This article is a reprint from a special website on animation for the Japan Media Arts Festival overseas promotion, held by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Animationweek presents a series of special interviews with the 4 leading Japanese animation studios as part of a special program on the aforementioned website.
“Stay Hungry”: How a multi-award winning studio embraces new challenges
CHOI Eunyoung (CEO and Executive Producer, Science SARU)
Having studied fine art in South Korea and animation in London, CHOI Eunyoung came to Japan to work as an animator and partnered with acclaimed director YUASA Masaaki on many projects including Kaiba (2008) and The Tatami Galaxy (2010), which led to them establishing Tokyo based animation studio Science SARU in 2013. Since then, Choi has been producing highly praised titles such as Lu Over the Wall (2017), The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2018), and DEVILMAN crybaby (2018).
2017 was a big turning point for Science SARU. In that year they released two animated features that caught international animation festivals by storm, Lu Over the Wall (Cristal du long metrage at Annecy International Animation Film Festival 2017) and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the Ottawa International Animation Festival 2017), both directed by YUASA Masaaki and developed by Science SARU.
Since the studio’s establishment in 2013, Science SARU has been contributing to the works of YUASA Masaaki, one of the most famous and admired active Japanese animation directors in the global animation industry, and in recent years a regular nominee for the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. As YUASA Masaaki’s name was already well-recognized among global animation professionals from debut feature film Mind Game (2004), Science SARU was able to kick-start its achievements from the beginning by developing the Adventure Time episode Food Chain, which was nominated for the 42nd Annie Awards.
Among other notable accolades, Science SARU is well known for developing sophisticated animation series for young adults with mature themes such as Ping Pong: The Animation (2014) and DEVILMAN crybaby (2018). With YUASA’s high originality in staging and his style in animating simple character designs with loose linework that emphasize their freeform movement, those titles yielded a unique fusion of mature, well-written stories and light-hearted comedy.
Science SARU currently consists of about 50 employees and has three departments: the management team (producers/line producers/production assistants), the creative team (animators) and the general affairs department. They have recently developed Japan Sinks: 2020, a new Netflix original series, and are now developing the eagerly-anticipated feature film Inu-Oh.
The following is a special interview with CHOI Eunyoung, the co-founder and representative director of Science SARU*, who tells the story of their creations and the roots of their originality.
*: YUASA Masaaki resigned as CEO of Science SARU on 25th March 2020, and his position has been succeeded by CHOI Eunyoung.
Please let us know the reasons and the opportunity that led to you founding your own studio with YUASA Masaaki.
CHOI Eunyoung: In 2013, I founded the studio as a result of seizing an opportunity to produce one episode of the animated series Adventure Time that aired on Cartoon Network in the United States.
In those days, YUASA Masaaki and I took part in Production IG’s Kickstarter project “Kick-Heart”. Backers supporting the project included the creator, the director and the producer of Adventure Time. Additionally, I knew that David O’REILLY, a famous 3D animator, created a number of CGI episodes for the series.
These key factors gave us the chance to discuss how to make something for Adventure Time. Moreover, when we met the creator of the show, Pendleton WARD, I felt in my bones that he could be very compatible and form a strong fellowship with Mr. Yuasa, and I thought it is likely that Mr. Yuasa would enjoy producing a good work with him.
On the other hand, due to the fact that the Japanese animation industry at the time was still hesitant in taking up work from abroad, I was advised to be cautious with overseas work. However, I thought the work was rewarding as Mr. Yuasa could freely create the content he wanted, and it was his first time collaborating overseas. In addition, as I myself had experience in managing budgets and recruiting for a French studio, as well as being in a situation where we could undertake the work independently, I discussed with Mr. Yuasa about establishing a studio and founded Science SARU.
“We take on the challenges of everything creative and create new pathways”
Please let us know about the features and strengths of the studio, its direction and the category of work that your studio is strong in.
CHOI Eunyoung: I think a feature of the studio is its unique presence that does not fit into any definite category in the Japanese animation industry. It is a strong point as Science well as a difficult one, as we strive to take on creatively fulfilling challenges, and forge new pathways in animation.
One more feature is the fact that there are people in the studio who have completely unique backgrounds in regard to knowledge and information due to their varied nationalities and career paths, so we try to have clear goals and achieve them by pooling together our individual strengths. As the entire Science SARU staff are unique there is flexibility in the studio to empower everyone to raise different opinions and decide whether it is good or bad without any bias. For example, we embrace our ability to flexibly and proactively improve efficiency, such as installing new software. Therefore, as holding onto our diversity at all times is a strength of the studio, we want to continue to cherish that from now on as well.
Concerning the direction and genre of work we are strong in, the Science SARU mindset is not “we are skillful at this genre and therefore it is our identity”, but it is “how about we try this genre too, because we can take on these challenges.”
“The animators can enjoy putting the characters in motion, and the viewers can feel that enjoyment as well”
You’ve been creating works that are highly original. I would like to ask you three questions on how you attained that originality.
– Please let us know your criteria when you select a project to take on. What will be the focus?
CHOI Eunyoung: We want to make works of animation that I have hardly seen before. However, it doesn’t mean we are able to make anything that has never existed in this world, so when selecting a project, we remain calm and think about whether we can do it or not, and what new challenges we can take on by carrying out this project.
Proceeding with a project relating to the same type of work is straightforward, and trying something new is not an easy task, but I find it important to have the courage to move forward.
