How Polygon Pictures is Changing the 3D Anime Industryby Callum May,
At 10:00 PM in the Polygon Pictures studio, the lights turn off for the night. Polygon Pictures is like few other animation studios in Japan. In an industry where working overnight is painfully normal, a studio turning off its lights to encourage its employees to go home is a welcome sight. This is particularly true in Tokyo, a city where the staff of 542 animation studios work tirelessly to create animation for TV, cinema, or the web amidst an increase in production issues and apocalyptic scheduling.
Despite Polygon Pictures being established in 1983, it's only within the past decade that it's been seen as an "anime studio." Knights of Sidonia, Ajin: Demi-Human, and most recently, Blame! have proved a unique change in a unique studio that was originally known for work on Hasbro's Transformers Prime and Disney's Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Even before its modern anime projects, Polygon Pictures was a globally recognizable name within animation.
3D animation has been widely embraced in many English-speaking countries, yet many big names within the Japanese space refer to a “rejection” of computer generated animation, vastly preferring hand-drawn approaches. Polygon Pictures' global outreach was initially prompted by necessity.
“The animation market was (and to a great extent still is) fixated on hand-drawn 2D animation. We needed to look to outside markets for work.” - Shuzo John Shiota (Polygon Pictures President)
For those more familiar with Polygon Pictures' Anime Works, it might come as a revelation that they were the guiding force behind Tron: Uprising. Just as building networks with American producers was necessary for getting work, adapting to the hand-drawn style became necessary for appealing to a dedicated audience at home.
Shiota mentions the need to assimilate without emulation: appealing to fans of traditional anime while steadily introducing elements of what makes 3D anime great. Just like Shiota, Toei Animation's Kouichi Noguchi and SANZIGEN's Hiroaki Matsuura, the Presidents of Japan's largest CG animation companies, are passionate about breaking through with these ideas. Each of them accepts the need to assimilate the styles and ideas brought about by the past 100 years of Japanese animation, but the easiest way to get them talking is simply to ask “What makes 3D animation great?”
Whether it's creating consistently detailed character models or putting us into fictional worlds through the eyes of the characters who inhabit them, 3D animation has particular quirks that have become more evident with each Polygon Pictures release. The awkward motions of Knights of Sidonia have evolved into the striking fight scenes in Blame!. The previously blank expressions have been refined into unnerving glares. Grey flat worlds have become places of mystery and intrigue. These rapid improvements are due in part to the studio's R&D team and in part to the unending ambition of the studio's president.
The rockstar president of Polygon Pictures offers the driving philosophy of the studio. Growing up in the US and being a veteran of the steel manufacturing industry, his attitude toward animation production is shaped by his experiences.
“Watching Pixar have a production line with experts in various fields working under different sections, and from my experience at Nippon Steel and studying business process re-engineering (workflow analysis), I was confident that video production is no different from manufacturing.”
It's a unique way of viewing animation production, and his claim that “efficiency sparks creativity” has merit when it comes to the inhuman schedules that plague anime production, with conditions like artists spending 30 hours in a studio or spending the night in the “resting room” with a sleeping bag, a sofa, and an anime body pillow (actually a thing at one studio) isn't reasonable by any stretch of the imagination.
But Polygon Pictures' lights switching out at 10:00 PM isn't a sign for the staff to go take a nap with a body pillow, it's one last message saying “Go home!” Originally implemented as a way to save electricity, it now serves as a final reminder that the work day is over.
“Artistry combined with structured processes and great management, I feel, is the only recipe for creativity”
The obsession with workflow, project management, and reasonable scheduling may sound boring to those intrigued by the personal touches that traditional animation production brings, but it's hard to argue against Shiota's claim. With the time, tools, and help required, even the most eccentric of artists can be given the time to develop their ideas fully. And once the creative ideas are finalized, Shiota's steel industry-inspired workflow is able to actualize them without anyone losing sleep.
It's no surprise that the studio behind award-winning American cartoons wouldn't make anime purely for a Japanese audience. With the rise in international licensing revenue and the growth of international streaming services, many producers now strive for global appeal. From visiting anime conventions around the world, meeting with overseas licensors to gauge what sort of content would be popular, and even reading viewer reactions on social media, there's an almost unanimous urge within the industry for world domination.
However, after many of Polygon's previous animation works were made available on the service, the studio teamed up with Netflix to release their collaborations with Kodansha. In recent years, Netflix have restated their dedication to delivering anime content on the service, and Blame! is yet another testament to this deal, releasing first on Netflix in five different languages before it becomes available in theatres in Japan. Polygon Pictures clearly realizes the appeal their products have to people worldwide.
“We are aiming to distribute content, including Japanese animations, worldwide at the same time in all countries. It's something never accomplished before, so we are going to become a pioneer.”
However, Polygon Pictures doesn't just create global anime in the sense that their productions are delivered to worldwide audiences, but also in the sense that creators at the studio aren't necessarily Japanese. Between 10-20% of the studio's workforce work overseas, and the studio requests potential staff be fluent in either Japanese or English, with communication handled by Polygon's team of translators. J.Cube Inc, their R&D studio, is headed by Paolo Berto Durante from Italy, who applies his international experience with lighting, VFX, and rendering to constantly evolve the look of productions leading up to Blame!.
For Blame!, J.Cube Inc developed a new software integrated within Maya, known as “Maneki”. Specifically designed to capture the 2D look adapted for HD and 4K resolutions, it's the newest weapon in the Polygon Pictures arsenal and represents the copious visual changes the studio has accomplished since Knights of Sidonia three years ago. Unlike other anime productions, Maneki requires no compositing, with the effects and colors being integrated into the scene through “Photo-Surreal Rendering”.
Polygon Pictures has the tools, the audience, the contacts, and the rockstar president to be able to do great things. Within just three years, every Polygon production has been stronger than the last. While their work retains the familiar look of 2D animation, they've kept their promise to show us why 3D animation is great. The studio will also be producing Godzilla: Monster Planet for Netflix later this year with Gen Urobuchi, and if their past works are any indication, there's little doubt that Polygon will push themselves yet another step forward.
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