Interview: Polygon Pictures President Shuzo John Shiota

by Callum May,

When it comes to 3D anime in Japan, there are few names more notable than Polygon Pictures. After producing award-winning action TV series for American TV, like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Transformers Prime, they started producing anime for audiences worldwide. Thanks to an early collaboration with Netflix, their first anime title, Knights of Sidonia became the first Netflix Original anime, available to watch in 190 countries.

Since then, Polygon Pictures have been involved in several high profile collaborations with Studio Ghibli for Ronja the Robber's Daughter, Tsutomu Nihei for the film release of Blame! and now with Toho Pictures and Gen Urobuchi for a trilogy of science fiction Godzilla anime films.

Following the release of Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, I reached out to studio president Shuzo John Shiota and visited the Polygon Pictures studio in Tokyo for an interview. Here we discuss the team's debut into the anime industry, their early collaboration with Netflix as well as their recent work on Pingu in the City, Godzilla and Fist of the Blue Sky: REGENESIS.

CALLUM MAY: Polygon Pictures was already renowned for creating popular shows in America. What inspired you to create anime for the domestic market in Japan?

SHUZO JOHN SHIOTA: It's sort of coincidental. We'd been doing a lot of boys’ action shows like Transformers and Tron and Star Wars at the same time, and while that was happening, there were two coincidences: One was Hiroyuki Seshita, the director of Knights of Sidonia and Blame!. He and I have known each other for quite a while, but he was in another company previously, and that company had just folded operations. We were talking, and I said, “Why don't you join us?” It was sort of nonchalant. He joined, and I think that was in 2010 or 2011.

The other key factor was that he brought people like Naoya Tanaka with him, who's been a production designer for Ghibli for a long time, and Mitsunori Kataama, who used to be a CG department lead for Ghibli as well. Other former Ghibli people who have pre-production experience joined as well alongside Seshita, because they were working at the previous company.

So that was the creative push. The business push was that at about the same time in 2010, Eddie Moriya joined us as one of the board directors. He used to work for Gonzo, so he knew the anime landscape much better than I did. I basically didn't know anything. He and I knew a friend who was working at the Kodansha rights division at the time. Eddie decided to list up all these properties Kodansha has and suggested to make one of them an animated series. That was basically the event that propelled us into anime. One of the properties was Knights of Sidonia, and it just so happened that the rights were open, Tsutomu Nihei was open to it being serialized. So, yeah, it happened just like that.

It seems that Nihei has been very happy with the adaptation so far.

He's been very happy. So much so, that we made a company together. And again, with all of the adaptations that we've done, he's been very much involved in the pre-production and the storytelling process as well in a collaborative way rather than any sort of overwhelming way. It's been a very good creative collaboration.

And it's pretty rare, you know, for independent companies like us with no traction as an anime producer to go to Kodansha and want to get the rights and also to be able to set up a production committee so quickly for it to be made into an anime, but it happened pretty quickly.

Was that just because the studio was already known overseas?

Yeah, I think that it really helped that we have a long record and we've had traction in the American side of things. But it's rare that a company who's not been doing any sort of anime production here to be instantaneously motouke production (prime contract producer) and also be partnering with the production committees without any sort of traction.

So it was just a nice series of coincidences. And that's how it happened. It was really great too, also because we were kicking ass in boys’ action but that was where it all ended. Everyone was in this euphoria creating boys’ action and so we'd started doing some storytelling for an older audiences. You know, Transformers Prime, Tron, Clone Wars, all of them were not just typical boys’ action. It was much darker, there was much more complicated storytelling.

And the industry was into it, but then they realized that the channels weren't ready for it and so there wasn't the audience they were looking for. And so the boys’ action which we were famed for at that time just tapered off. And so our North American demands were tapered off, but it was good because it happened at the same time we were ramping up for the anime properties.

What are the difficulties in creating anime in 3D compared to boys’ action series like Tron: Uprising?

Creatively, anime fans not just in Japan but all over the world are sticklers for how anime should look. Doing it in CGI was considered blasphemy not so long ago. They had very scrutinizing eyes and we needed to satisfy their tastes as well. Creating stuff that looks like anime in CGI isn't easy. The tool isn't designed for such a look.

