Artist Interview: Thomas Romain of Satelight!

We caught up with Thomas Romain(@Thomasintokyo), and he was kind enough to give us some time for an interview. For those of you who may not know, Thomas is a Tokyo-based French animation creator who graduated from Gobelins l’Ecole de l’Image in 2002. After having co-created the anime-inspired show Code Lyoko, he moved to Japan to co-direct the French-Japanese TV series Oban Star-racers (2006).

His work caught the eyes of Shoji Kawamori who offered him to become a key member of Satelight, the animation studio. Together, they co-developed an original TV animated series, Basquash! (2009). From then, he formed a team of French creators to handle the design works of various titles including Aquarion EVOL, Bodacious Space Pirates, Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth, AKB0048, Symphogear etc… More recently he designed the spaceships of Space Dandy which made his name widely known.

Oban Star-Racers was one of your most well-received projects. Can you tell us about how it helped you segway into the Japanese animation industry?

Being part of the main creative behind Oban Star-Racers gave me the opportunity to enter the Japanese anime industry by the top. Usually people who intend to make a career in Japan start from the base, as Douga (unexperienced animators who trace the inbetween animation drawings) or production assistants. But my path was different. After a  few years spent in a very good animation school in Paris called Gobelins, I created the world of Oban star-racers with my two friends Savin Yeatman-Eiffel (writer, producer) and Stanislas Brunet (designer). After a few years of hard work, and Savin succeded to gather the funds needed to start the production. We decided to move to Japan to produce the show in 2003. Because my involvement was so deep during the development of this project, it was quite natural for me to take the lead of the artistic side of the project and I started working right away as art director with the Japanese team.

At first, the Japanese were quite skeptical about our ability to fit in the Japanese production system which is very demanding. But we were so excited to be in Tokyo working with talented japanese artists on our own animated show that we put a lot of efforts into our everyday work. We also learned japanese language to get better relationship with our co-workers.

At the end of the production I decided to stay and several Japanese producers offered me new working opportunities.

cover DVD oban

What motivated you to move to Japan?

There are several reasons that brought me to this life-changing decision. First, I was really into japanese anime during the late 90’s. Such awesome shows like Cowboy Bebop or Evangelion completely blew my minds. Movies like Ghost in the shell or the Ghibli masterpieces too. At the same time, the shows produced in France were dull, and the quality very low. I couldn’t picture myself working in France, I wanted something more exciting for my career. I knew that it would be difficult, but you know, you only live once, so if you have a dream, just go for it. At least you should give it a try. That’s what I thought and eventually did.

On a more technical aspect, when I graduated from animation school, I realized that almost every animated show produced in France weren’t animated there. In France (and it’s the same in the US),  we only do pre-production (project, scenario, design, story-board…) and post-production (editing, music, sound effects…). The animation production itself was systematically outsourced in Asia or eastern Europe. It’s a good way to cut the production costs, but the problem is that it becomes almost impossible to keep control on what you are doing. The things that you plan never goes well, the quality is less than what you were expecting, and the end, the creative teams lose their motivation. In Japan on the contrary, most of the production tasks are still doing there, in the Tokyo area. You meet animators, work alongside them, learn how to know them. You can adapt to them as well as they can make better efforts to satisfy you. That’s the basics of human relationships. Animation is teamwork. Teams need to know each other in order to do good work. As an animation creator, I wanted to understand the production process, and be in the middle of it.

Basquash! is very different from the typical Japanese Anime. How did you go about designing such a fresh universe?

Well, yes, it is true that a lot of Japanese anime take place in Japan. Of course, this way, it’s easier for the Japanese audience to get familiar with the character and the story. You would be surprised to know how many Japanese never went abroad. Most of them don’t have any clue about how the life outside Japan is like. Even amongst the creators. That’s why many of them prefer not to deal with an unfamiliar setting. Moreover, technically speaking, it is always more challenging to create a brand new universe. You need to think of a lot of different stuff, like the level of technology, the fashion, the climate, the culture… in order to create a believable background for your story. But as a designer myself, that’s something I’m very interesting in. Also, in 2007 when I started to develop the project I wasn’t still very familiar with the Japanese culture and habits so it was actually easier for me to create a show that doesn’t take place in Japan but in an imaginary world.

I deeply admire authors like Enki Bilal and Koji Morimoto. They have a true talent to depict dystopian universes, with slums, old broken buildings, rusty and dirty places. Their visual works deeply inspired me. The story of the show revolves around a new outdoor basketball-like mechanical sport played by pilots in mechs. The town itself being the playground, we needed to design something rich and visually interesting. The setting I choose for Basquash! mainly came from this desire to depict the city of Rolling Town, which is a mix of South America slums with a bit of European architecture and a drop of low-tech science-fiction. Creating the backgrounds of the show was a delight. One of the friends who worked with me on the show then happened to visit Cuba a few months before. The pictures he took there provided us a lot of hints for the details of the buldings and the colors as well.

basquash background

When I designed the robots of the show I had two things in mind. My first concern was to make the design feel really part of the universe. The main protagonists are regular guys, not millionnaires like Tony Stark. Their mechas need to look affordable. Also the level of technology in the town beeing quite low, I wanted the mecha to feel a little bit clunky. My idea was to make them look like customized cars, upgraded with spare parts scavaged in junkyards. Of course they kind of look like robots, but they don’t have neither a head nor an IA. They are more like human-shaped vehicles. The reason they have arms and legs is of course because I wanted them to wear shoes, handle the ball and play large scale spectacular basketball games.

