The Space Dandy Interview: Part I - Thomas Romain

by Michael Toole, Apr 14th 2014

At Anime Boston 2013, scriptwriter Dai Sato revealed that, from the beginning, Space Dandy was planned to be broadcast around the world, simultaneously, right from the first episode. But global appeal requires global talent, and the show's general director Shinichiro Watanabe has recruited fearlessly from anyone willing to drop by Bones' studio in Suginami City, Tokyo. Thomas Romain isn't a Bones veteran, but he made the jump to Satelight, Shoji Kawamori's studio, after impressing fans and fellow animation creators with his work on fare like Oban Star-Racers and Aria: The Animation. Because of his obvious talent, Thomas was brought aboard by Bones to design the main spaceships for Space Dandy! We talked to Thomas (Twitter: @Thomasintokyo) about his past works, the Dandy phenomenon, and his thoughts on the state of animation in Japan.

ANN: Oban Star-Racers is still very well remembered by fans around the world. Can you tell us a little about your involvement, and how it led you to work in Japan permanently?

THOMAS ROMAIN: My involvement in Oban was huge. It represents so many years of my life, and most of all it is the project that started everything for me. Actually, fate led me to meet Savin Yeatman-Eiffel when he was just thinking of creating his own production company to develop original animated shows.

His first project was called “Oban Racers,” and he was looking for young motivated artists to help him set up the character designs and universe. It was in 1997, I was 19. I didn't know anything about animation at that time. I wasn't even aware of the fact that there was an animation business in France! I loved Japanese animation, but I was more interested in becoming a comic artist. I thought that Savin's project was pretty cool and I joined one of the project meetings at a cafe in Paris. The cafe was called “Aux sources.” In substance, that name means “the beginning!” A good omen! I started to do some character design sketches. I wasn't working at this time, so I had a lot of free time. I did a lot of pretty bad designs at first, but I was progressing very quickly. Savin liked my energy and introduced me to professional animation artists who explained to me the European production system and its flaws. We wanted to make things differently, but we didn't know exactly how to get a better result than the mediocre action-adventure cartoons produced in France during the 1990s.

Then I passed the entrance exam at Gobelins, a very good animation school in Paris. I studied animation and discovered a lot of Japanese masterpieces thanks to other students. Anime like Cowboy Bebop, FLCL and Memories blew my mind. Working in Japan became a dream. At the same time, Savin decided to reboot the Oban Racers project with fresh ideas. I brought Stanislas Brunet on board, and in 2001 we directed a small CG trailer, very anime-inspired, called Molly Star-Racer. This promotional movie created a lot of buzz, even though it was before sites like YouTube existed! Savin managed to convince partners to back the project and gathered funds. We left France for Japan in 2003, where we produced the show until 2006. So yes, basically, I lived with Oban for many years and it marked the beginning of my career in Japan.

On the show, to be more specific, I created the characters, supervised all the background art and CG. As a co-director, I put all my efforts on the visuals while the other co-director, Savin, focused on the story. Getting to work with a Japanese team and discovering the backstage atmosphere of anime was amazing. It was a lot of work, but I remember it as an extremely exciting period of my life. The production methods felt right compared to the ones used in France. Because most of the work is done here in Japan, you can directly resolve problems when they emerge. In France, where the layout and animation is outsourced, you are powerless to avoid mistakes and it's depressing. With Stan, we were involved in the checking of all the cuts, directly working with the Japanese genga (keyframes). We were correcting the drawings to enhance the quality. We soon won the respect of our Japanese colleagues, and it felt very rewarding. Sometimes, we were even introduced to masters like Miyazaki or Otomo. A living dream!

In 2006 when the production was over, my Japanese was getting a little better and the producers seemed to have more work for me, so I choose to continue my career in Japan.

How did you move from Oban, a co-production, to working directly for a Japanese production with the Aria animation? What was that experience like?

