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The Space Dandy Interview: Part II - Bahi JD

by Michael Toole,

When we think of animators, we might picture men and women in a dimly-lit, overcrowded studio, squinting at a light board, hunched over an LCD screen, or fingering a drawing tablet, doggedly honing their craft surrounded by their peers. But Bahi JD's path into the anime business is a little different-- he established himself first with homemade animated GIFS (one of his most famous creations, SHITHEAD ACTION, can be seen here) before making his mark as a professional animator on Reverge Labs' popular Skullgirls fighting game. Not long after, he had his first job as an anime animator-- a telecommuting animator, who worked from his home in Austria-- on Kids on the Slope. (That part in episode 7, where the students are signaling each other and dashing through the school to see Kaoru and Sentaro jam at the festival? Yeah, that was Bahi's bit.) You can see Bahi's artwork on his tumblr, and keep up with him on Twitter at @bahijd!

Now, Bahi's working on Space Dandy. We asked the young animator some broad questions, and here he responds with ruminations on his career path, the importance of filmic techniques in animation, and some of his favorite things about Space Dandy.

ANN: What I'd like you to do is walk me through your typical working day - since you live in Vienna and the studio's in Tokyo, how you communicate with your line producer, how you receive storyboards and return finished animation, that kind of stuff. What kind of working hours do you keep?

BAHI I do everything through the internet, I've been working this way since the beginning. It's just like any other freelance work, there are enough tools to get things done efficiently such as Google Drive, FTP servers, Skype, Dropbox and so on. Before I start with the work, we have an online meeting where we discuss everything in detail. My work hours vary since I'm freelance, so it always depends on the work I'm doing. Sometimes I keep working the whole day through because it's too exciting. Working at home requires a lot of self-discipline, I usually turn on the music because it keeps me focused on my work; when I'm listening to music and drawing, I'm fully immersed in it.

There were rumors that you finally went to Japan recently. Did you get to work at the studio? Was there any difference between working at home in Austria?

I went to Tokyo in February for the first time to visit friends and studios. I also worked for a few days at Studio Bones on my animation cuts, it was a great experience. It was my first time working at an animation studio, and I was very happy to meet all the other artists that worked on the show. Also, I would meet new people every day, because there are lots of freelancers working on Space Dandy-- it was always exciting. Friends and great animators that I knew from Twitter and Facebook sometimes came to my desk to say hello, and it was a great pleasure to meet everyone.

Also, I was able to improve my technical skills when I was there for that short period of time. I've learned almost everything animation-related from the internet, but there were things I learned at the studio that couldn't be found on the web. Working at Bones was as relaxing as working at home. But that might also have been because Bones’ studio environment is nice. It's a friendly and chill place, everyone is social, and no one is put under pressure. Everyone has his/her own creative space, it's not like an office where you come in and they order you around. I was working just as comfortably as I do at home, and I had had the same amount of creative freedom. It was a refreshing experience for me, and helped me to progress. I'm back to Austria again but I will definitely return to Tokyo soon.

What tools do you use, in terms of both software and tablet? Do you ever use paper and scan it in, or is that a little too old -fashioned?

I don't view it as old fashioned, but I don't use it for my work because circumstances made me start digitally and I'm comfortable with that. I can animate using analog tools, but personally I'm more efficient digitally. I work on an Intuos5 currently, and have a small old Wacom Bamboo Fun that I use as a mobile thing. Most of my animations are actually made on the Bamboo tablet, it's my first tablet and it still works perfectly.

The software I use to draw the animation is Flash, you can use it just like a piece of paper and animate by hand. I don't use special digital options in Flash because I want to keep it just like the paper; the onion skin is the only option that I use, it's the digital version of a light table. Many people complain about the Pencil and Brush tool in Flash, and I agree that it's tough. But it's only tough in the sense that it's not friendly at the beginning. If you practice hard enough you can fully control the lines and draw everything you want on it. So maybe the brush is the reason why many prefer to use Photoshop or other software for animating, but in the anime industry, digital animators mostly use Flash. For some examples, Gosei Oda, Norifumi Kugai, Shingo Yamashita and many other animators work in Flash. Sometimes when I want to add a special brush stroke for some frames of my animation, I'll use Photoshop. But usually my animation line is totally completed in Flash, from rough to final lines.

