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Designing the Anime-Style Animation of ‘Scott Pilgrim Takes Off’

Bryan Lee O’Malley, BenDavid Grabinski, Abel Góngora and Masamichi Ishiyama discuss their decision-making on everything from line width and hair color to backgrounds and minimal 3D use on Netflix’s 8-episode series, now streaming, based on the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ graphic novels, feature film and video game.

Villains gathering together to form a league of their own is one thing. But the nefarious factor multiples exponentially when ex-boyfriends and girlfriends band together to sabotage their former partners’ love life. Such is the premise for Scott Pilgrim, which originally began as a series of graphic novels created, written, and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley and subsequently transformed into a feature film and video game.  However, pop culture has not finished with the multimedia franchise that has now expanded into the realm of anime courtesy of Netflix and Science SARU with Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. O’Malley serves as the executive producer, writer, and showrunner of the inaugural 8-episode season alongside BenDavid Grabinski. And, as an added bonus, the film cast has returned to voice their anime personas, with filmmaker Edgar Wright serving as an executive producer. 

In the show, Scott Pilgrim meets the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers, and discovers he must defeat her seven evil exes in order to date her. But this time, things get even more complicated.  The anime series reunites the original film cast to reprise their roles, including Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers), Satya Bhabha (Matthew Patel), Kieran Culkin (Wallace Wells), Chris Evans (Lucas Lee), Anna Kendrick (Stacey Pilgrim), Brie Larson (Envy Adams), Alison Pill (Kim Pine), Aubrey Plaza (Julie Powers), Brandon Routh (Todd Ingram), Jason Schwartzman (Gideon Graves), Johnny Simmons (Young Neil), Mark Webber (Stephen Stills), Mae Whitman (Roxie Richter), and Ellen Wong (Knives Chau).

Driving the push to make the miniseries was the acclaimed anime studio responsible for The Night is Short, Walk On Girl and Devilman Crybaby. “The initial core of everything is Bryan telling me that Science SARU wanted to make a Scott Pilgrim show,” explains Grabinski.  “That simple concept, without any narrative or take, was already exciting for me because I’m a big fan of them.  Knowing how great a job that they do, made my brain start going at 2,000 miles per hour thinking about, ‘What is the best thing we could do with those collaborators?’” 

In planning a potential series, eight 22-minute episodes was viewed as a reasonable goal. “It was an instinctual choice in that the story we want to tell, the places it was going to go, and how it would all conclude if we did more than eight, it felt like you would be pushing it too far past the limit,” states Grabinski.  “And if we did any fewer you would have to speed past things that felt crucial.” Anime has its own strengths when it comes to storytelling and characters. “Anime is good at emotion in a way that none of those other mediums quite hit,” observes O’Malley. “Science SARU is so good at drawing and choosing their camera angles and making everything feel both natural and pushing things to the max. It wasn’t our job to make it look perfect, but they made it look perfect.”

Science SARU was very much a collaborator on the project.  “I remember the exact point when I realized that Science SARU was thinking about this more than we were,” notes Grabinski.  “Bryan’s design work evolved over the course of the making of the books and they had looked at art where he had drawn all the characters together as a homage to this X-Men comic cover.  Science SARU was referencing that for the character design because that was done later after he had finished the books.  The fact that Science SARU had thought about it so much and clearly made me feel relieved because they had put so much thought into those specific choices.”

Consequently, the character designs were left to Science SARU. “They hired a great guy to be the character designer,” explains O’Malley. “He studied my work and drew everything. I didn’t draw a single thing for this other than a few rough sketches to give ideas.  I didn’t have to say too much because Science SARU nailed it, and we were happy with everything that they were doing.” 

Sitting in the director’s chair for each of the episodes was Spanish animator Abel Góngora. “Animation is a flexible medium that allows us to feature the best parts of the graphic novel, feature, and video game,” he notes. “Some of the animators might have had difficulties getting used to the particular style of the show, since it is very different from the standard anime look. Using thick bold lines for the characters was a complicated decision, because it’s not common in anime productions and pipelines, but it was necessary in order to bring out the strong personality of the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ comics.  We tried many new visual effects that made it a big challenge for the team.” 

Góngora notes that modifications had to made to accommodate the American side of the production, adding, “We adapted the pipeline to the fact that part of the team was in the U.S. and the voices of the actors were recorded before the animation was finished, which is not the Japanese style.  Software and techniques used were basically the same we would use in any other production.”

Both 2D and 3D animation were seamlessly integrated. “The animation style is based on classic anime codes, mixed with the original graphic novels, that is to say Bryan Lee O’Malley’s drawing style,” he continues. “We wanted to show a very strong and rough ‘two-dimensional’ style, in contrast with the mainstream animation style we have seen the last few years, usually very detailed and three-dimensional.  The background art style was chosen in order to make it possible to transform things in 3D without a big style break, but we didn’t use a lot of CG animation in most of the episodes. We would use 3D only to assist animators, in a not too obvious way.”

The depiction of Toronto, where the story is set, had to feel realistic. According to Góngora, “We put a lot of effort into the designs of streets and houses, even in the furniture. It was important that the places looked accurate to the time the story was happening, because the skyline of the city has changed a lot. The future Toronto look has an implicit comment about ecology. Something happened, and people are wearing masks and living in underground houses, etc. Though it is not explained, the city has a dystopian feeling, not only because it looks cool and futuristic, but because we wanted to draw attention to that.” 