My second concern was about my own design abilities. Actually Basquash robots were my very first mechanical designs. I was very worried about my own skills. Was it possible to compete with the better Japanese mecha designers, on their own ground, without having any experience or knowledge in this field? Of course not. I couldn’t create something as refined as Evangelion or Macross designs. That’s why I choose a very different approach. Lacking experience and technique, I choose to rely on my own creativity and difference.

basquash mechas

Which of your mecha designs are your favorite?

One of the designs I had the most fun working on is the spaceship of Dr. Gel. I was looking forward to see the reaction of the audience and I wasn’t disappointed. People were really surprised and amused. Later I have been asked by the director of the show to draw the full mecha version of this Statue of Liberty robot for the climax scene of the last episode.

More recently I created the Raging Bull robot, Bessie, of LeSean Thomas animated project, Cannon Busters. This is my latest mecha design and I like it a lot. LeSean gave me only a few hints then completely let me do my stuff. Thanks to the experience I gathered on Basquash and Gyrozetter (a Square-Enix cross media project with transformable robots) I really felt comfortable with his order. The design is, I think, an interesting mix of influences. Because I’m influenced by Japanese mecha designers like Shoji Kawamori and working in Japan for more than 10 years, Bessie shares some similarities with Japanese robots, but at the same time there is a comics feeling going through the overall silhouette. The exagerated proportions and the muscle-like round shapes may evoke Hulk, for example.

bessie_cannon busters

Being at Satelight, how has working with Shoji Kawamori impacted you as a professional?

First of all, that’s him who gave me the opportunity to become a key member of the studio. He was really interested in my design abilities and also in the fact that I wasn’t Japanese. He thought that I would be a good asset in his creative team. I’m really thankful for him.

He offered me to co-create the show Basquash! with him to begin with. When I think back of it, I feel so lucky. I didn’t know anything about the creation of an original animation project in Japan, and thanks to him I became part of almost every meeting, every steps toward the production of the show. I learned a lot. How a project should be developed in order to have the better chances to be greenlighted, how close do you need to follow the trends of the market, how the main staff is picked up, things like that.

Shoji Kawamori is somebody who values creativity and originality the most. As a designer, it is always very challenging, but also rewarding, to work on his projects. When I sometimes want to quickly be over with a design to go to the next one, he makes me push it further. The process can be exhausting, but the result is that we will end with something truly new and fresh. Because audience tend to notice the design work made on Kawamori’s anime, I get a lot of attention form his fans too, which is important to build up a successful carrier in the industry.

Being in contact with Shoji Kawamori also made me discover the job of mechanical designer. Although I have always liked spaceships and robots, mecha design is is not something I was orienting my carrier towards. I just didn’t think that it was something I was capable of doing. Moreover, that is a job that doesn’t exist in France so it wasn’t something I was thinking about until I came to Japan. In 2007 when Kawamori asked me to create the robots of Basquash I started to take a closer look to the way robots were designed and I challenged myself. It was quite hard at first but I slowly get used to it. Now, mecha design this is one of the jobs I enjoy the most.

gyrozetter robot

What is the visual development process like during a project at Satelight?

In Japan, the schedules are very short and the budgets are quite tight so we don’t have a lot of time to spend on visual development. Usually, after a short briefing with the producers and the director, we just do a few image boards or concept designs to help pitching the project to investors.

Then, we directly start working on production designs as soon as the show is green lighted. Designers do weekly meetings with the director. Each meeting has two parts : briefing on the upcoming designs, and the feed-back on the latest batch of designs. Depending on the director, there can be several revisions until final approval. But what we never do in Japan, is asking the same design to several different designers and pick up only the more suitable result. We always stick with the person carefully chosen at the beginning of the production.

In general the designs are handled by a very small number of people. Recently the character design concept art is often created by a popular illustrator, before being handled to a skilled animator who’s job is to draw all the character model sheets and more technical settings. Two persons are in charge of the background design (line and color are very different tasks which require different skills) and one guy (yes, unfortunately I have never heard of any girl at this post) do the mecha design. But depending on the project, there can be several people working on each aspect of the show. For the SF shows we produce at Satelight, there are often several mechanical designers working at the same time. On the Macross shows especially (except Valkyries, of course). The CG modelers also need to have good design skills to interpret efficiently the 2D drawing.