But there are also animators that print out their digital animation work and do the fine tuning on paper. Flash is basically only for line animating, I would not recommend doing the rest in Flash. Photoshop or Retas tools can be used for the digital coloring & tracing, and After Effects for compositing. Digital tracing is done to make lines more solid, so they trace over the key animator's lines digitally, and generally you can't judge it because there are both great examples and weak examples of digital tracing. Back in the day, this type of tracing work was done by hand, but now digital animation software has developed a lot, so you can recreate beautiful lines and keep the animator's signature line art in the final work. My lines in Space Dandy episode 1 were traced over again throughout the process, and I compared it with my original lines and it was exactly the same—the rest of the team did a fantastic job of preserving my original lines. It must've been very difficult work for the person who traced them, because I drew lot of dynamic lines. I'm really glad that my original work can be seen in the final version, from both from the line work but also the animation.

Who do you talk to during your process? Just the line producer, or do you also communicate with the director and the animators working alongside you?

I mostly communicate with the line producer and the episode director about my work. When I was at Bones, I was talking to everyone, but not about my own work, I was talking about stuff in general. It was nice to have regular conversations with other animators. My Japanese is very weak, but some people at the studio can speak and understand English. Chikashi Kubota, who was sitting at the desk behind me, was helping me to communicate with others at the studio. He is a very friendly person and a great animator.

Shinichiro Watanabe, Space Dandy’s general director, is known for giving his animators a lot of freedom to create. Do you find this to be true? You did get a little focused on your own style in Kids on the Slope and had to make some corrections, according to the Anipages interview. Has that happened in Space Dandy, or are you more settled in with what the director expects?

That's true, but I think credit should also be given to our director Shingo Natsume. They both give the animators a lot of freedom. But I think it also depends on which project, episode and scene the animator works on. My animation part allowed me to completely express myself and come up with new ideas. I could see the freedom of the scene when I saw the storyboard so I choose to work on it in episode 1. The directors Watanabe and Natsume allowed me to try different ideas that were not even storyboarded in that scene. It was a lot of fun, so I'm very thankful to the directors for giving me all the space I wanted to create my own distinctive animation scene in Space Dandy.

But of course, you have to be very careful when you want to introduce these new ideas; doing so can disrupt the flow. Even if I improvised a lot, I introduced the new ideas to the directors first and tried to keep it consistent with the rest of the episode. Improvisation can go wrong if you don't know how to balance it, so I tried to build it into the scene in a way that it worked naturally with the rest of the episode. Yutaka Nakamura also put a lot of new ideas into his animation scene. There are also animators that sometimes change the storyboard of their scene during key-animation process. That's a big step to take, so you have to be very careful with that and pitch the idea to the staff before you start animating.

On Space Dandy, do you communicate a lot with Mr Watanabe, or is that Mr Natsume's job?

For episode 1, Natsume-san was the director, but everything I discussed with him was also forwarded to Watanabe-san, and I received both of their responses. You have to imagine, there are so many individual creators on board Space Dandy-- I think Natsume and Watanabe are doing a great job on maintaining a balance here. A bad director would impose limits on us and make us into animation robots in order to preserve the show's consistency. But Watanabe and Natsume let us go wild and free, and yet that balance still remains.

You went pro more or less immediately after high school with Skullgirls, right? That's very impressive. Do you think your career path is a good idea for young animators looking to break in?

That's a very difficult question to answer. My career path progressed through the internet, but I had no other options, so I just went for it. Plus, I haven't tried another path, so I have no idea if my path is the good or bad one, When there is nothing to compare it with, it's hard to recommend something. I could recommend people some good food, a nice film, or an interesting game. But recommending a career path is very difficult, because my career is my whole lifestyle.

I think everyone has to find their way on their own. We are discussing animators in general, but all animators are all very different from each other. If it's really your dream to do this, and if you can really go through it all without getting distracted, it's possible. But it's not easy! You can get through it if you really enjoy what you are doing every moment. I just love working with these great people on these cool projects, and one of the main reasons I'm working in the anime industry is because there is lot of creative freedom here, you can truly express yourself.

In the Anipages interview, you discussed having to work very quickly, because you're creating both doga and genga. Is this still the case with Space Dandy?

For Space Dandy, everything was genga / key-animation. I'd like to explain this a bit more, because it can be misunderstood. Basically, every frame was an important drawing, a “KEY” drawing, and these are always drawn by the key animator. Since every drawing played an important role in the scene, I drew them all. Doga—inbetweens-- are used when the inbetween artist can easily copy the key animation drawing. I would only let the inbetween artist do doga for my animation if it has slow-motion, or if it's an extremely slow movement with very small spacing. Animation that has a big gap left for inbetweeners to work in doesn't look nice unless it's a very slow movement. Most inbetweeners do it almost like a “copy+paste” machine, so you usually can't expect them to animate for you. If you do so anyway, don't expect to see interesting animation on screen. The key-animator is the animator.

