra, The Boondocks, and Black Dynamite, is one of the rare modern examples of successful independent Japanese animation co-production, adapting his original comic series Cannon Busters into a 13-minute pilot episode via a Kickstarter campaign, featuring animation production from Japanese studio Satelight (Macross Delta, Aquarion, Symphogear). In our interview with Thomas from Otakon 2016 — where he premiered the pilot episode of Cannon Busters — we delve into his creative process and outlook on his own work, as well as his thoughts on the career path for young animators in the modern animation industry.

Ani-Gamers: So now that it’s out, what do you think of Cannon Busters?

LeSean Thomas: I think it’s very … very tame. It was what we needed, not to go too crazy. Very introductory. I was telling my buddy, “We’re not trying to do Citizen Kane here. We’re not trying to save anime, we’re not trying to change the game.”

Ani-Gamers: There’s that whole idea of “saving anime.” What is “saving anime”, what does that even mean?

Thomas: See, I don’t even know what that means. Cannon Busters is brand new, no one’s seen these characters before, it’s supposed to be a comedy, trying to mix some old tropes with new material. We only have about 12 to 13 minutes, so we wanted to make sure we could create something that people can get into. The general response has been overwhelming. Everyone really likes it. At the screening, the whole time I was talking to my voice director, like “ah, man, I wish I had more time to storyboard this cut.”

LeSean confers with Cannon Busters voice director Mike Sinterniklaas before the screening at Otakon 2016.

Ani-Gamers: So even though it’s the final product, you’re still super-critical of your own work?

Thomas: Well I haven’t seen the thing in over a month and a half. I mean, I made it but I didn’t want to watch it anymore, so I focused on the audience to see what they would laugh at. I think we exceeded expectations, like, a lot of guys said “we thought this would be good, but this is good, this is great”, and in that regard it was a mission accomplished for us. Still, I’m too close to my work, there’s a lot I’d like to improve if I had more time.

The Challenges of Kickstarter

Ani-Gamers: You mentioned Kickstarter. To get something off the ground, you have to get out of your comfort zone, learn a lot of things you never expected to do. How many different hats did you have to wear to make the Kickstarter a success?

Thomas: I don’t think there’s any one formula. I banked on my online presence and it wasn’t until the Kickstarter that I started to see just who was willing to give me money and how the concept would be received by people. There were multiple layers to that, there was myself, the presentation of the campaign, and the pitch itself, an animated action show. Another element was Satelight and the people involved, Thomas Romain, Joe Madureira, Bahi JD. We all have our individual followings, so it helped a lot when we reached out to say “check this out”.

Managing it, it was all me, I directed and edited the video, my buddy shot it, I paid a friend in New York to put together the motion graphics, I had a music guy in New York to score the track order for me. Once that was done, I put the font together, I had copy help. Once it started going, I did all my press. I wrote my press release and I would send it to 40 people a day. As the numbers increased, I would update the press release. I just knew from working with PR for so many different companies and seeing the way they roll out things, if I was going to do this sort of grassroots organization, I would have to do all of it myself.

Some of the biggest push came from attending CTN Animation Expo. If not for CTN, I don’t think I would have made my goal. We set up and gave out posters and I think my being there convinced a lot of guys to pledge $10,000 over the weekend. So, you can’t really plan for those things, when people ask you “how do you create a successful Kickstarter”, I say, “I don’t know, ask me when the 30 days are up!”

A lot of this stuff isn’t planned, sometimes it’s chance. Once we got the money, it was jubilation at first and then it turned to dread, as we now had to actually make something, and it had to be good, at least decent.

Ani-Gamers: Who’s the project manager? Once you got the money, who said “this is how much money we’re putting aside to pay for this and that”?

Thomas: It was all Satelight. We had our production agreement and there was the benefit of working with an animation studio. We gave them a script and they came to us with two options: this is what it costs with okay animation, and this is what it costs with good animation. Once production got started, it was all in Satelight’s hands. We did this show on a 150-160 cuts, on 3200 drawings. That was our limit, any more and we’d have to pay more money. You have to understand how much it costs to make things, and animation isn’t just illustration, it’s filmmaking, and even then, it didn’t always work out. We were delayed a couple of months when some animators on Symphogear at Satelight heard about this little gaijin project and wanted to do some cool cyborg Western action, and it was some of their best animators, so me and Thomas said we would wait. It can wait for them to finish on Symphogear, if we could get some cuts from them.