Most of the time, my job is to design the backgrounds or the mechas, but sometimes I also do  some props, graphic design or character concept.

nobunaga the fool

What tools or software do you use?

I use less and less the traditional pencil and paper. Only during the very first research stage. Most of the time I spend my entire day working on photoshop with a Wacom Intuos tablet. Some designers around me are using 3D softwares like Google Sketchup but I’m still working in 2D, even if my design process is almost fully digital. Actually, even if I cannot deny that the technique is part of the creative process, I feel that going too far into the mastering of a digital 3D technique can drive me away from the most important thing. The idea itself is essential, not the perfection of how your idea is presented. That’s why I’m still sticking with my intuitive hand-drawn technique.

What is your workspace like?

work space

As an employee of Satelight, a japanese animation studio, I’m working at the office. We are a team of 4~5 French designers, all of us working on different projects. We are settled on the digital department of the studio, near us are working the Japanese team of CG modelers and animators. We are all working on regular sized desks, like every Japanese staff members. It is actually an animator desk, with a light table, but because we are almost exclusively working digitally now, we don’t use it any more.

What was it like to work on Space Dandy?

It was very exciting for me to work on a project created by Shinichiro Watanabe. Cowboy Bebop was a great show I used to watch when I was an animation student. I felt very proud when I heard that he wanted me to be part of the creative team. That’s the kind of moment when you feel that all the hard work was worth it!

I started to work very early on the development, before the very first episode’s script was approved. So there was a lot of room for creativity and craziness. They let me do my stuff and didn’t asked me revisions. It was a very easy project to work on. It went smoothly. We did several design meetings at Bones, but basically I working on the project at Satelight, like a freelancer. Watanabe was interested by my profile because as a foreigner, he thought that I could bring fresh ideas and original design shapes. I do not have the same visual culture and working method as the Japanese designers, which was an advantage for me on Space Dandy. A few other foreign artists had their chance to shine on the project too, like the young animator Bahi JD or the artistic director Aymeric Kevin.

space dandy robot

You have been very adamant about the need for better conditions and pay for animators in Japan. Is there a need for new animators? Any insights to the problem?

It was really a shock at first, when we heard about the working conditions and the salaries of the animation workers in Japan. Compared to the Europe or the USA, it is much harder to have a proper living while working as animator or any other animation production related staff. But the most surprising is that almost nobody complains about it. The studios have no other choice but to accept to work within the limited budgets allowed by their clients, so they cannot raise the salaries of the workers. And the animators are used to those conditions, from the moment they choose this path. It’s a job they do because they like it, not because of the money.  I do not see the change coming. It is the same since the beginning of TV animation, in the 60’s. It’s sad to see all those very talented people living very modest lives. Most of the people cannot afford to travel or even to have kids. They are completely dedicated to animation. I mean, it’s good to be completely dedicated to your job it it’s that you like the most, but I think that they deserve better conditions to have better lives. After all, Japanese animation is so popular around the world, isn’t it weird that some of the workers earn less than the fleeters who flip burgers in fast food chains?

Another problem is the constant need of skilled animators. The amount of productions is huge and the companies are struggling to find staff. That’s why I thought that foreigners like me who are willing to work in the japanese industry would easily find all the job that they want. But I was a little bit optimistic about this. Are foreigner animators and artists ready to leave their country, learn a difficult language, and work harder than usual for a lower salary? They should be very passionate about japanese animation to do that, don’t you think? At my level I’m trying to make people come and work in our studio by offering them advices and translation assistance. I usually do anything that I can to help the growing community of French animation artists based in Japan. I’m also vey interested in Japanese international co-productions. Our next goal is to make Cannon Busters, a project we do with the US, a success

What advice would you give to younger aspiring artists or mecha designers?

These kind of creative jobs are exciting but also very demanding. To reach a professional level requires years of study and practice, doubts and failure, passion, patience, and determination. I was very lucky in my carrier so far. But even though, making Oban Star-racers, our first project, a reality, took more than eight years, from the first concept designs to the broadcast. Ambition can make you achieve great things, but it’s better to be prepared to invest an insane amount of time in your projects.

I would also point out that practice is good but not enough. They are people who are drawing a lot without getting better. You need to be smart. Think of what you are doing, of what you want to do, before actually doing anything. I do not think that we are drawing and creating stuff with our hands, but with our brains. If you deeply understand what you are doing and in which purpose you are doing it, you will definitely need less practice to achieve you goal.

That’s the way I think when I’m designing things. I do not rely too much on luck. I do not design 10 random sketches to pick up the most interesting one and throw away the 9 others. I sit and think a lot. Sometimes during a couple of hours or more without drawing anything. That’s ok! Try to figure what the design will be in your head before putting it on paper. Always think simple and go straight to the point. If you cannot draw it, it’s because your idea is not clear enough in your mind.

Awesome! Thank you so much for your time Thomas, we really appreciate it.  To our readers, we will also be interviewing Stanislas Brunet and Shoji Kawamori from Satelight as well. Stay tuned!