For example, we took on the challenge to produce a feature film for families that became Lu Over the Wall, and we tried making a different type of feature film that led to The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. Because we took on the challenges of these two feature films, we felt confident in taking on the challenge of carrying out what is now DEVILMAN crybaby, which had an absolutely different style.
When choosing a project, we also consider training the young talent. For a feature film project, only one director and one layout/animation director are assigned to lead the production team and manage everything. But in the case of making a TV series, one director and one layout/animation director are required for undertaking each episode, so the opportunities for young creators to take on the challenge emerge. It is risky to assign jobs to inexperienced young creators, but I think taking that risk will nurture our human resources.
– Could you please let us know what your studio takes special care in through the production process of each animation project, whether that be design, animation, story structure, etc.?
CHOI Eunyoung: For stories, and because the story has a different theme depending on each title, the challenging parts of the project during production are completely different each time. Nonetheless, we’d like to move and inspire viewers by faithfully representing the narrative of each story.
Additionally, we are actively using one of the merits of animation, which is portraying movements with a liveliness that cannot be expressed by actual real-world actions. Once the theme of a work is confirmed, we then think about how to get the movement expressed in the animation that embodies the theme, which is also the reason why we pay attention to the character design and their backgrounds. If a character has a complex design, including many lines, animators would require time and effort to draw even one picture of it, creating smooth movement in animation is a difficult task. However, if we grab the bull by the horns and simplify the design by reducing the number of lines, we can possibly get the characters to move around twice as much, and the animators can enjoy putting the characters in motion, and the viewers can feel that enjoyment as well.
– Animation is the aggregation of the creativity of many creators. What qualities does your studio look for on the selection of each staff for a project team, production environment or the management of each project/production team?
CHOI Eunyoung: The Japanese animation industry has amazing traditions, so I do value them and came to Japan because of them. However, due to the decline of the population in Japan that will lead to a shortage of creators in the future, we are taking on new challenges while considering how to possibly maintain the Japanese animation industry’s traditions and preserve the current standards in creating content.
If you have the willingness to take on new challenges, you will definitely make many mistakes as well. For example, if I convinced everyone to accept a challenge by explaining in the beginning that I found it quick and easy to proceed with the title by utilizing this new method, then everyone will put effort in and try to apply that new method, but sometimes we get scolded for that when they feel the method is rough and careless. Nonetheless, we think it is important to keep taking on new challenges based on that feedback, rather than revert back to our old ways because we got scolded for a new method.
Many of the studio’s works continue to win awards at film festivals around the world. Why are your works highly regarded worldwide?
CHOI Eunyoung: Film festivals award the works born from challenges, hard work, and contribution to the animation culture, rather than the works making lots of revenue. Otherwise, I think many studios and works would be focusing only on what’s best for business.
Science SARU is still a young studio and there are many creators, including Mr. Yuasa, who are proactive in facing new challenges, resulting in very unique works that take on new stories and ways of expression that I have never seen before, and I think that is what makes us highly appraised.
“Members who can build strong teams with strong management are necessary.”
Beginning with the releases of two feature films in 2017, high-quality and attractive titles directed by Mr. Yuasa have been created at breakneck speeds. What is the secret to the production process?
CHOI Eunyoung: There are conflicts between creators and management from time to time, but I think the important thing is that after planning, everyone does their best to follow the schedule tightly and sprint to the goal. In my opinion, many people can’t do it without compromising somewhere, so for that purpose members who can build strong teams with strong management are necessary. I think it’s a big deal to have Mr. Yuasa guiding the team with strong leadership while providing a lot of new ideas, with the staff working on site supporting him.
For example, if we spend four years making one feature film, we will gain about three titles worth of production experience at most in a decade. On the other hand, if we make two or three TV series every year, the amount of experience we gain for that same decade will be completely different. Therefore, when we think about nurturing young talent, we find it necessary to create a certain amount of titles, but if we take on too many projects, we can’t concentrate on our creative work, so keeping that balance is very difficult.
I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 or 20 years since the studio and staff are still quite young, but they agree with me when I say, “let’s take on a challenge!” I think this is something we can only do now, so we are creating many titles.
Are you interested in collaborating with overseas creators, studios or markets?
CHOI Eunyoung: I am very interested in overseas marketing and international co-production. Since Japanese animation comes out with great content, I really think it should be expanded to across the world more than ever. The culture of watching animation has matured very well in Japan. On the other hand, there is a high potential for growth in the animation culture overseas, so I think there are business opportunities waiting.
Please tell us about the vision and future outlook of the studio, both in Japan and overseas, and the personnel and challenges you are seeking.
CHOI Eunyoung: I think it is going to be a lot of work, but I would like our studio to “Stay Hungry”. In terms of the 2D animation culture, Japan has matured the most in the world so it is very difficult to create works that are considered “good” in Japan. This is the reason why it is very important for us to create works that will be valued in Japan and deliver those works worldwide.
In the past, niche animation works were made for Japan only, but now they have been sold widely overseas. Therefore, at Science SARU, we can develop the animation that we love and care about and sell that around the world, even if the potential market in each country is not big and also the fact that Hollywood produces mass-market titles with enormous budgets. I think this is the way of the content business in the 21st century.
The talent we are seeking are those who can focus on producing new things. Of course, it is definitely a necessity to have a sense of stability as a human being, but I think it is very important to have the spirit of challenge as well. From now on, as we think the world will transform significantly, we are waiting for people who can move forward with a positive mindset without considering change as an unpleasant thing.
[Interview Date: 7th May, 2020]