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Chicks On Anime
Background Art: An Insider Perspective

by B. Dong, S. Pocock,

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

This week, we had the opportunity to speak with Romain Barriaux, a French artist who is currently working on Basquash!, a new television series from creators Shoji Kawamori and Thomas Romain. He is working as a background artist, along with a few other French artists, and was gracious enough to take some time out of his extremely hectic schedule to speak with us about his experience. For reviews of previously aired episodes of Basquash!, check out the Spring 2009 Anime Preview Guide.

Sara: This week I'd like to welcome French artist Romain Barriaux to Chicks on Anime. He's currently working in Japan on a brand new show about basketball-playing mechs titled Basquash!. Romain, would you like to introduce yourself and tell our readers about your work?
Romain: Sure. I graduated last summer from the EMCA school in Angouleme, France. After that, I had the amazing opportunity to do an internship in the visual development department at the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio in Burbank. Then I came back to France for four months, when I suddenly decided to go to Japan!

Well, to tell the truth, working in Japan was something I had planned to do within a year to a year and a half from now. When I saw an offer on the internet for a background layout position on Basquash!, I decided to try my luck and here I am!

Regarding my own work, I grew up watching a variety of animation. My early childhood was filled with the great Disney classics. I became fond of manga first, and then anime during my middle school and high school years. I was eventually introduced to the rest of animation culture during my two years of college. So today, my influences are very eclectic and range from Paul Grimault to Eyvind Earle to Masaaki Yuasa to Nicolas De Crecy.

Sara: Can you talk about your influences a little bit more? You are quite a gifted artist and traditional 2D animator. What films, either anime or general animation, have informed your work the most?
Romain: Well, I think the artists who influenced me the most those past few years are definitely Masaaki Yuasa and Hiroyuki Imaishi.

You see, for me, the content (story) and the form (character animation) should be linked. Great works of animation tell the story with bold and daring animation. I am not saying that a piece where these aren't linked can't be good, but when I see the eclecticism of Yuasa's work, for example, I am blown away. Even within one single piece, he won't be afraid to completely change the visuals from one scene to the next, and the techniques used, from traditional cel animation to cut-out to pastels, just to fit the mood of the story. Mind Game is an excellent example. Of course, Yuasa is not the only animator/director to do this, but I think he is one of the rare artists to systematically do it, and to do it well. It's like his life motive.

We should also remember that he is working in the tightly constrained Japanese industry, where things need to be bankable. I think he just doesn't care. *laugh* He is able to find a balance between the mainstream and the auteur mindset. That is another reason I admire his work.

In regards to Imaishi's work, I think he is like "the ultimate Japanese product." When Tezuka established the limited Japanese anime standard, a lot of people legitimately came to the conclusion that it killed the quality of animation in comparison to what came before it. But I think that without those standards and limitations, Imaishi would have never done what he did. Over the years, Japanese people had to learn how to convey the most they could in their animation in the least amount of keyframes. That's how they came up with super expressive faces, or a forced perspective drawing with a foot which occupies 80% of the screen, and far away, a tiny head and an invisible hand. Or, a fixed frame with a fake camera shake that makes you feel like the background is moving. And when it's about conveying action, anime is perfectly suited with all those tricks. I think Imaishi has become the master of all those tricks, and he probably invented some too. Maybe I am getting confusing, but what I admire behind all this work is that I feel like he is trying to create like an "estheticism of dynamism."

Sara: *laugh* That is very thorough.
Romain: I am sorry.
Sara: I can definitely understand where you're coming from. Animators like Yuasa and Imaishi have developed such wonderful, distinct movements in their animation. The timing is very different from the traditional style Western animators are trained in. Like you said, it's totally about telling what you can while overcoming a small budget. I know you're a huge fan and very knowledgeable in anime. Considering your obvious passion for these artists and their influence on you, you must have been excited to get an opportunity to work in Japan yourself.
Romain: Yes. I think there are a variety of different reasons that made me want to come to Japan. First of all, as you probably understood in my previous reaction, some artists here in Japan are simply fascinating to me. I also wanted to see this reality for myself. Everybody is always talking about the crazy way of life of Japanese animators, but I wanted to experience it firsthand, and see if I can get out of it with some new skills. Backgrounds have always been my weakness, so going to Japan to work as a layout artist is like a super hardcore training program.
Bamboo: Can you talk about the project you're working on in Japan?
Romain: This project is what really made me excited about working in Japan. You see, I have always thought that by choosing animation as a career, just as you did, Sara, I have this passion as a constant driving force in my life. Unfortunately, what I have seen in France are too many people who definitely lost this passion after experiencing the harsh reality of animation production for a few years. So, to combat this as much as I can, I am doing my best to work on projects that personally motivate me. I try to seek out jobs that seem unattainable at first. That is how I could work on Brendan and the Secret of Kells, that is how I interned at Disney, and that is also how I ended up in Japan. The way I see it is "if you don't try, you know for sure you'll never get it."