CGI in its inception was created as a simulation tool. It started not too long ago in the early 60s, and it started to be used in the entertainment world in the 70s. So it's not even fifty years old in terms of its entertainment usage. Most of the growth has been because it was used as a tool to simulate real-life situations, real-life look and style, real lighting situations, real shadow situations, which befits American type of CGI motion well. But for things like anime where all the lights and shadows and the contours are contrived, where it's not real and it's all artistically driven, the algorithm to make it look right in CGI tends to be pretty hard.

So it took us a while to get that look, which primarily started when we worked on Tron: Uprising, and which we perfected over the years. Knights of Sidonia, Ajin, Blame! and then Godzilla. To get that look right, it's taken 9 years. The anime style is very flat and we are deriving from a manga, so making a CGI model that looks credible from the original designs is always a challenge. We being a CGI studio at heart, we take a very CGI approach. Opposed to the likes of Sanzigen and Orange, who tend to make a model but resculpt it frame-by-frame, when we make a model, we try and make it look good from 360 degrees, rather than having to change it. So it took us a while to figure out how to make it look right. We had to figure out the animation style as well, anime is made with 2s and 3s (frame count), which we'd done before, but we had to do it in a way that befits anime with that look and style. And it's always evolving.

Figuring out storytelling was hard as well. It was much more complicated, higher age kind of storytelling and we needed to find the right writing parts to it. And in regards to business, the budgets have been going much much higher thanks to the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Crunchyroll but when we started, the upper echelon of anime budgets was like 200,000 USD per 22 minutes which was less than half of what we were getting from the States. And that was just for production, not including pre- or post-production. So we're dealing with much less of a budget to create the same sort of show and in a quality that we don't want to look crappy. So there was also that budgetary challenge where we had to adjust to those budgetary parameters.

And then on the business side, we invested in the properties as well, so we needed to find a business scheme to recoup our investments. This was happening at a time when Blu-rays were not selling as much as they used to and that was the main source of recoup for the anime industry. So we needed to find our own way to recoup our investment. Luckily we got the North American rights and because of our presence in the North American market, we knew the going price for anime properties with the normal players like Funimation and such. So we decided to go mainstream. We approached Netflix and Hulu and thankfully Netflix signed us as their first original anime and gave us pretty decent license fees and it's been going up since then.

As you mentioned, Knights of Sidonia was Netflix's first original anime. What do you think about their recent growth into the anime market?

They're very serious about it. And they're spending a lot of money on original properties as well so you can tell they're very serious about it. We've been lucky to be at the forefront of it. Initially when they first came, there was an initial pushback from the Japanese producers because, as I mentioned, the industry revolved around television, Blu-rays and the regular publishers. And Netflix was a huge agitator to the ways in which things were happening. So there was a huge pushback but because we were the black sheep, we were not a part of the industry. We had nothing to lose, so it was easy for us to partner up with them.

And then the power of television, the advertising revenue, the Blu-rays, all of these things started to crumble. And all of a sudden, the Netflix option seemed much more attractive, especially because of their pricing. So it's been a huge influence, and I think it's been a good influence in that now we're able to deliver our properties to 190 different countries and millions of people all of a sudden with subtitles. So I think in this case, we're combating what was previously a big issue of piracy because people can see it legitimately and they don't have to wait like they used to.

Because of that, it's brought up the budgets for the production considerably. And it's not just Netflix's influence, but it's also the other streaming partners as well as the money coming in from China. But Netflix was one of the big instigators for this, along with Amazon. It's been a wake-up call to anime producers to be aware of the foreign market from the onset, since it used to be an afterthought. Now, the streaming rights and foreign exposure is regarded as a big deal. That's a big change too.

And I think it's helped creatively too, it's opened up Devilman Crybaby. That kind of stuff, it's Yuasa's forte, but even in Japan, that would've been a hard nut to crack. I wouldn't have foreseen it being on any of the late night television channels. That was a ballsy thing. I don't think the Japanese market had the balls to create stuff like that. But now with Netflix, they're craving for that kind of stuff. So creatively, it's quite interesting.

Plus there's this movement for the Castlevania kind of thing where anime tastes are opening fans up to American-ised or European-ised international storytelling. And Netflix is all over that now, it'll open up some doors. It might have the hardcore anime fans dissing it, but I think it'll open up a door for other variations of so-called anime.

It was interesting to see the most recent Godzilla release turn up on Netflix. How did that project come about?