Actually, I was already working on Aria during the end of the production of Oban, when there was not so much work left to do. I was available in the studio and the production staff asked me if I wanted to do some guest character designs and props. I switched very naturally between the French-Japanese co-production and the 100% Japanese production. The process was the same; the only difference was that I had to rely completely on my Japanese skills from that point onward. During Oban, we had a translator, but of course he left when the production was over. Aria was directed by Jun'ichi Sato. I was very proud to work on my own with such a prestigious staff, especially during the OVA “Arietta,” where I had more responsibilities (layout director). Jun'ichi Sato is such a great director. I was very impressed by his storyboards. I had all too little contact with him unfortunately, only during one or two meetings.

And then, of course, there's your own creation, Basquash!. How did you meet Mr Kawamori? Were you always thinking of collaborating with a creator like him?

I got to work for the studio Satelight as background designer on a SF anime show called Engage Planet Kiss Dum. Despite the fact that some very talented persons were working on it, such as Sushio on the character designs, this anime had the most chaotic production I ever knew during my 10 years in Japan. The writing was so far behind that I couldn't work for weeks, so I started to think of my own project idea. I came up with a SF story that revolved around street basketball. I wrote a short project note with a few drawings and showed it to a Satelight assistant producer, who passed it to Shoji Kawamori himself.

Kawamori is the creative director of Satelight, but I hadn't met him at that time. I was told that he was interested, and we met to speak about the project. I wasn't very aware of who he was or his career background, so I met him without feeling any kind of pressure. He was interested in mixing his ideas with my universe, so we agreed to start developing the Basquash! project from scratch together. When I think of it now that I know him, it was really an incredible proposition! Once again, I was very lucky. He also really liked my drawings and thought that I would be an interesting asset for the company, so I quickly became a Satelight employee.

Due to my position in the company I got to know him very well, and through him I started to be interested in the robot anime genre. Kawamori is very modest-- curious like a child, and always coming up with crazy ideas. I wasn't thinking of collaborating so quickly with such a renowned creator. It was unexpected! I learned a lot thanks to him. I also started to draw some mecha designs, because robots and SF anime are our studio's strong sales point. I can say without hesitation that stumbling across a meeting with Shoji Kawamori completely redefined my career.

Can you talk a little about your role as art designer for shows like AKB0048 and Bodacious Space Pirates? As art designer, what were your specific duties?

Bodacious Space Pirates gave me the opportunity to work once again with Tatsuo Sato, a director I have a lot of respect for. We had already worked together on Basquash!-- he was in charge of the story then. I only provided some help during the production by designing some locations. Basically, I was walking in the footsteps of the previous designers. On the other hand, I had a lot more responsibilities during production of the movie. Sato-san wanted to crank up all the visuals and asked our team to redesign all the locations. Stanislas Brunet handled the various cockpit designs and interiors for the starship Bentenmaru, and I myself worked on the cafe, the town, the spaceport, and the school campus. I also completely redesigned the Bentenmaru color design and textures to give the ship a better look for the big screen. You can also see the result of our work on the movie poster. We also did a few complementary designs, like the parrot-shaped robot, or the galaxy pass card, and I provided some color assistance on Akiman's designs (the robot especially). The production schedule was tight and almost everybody in the studio lent a hand to finish the movie. We even did some background coloring until the very last week, a few days before the release. The movie has done very well, the fans of the show enjoyed it a lot.

Unlike Bodacious Space Pirates, I started to work on AKB0048 from the very beginning. As usual for anime created by Shoji Kawamori (Aquarion Evol, Nobunaga the Fool) I drew a few “image boards” at the start to put some visuals on the first production documents. This helps to give our financial and creative partners a vision of the show and convince them to back the project. Then I was asked to create, along with Satelight's French team, all the background settings. In particular, I was in charge of Akibastar, the giant shelter-town where all the group members live. I designed a lot of backgrounds for the first episode as well, which was very enjoyable. I absolutely love the first episode, where the young heroine Nagisa decides to leave her planet and family behind to pursue her dream of becoming an idol. I identified with her because I had the same feelings when I left France to start my animation career in Japan.