So about Basquash!… Well, I am definitely not a mecha anime fan and I am not really a Kawamori fan either, but I just fell in love with Thomas Romain's mecha designs! I tried my luck and at first I wasn't chosen for the job because of my relative lack of experience. But later on, the team decided to take on one more person and, well, that's how I came to be here.

Sara: You mentioned Thomas Romain. Can you explain who he is?
Romain: Sure. Thomas Romain is a former student from the Gobelins School of Image in France. I know this is his second experience with Japanese people. He co-created and co-directed Oban Star-Racers, and then he decided to stay in Japan after that and do some freelance jobs as an art designer. That is how he arrived at Satelight. I guess one day Shoji Kawamori saw a personal project he was developing on the side and decided that Satelight should produce it.
Sara: And why did the production team decide to bring in talent from France, such as yourself?
Romain: I am not quite sure, but Thomas told me once that we were like a “mini studio inside the studio.” Of course we are all officially Satelight employees, but what he meant was that we are a team here, like a French mafia if you prefer, or a small version of DreamWorks.

I recently talked to Stan (Stanislas Brunet), who also worked on Oban. He has been living here in Japan for a while, and he started to work on Basquash! at a pretty early point. He also did a lot of designs. His opinion is probably more valuable than mine. So in his opinion, the main difference between the French and Japanese artists would be in the profile of the artists. Apparently in Japan, the way things happen most of the time is that the animator will create a rough layout and the backgrounds are then simply and directly sent to coloring. Sometimes there is oversight to fix the perspective if needed.

Oh! I forgot to mention that I am talking about television series here, not feature films. So that's the first thing, concerning BGs. They belong more to a "coloring type" rather than "drawing type." I know that Thomas willingly kept the line visible on final backgrounds for Basquash!.

Also, you should know that there are not a lot of good animation schools here, and because of that, animators are usually trained directly inside a studio by an older animator. The thing is, nowadays, studios don't have these kinds of resources anymore, neither the means nor the time for this kind of long apprenticeship. Additionally, good animators are usually overwhelmed with work so they don't have the time either. So what happens is you end up with some young animators who aren't really comfortable with perspective and volume, simply because they couldn't take the time to learn it properly.

So we, in France, but also in United States I think, are trained in most of our animation schools in a way so we can be versatile and proficient (we can basically make our films alone, from A to Z). And what happens in Basquash! is that we just "added" this missing link between the animator's layout and the outsourced coloring step, so we can afford to do impressive perspectives, complicated angles, adding a lot of details and still having a coherent background.

One other thing: we didn't grow up with the same imagery and therefore, we don't draw the same way as the Japanese artists. We don't focus attention to the same details. So on that point, I am not saying it is better, but at least it is different.

Bamboo: What is the professional relationship you have with Thomas Romain?
Romain: Well, while I am an employee of Satelight, I only answer to Thomas. He briefs us about every new shot when they arrive, and Philipe and I, the two "rookies," are coached most of the time by Yann, who has already been here for six months. This seems well organized, but you know, we are in the corner of a big room, next to some compositing guys and the 3D team. It is actually pretty improvised.

Thomas already sees a future beyond this project. He is already thinking about the "after Basquash" era and apparently Satelight already offered him an important job on upcoming projects. So eventually, the goal is to have a "background team" who could offer something possibly "different" from what you can see nowadays in anime.

Bamboo: Can you explain what that "different" is?
Romain: For my part, I think "different" is, first, cultural. Thomas has been here for a few years now, so I think he took the best from both French and Japanese methods of illustration. You see, in France, we do a lot of pre-production work and then we send most of the actual production overseas. Here, apparently, the pre-production work on a standard anime series is far less important, but they produce a lot of the content here in the studio as well.

What Thomas did was draw an amazing amount of research. He even designed some ultra-detailed street lamps and the like. All this extra preliminary work gave us a margin of padding once the production on the series actually started. The result is, I can promise you at least eight episodes of gorgeous backgrounds (which is apparently rare because, due to this margin Thomas created that isn't usually there, quality usually drops off earlier in a TV anime series).

One thing you should know is that here, we usually have four months for the first episode, about two month for the second, and then the time frames get shorter and shorter as the season progresses. At the end, even if we are normally working on three episodes at the same time, we have to deliver one episode per week.

Sara: Wait, four months for just the very first episode?
Romain: When I say four months on the first episode, I mean from the moment it is ordered to the moment it is delivered. But since we always work on a few episodes at the same time, it is not like they had spent all four months only on the first episode. By the time Satelight had finished the first episode, they were probably already working on the second and third. So, basically, they had four months to deliver the first episode, two for the second, and so on, until the point where we are now. We have an obligation to deliver a new episode every week, but they were ordered something like five weeks ago instead of four months.

But another thing to remember is that nothing is always that precise. There are sometimes problems in the production chain and things get pushed back. For instance, we will have only one week in the schedule to finish the entirety of episode 9, and the same goes for episode 10.

