Interview: Justin Leach

by Jonathan Mays,
Justin Leach began his animation career in college as a comic strip artist. After graduating, he moved on to Blye Sky Studios, where he worked as an animator for several projects including Titan A.E. and Ice Age. During his time in New York, he also taught several animation classes at NYU.

A "Technical Animator" for Production I.G. since August 2000, Justin Leach is one of a very few Americans with personal experience in the anime industry. Among his most recent projects are the Last Exile television series (premiered last April in Japan) and the Ghost in the Shell: Innocence film (scheduled to premiere Spring 2004.)

Jonathan: What was your first brush with Japanese animation? When did you first consider it as a career?

Justin Leach: My first encounter with Japanese animation probably was when I used to watch Gatchaman as a kid. At the time, little did I know that one day in my life I would ride my bike past the studio the very studio that made it (I pass Tatsunoko Productions on my way to Production I.G.) Other key anime points in my life: being obsessed with an arcade game called "Cliffhanger" (based on Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro), discovering Warriors of the Wind in my dad's video store, seeing a "fansub" of Laputa in art school, and seeing Ghost in the Shell in an arthouse theater in Tampa, Florida.

When I graduated from high school my original aspiration was to be a Disney animator. After arriving at my art school (Ringling School of Art and Design), I soon discovered computer animation, as well as more Japanese animation. After graduation I worked at Blue Sky Studios for about four years and then went to Tokyo to work for Production I.G. I can honestly say that I never expected to actually end up in Japan. For me, I guess it was always a dream that I thought could never come true.

What was it like getting a job at I.G?

For me, I have always been drawn to Japan for reasons I do not know. I remember feeling quite at ease the first time I visited Japan. I find that in many ways I feel very comfortable here.

What's your current position, and what does it involve?

My current position at Production I.G is on the Computer animation staff at Production I.G for Ghost in the Shell 2. My responsibilities include everything from character setup to modeling, rigging, animation, texturing, lighting, and compositing. In addition to that, I also sometimes assist with international business development, and I maintain the English version of the Production I.G website and BBS.

How was/is the learning curve for a new member of IG?

Well, the learning curve was extremely high. In Japan a CG creator is expected to handle all aspects of a shot. In America high-end CG at the major studios is usually divided into groups of specialists. My area of specialty in America was character setup and animation. So to make a shot look really good in all areas is quite a challenge. It's been a great learning experience for me.

What would you say are the best aspects of working at IG?

To see inside a real Japanese animation studio, work with Mamoru Oshii, get inspired by amazing talent, seeing mounds of character, layout and mechanical designs, studying Japanese, going to Studio Ghibli to watch dailies.

And the worst?

Long hours, communication difficulties, understanding the nuances of the Japanese mentality.

Is there anyone in particular you look to for guidance or inspiration?

Mamoru Oshii - I think his cinematic sensibilities are amazingly good. His storyboards are deceptively simple, but his ideas and concepts are very strong and deeply philosophical. He action sense is also just amazing.

Hiroyuki Okiura - The director of Jin-Roh is also an amazingly talented artist. His drawing skills are on the level of a genius.

Atsushi Takeuchi - The Mecha Designer for Ghost in the Shell. His work is truly out of this world! He also did designs for Ace Combat and YukiKaze.

Shuichi Hirata - The Art director for Ghost in the Shell (He also painted the backgrounds for Metropolis.) I had the chance to see the original paintings used in the film. Once again, simply mind numbing.

Any current/future projects you can discuss?

Well, if I told you anything about Ghost in the Shell 2, I would have only nine fingers.

You don't need all ten, anyways. Do you have a "dream project" you'd like to do someday?

Yes. I would like to be involved in a fully animated CG feature film that blends the technical advancements of high-end western CG production with Japan's rich concepts, mechanical and layout designs, and cinematic sensibilities—all wrapped in a story accessible to a global audience.

How about some of your favorite anime or live-action films?

JL: Favorite Anime
1. Porco Rosso
2. Akira
3. Laputa: Castle in the Sky
4. Ghost in the Shell
5. Memories (Magnetic Rose)

CG films:

1. Finding Nemo
2. Toy Story 2
3. Shrek
4. Ice Age
5. Monsters Inc

Live Action films:

1. The Graduate
2. The Road Home
3. Not One Less
4. Marny
5. Star Wars
6. Blade Runner
7. Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark
8. Fahrenheit 451
9. North by Northwest
10. Buffalo 66

I think my favorite film of all time is The Graduate. For me it was the first film that I began to understand a film on many different levels. The composition of the frame, the colors all served to almost subconsciously direct the viewer. I tend to be more attracted to the visual film directors (Hitchcock, Spielberg, Zhang Yimou, Ridley Scott, etc.)

Do you believe anime has moved into the mainstream in countries other than Japan?

I think anime is slowly and gradually moving into the mainstream (has been for quite a while.)

What impact has this had on the production side at IG?

Projects like The Animatrix and Kill Bill are having very positive effects towards this goal. What I think what will happen in the future though, is that western animation studios will be developed in America and Europe (France especially) to produce animation just for the western mainstream.

In addition, I feel more live action directors are going to take a stab at making CG hybrid anime style live-action films.

Any finally, suggestions for the aspiring animator?

If you want to work in Japan I would suggest taking at least three years of Japanese to start. Then I would focus on making a killer portfolio that really shows off your talent. Nothing speaks better that good, talented work in my opinion.

bookmark/share with:

Interview homepage / archives