By working with major foreign companies like Hasbro or Disney on shows like Transformers Prime and Tron : Uprising, recruiting talents from abroad on a regular basis, innovating by creating animated TV series with Netflix and exploring full CG animation techniques in a country where hand-drawn animation is still the norm, Polygon Pictures has carved out a position as a leading company in the Japanese animation industry. The Tokyo-based studio’s CEO Shuzo Shiota has agreed to answer our questions.
- Hello Shuzo, to begin with, could you briefly describe your company?
PPI was found in 1983, which makes us (as far as I know) the longest standing CG animation studio in the world. We have about 300 people working in the Tokyo studio, and another 70 or so in our Malaysian studio, Silver Ant PPI. We have another company in our group called JCube, which employs three full-time programmers and focuses on developing visual solutions for our productions.
Since we’ve been around for 32 years, obviously I won’t be able to name all the productions we’ve taken part in, but we’ve worked on a variety of projects ranging from films (Innocence Ghost in the Shell 2, Sky Crawlers, Oblivion Island; Haruka and the Magic Mirror, etc), TV series (Tron : Uprising, Clone Wars, Transformers Prime, Knights of Sidonia), game cinematics (Street Fighter 4 & 5, King of Fighters, Sacred 3, etc), pachinko and pachislot (Japanese slot machines), projection mapping and other live venue projects, etc.
We are currently working on Ajin: Demi-Humans, which recently premiered on Netflix worldwide, as well as Transformers Robots in Disguise, which has been nominated for the Emmy Awards this year.
- While most of the japanese animation studios work almost solely for the local market, Polygon Pictures has been producing series with Hasbro, Cartoon Network, Disney, and other important foreign clients. Why such a choice? And how did you manage to build successful working relationships with overseas companies?
This was mostly due to necessity, as the Japanese market of earlier didn’t need services like ours, namely to provide production capacity for the creation of TV series or films. The animation market was (and to a great extent still is) fixated on hand-drawn 2D animation. We needed to look to outside markets for work.
There’s no magic to developing relationships. I started traveling to the US from around 2000, asking acquaintances for introductions, doing tests (repeat xx times) until we finally got our first big break with Disney‘s « My Friends Tigger and Pooh », a TV series that eventually ran for 63 episodes, including three DVD films. Since we performed, this gig turned into other gigs, making us into one of the most industrious studios in the world.
- During their long history, Japanese traditional animation studios have been praised for delivering great animated masterpieces. At the same time, there is a general preconception about Japanese 3D studios that they are not up-to-date technology-wise, and therefore cannot compete with their foreign counterparts. How do you feel about this ? What are the strengths of Japanese CGI?
Not entirely true. The industry may not be well equipped in terms of pipeline technology, as there hasn’t been much demand for managing big productions; but as 3D animation starts taking root, this will undoubtedly change. We, for instance, have one of the most robust and advanced pipelines in the world.
Also, it’s true that since we have to play in budgets and schedules that are far more restrictive than the likes of Pixar‘s or Dreamworks, most of the studios don’t have the luxury of owning their own R&D team to develop advanced rendering, shading or simulation techniques.
On the flip side, it forces us to come up with looks and styles that are more distinct and creative, which I believe can be defined as the strength of Japanese CGI as well.
- Knights of Sidonia and Ajin: Demi-Human are produced with CG techniques but their visual styles are very close to the traditional anime look. While CG offers a large array of types of rendering, why trying to emulate 2D animation?
As mentioned above, the Japanese fans have a strong liking towards hand-drawn animation, plus very strict and discriminating eyes towards quality. Firstly, we need to create a look that the market craves for. Plus, since CG is still a relatively expensive form of expression, unless we have the luxury and expertise of a Pixar like production schedule and budget, it is difficult to create something that is more compelling than the mastery of a hand-drawn anime. So, we’ve decide to first assimilate. That being said, since we are a CG animation studio at heart, we are creating various solutions and techniques that enhance the strengths of CG and give the animation added value. We are introducing them little by little, as we don’t want the market to make a knee jerk reaction. Training their eyes, so to speak. Emulation is not what we are striving for at all, as emulation does not create added value.
- Japanese anime fans and general public have been watching hand-drawn cartoons on TV since decades. How do they react to CG animation?
