So You Wanna be an Anime Artist? Interview with American Animator Atelier Gokujou, Part I

You’ve probably noticed by now that here at Beneath the Tangles we are pretty massive fans of Kageki Shojo!!—aka the best series of the summer 2021 season. So imagine the excitement that rippled through our staff discord when an animator on the series, Atelier Gokujou, agreed to an interview!

Here in Part I of that interview, we focus on the journey to becoming an animator and how it is that an international artist—someone based outside Japan—can become part of the anime industry. 

Q: Let’s start at the very beginning. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘hero’s journey’? When did you first realize that you wanted to become an anime artist?

There isn’t a very elegant origin story here. I went to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, which had a background in training and turning out classically trained artists. The curriculum was based on training painters, sculptors, and draftsmen primarily. When I was there, the school was reaching a tipping point and beginning to lean towards a focus on digital arts, illustration, creative writing and graphic design.

I honestly didn’t know where I fit in for a good two years. I enjoyed working in and learning traditional mediums, and I still have a deep love for print making. I spent a lot of time hanging out with people interested in all sorts of fascinating things! Spending time with painters, collage artists, poets—seeing the passion they had, and the discipline and structure that came with any art form. I’m glad I got to spend time living and learning alongside those people.

But in terms of animation, the closest thing I did was making anime-style illustrations.

I remember at some point making a sequential set of drawings for a drawing class, and really enjoying that process. I can recall vividly these very old, very large industrial-sized light tables the school had for printmaking, and no one ever used them! I would spend all day sitting at one of them, listening to OSTs. 

And that was when I fell in love with the process, and the head space you enter into when you are animating.

Little Witch Academia Project Finals – fan animation 2017
Q: That’s really interesting! So it was more as an artistic practice, or as an artist first, that you experienced the pull of animation, rather than as a viewer or anime fan.

I think so! Slowly seeing the puzzle and figuring out how the pieces come together was engaging to me in a way that other art mediums had not been. There always seems to be an ideal version of a piece of art or animation in the artist’s mind that we are trying to pull out of that head space and create. Learning to love that struggle was a big part of wanting to be an animator. 

I really didn’t know what I was doing! I was drawing on sheets of paper and, say I was animating hair, I would rip a piece of paper the size of the hair, draw a frame just for that, rip another piece, and draw that frame, for all the different layers of animation. When I was done, I took all those little scraps—frames of hair, frames of eyes or cloth—and scanned them all in, and then I would construct the animation digitally.

Looking back on it, it sounds ridiculous. I could have read some basics, gotten some sort of resources off the internet.

Yet at the same time, I credit going through that personal process with my falling in love with animation on my own terms. The process was full of mistakes and was completely impractical, but it was so much fun!

Q: Why Japanese anime rather than studios a little closer to home?

In art school, I just knew I wanted to draw, and I knew I liked anime-style animation. I also knew that at the time there were no Western studios making anime-based work in terms of figure styles. It truly felt that if I wanted to be an animator in the west, I needed to be a cartoon-style animator, and if I wasn’t, then there was very little need for my skill set. 

I remember watching Nichijou some time ago and thinking, “I would love to work on a show like this.” The show’s humor is based on Japanese pop culture and word play that revolves around speaking and growing up with the Japanese language. I think anime intrinsically is tied to Japanese life. The visual language, and the connotations of the symbolic meaning of things carry is unique to that culture. Simply put, a train or bus stop, shoe lockers, cherry trees, onsen, they are all objects charged with aspects of everyday life in Japan.

As an English-speaking westerner, nothing could be more out of place, right? It’s like trying to explain why Bart’s prank phone calls to Moe are funny to someone who has English as a second language: by the time you get to “…and that’s why Iyana Tinkel is funny”, the joke is lost! But the idea that you can work in Japanese animation and play in that space was so intriguing to me that in some way it became a goal of mine.

Q: So how did you “level up” your skills after graduation? Any recommendations for aspiring anime artists?

Honestly, I just remember drawing all the time! I really enjoyed using sketch books to explore ideas, make characters, and make little scenes for them to act out in storyboards. Then I took those and tried to make animations out of them. Looking back, I was unconsciously learning all kinds of things, but in the moment it just felt like I was doing what came naturally. 

I think any artist or animator has to find that sweet spot where they can enter their own creative headspace. It could be a set of tools, a certain kind of studio space, a time of day, or apps and programs that you find most suit your needs. There is an individual style and work flow for everyone, and I encourage you to try to find what that is.

I find myself saying this a lot, but I love the way animation looks in the drawing phase, often times more than I love the finished product! A drawing contains so much energy and life in a single frame. It feels grounded because it can still be recognized an object someone created. Animation is so transient, and a drawing exists for a fraction of a second on a screen, leaving behind an impression in someone’s mind. 

Q: Where should someone start when building an animation portfolio?