There are certainly some good inbetweeners around, but it's hard to know who is going to do the inbetweens for your work. When you see bad animation, in most cases it's not because the inbetweener did a bad job, it's because the key animator didn't do a good enough job. Sometimes inbetweeners can save bad or weak key animation.

But to get back to my case, the technique that I refer to when I work is called full limited, a phrase that became popular because of its association with the animator Mitsuo Iso. It's about animating everything by yourself without using too many drawings or being dependent to the inbetweener. This is possible by knowing how to use a balanced number of drawings combined with carefully balanced timing and spacing. Getting even more technical, you have to make good use of timing in 1s,2s,3s and even 4s. 1s are full frame, 2s means that the same drawing is used for two frames in a 24fps film, and so on. Simply imagine it like that: 1s are used for super fast motion with huge spacing, 2s are medium fast, 2s&3s in combination is still useful for fast movement, 3s are usually for slower movements/ small spacing unless you are someone like Yutaka Nakamura or Mitsuo Iso, and 4s are for very slow motion. By combining these timings, you can create all types of interesting motion with a small number of drawings for both slow and fast movements. These are just the basics, and it gets more complex. You can check out the work of Mitsuo Iso in End of Evangelion‘s Asuka battle scene (Iso's scene begins at 4:16 and ends at 5:18) to see an example of nice timing combination.

But full limited animation in Iso's Evangelion scene wasn't used simply because it's an animation-related technique. Many animators in the anime industry approach animation just like live-action. If you know about filmmaking and photography you know the effects that altering the aperture and shutter speed can introduce. For example, the shutter speed can make movement look stuttering if you set it on 1/2000 s. This technique is used for certain action scenes in films, and makes the scene more intense. If the animator knows about shutter speed, the same thing happens with animation that is combined in 2s and 3s, with huge spacing. Iso's work is a great example. Iso went very deep into that approach to make that scene from End of Evangelion with Asuka look as believable as possible, and he did so by emulating a real camera with a long focal length lens, using framing and composition that felt like a documentary. If you pay attention to it, his Evangelion scene also has no motion blur, and once again that's because of the shutter speed.

The camera had pans in some shots too, and if the shutter speed was not fast enough that whole scene would be totally blurry in a real-life film and we wouldn't see anything. Iso used a long focal length for the shots with the Eva unit because he was “filming” two giant creatures fighting each other, and doing it so destructively that no one would get close to them with a camera. You can feel that it was filmed from distance in all shots (of course the cockpit is not filmed like that), but when things smash on the ground and stones fly into the camera, they never come close to the viewer and look flattened. That's what a long focal length does. Iso could've done impossible video game-ish camera movement in that scene because animation has no limits regarding that approach, but instead he chose to handle the scene as if he was really there and as if the battle was happening in a real space of its own. And all of these thoughts and techniques that were put into that scene made it look incredibly intense and believable. He is a real cinematographer!

This is why I came to this industry, because as a key animator you can have a lot of control over your scene. Animators should discover the world of filmmaking and expand their knowledge; we are not just drawing pictures, we are filmmakers. Even a painter is not merely painting, you have to put more into your experience into your work and understand what you are doing. Otherwise, it will feel empty.

Sorry, I think I went too deep into animation techniques! But I think it's a shame that these advanced timing techniques aren't written in any popular English-language animation books. Young people who enter the animation world think that traditional animation always has to be in 1s. I don't know why some people set such strict animation rules, maybe they just do it so we can break them. I'm glad we have the internet these days. Let's get back to Space Dandy.

What's your favorite cut or part of Space Dandy so far, in episodes 1-12, by one of your colleagues? Anything come to mind?

