Meet the Creators of Let's Pop Togetherby Callum May & Kim Morrissey,
On reflection, we were probably an odd sight in that Yokohama cafe. Four people sat around a table, laughing our heads off as one of us held up a doll of Popuko flipping the bird.
Ever since it debuted, I've been interested in finding as much as I could about the creators involved with Pop Team Epic. Given complete creative control over their own specific segments, each of the teams involved were able to create to their own specialty. University student Makoto Yamashita created game-like skits similar to his short film Dot Bit Beat, Thibault Tresca made a series of 3D skits where he joked about his homeland of France and AC-bu were there each week with their bizarre Bob Epic Team sketches.
But perhaps the most unexpected part of watching Pop Team Epic was to see it enter the world of stop-motion. Through a segment labelled Pop Team Dance, the UchuPeople team developed three unique dance segments for the TV series and one for exclusive release on DVD. To find out more, Kim Morrissy and I headed down to meet them in Yokohama to ask about their process, how they got involved in Pop Team Epic and why on earth they chose to parody the 1981 hit song, “Let's Groove”.
When I say, “UchuPeople team”, what I'm really referring to is just two people. The married couple of Kazushige Toma and Hana Ono. The idea was that if they worked together, Toma could focus on creating and animating the dolls whilst Ono could create 2D animation and effects for the final video. And so last year, they teamed up to become the UchuPeople, working on short commercials and projects for NHK Okinawa.
When asked about his inspirations, Kazushige Toma talked about how much he'd loved watching the work of Aardman Animations, such as Wallace and Gromit, but it was only when he was in college that he was able to effectively create his own stop-motion animation. As his graduation project, he directed a short stop-motion film titled “Pamon” in 2014, using felt dolls.
It was actually this video that caught the attention of director Jun Aoki who saw the last scene (where the characters are dancing) and thought the style of stop-motion animation would be a perfect addition to his upcoming Pop Team Epic series. At the time they were only vaguely familiar with the brand. “I first found out about Pop Team Epic when a friend was working on the LINE stamps for it and I was like “What the hell are these characters?”” said Toma. “I just found out about it from all these funny posts on Twitter,” said Ono. They mentioned that most people in Japan seem to find out about Pop Team Epic in the same ways.
The first step in creating their segment in the series was to work out what they were actually going to create. They had the freedom to do whatever they wanted, so they searched for inspiration from the manga. Their first idea was to make skits based on illustrations in the manga of the two characters as shampoo bottles. But after seeing a page where Popuko dances along to Eurobeat, they decided on doing different dance segments. However the process of selecting which sort of songs and dances they would do were based on one specific factor: What they enjoyed doing most.
The original shampoo bottle idea (left), the Eurobeat DJ sketch (right). They mentioned that they wish they'd managed to include Popuko's dance in their animation.
When I finally got around to asking my burning question of “Why on earth did you make Let's Pop Together in particular?”, they had two answers. Toma simply stated that, “I really liked the song”, but also mentioned that the psychedelic music video fit their idea for Pop Team Epic. But what they didn't know is who would have to sing these songs. When they'd figured out their ideas for the dances, they'd send it back to the director who would have a demo version created for them to fit the animation to. “The demo version had someone else singing though,” Toma said, suppressing a laugh, “so we didn't know until it was airing that we'd gotten these famous voice actors to sing them!”
After we'd ordered our drinks, they brought out a large grey case onto the table, opening it to reveal the very same Popuko and Pipimi dolls that were used to create all of the Pop Team Dance segments.
The dolls themselves are made out of different colored felt with shoes made from clay. The eyes are painted paper mache, whilst the mouth and eyebrows are formed from thin malleable wires. They're complex creations, but the UchuPeople insisted that it only took a week to make the test puppets and then a week to create each of the characters. A total of three weeks to reach the final creations. When asked what the most difficult part was, they pointed straight to Popuko's chin.
“When we were creating the dolls, we found that Popuko's chin would look strange if we made it just like the manga, since it juts out sharply,” explained Ono. “But it would look weird when you look at it front-on, so we made it rounder.” There's only a couple of times that the characters are seen from the side in their videos, but it was this adjustment that meant they could really reflect the character design sheets they'd been sent. That said, they did have to make one particular adjustment for the opening scene of Let's Pop Together. Ono brought out her phone and loaded up an image for us.