It took us a while to get a producer because Satelight had three different shows going on, one was on TV, another was Symphogear, and they were already in production on Macross. This little pilot wasn’t even in their yearly plans, so they had to find a producer who had free time to focus on this and get good animators on it, so it was a bit of a process.

Living the Dream

Ani-Gamers: Thinking about Japan, there’s this idea of “living the dream.”

Thomas: What does that mean, “living the dream”?

Ani-Gamers: Well, yeah, you hear it all the time in conventions like this, from more naïve and innocent fans, this idea of working in Japan, creating anime or manga. Most anyone that made it into the industry would not recommend it, not without carefully considering what it means to take on that sort of work in a completely foreign environment. From your personal experience, what got you in and what kept you going?

Thomas: I mean, Korea did. People forget that after I left Warner Bros in 2009 to move to South Korea, I was there for almost three years. Korea is nothing like Japan, but the experience of working in animation independently as a foreigner is very similar. I was already embedded with international collaboration for a long time, and even when I started working on Black Dynamite, which was the reason why I moved back to America in 2012, I was in Korea for three or four months of that year, working on Season 1 of Black Dynamite. By the time me and Thomas started communicating, it was nothing for me to go to Tokyo and meet up with Satelight. No pun intended, it was not a foreign concept for me, to be working overseas.

Ani-Gamers: Well, I heard this from Evan, about going to Korea. To me, it seemed like the story of the young disciple going into the mountains to train in isolation.

Thomas: And you come back carrying the tablets like Moses, like this is how you make it, animating in Japan.

Ani-Gamers: There’s a training montage in Korea, something like that.

Thomas: It was pretty terrifying, those first six months were awful from a personal level. That year I moved to Korea, they had the worst winter in history, in like the last 100 years. I didn’t start making any friends until February, and I’d moved in September. It was tough, but the creative aspect was outstanding, and I think that’s what kept me going. There were many times I wanted to go home, I thought “this is ridiculous, what am I doing here?” But, it’s because I didn’t respect the process enough to wait and overcome it. By the time I became comfortable, we formed Studio Mir to produce Korra, and it was at that point when I started to find my footing and build my relationships with other talent.

Ani-Gamers: Japan gets a lot of attention, but Korea gets a lot of animation done. However, the place has a reputation of being the “sweatshop,” where people are cranking work out.

Thomas: It’s just service work. Some might say that America is a sweatshop, like, look at our game industry, those guys don’t even have proper unions. Anywhere where you’re pumping out content, you can attach a sweatshop mentality to it. Those guys are real people, they’ve got wives and kids, and they love what they do and they’re really good at it.

Ani-Gamers: From the people you worked with on Korra, what was their mentality?

Thomas: It was about the work, it was about doing good work. When you’re on the outside, it’s easy to see people focusing and concentrating and wondering what they’re thinking. When you’re in it, the conversations are just “Shoot, man, how much time we got left? How many hours are left?”

And I haven’t worked in Japan as long as I have in Korea. I’ve definitely been there way too much in the past year, but not “living” there. I didn’t have to pay my bills, shop for groceries, take taxies, get my paycheck, pay my landlord, all in another country and another language. I’m living a charmed life working in Tokyo, and that’s because Satelight has a dedicated in-house English-speaking staff, they have French-speaking staff, etc.

No matter what country you’re working at, the pressure of meeting deadlines is the same everywhere. Leaving Sony to work at Warner Bros. and having a different group of people to be uncomfortable around, and then leaving that to work at Cartoon Network and I don’t know anyone there, that process is always the same where you have to be able to overcome it and perform. Having that experience at home gave me what I needed to weather the storm when I was overseas. I knew I could get through it by working hard and in the worst case scenario, I could always come back to America, and having that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing


Ani-Gamers: Original character designs are often modified and pared down quite a bit before they get to the final animation-ready design. What is the process like between animators and designers as they attempt to reach a compromise between concept and execution?

Thomas: I don’t believe in the term “animation-ready“. I think that term is something applied to super-simple stuff. Japan produces somewhere like 300 shows a year, about 70 films. When you look at those cartoons, there is nothing simple about them. I think Adventure Time is animation-ready. I think Steven Universe is animation-ready. But how do you define Berserk or Rage of Bahamut?

Ani-Gamers: So when you see a gothic-lolita character swinging around a ball and chain…

Thomas: That’s not something a poor American animator would be subjected to animate.

Ani-Gamers: And you don’t freak out when someone shows you “this is what the character is going to look like.”