Emphasis was placed on creating dynamic compositions in layout with numerous wide-angle perspectives. “It was always important to create cool silhouettes, even in the middle of an action,” states Masamichi Ishiyama, a character designer and executive animation director for the series. “The live-action film had a large impact on the direction, but I wasn’t thinking about it too much while animating. My stance is that animation is animation.”  The type of digital brush used in the designs set the tone for further refinements in the production. “I spoke with the character designer, Mr. Handa, about what kind of brush he used when doing designs, and I tried to pick up the nuances from the model sheets in my work. I then made further customizations throughout the project to make things easier.”  Particular attention was placed on maintaining consistency within the animation overseen by different directors and animators. “I mainly prioritized correcting cuts where a character’s personality really comes out, key cuts, facial close-ups, and long cuts length-wise,” Ishiyama continues. “Each episode had its own director and other animation directors and key animators working on them, so I tried to incorporate the personality from their work as well - of course, we also had time constraints.  As a result, there are many places where you can see the animators’ personalities shining through in the final visuals.  I’d love it if people try paying attention to that they’re watching.” 

An ongoing visual motif is Ramona Flowers altering her hair color.  “That was one of the first ideas we had,” reveals Grabinski.  “I thought it was a great way to subtly or not subtly signify to the viewer that Ramona was driving the story and that even though there are a lot of things going on, it kept bringing you back to this is the person who is your emotional point of view.  It also helped to sell the passage of time.”  There is a timeless retro feeling to the setting. “I did not want it to be present day and we quickly felt that we wanted to keep it where it was because I didn’t want to feel like we were forcing these characters into a different era of pop culture or technology or dating apps,” Grabinski adds.  “It was enough to be telling a new story rather than also trying to update every aspect of it; that felt like too many changes to the core concept.”  What was kept intact were the original cast members from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  “Everyone has grown-up a little bit and evolved as an artist,” states O’Malley.  “Certainly, with Ramona there is a lot more screentime and way more lines than anybody else. Mary Elizabeth Winstead got to dig in.  And a lot of characters we gave them big reversals and totally different plotlines. But for the most part everyone was responding to the material and having fun being in the moment like actors do.”

Trying to maintain a good level of beauty for Ramona Flowers in Episode 101 caused the character to go through several iterations.  “Scott is very much a protagonist; he’s brave during serious scenes, and funny during comical ones,” notes Ishiyama.  “That was actually an issue for me at first - I found it difficult to figure out what made him special.  Old Scott is tense during serious scenes, but also seems a bit stupid.  I took a lot of care with Ramona. Abel pointed out to me that I drew her sort of childishly early on [which might have been a quirk of my own art style], but after that I tried my best to really make her pretty.  I focused on showing Knives Chau as pure, bright, innocent, and cute.  Julie Powers has a rough personality, so I always made sure her gaze felt cold.  For Lucas Lee, I was always thinking about his body shape, making his inverted-triangle silhouette look good in every pose, and really making his face look wild.  Matthew Patel is kind of a foil character to Scott, and so I wanted to give him an antihero-ish cool factor. He’s sort of close to Gideon Graves, but combined with his slight lack of social awareness, it created a good balance.” 

In describing his camera use, Góngora explains, “The camera style was free. Every episode director has their own taste, but I wanted to push the use of strong perspectives and avoid flat storytelling, except in some scenes where an extremely flat composition could be the most interesting choice, by contrast. Lighting was kept minimalistic, with a little use of shadows in normal scenes, and we used mostly rim light and more complex shadows when the scene was climatic and needed more dramatism.  I wanted to experiment with darker and less saturated colors than what is usual in anime, to give a more cinematic vibe.”  Sometimes Góngora had to do the animation himself.  “The final fight scene in Episode 108 was difficult, and I did some of the animation while finishing the other episodes.”  

Pacing and tone had to be figured out before shot production began.  “It’s even more complicated because in this format we had to edit on the page and didn’t have any opportunity to cut scenes down after they are animated because you don’t want to waste drawings,” states O’Malley.  “We had an animatic phase where we used rough drawings and outlines and then cut it down as much as we could during that phase and that was the editing.  It’s instinct.  Going over the script over and over.  Reading it aloud.  I remember I performed the whole Episode 106 on my phone to make sure that it would time out properly.  A lot of work went into that.” 

Setting everything in motion was the pilot episode. “Everyone takes it for granted that the first episode just did what it did,” O’Malley shares.  “We thought a lot about it. In terms of complexity, there was nothing bad about the way it came together, but in Episode 103, the scene when they jam on the guitar and drums together seems to grow organically from them playing instruments.  I remember telling the bass player to play a certain way, ‘Start this way.  Do that.’  We had to build the whole scene from scratch.  That was complex.  But when you watch it, its two minutes of you need to watch this blissful moment.”

Another complex shot occurs during Episode 108. “I didn’t handle the original layout for it, but the part in the last episode where Ramona sucks up Even Older Scott’s attack with her bag was very complicated,” remarks Ishiyama.  “I had a limited amount of time to work on it, having to make adjustments without destroying the whole animation. I ended up asking Abel for help with the effects on it! But I think that it looked really good at the end of the day.  I also know that Super Ramona took a lot of effort on both the animation and compositing fronts.” 

The biggest miracle on the project was that Scott Pilgrim Takes Off got the greenlight to proceed.  “The biggest challenge was getting someone to let us do something that is weird!” laughs Grabinski.  “It’s not normal that someone is going to let you tackle an IP and then go with something that is risky.  Unfortunately, the only version of the story that we wanted to tell is one that could have also alienated the entire fanbase.  Getting people onboard with it and getting someone to commit to the idea of doing it that is the big scary challenge.  And then after that everything felt difficult in terms of the fact we had to live up to that idea. If we are going to do something new it had to work.  And if we were going to make some bold choices with this story and if we did that and it completely didn’t work, we would look like idiots.  We created our own degree of difficulty by choosing to tell this version of the story.” 

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.