Caption: All of the facial features on the dolls can be taken off, moved or replaced. So for this side shot, they only used one eye and placed the mouth facing the camera. Small beads were used to reflect light.
Creating stop-motion animation is fiddly, but they assured us that their process doesn't actually take that long. When I asked if they'd be interested in working on another anime, they stated that anime producers have a misconception that stop-motion animation takes too long and wouldn't be able to fit together into a TV anime schedule. “With drawn animation, you have to draw each frame one-by-one,” Toma explains. “But with stop-motion, you just need to move the parts slightly for each frame.”
“Don't be afraid to use stop-motion!” was Ono Hana's message to anime producers.
However, it's not just a case of making the dolls and immediately starting to animate. When I asked how they developed the dances, they explained that it was mostly based on what was the most fun to do. Once they'd had their idea approved, the two of them would choreograph the dance themselves, film themselves doing it and import that video into a software called Dragon Frame. “It didn't take any special lessons or anything!” laughed Toma. “At home I like to try and copy the moves from idol videos. Although it was kind of exhausting. Our parts only involve dances, so we had to learn them all from start to end.”
Toma mentioned that whilst filming the dance for Pop Team Dance, he'd accidentally included a part that was similar to the Hare Hare Yukai. “When we were coming up with the dances, we'd do a move with our arms and there would be only a few ways to follow on from it, so we'd be subconsciously using dance moves that we'd seen before,” said Toma.
A screenshot from the Dragon Frame software that was used to choreograph the dances. In the upper-right hand corner there is the original video of Toma dancing. They would then draw a simple illustration so they knew what pose the dolls should be in for each frame.
Once they'd imported the dance video into Dragon Frame, all that was left was to start animating. With the dance videos as reference, they just had to recreate the movements with the dolls. Occasionally parts would break off, but they told us that it was generally a quick fix. Once they'd created the animations, it would be up to Ono to turn it into the final product, with effects, transitions and any extra animation. She mentioned that Let's Pop Together was particularly difficult since she had to make the effects as close as possible to the original music video and she had to use different techniques than she'd used for the other dances. But once that was complete, all that was left was to send the video to the director and await the broadcast of the show.
“Until the show aired, we didn't know who any of the other teams were or what they were creating,” said Ono. “So when we saw the broadcast it was a surprise.” When I asked them what their favorite parts were, it didn't take them long to respond with “Bobunemimimi! (Bob Epic Team.) It was great.” Ono also mentioned that she really liked the Bacon-kun sketch from Episode 8 as well as AC-bu's Hellshake Yano kamishibai (paper storytelling) sketch from Episode 7.
When the Pop Team Dance sketches started appearing, there were some Japanese fans that wondered if stop-motion animation even counted as anime at all. “It kind of hurts,” said Ono. But they were uplifted by the English-speaking reaction to their sketches, especially in regards to Let's Pop Together. They would use Google Translate to read the reactions and noticed that there were a lot more English-speaking fans than Japanese uploading clips of their work to YouTube. “When it first came out, we were really curious to see how overseas fans would react. Since it's a parody of a 80s music video, would younger viewers even know where it's from?” queried Toma. We explained that a lot of people had to look it up. They laughed when we mentioned that the original Let's Groove video now has comments saying “I came here from Pop Team Epic!”
Meeting the UchuPeople team felt less like an interview and more like chatting with friends about what antics they'd gotten away with on the weekend. Everything they'd created was just based on what they wanted to do. The genres that they covered were just their personal favorites, the dances themselves were based on what they enjoyed dancing to and after they were finished, they'd gotten several famous voice actors to sing along to their silly ideas. Toma stated that if there was a Season 2, he'd like to try out doing a solemn graduation song that gradually turns into Electronic Dance Music, but he's open to suggestions.
Thank you to Ono Hana and Kazushige Toma for inviting us to meet them in Yokohama and giving us an exclusive hands-on look at the felt Popuko and Pipimi dolls. You can follow them on Twitter at @UchuPeople.
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