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Japan’s New Answer Studio Builds on Animation's Past and Future

In a VFXWorld exclusive, Motoyoshi Tokunaga tells how he transformed the former Walt Disney Animation (Japan) into the indie Answer Studio.

Motoyoshi Tokunaga transformed the closing of Disney Animation (Japan) into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start a new studio using the talent and skills of the unemployed artists.

After The Walt Disney Co. shuttered Walt Disney Animation (Japan) last year, former vp and general manager Motoyoshi Tokunaga decided it would be a shame to waste all of that valuable talent that collaborated with DisneyToon Studios on 101 Dalmatians II: Patchs London Adventure, The Tigger Movie, Piglets Big Movie and the upcoming Poohs Heffalump Movie. So Tokunaga gathered together most of the animators and staff that had been laid off, secured a bank loan of ¥6 million (US$50,000) and reopened the Tokyo animation studio in June, renaming it The Answer Studio Co. Ltd., signifying the internal quest for meaning. For its first project, DisneyToon Studios offered the original short for the Mary Poppins 40th Anniversary DVD that streets Dec. 14, The Cat That Looked at a King. Directed by David Bossert, the 2D short is based on an original story by P.L. Travers about the magical nanny, featuring voice work by former Duchess of York Sara Ferguson, Tracy Ullman and David Ogden Stiers. Meanwhile, The Answer Studio also animated Toon Disneys anime-inspired Jetix series, Super Robot Monkey Team, and its first 3D project, NeposNapos, a childrens TV series about a friendly world inhabited by characters that are fusion of fruit, vegetables and flowers. VFXWorld recently spoke with Tokunaga, The Answer Studios president, about the formation and plans to fuse 2D and 3D into the business model.

Bill Desowitz: Please describe the process of reopening as an independent studio.

Motoyoshi Tokunaga: Basically, the beginning started with the artists, who thought that it was a pity when the Disney studio closed, so they thought that if there is any way that they could get together and establish a company, they would like to explore that. So I thought that since the artists are talking a lot about computer animation these days, that I could find a successful business by combining computer animation with the wonderful 2D animation that Disney and our staff have been doing. And we were lucky that there are so many demands for animation productions in Japan, so I can collaborate with these distributors as well, so the timing is good at this moment. Of course, at Disney, I didnt have to worry about money, but now that I own a company, this is a new headache for me.

A 2D short, The Cat That Looked at a King, directed by David Bossert (right) from Mary Poppins 40th Anniversary DVD, was Answer Studios first project. © 2004 The Walt Disney Co.

BD: How much of the staff were you able to rehire?

MT: As for animators, there were 40 animators working for Disney (Japan) and now we hired back 35 of them. Overall, we currently have a staff of nearly 100 right now.

BD: How many of your management did you retain from the Disney studio?

MT: We had a staff at Disney of 101, and many of them came to Answer Studio, so the structure is quite similar.

BD: Talk about The Cat That Looked at a King.

MT: We finished it in Augustits about six minutes. Around 20 artists worked on it for three months but we were required to deliver feature-level quality and I think we did a very good job within the constraints. As with the previous Disney projects, the storyboard and post-production work was done in L.A. but from the layout on, all the work was done in Japan.

Tokunaga found that the timing was good to open The Answer Studio. Its skill in both 2D and 3D animation has been in demand with Japanese production companies and distributors.

BD: How did NeposNapos come about?

MT: After establishing Answer Studio, there was an offer from a Japanese company, OLC/Rights Ent., a company aiming to develop business in the intellectual property rights field, to work on a 3D animation TV series based on their original childrens character, NeposNapos. And there was a competition that Answer Studio participated in with three other production companies in L.A., Taiwan and Japan. We won the bid and so now we are expanding into 3D animation as well and are in the process of hiring 40 new staff, which would bring us to a staff of around 130. We are currently in production and it will start airing in Japan in late December or early January.

Twenty of Answers artists worked on The Cat That Looked at a King for three months. They delivered feature-level quality for the six-minute short.

BD: How are you handling the 3D transition?

MT: For tools, we are using Maya. We havent done 3D character design while we were affiliated with Disney, so what we are doing is training our traditional animators to use Maya and we are recruiting also people who have done animation at other companies or game creators who are acquainted with these tools.

BD: What problems have you run into?

MT: Actually, one of the difficulties is recruiting people. When we were affiliated with Disney, we could place ads and attract lots of people. But now that we are The Answer Studio, nobody knows what weve done. Even when we place recruiting ads, we dont see many people coming.

BD: What distinguishes you from your competitors?

MT: I am quite confident in that we are very rare. We know the Disney style and we also know the Japanese style, so we can offer high quality on a small budget. Thats our strength. And also for 3D, most of it comes from game creators, but we started from animation. And we put a lot of animation technique into 3D things, which no one else has done, which is why we won the bid for NeposNapos.

BD: Please elaborate on your edge in 3D.

MT: In Japan, the 3D animation has been mainly for game animation, which is more or less limited to regular and repetitive actions. So there were no 3D animations as the ones Pixar makes. But for NeposNapos, the 3D artists involved are fully acquainted with traditional elements (many of them have traditional backgrounds), and they incorporate the traditional style into their works. Thats why I think NeposNapos would be a new experience for Japanese viewers, that Japan can also create something like this.

BD: Who do you see as your market?

MT: Again, as we just started, we are mainly looking at the Japanese market and doing a lot of business there. And, as I said before, computer animation is a growing market in Japan and thats where we want to concentrate for now.

Answers other projects include Toon Disneys anime-inspired Jetix series, Super Robot Monkey Team, and its first 3D project, NeposNapos, a childrens TV series.

BD: Do you think it is a struggle to keep 2D thriving with all this emphasis on 3D?

MT: I think we are lucky in Japan because normally 2D and 3D people dont mix, but my experience with Disney where they work together has taught me how it can be done in Japan. So because there has been progress in this hybrid environment, where good work is produced, I dont see it as a struggle at all, but an opportunity to improve the quality.

BD: What has been the most gratifying part in the formation of The Answer Studio?

MT: Personally, it has been good for me to own my own company because I am now in charge.

BD: What do you think of this whole 2D/3D debate that is going on in the U.S.?

MT: Personally, I dont see a 2D/3D conflict. Its just that for the past year the characters or 3D stories were more interesting than 2D. Its not going away. What traditional has to do to compete is get better. If youre creating something, you have to put your feelings and life experience into the story so that people will be moved. So thats what people have to think more about. So I think if you can move people, theres a business chance there, and I find lots of possibilities. And you have to consider the long-term impact of the work after you die. So you have to be very responsible in the quality of your work.

BD: What do you think of the challenge ahead for Disney?

MT: Actually, I dont know the people at Disney who are in production right now. But, as an example, look at the work of Frank Thomas, who just passed away. Im still impressed and I dont think I can compete with him creatively, so its all up to the artists who contribute to make it better.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.