The Godzilla project is a completely Toho property. We're not the producers of it, but we're the outsourced main animation production studio for it. They came to us while we were releasing Knights of Sidonia and they saw a potential for CG animation as a new possibility if they wanted to bring Godzilla to a future anime for the first time. I think they probably thought that it would be a good differentiation factor. And because it's CGI, it might have a better reach to international audiences as well. So Toho reached out to us to see if we were interested in creating the animation for it during 2014 or 2015.

It is ever surprising that you end up working on these huge properties? You've done Star Wars, Disney and now Godzilla.

Yeah, even as you tell me that, I think, “Oh shit, yeah. We're working on the biggest franchises built in Japan and in the States!” So yeah, it's pretty surprising.

You've gone quite far since the penguin.

Quite far since the penguin. Yeah.

And now it includes Pingu as well.

Right. (laughs)

How did that one get started and what was the process involved in trying to create a claymation show in CG?

Well, we'd dabbled in that kind of look before. Our thing is coming with new looks and styles. We get bored pretty easily. So we've been in the toon-shaded kind of realm for the past 5 years or so, but previous to that we were making things that looked more CGI. We were also doing stuff like Street Fighter 4 and 5 with the ink-brush stroke kind of stuff and we were probably one of the first to come up with that kind of style on a commercial scale. And we were one of the first to implement a kind of limited animation style, frame-to-frame and pose-to-pose kind of animation back in 2000.

So in the same light, we were developing a property called Melon Melon Forest Rangers, which is based on a picture book that featured stop-motion dolls shot frame-by-frame and it was really cute. And we decided, “Why not make a series out of it?” So we made a pilot and tried to sell it to Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. It didn't go through, but it allowed us the opportunity to experiment with that look and style. This was close to ten years ago.

So we had tried it and we knew it was going to work, so when Pingu in the City came… initially there was talk about making it look more like a normal animation, but after talking to the producers at NHK, Mattel and Sony, we decided we should make it look like a stop-motion kind of thing.

With Knights of Sidonia, Blame! and now Godzilla, it seems like science fiction is a large part of the studio's anime image. Is that intentional or is that just what people happened to come to you with after Knights of Sidonia?

Yes… well, yes and no. As I mentioned, with Knights of Sidonia, we picked up a bunch of properties that we thought we could effectively make into an anime show. So Knights of Sidonia was calculated based on the look of the characters, also the fact that it happens in the Sidonia spaceship most of the time in space, so there was an asset restraints implemented there and we were coming up out with boys’ action shows a lot. So that was a calculated move, but Ajin was not really. It was a popular manga presented to us by Kodansha amongst a bunch of other titles that they wanted us to do. And we decided Ajin might be interesting due to the Invisible Black Matter IBM things.

Blame! was sort of like a natural extension since it was the most well-known property by Nihei-san.So after Sidonia, we thought it'd probably be cool to do Blame!. Godzilla came out of nowhere, basically. The fact that it became a science-fiction Godzilla wasn't our intention, it was Toho's intention. They attached Urobuchi-san to the film and they wanted a very anime and niche kind of angle to it to separate it from the live-action films.

So initially, yes, but as things transpired, it wasn't exactly so. We don't consider ourselves just a science-fiction studio. I mean, we've done Winnie the Pooh.

(laughs)

And we've done Pingu. Right now, we're doing Fist of the Blue Sky: Regenesis, that brutal action kind of stuff. And don't forget Ronja the Robber's Daughter too, which is a classic child's book.

You mentioned earlier that a group of Ghibli production designers joined the studio. Was that connection what brought Ronja on?

Yeah, exactly. Suzuki-san, the executive producer at Ghibli was very good friends with our Naoya Tanaka-san. And this was a case where they were trying to set up a career that was different from his father. So they decided, “Well, a TV series might be interesting, working with a studio outside of Ghibli might be interesting and CGI might be interesting as well.” And so that studio just happened to be us.

I was wondering, you've had a lot of 2D animators working as storyboard artists on 3D shows, is that a way of trying to emulate the 2D aesthetic within 3D shows?

Well, when you're producing a series around 24 episodes, there needs to be a lot of storyboards, so we just can't handle everything in-house so we need to ask others to help us. It's just a simple thing that the people out there on the market doing freelance storyboard work are all doing 2D shows because there's only 2D shows. (laughs)

Ah, I see.

I mean, the good people just tend to be from 2D backgrounds and just because it's 3D doesn't mean we'll go all crazy with the camerawork. We'll only use it when it matters and Seshita and the other directors can tell when it matters.