Per above, there’s been a strong dislike for CG animation. Some of it has to deal with the cultural and artistic background of Japan, where we prefer minimalistic and simple approaches to defining imagery. Some of it, I feel, is mental. A fanboy mentality. CGI essentially is great at simulating real world and physically correct expressions, but expressing the sort of ambiguity that makes hand drawn imagery so attractive is technically very difficult. I think we’ve finally come to a point technically where we can satisfy such appetite.
- What is the ratio of full CG anime shows in the industry ? Do you think that the number of CG shows will continue to grow and 2D animation will slowly fade away?
There are still just a few shows that are full CG anime shows, and a couple of studios that are capable of creating them. SANZIGEN and ourselves are the notable ones. We are the only ones that can create multiple shows per year on a constant basis. As mentioned above, the pipeline needed to create shows constantly is still not available in other studios. This will take time, but I believe there will be more shows. 2D animation, in my opinion, will not fade away. The Japanese love its aesthetic, and some shows are more suitable to be created in hand-drawn for aesthetic reasons as well as budgetary reasons. I do feel that digital tools will and should be used more aggressively even if they are hand drawn, as the efficiency and range of expressions will increase.
- What are the benefits of a CG anime production, compared to the usual 2D production pipe line?
The obvious benefits are that with CG productions, detailed lines as needed in things like robots or wrinkles can be expressed, and once created can be made into libraries for reuse, can branch out into other media, such as games products, or virtual reality, etc.
Young talent is more readily available, as many aspiring artists are studying CG.
- You are working with lots of foreign artists and animators. Does this means that you cannot find enough skilled Japanese staff to work on your projects?
Since the industry is still relatively young, the volume of mid-level artists is still to be desired. Also, I am doing this rather intentionally, as the mixture of different people from various ethnicity and culural backgrounds makes the Japanese staff be on their toes, as we tend to be a somewhat introverted race. I think the interaction ultimately contributes to the international appeal of our works.
- How do you manage an international team ? How do people communicate in your company?
We have a team of translators / interpreters constantly translating our internal / external e-mails, as well as interpreting our meetings for non-Japanese speakers. In order to join us, a fluency of either Japanese (preferered) or English is needed in addition to one’s artistic abilities.
Otherwise, we treat the international members no differently than the Japanese. We usually have about 10% plus of the staff coming from overseas, working on an annual contract basis. Some have become full time employees.
- Is it difficult for foreign artists to adapt to a Japanese working environment?
Japan and its working environment are quite different, so one must accept the fact and have the ability to adapt. So, I guess much depends on one’s personality and state of mind. I expect the same from Japanese counterpart as well, as we have much to learn and we need to have the open mind to learn from other cultures.
- Are you hiring foreign staff on a regular basis ? What kind of people are you looking for?
Japan and its working environment are quite different, so one must accept the fact and have the ability to adapt. So, I guess much depends on one’s personality and state of mind. I expect the same from Japanese counterpart as well, as we have much to learn and we need to have the open mind to learn from other cultures. –
- You were the first Japanese studio to go into partnership with Netflix. Now, every streaming company is actively looking for first-hand japanese anime content. As a pioneer in this field, how do you see these changes in the international market ?
In most of the world, animation is designated for kids, so the range of topics and the explicitness of its expressions have made Japanese anime both attractive and a hard sell internationally, as most international media don’t have a slot to play these things.
So the emergence of media like Netflix, with its extensive reach internationally, limitless programming, and freedom of conservative standards and practices have been a blessing for genres like Japanese anime.
This allows for studios like us funding options to create shows, which were previously not available. It does, however, command Japanese studios to be more cognisant of the international market, such as the ability to provide multi-lingual options from the get go.
- What are your plans for the upcoming years?
We’ve announced that we will be creating a film based on BLAME!, a pioneering work for cyberpunk Sci-Fi by the author Tsutomu Nihei. Other than this, we are working on REAL juicy projects we haven’t been able to publicly state yet. 🙂
[editor’s note: By the time we did this interview, Polygon Pictures new feature film project Godzilla had not yet been revealed]
- Which advice could you give to animation students of young professionnals who would like to work in the Japanese animation industry ?
Learn the language! We’re a shy people, yet friendly and open once you come into our circle. Having the ability to speak in our tongue will do wonders!