At first I had no particular interest in idol stories but I ended up liking the show very much. Design-wise, it was very challenging. Kawamori's anime are always challenging because he describes elaborately complex worlds and is very demanding, being a designer himself. But this time the quantity of required designs was huge. The AKB0048 girls travel a lot all around the galaxy during 26 episodes. We had to design old fashioned cities as well as very futuristic ones, concert halls, space bases and spaceship interiors, strange and mystical places, and so on. I felt that I improved a lot on my artistic process by working on this project. It was great! I strongly recommend it if you are not allergic to idols and j-pop. But even if you are an idol-hater, I think the show stays interesting most of the time because it also puts the spotlight on some problems in the Japanese idol system. Besides, Kawamori transposes it to a science fiction context, which is fun and fresh.

Now let's talk about Space Dandy! How did you become involved?

It was very surprising and exciting. As I said before, I'm a Satelight employee. Most of the artists in the industry are freelance but in some rare cases, people are bound to a specific animation studio, which is my case. I'm not allowed to accept work from other companies. But this time, the offer came directly from my own boss. He asked me If I wanted to make some mecha-design for Bones on the new Shinichiro Watanabe show. I was very intrigued. I thought “Why me? Why should Bones ask another company's employee when they already have access to great mecha animators and designers? I'm not even renowned or very experienced as a mecha-designer…” Of course I accepted right away, I couldn't let pass the opportunity to work with the creator of one of my favorite anime, Cowboy Bebop. My boss also thought that it was a great opportunity, and very good for my career.

Only when I had the meeting at Bones with Watanabe-san did I begin to understand why they reached out to me. Obviously, Watanabe wanted to make something different from actual Japanese SF anime shows. He also told me that he liked my work on Basquash!. I personally think that being a foreigner, I was in my youth more influenced by American B-movies than Japanese tokusatsu works and Gundam-like anime. Therefore, I may have a more natural understanding of the design line he wanted for the show. You know, the old school Star Trek vibes! Anyway, I was in, and very happy to participate. Needless to say, I was also very proud!

Was the Aloha Oe always meant to be canoe-shaped, or are there early drawings suggesting a very different vehicle for Dandy and his crew?

Actually in the very first scenario memo, it was written that Dandy would drive an American car-shaped ship. But during the meeting, Watanabe-san explained to me that the spaceship had to be big enough for the crew to use as a living space. The car was obviously not a good idea for that (but I kept this idea for “Little Aloha,” the shuttle). The Hawaiian inspiration was requested by Watanabe-san as well. I came up with the idea of a big Hawaiian canoe with a single lateral gun in place of the float. At that point, there was just this single proposal from me. I never propose several designs at the same time. I always prefer putting my efforts into one single design, seeing what happens, and making some improvements if necessary. If you work on several designs at once, it can be risky—you'll need to include interesting elements on each of the different proposals, and it can be difficult to make choices.

The worst case is when the director wants to put several of these ideas on the same design, and it ends up being awkward and unbalanced. Besides, in Japan we have neither time nor the budget to make several proposals, but in the end throw most of them away. No, one shot is better, and this time it was accepted right away. Once the rough proposal was approved, I designed the cockpit interior, the main room, and the hangar, without omitting all the gimmicks like transformation, landing etc... It was even before the plots were written (only the first one was written at that time). That's how I had a lot freedom in the design process.

A lot of fans, especially in my home country the US, are intrigued by Dr. Gel's ship. Is the design-- the Statue of Liberty's head, with a ball gag-- meant to be a political statement? I myself enjoy the imagery of an intelligent ape commanding a statue of liberty ship, since it brings to mind Planet of the Apes...

It is indeed an homage to the classic movie Planet of the Apes. I was really blown away by the famous Statue of Liberty scene when I saw it as a kid. When Watanabe-san ordered me to create Dr. Gel's ship design, it came back to my mind. The entire series itself clearly shows the love the director has for the American B-movies of the 50s and 60s. That's why I thought that it could be a good idea to pay homage to this cult movie. At the very end of the design process, I had a burst of inspiration. The idea of adding a ball gag to emphasize Dr. Gel's nastiness suddenly occurred to me. I burst out laughing in front of my monitor-- it was the icing on the cake! There are several ways to interpret its meaning. Is it a symbol of a perverted America-like Empire Dr. Gel is working for? Or, on the contrary, does it means that Dr. Gel is violating America's most beloved value, freedom? Make your own choice!