I have a lot of favorite parts in each episode. From episode 1, Gosei Oda animated the scene where Dandy is chasing Meow across the Boobies restaurant. I liked Dandy's movement a lot when he shoots with his gun in that scene. Yutaka Nakamura's colorful part that starts right after my part with the stone sliding blew my mind. That part was not in the original storyboard; Nakamura added that in, and it flows very well into the original storyboard. You can check out the key animation of that scene on YouTube, it's officially uploaded.  In episode 1, I also liked the part with QT and the big one-eyed monster and the whole last scene. That was Norifumi Kugai's work, he is a very young and talented animator with an interesting approach to timing and solid animations, his work has a lot of weight to it.
In episode 2, there is a great and crazy scene where Dandy and Meow turn into fluid form and get sucked out back into the ramen shop-- that was done by Gosei Oda. The fighting scene at the ramen restaurant was also fun to watch, very dynamic camera work with nice fighting choreography. That scene was made by a great animator named Takashi Mukouda. Episode 3 had a refreshing piece of mecha animation by Takahiro Shikama, it had a Yoshinori Kanada feel to it, but also mixed with Mukouda's own fluid style. I also like the episode that was supervised by Hiroyuki Aoyama, his episodes have some of the best character acting scenes and the episode overall has a very solid quality of animation. Aoyama brought many animators who had worked for Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Hosoda aboard Space Dandy. Aoyama himself was animation supervisor for Hosoda's Summer Wars and more recently worked on Miyazaki's The Wind Rises. Episode 11, with Hisashi Mori's mecha work and his book scene at the end was amazing. I was fascinated by the climactic scene with the book, it's amazing how Mori can create an exciting action sequence with a book. It made me think of the big contrast between a small book and giant transforming robots. The robots are usually used for “action” but here we had a book instead, and it worked thanks to Mori.

Chikashi Kubota supervised episode 12, which was also overall full of nice character animations with charming acting scenes, especially at the end. Aside from animation cuts, Eun Young Choi's episode 9 had a wonderful sense of design. Kevin Aymeric worked on the backgrounds and Kiyotaka Oshima supervised the character drawings, Dandy looked so weird in that episode, but in a good way.

And of course, have you been working on cuts for Space Dandy past episode 1? When can we expect to see your work next?

It'll be in the first episode of Space Dandy season two, which comes in the summer.

How about the future? Will we see an animated film directed by Bahi JD someday soon, for example?

I still have to study a lot but I would like to direct someday.

Do you still watch a lot of animation, or is working as an animator keeping you distracted? What kind of animation inspires you?

I don't ignore the works of others, they still interest me a lot, so even if I'm very busy I try to get a little glimpse into other projects that have been made. I don't think it's good to isolate myself, keeping track of everything is very helpful. I don't have time to watch an entire TV show lately, but sometimes I take a look at them when there is something interesting. But mostly I watch animated feature films, short films and student works. I like to see innovative and original animation, different stuff that we haven't seen many times.

Thomas has urged artists outside of Japan to consider going to Japan for animation work. Have you thought about moving to Japan permanently? If telecommuting from Vienna is what you prefer, do you think other many young animators from outside Japan could also do it?

I think you can do it if you really want. As mentioned, telecommuting from Vienna was my only way to get into the industry, so I don't know how things would have turned out if I had immediately gone to Japan, without knowing anyone. I got into this industry by building a web portfolio and showing my stuff to the industry people. They liked it, and that's how I got here. I went straight into key animation and skipped inbetweening. If someone wants to take the same path as me, I think they also need to go into key animation right at the beginning. That can be a little difficult, so they have to prepare a lot first. You need to start off with strong artistic skills, and impress them with your work. I was rejected many times at the beginning because my work was not strong enough. That was when I was 17-- the first time I showed my work to someone from the industry. I was 20 when I started my first professional job. I just kept pushing and trying to improve until I was kind of ready. But when I did my first anime work on Apollon, I still wasn't fully prepared, heh. So I learned most of the technical stuff while I was working in the industry; it was like studying and working at the same time, but that also made me a lot slower than the other animators. Animators in Japan are extremely fast, even the ones that animate amazing shots, and you have to keep up with that.

Since then I've been working through the net. There is still a lot to learn and explore as an animator, so I never get bored. As mentioned earlier, I went to Japan in February of this year to get a handle on how it would be to work there, and it was pretty nice.

Working in Japan as animator can be a tough lifestyle at the beginning because the payment can be low at the start, but it's a very fun and exciting place to work. Even if the budget of project is sometimes small, it is amazing how people like Mamoru Oshii or Satoshi Kon and all these other directors and producers have been able to produce amazing films with such limited budgets. Creativity and vision can break those limits; it's a full commitment to animation that makes these things possible.

I think it would be fresh for anime content to have people from other places with different visions in this industry. So I think if you truly love to create animations and work hard, you can make yourself comfortable here and enjoy the work. A few years ago I was just a kid watching midnight broadcasts of Samurai Champloo at my home, admiring the work of these great people and now I get to work with them. It is a part of my dream that has come true. We are here to create dreams and tell stories, that's what film making is about. It is all possible, in my opinion-- if you really go for it.

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