Thomas: “Animation-ready” is an American term as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never heard a Japanese person say “this is not animation-ready, this is not animatable.” It’s about what your skillset is, who is stronger at animating certain things. I mean, you’ve watched anime as long as I have, there are some guys who can animate some pretty complicated stuff! Where does that fit in our discussion of what’s easy to animate and what isn’t?

I think it depends on the project, is the answer I’m trying to find. On Cannon Busters, I had my sketches and designs, but I knew I wouldn’t be designing the characters, I wanted to find someone else to do it. Finding Suezen, a.k.a. Fumio Iida, was a godsend, because he’s a Gainax guy, he gets the cartoon aspect that I was going for with Cannon Busters. I let him run with it, I said, this is what I like, but let’s see what you got. During the process, we narrowed it down, but we were never like “this is animation-ready.” I think he went more detailed than what I gave him.

The answer to the question really depends on the project. I pick my designers, I go to them knowing that it’s not going to Adventure Time, it’s going to be real anatomy, real volume, forms, gestures, folds, clothing, practical lighting, knuckles, fingers, sinew, tendons, the stuff that most American animators can’t animate. When I do my sketches, I know that Fumio is going to take them and work his Gainax thing with them.

Ani-Gamers: Going along with the subject of animation style and design, was there a deliberate attempt to maintain enough of the Japanese “DNA,” so to speak, in the project?

Thomas: Yeah, totally, I would have been fine with them going all the way with the project. For me, it was just important for them to understand the character and the silhouette. Afro, skinny frame. Also, we were under massive time constraints. I’m already thinking, if we should go to series with Cannon Busters, how am I going to change Philly’s design? I’m going to change his shoes, change his pants. When you have a full budget and you have 60 to 80 weeks, you have some time to develop and revisit some characters.

Breaking into the Industry

Ani-Gamers: What is the most useful advice you can give to someone who wants to become an animator but has zero idea where to begin?

Thomas: Use your resources. Google is your friend.

I didn’t have Google when I was trying to figure it out. It was the mid-’90s, the internet as we know it didn’t exist. I didn’t care about the limitations of technology, all I cared about was “what do I need to do to start getting information on storyboarding and character design?” So I bought books, one of which was The Illusion of Life. Once I had access to Asahiya and Kinokuniya bookstores in New York City and I discovered Newtype magazine and Japanese animation artbooks, I purchased those. Those books were my sources and I didn’t really understand the language but wealth of images was great.

I was the guy that always had this personality since I was a kid, and maybe because I’m from New York but if I wanted to learn something, I wasn’t going to wait, I wasn’t going to ask anyone I was just going to do what I thought was cool. A lot of times it sucked because I was doing it wrong but it didn’t matter as long as I was starting to see some progress. A lot of kids don’t get that. You either want to do it, by any means, or you don’t really know because you’re waiting for someone to come around and tell you what to do. I see that a lot, so like, if someone doesn’t tell you what to do, then you’re never going to do it? In that case, why bother, why do you even want to do it in the first place? How bad do you want it?

I don’t know, everyone’s journey is different. One thing I can suggest though, it’s to finish things. We’re so used to having our own space, our own Tumblr, our own YouTube channel, it gets so easy to see yourself do cool stuff and share it. You get to play your own PR department and get people hype about stuff that you’re never going to finish. You have to finish things, and no one is going to teach you that. What you end up with is a bunch of sketches that don’t mean anything. You may get a few likes, a thousand likes, a million likes, but what do you have that will get those people to come back? So you have to finish stuff, even if it sucks. It’s more important to have the discipline and aptitude to finish something than it is to be talented and never be able to finish anything, because you’ll always be able to get better while finishing something.

So the important points are to finish stuff, and to be okay with sucking, because then being wack is just a phase. It’s not forever if you keep at it.

Ani-Gamers: From an artist’s perspective, there’s always this self-conscious “everything sucks” approach to your own art.

Thomas: Because it does suck. You’re trash for a long time. Miyazaki was trash for a long time.

Ani-Gamers: And now everyone else is trash, according to Miyazaki.

Thomas: Yeah, yeah, but Miyazaki was an in-betweener for six years! Can you imagine being an in-betweener for six years of your life? No, hell no, not this generation, they don’t want to work that hard! They want a shortcut, they want someone to hook them up.

That’s my point. Miyazaki was an in-betweener for six years before becoming a key animator. He didn’t get his first film until he was damn near 40, not until Castle of Cagliostro.

