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Interview: Studio No Border on SK8 the Infinity Skateboard Designs, Original Projects, More

by Kim Morrissy,

In 2018, acclaimed French artist Thomas Romain founded Studio No Border, a multimedia creative studio based in Japan. The studio assisted with the world design for CAROLE & TUESDAY, and also recently assisted with the skateboard designs for Sk8 the Infinity. We spoke to Camille Le Guilloux, project manager at Studio No Border, about the studio's role on SK8, as well as its own projects.

©BONES, Hiroko Utsumi/Project SK8

So right now, you're in Nakano?

Right now, I'm at home. We are trying not to be together, so we are taking turns in the studio. We've been doing this since the second State of Emergency started. For me, it's okay, since I'm used to coordinating with our artists who live abroad. Some of the other people have more trouble working from home.

Last year, it was more difficult during the first lockdown because we were doing a board game project with Sony, and we were communicating a lot together in French and Japanese. There were a lot of documents to prepare.

How did you end up working at Studio No Border in the first place?

I was working for two years at the French embassy in Japan, and I was organizing all kinds of events around books and translation, like the Kaigai Manga Festival, if you've heard of it. Through organizing that, I came into contact with Tony Valente, the manga artist of Radiant. I think it was Valente's publisher who got me in touch with Thomas Romain for a signing of his book. I was delighted because I love the work he does, like Oban Star-Racers and so on. I was watching his show when I was around middle school age. It was really nice to meet him.

When he was signing his books, he told me, “I just started this studio. I'm looking for someone who can do administration in French, English, and Japanese.” At the time, I was looking for another job because my contract was only for two years. I was delighted, and the people at the French embassy were like, “Ah, Camille can do that!”

And that's how I ended up working at Studio No Border, which is a really nice place, because we are not just an animation studio. We work with other studios to produce background design, world art concepts, and we also do comics, board games, video games, and animation projects. It's really nice.

Could you tell me about some of these other projects?

So I told you about Thomas Romain's book, called Family Traits. His book was quite popular on Instagram and YouTube. The characters were really nice. We decided to create a lot of different media around these characters. Right now, we are doing a board game, French comics published in France, and also a video game project, and, if possible, animation too.

Is this based on the drawings that he made with his sons?

Yes, that's it. And a second book will be published, so there are more characters to come.

Could you describe your studio's relationship with Ankama?

So the studio was founded in 2018 by Thomas Romain with the help of Ankama. Ankama is a French company which is now around 20 years old. In France, they had a really big success story with their online game called Dofus. And from Dofus they created a lot of different media, like animation, comics, board games. It's not really usual in France, but they are a trans-media company. I think most French people my age have played Dofus. It's really famous.

Our goal at Studio No Border is to be like a mini-Ankama in Japan, so that is why we are creating our own universe and trying to adapt it to different media.

And you also do designs and other things for other studios?

Yes. One of my colleagues, who is in France right now, mainly works for clients. Stanislas Brunet did the rough design for the Cherry blossom skateboard in Sk8 the Infinity. It's kind of a high-tech skateboard. He's an artist who specializes in sci-fi and mecha. In France, it was really difficult for him to find jobs because it's too specialized, so he works for a lot for clients in Japan. He also worked with Bones on CAROLE & TUESDAY. Thomas and Stanislas worked together to create the world concept art on that series.

You were a production assistant on SK8, right?

Yes. I was working with Juliette Mercier as her assistant because she doesn't speak Japanese. So I was with her doing all the meetings, translating for her from Japanese to French and from French to Japanese.

In the studio, I am the manager. I handle invoices and such, but I can also help my colleagues with the clients, like doing translation. I really appreciated working with Bones, and especially with Director Utsumi on this project.

You mentioned the Cherry blossom skateboard before. The series has a bit of a science fiction aspect to it, it seems.

Not so much because it was really important to Director Utsumi that the skateboards were realistic. You can build them yourself. The Cherry blossom skateboard is quite particular because it's the only one you cannot build in reality. So the first rough was done by Stanislas Brunet, and then Juliette reworked the skateboard.

How many designs did Studio No Border handle in total?

The studio designed nine skateboards, and some other designs too, like the “S” sticker and the decals, which are the illustration underneath the skateboard.