Fans have particularly liked Hawayankee, Dandy's pompadoured, Hawaiian shirt-wearing transforming robot shuttle. But you also designed the robots in Basquash!. Did you take a different approach for Space Dandy? Was it more challenging to design mecha in collaboration with Shoji Kawamori, since he's also a mecha designer, or with Shinichiro Watanabe?

I'm not very skilled in mecha-design yet, but I love this job! Basquash! was my first experience. I was quite free to push the design in the direction I wanted to, however Shoji Kawamori as project director was looking at my drawings and gave me some advice. The robots in Basquash! were meant to be in CGI, so I had to think of the advantages and constraints of the modeling and 3D animation process. As you said, Kawamori is a famous mecha designer and to get his approval is quite difficult; it requires a lot of time. His comments usually tend to push the design towards a style close to his, especially in terms of details. Kawamori loves details and constantly asked me to add more. This time, for Space Dandy, the Hawayankee was designed to be drawn and animated by hand. I had to keep it simple. It was a lot of fun to design it in a way that wouldn't be allowed in other productions. He has big triangular feet, arms made of soft tubes, and claw hands. My purpose was to give him a very vintage touch, but at the same time a fresh look that would fit with the show and with Dandy's character. Shinichiro Watanabe liked it, and I got his immediate approval. But the thing is, unlike our Satelight mecha shows where the main robots need to meet the expectations of the Japanese mecha lovers and toy makers, on Space Dandy we didn't have any of those constraints. I put all my efforts in to give the robot a funny and original aspect, rather than to make it a hit in figure sales. I would love to see it commercialized, though. It would probably make a nice toy for the fans.

Anyway, to put it simply: it is much more challenging to design a mecha with Shoji Kawamori than with Shinichiro Watanabe!

Can you give us any hints about what kinds of crazy ships and vehicles we might be seeing in upcoming episodes?

Unfortunately I only worked on Dandy's and Dr Gel's spaceships. I don't know what is coming next, I'm just as excited as you are!

You've been very vocal on twitter about both the need for better pay and conditions for young animators in Japan, and the need for more new animators to enter the workforce. Do you have any ideas for how to achieve this? It seems like a complicated problem...

Yes it is a very complicated point of discussion. The Japanese anime industry has more than 50 years of history, and the problems of the working conditions have always been there. Japanese animators have had very poor working conditions since the 60s. Low salary, long hours, no health insurance... While some anime have become global successes, no one could imagine how hard animators’ everyday lives are. However, the system still has some advantages. Because budgets are low, production companies can produce a lot of shows, and sometimes risky and creative ones. People work for the sake of the art and not for money, which brings to the industry only modest and dedicated staff members. And also, to survive, animators, directors, and basically all staff members need to work hard and work quickly. As a result, some incredibly skilled people have emerged! In my eyes Japan has still some of the best animators and animation directors in the world.

On the other hand, I think that all of these people should be better rewarded for their efforts and their incredible talent. Working conditions are not healthy either, and it's always very sad when you see some legendary animators passing away when they are still relatively young. It's also a shame to see that most animators cannot afford to have a proper family life because they are too busy and do not earn enough money. I mean, people earn more than workers in developing countries, but the cost of living in Japan is so expensive that it can be hard to make ends meet. But the biggest problem the anime industry is facing is the lack of fresh talent and new blood.

You've urged foreign artists to come to Japan to become animators, too. How realistic is this?

Haha, not very realistic I presume! But it's far from impossible. There are more and more foreign artists who are working in anime. People from Korea, Thailand, Spain, France... First you need to understand Japanese. Then, you must be extremely motivated. Then come the skills. Of course if you are a skilled artist, you will soon be in high demand and it can be alright, money-wise. But even if you are not super-skilled, Japanese studios will be glad to have your help on their numerous anime shows. Many anime studios are still desperately looking for staff. Besides, the people are very nice here, and Japanese culture is fascinating. If you feel that your place could be here, then you should give it a try!

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