Ani-Gamers: There’s a really big push to be successful and in your 20’s.

Thomas: It’s stupid.

Ani-Gamers: To be like Mark Zuckerberg.

Thomas: He’s doing a different thing, he’s creating a platform for people to communicate. He’s not making films. He’s not making Spirited Away at 25. No one is doing that. I don’t know any prodigies that have that kind of foresight and vision to make a film of that caliber. Maybe a musician. You’ll hear a cool song and think, “wow! This guy’s a prodigy,” but music is different from filmmaking. Filmmaking requires a lot of people. How do you get these masters to show up and give you their best work, on time, just for you, at 22 years old? Like, how do you do that? It takes years for people to want to give you their best work and respect you. A lot of young kids don’t have that attachment to the industry at all, they just see the finished project. They see the package, they read a couple of interviews, they get the CliffsNotes version of what the creators did to make it happen, and then these kids say “that’s what I want.” you don’t really know it until you do it, and it’s a lot of hard work.

I’m still learning, and I’m 40 now. I’ve never been 40 before. It’s my first time. I’m learning this stuff as I go along and I make similar mistakes. It’s what I’ve seen, people with experience tend to create better work.

So it’s just that. Use Google, don’t give up on the old folk, and finish stuff.

It’s one thing to be talented, but it’s another to get people as good as you or better, and want to work with you and give you their best work and their time. That stuff, you can’t find that anywhere, it’s very rare. That’s why these Japanese animators get all the time. You look at their work, you look at these directors, you go “this is incredible!” Look at Hosoda, he doesn’t animate. I don’t animate, I revise layouts, I revise key animation. I don’t know if he does that, but he gets incredibly talented guys who are better than him to give him their best stuff. It’s because they have such respect for him as a director and as a visionary. You don’t become a great director and a great visionary without experience, and that comes from busting your ass and maybe being an in-betweener for six years.

Ani-Gamers: I think most people would expect to work like that for maybe six months, a year, not for six years.

Thomas: The people who have those expectations haven’t drawn yet. They haven’t even started yet.

Ani-Gamers: Well, no one imagines themselves doing the same job for six years, everyone’s conscious of job mobility and nothing is permanent anymore. It’s a meat grinder, you do something for two years and you’re done. There’s no value anymore to sticking to one thing.

Thomas: I didn’t start working on a real, legitimate TV production until 2004. That was The Boondocks, I was co-director and supervising character designer. It’s 2016 now. It’s been 12 years since I started in this business, and I just now got my first project, and it’s just a pilot.

I wouldn’t have gotten Thomas Romain, Joe Madureira, Bahi JD, Satelight, and all those guys if I didn’t have the credentials that I have now.

It takes a long time to be good, and it’s shorter for others. Look at Makoto Shinkai, doing incredible background work with no formal training. That goes back to my point, that he didn’t wait for a director to tell him what he needed to do. This is either what you do, or it’s not, and the older I get, I only have time for people who are about it.

The people I pay attention to and give advice, it’s usually the ones where I look at their work and I have to ask “why aren’t you already hired?” Those are the people I know have the experience. They’ve probably lost a few friends and it reflects in their work, like, damn, where have you been? You get a lot of guys who want to do this, but maybe they’re better suited in a producer role. I gravitate towards people I can relate to, the ones that know the struggles and dreading the deadline.

Ani-Gamers: I also wonder if some of these kids don’t have those ideas for original projects just yet, but it’ll sort of come to them as they work under more experienced artists. I mean, who knows if Miyazaki had these ideas in his head for things he was going to do in Castle in the Sky when he first started, maybe he grew into that.

Thomas: I’ve always had ideas as a kid, but my skillset wasn’t there. Eventually when I got solid enough to produce my own storyboards and direct, I still had my ideas and I got to thinking, “let me get this idea out and see if I can make it.” For a while, that was the fear, that this is my own thing now. How hard am I going to go in on this? When I went to Korea, that’s when I said, okay, let me make this happen, with what I know about storyboarding, how to direct, how to produce, supervising. With Cannon Busters, in Korea, that was the first time I was able to work with another talent on my idea, to see it come together and maybe I thought, “well, this isn’t exactly how I imagined it but I like his style,” so I was going to ride with that. Now what I’m doing with Satelight is my second attempt, and I have this mindset now of when to pull away and when to intervene.

We would like to thank Alyce Wilson and the entire Otakon 2016 press department for their help in coordinating this interview, and of course LeSean for giving so much of his time and providing such candid answers to our questions.

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