Bamboo: Japanese studios send some work overseas too, don't they? I thought they used Korean animators for a lot of their in-betweens.
Romain: Of course they do. For instance, on the backgrounds, there are four of us working at Satelight to complete the BG drawings, with around 300 backgrounds per episode. Of course we reuse a lot of the same drawings, but if you don't notice, it just means we are doing our job well. When we are finished, the drawings are sent overseas for coloring. Before that, Thomas and Stan must complete all the color references (a palette for the overseas team to use as reference when they do the color), plus all the important backgrounds, which they color themselves from square one.

Once the BGs get back from overseas, obviously, there are retakes... almost on every single background! So they still have a tremendous amount of work to do. I, for my part, think that 80% of the interest and beauty in Basquash!'s backgrounds lies in the coloring. That's the reason why being able to maintain such a high quality for eight episodes was amazing. But the real challenge starts now, since episode 4 has just been broadcasted.

Bamboo: Is that a typical number for most anime? 300 backgrounds per episode?
Romain: 300 is the average number of shots for an episode of Basquash!, but I don't know about other series. If we are short on time, Thomas can ask the storyboard artist to lower this number. Basically, we can cut our workload by not counting the sky shots and the ground shots, which are handled by Thomas, and sometimes, if we can, we try to partly reuse already existing backgrounds as much as possible. Even with this, there is still a lot of work to do.
Sara: I know that you also worked on backgrounds in France for the upcoming film, Brendan and the Secret of Kells. What have been the biggest differences between that environment and working on Basquash? I know you have to draw a lot more backgrounds to meet your deadlines, but does a Japanese production studio have a different vibe from a French production studio?
Romain: Well first, on Brendan, we didn't really have any deadlines. *laugh* But I think this was a bit different, since this project was so late on every level of the production. And in any case, it is not the same vision of the work. In Japan, you absolutely can't be late because the episode has to be broadcast, finished or not. That's the reason for the "sum-up episode" you often see in a lot of series. As part of the viewing audience, I used to hate this, but as a layout artist, if we ever have to use this "bonus" as a saving grace, I think I will be very thankful.

But there are a lot of other general differences. Brendan was a feature film while Basquash! is a series, for instance, and the French are lazy while Japanese are hardcore workers, so I don't know if we can really compare them to each other. I have only been here for a month and the rush really starts next week.

But regarding my experience here… Well, I am pretty slow and in order to compensate, I have always tried to work more. A lot more.

Bamboo: What's the pace in Japan like, versus the pace in France? Is the work atmosphere wildly different? Have you adjusted well?
Romain: The thing is… trust me, we are lazy. Back in France, we have exactly eight working hours per day, no more, and we are paid twice the salary of a Japanese animator. So when I talk to my friends in France, people always tell me "Whoooa, you are working too much." But the thing is, here in Japan, working this amount of time is just the average ... but you also have to produce a lot more. So, for my part, it is hard to follow. I am still slow, but learning to work fast and well is one thing I'd like to learn during these six months in Tokyo. If you want an example, on the fourth episode, the work done overseas on the animation was, apparently, really terrible. So what they decided was to basically redo the whole episode in no time! The animators just didn't sleep for a few nights.
Sara: Wow!
Romain: It was about 150 retakes. But that's just the way they do it, you know. When you work in animation here, animation just becomes your life. It's amazing to see how motivated people are and how much they want to do a good job.
Bamboo: That is hardcore.
Sara: How is life outside of work? Do you have one?
Romain: Nope!
Sara: *laugh* I thought so. So it's all work, all the time?
Romain: I hung out once in Shinjuku, once in Shibuya… Basically I just have Sunday to myself. But sometimes you just prefer to sleep. *laugh*
Bamboo: Is there a particular personal goal you want to accomplish in Japan, besides learning to work faster?
Romain: Yes, sure. My first goal was just to work this amazing project and do my best to respond to Thomas's expectations. Once Basquash! 's productions are over, I will stay two more weeks in Japan, maybe to visit some studios or maybe to visit the sights in Japan. I mean, I would love to meet some of the people I admire, but I am not thinking about that stuff yet.
Sara: Excellent. I know you also have a short film to finish, once you're back in France. What I've seen of it looks incredible, so I can't wait for the finished piece.
Romain: Yes, that's the next goal. As soon as I get back to France, I'll finish this piece!
Sara: I have one final question. You may not be aware of this, Romain, but you have kind of a dream job in the eyes of hordes of anime fans across the globe. Many fans dream of working on an anime series one day. As one fan to another, what advice can you give our readers who want to try working in the anime industry?
Romain: Lots of people think that working in Japan will never happen, but it is far from impossible to achieve! You just need the guts to cross the line; nobody will do it for you. The only thing I've been lucky with is that I am working in a French environment, so the language is not an obstacle. For my part, as soon as I get my first salary, I'm taking classes! I feel like I am insulting people by not trying to adjust myself to the country.

So if working hard and being paid next-to-nothing doesn't bother you, don't look for excuses. I mean… give it a shot.

Sara: Excellent advice. Well, thank you Romain! I really appreciate your taking time to talk to us.
Bamboo: Yes, thank you so much!
Romain: You are very welcome! Thank you!

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