So, for that, no. I think we already have a pretty clear vision of how we want our shows to look and so we're just hiring freelance storyboard artists to help us enact for us. And because it's a 2D-looking show, it just blends well in most cases with 2D direction.

For the last 2 years, there's been concern about the Berserk 3D show-

Yeah.

-in regards to some awkward character action.

(laughs)

Some people have raised concerns that that might happen for Fist of the Blue Sky. What is your approach with Fist of the Blue Sky that may allay those concerns?

Well, so far as I've seen, it's looking pretty good. With the Berserk thing, it doesn't define the correlation between that type of character design, that kind of show and its affinity or non-affinity with CGI. I don't think that's the case. I mean, creating a CGI animated series is hard, man. It's really hard. You can't just come and expect to do it just like that (snaps fingers).

We've been doing series work since 2005 starting with My Friends Tigger and Pooh. It's not just the artists, but it's also the workflow, the pipeline, the infrastructure and also the management, it's all these things that have to merge. And especially when you're dealing with these kind of budgetary restrictions, which is pretty hard compared to North America. And I don't think the studios were ready for that and it showed in the quality of the work. It's not just because it's CGI, it's just because they weren't ready for it and it showed.

With Fist of the Blue Sky, we're outsourcing the bulk of the work to a Taiwan studio, but we've been pretty hands-on in quality control. Budgetarily, it's a little lower than our normal shows, so we have to be even smarter with how it works. But so far, the author is loving it. He's been very hands-on in saying yay or nay to how characters look, obviously. And so him loving it sort of proves to us that we're doing a pretty good job with it.

J CUBE Inc. recently developed the Maneki software. What sort of impact has that had internally since that was developed?

So there's two shaders that we've been involved in and the Maneki was developed by J CUBE and used on Blame! It hasn't been used on other projects since. Godzilla is using our other proprietary software as well. So J CUBE used to be 100% owned by us, but now we've divested from it. But I think it's a healthy competition between developers when they see Polygon's shader and Maneki's ideal is to implement a higher gradation of colours and create a more 3DCG look and style. And that sort of pushed the other guys to go further with their shaders, so it's a healthy competition.

So yeah. With Blame! it was definitely very effective and gave it another push which in turn spurred our other developers’ competitive spirit and I think you can see that in Godzilla withThe minute details involved in the lines which weren't possible before.

Yeah, I couldn't tell that Godzilla wasn't made with Maneki.

You've mentioned before that Polygon Pictures has a global staff. What sort of things would you recommend people have before applying to Polygon Pictures if they're outside of Japan?

Regardless of whether they're local or not local, we judge by their reel, their expertise, so they have to be good. That's first and foremost. It's preferable that they speak the language, but most of them don't when they come here. It's not a requirement, we have a team of translators and interpreters to help them out. But other than that, obviously, they have to be open-minded with how they work. We're a predominantly Japanese studio, we work and communicate in ways that are different from what they're used to where they come from. So they have to be open to infusing that into their mindset. And we in turn have to learn from our foreign workers as well. So it has to be an open-minded collaborative process, so they have to have that sort of personality. But other than that, it's not that different.

I mean, there are issues about visas, because as you probably know, Japan is pretty strict about its visa requirements and our visa applications laws here haven't caught up with the modern times. And so they require in most cases that applicants have a university degree and a certain amount of years of working experience. So it's hard for us to hire some geniuses who said “Fuck school, I'm just going to go off on my own and be a genius”, because we can't get them visas.

So there's no option for people working remotely?

Well, on a project basis, we do that anyway. We ask some production designers or matte paintings living in Canada to do some work for us and obviously that we do remotely. Even as employees, we have this one guy who's an Austrian, who actually is one of the main developers of one of our original shaders, he's now working remotely from Kyoto.

Oh?

Because he wanted to.

(laughs)

(laughs) So he's the first case of us working remotely. There's some occupations like his that can do that and one of our 5 year goals for Polygon is to be one of the most progressive working environments in Japan. One part of that is to really dig into remote work. Or another part is to achieve a gender balance, since unfortunately in Japanese industries, it's predominantly male. Less than 30% of the workforce is female. So again, I think a place that is more friendly to family owners and a place that's always an open door to foreign workers is a part of our emphasis. So remote work is on the bucket list as well.

Additional transcription by Kim Morrissy

Thanks to Shuzo John Shiota for accepting this interview and touring us through the Polygon Pictures studio.


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