Here is the list of Studio No Border's employees that worked on SK8:

  • Juliette Mercier (skateboards design for Reki, Langa, MIYA, SHADOW, Cherry blossom, JOE, ADAM)
  • Stanislas Brunet (skateboard design and decal for Kikuchi, skateboard rough for Cherry blossom)
  • Ayumi Kakei (decals for Reki, Langa, MIYA, sticker of the “S”)
  • Thomas Romain (decal for ADAM)
  • Loïc Locatelli (decals for JOE and SHADOW)

At what point during the production was Studio No Border brought on?

I think it was quite close to the beginning, because of course the characters were ready, but still in development. The skateboards were really important, almost like characters in their own rights. So I think we were helping near the beginning with the research. We started in August 2019.

What kind of research did you have to do to draw those designs?

Juliette Mercier, who was at the studio at the time, knew a lot about the world of skateboards. Bones also hired a consultant, so we received from them a lot of really precise reference materials for things like the decks, tricks they could use, and the wheels. Even the screws. They showed everything. And Juliette herself was doing a lot of research, like whether it was possible to have certain designs. For example, if the deck is too large, it would touch the ground when it turns, so it's not possible.

Juliette worked in 3D, so she was making a CG design, and then drawing it digitally in 2D.

So she made a 3D model to see how it would look?

That was how she was working. 3D first, to see if it's physically possible, because the references given by Bones were so precise that we really had to check everything to see if it was okay. And then she was drawing in 2D.

How do you make the designs reflect the characters and their personalities?

That was really important for Bones, too, because each character has his personality and his style, like his stunts when skateboarding. First, Director Utsumi showed us all the characters and explained their stories and what she wanted them to do in the races. She was also showing us videos of their styles.

All the styles of the decks were chosen before starting. For example, ADAM has a long board because he's cool. So his style is more like dancing, slower than the others. On the other hand, the deck for Langa is not a normal skateboard deck. It looks like a snowboard because he's from Canada and has done snowboarding before.

And then there was a second step, because Bones also asked Studio No Border to do the decal for all the skateboards. They could have asked one person to draw in different styles for every different character, but instead of that, Director Utsumi asked several people in the studio to draw the illustrations. She would choose an artist specially for a character, so even the illustrations would be really different. It wasn't one artist doing several styles, but several artists drawing in their styles.

So what was it like working with director Utsumi?

She's really nice, and she prepared a lot of the meetings, so it's really nice to work with her. I think she's famous for being really, really attentive to every detail. So when it came to retakes, she would bring up tiny little bumps that you would really have to look closely to see. She was correcting all the details, so we would have to be vigilant about them.

The really precise directions were easy to explain to the artist. It's better than if the director were to say "Do what you want!" Then if you do what you want, it's not what the director wants, and you end up doing retake after retake. But Director Utsumi lays out everything she wants methodically. She was really happy.

And even translating it was really easy?

When translating, I had to check a lot of vocabulary because I was not familiar at all with skateboards, and all the vocabulary is really precise. So sometimes during the meetings I'd have to ask "What is this?" (laughs) Fortunately, it was the same word most of the time in Japanese, English, and in French. It was quite easy to translate for everyone.

So it was like you were learning new Japanese?

Yeah. (laughs) And English, and French at the same time.

Have you been watching the finished anime so far?

Not yet. (laughs) I've seen all the promotional videos, but I haven't watched the broadcast yet. I know that Juliette has seen it in France, but I don't have a TV, so a lot of the time I miss these things unless it's on Netflix.

Studio No Border hires a lot of international talent, right?

We are trying to. Right now, we have a lot of French people, and we have Ayumi Kakei, who is our only Japanese artist.

Can she speak French?

No. But we all try to speak Japanese with her. Thomas and I both speak Japanese, and some of our other colleagues do too.

We also have one Indonesian 3D animator, and right now we are recruiting Russian people. So yeah, we are international but mostly French.

I guess the common language in the studio is Japanese?

It's French. We speak French, and in the 3D team they speak in English.

It seems that the studio is doing a load of different things at once. Is that difficult to coordinate?

It's not so difficult at the moment because we are a small team, so we can speak together at the same time. I check in what everyone's doing. But yes, some people like our board game designer don't speak English. He only speaks French. As we recruit more international people, it may be more difficult to speak all together. But I think we'll manage. We'll find a way.

Thank you for lending your time!

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