Animation will always come back to its core principles, and one of the first things anyone will do is a walk cycle. Everyone draws their first walk cycle differently! The character they want to draw, how they want that character to walk, what the background may be—immediately you can see all these little flourishes of style indicative of the artist’s personal aesthetic. In that way you can see that every piece of work in animation is evocative of how an animator works, and what their style is. Fundamental principles are always the most important part, but it is the style that makes a simple thing a unique artistic expression.  

Q: Practical question: what software and hardware do you use?

I use Clip Studio Paint and old versions of the Adobe Creative Suite. Adobe seems to be the universal format across the spectrum. At the end of the day most every program can import and export a .psd file so that is a nice basic standard. I think Clip Studio Paint is a great tool, not just for animation, but for illustration and comic-making too. They are constantly updating and tweaking the program as well, based on user feedback.

In terms of hardware, I use a Wacom tablet! I upgraded to a screen tablet last year I believe? Very helpful.

Q: How does one get a foot in the door of the anime industry?

Let me start by telling you what not to do! Senior year in college rolls around, and I have built up an animation portfolio. At this point I was not on any social media—I really wasn’t spending too much time on the internet.

This was around the time of the third Evangelion rebuild, and I knew I liked Studio Khara and Studio 4°C, so I went to the recruitment tab on their websites, filled out an application in English and got the studio addresses. At the time they were asking people to send in USB drives with their work on it! So after class I remember going to the post office and triple checking how to fill out an address for Japan and sending off those thumb drives. Of course I didn’t hear anything back.

Over time I built up more of a portfolio, learned more about animation, saw the importance that social media played in the process of coming into contact with Japanese animation studios, put my work out there, and things fell into place from there.

Q: So did you get your big break through building up social media connections, or did you continue to apply to Japanese studios, only with a more robust portfolio? 

Over the past three years or so, it has been through social media that I’ve been contacted by various studios. Production Assistants [PAs] have their finger on the pulse of the animation community online. They are always out there looking for people, requesting work, and making the effort to find and communicate with new talent. 

I think portfolios and resumes in the artistic space are slowly being replaced by nicely curated social media. A quick bio check will tell the PA who you have worked for, where you are from and contact info. Your timeline is essentially your portfolio.

I will say though that I don’t think this is without its flaws. Social media is a platform where people share all kinds of things—that’s fine—but what someone says and retweets could be potentially problematic. I essentially only post my work or things that pertain to projects I am a part of. Maybe it is best, if you want to engage in discussion and retweeting things, to have a separate account for your art. But it is difficult to say. Part of the joy for people in engaging with social media is to converse with artists, to see what other artists they follow, the music they listen to, and pictures of their cats!  

Personally speaking, I find that social media is a double-edged sword. If I spend too much time looking at other people’s artwork my sense of self worth goes down the drain. Knowing that, I worry that younger generations will judge themselves and their art based off what they see others doing on the internet. I try to tell people that art is a personal journey, a lifelong path where you need to be able set your own milestones.

Learning to pat yourself on the back for taking small strides, developing a healthy critical eye for your own work, and not looking to an external body for validation—these things are critical in a person’s growth as an artist.

Q: Was your work with Pierrot and Studio Signpost for Kingdom the first Japanese anime position you landed? And did that open doors with Pine Jam to work on Kageki Shojo

Maybe a year or so before Kingdom, I did Layout work on Run with the Wind [which aired in 2018-19] as well. It was around that time that PAs were really starting to reach out to the international pool of animators. 

It was difficult in the beginning, I think because we were trying to communicate without a solid foundation, and things were getting lost in translation. With Pine Jam, they wanted me on production throughout the show, and in that time [eight months of working on Kageki Shojo], we were able to iron out a lot of the kinks. So by the end of production it was smooth sailing. 

And you can say that about any job, you know? You have to allot a grace period for people to get in, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes in an environment that is conducive to making progressive strides.

I am seeing more and more animators pass through that phase, and begin to work in a way that is efficient and true to the kind of work that they are most suited for. I’m happy to see it. 

Q: That’s really exciting to hear! So maybe the time is ripe for internationals interested in working in the anime industry?

As time moves on, it truly feels that the community is opening up and blooming on a global scale. I have worked alongside talented animators all over the world, and it’s a beautiful thing. It really feels like if people have a tablet, a digital arts program, and a passion, they can do and make anything they put their mind and heart into. Studios are seeing this international talent pool, and I think the question now is how the industry’s structure can grow to accommodate this new generation of creators.  

Maybe we can expect to see more latinate names in future credits rolls? Though I’m not so sure Kaoru is happy about this…or maybe she’s just spotted the typo.
Q: Would you recommend that hopeful anime artists learn some Japanese, or is it the case that studios are accommodating artists without any knowledge of the language?

Learning Japanese is not a requirement. As you work in anime, you will intrinsically pick up the terminology used day to day. Of course if you can, learning to be able to communicate with the studio will be one of the most valuable assets down the line. 

I am hopeful that studios will seek more and more production assistants that are accommodating to English speakers. Like any business, there is a pipeline of communication between languages, and I think the anime industry is starting to really build up that communication structure. 

I should take this opportunity to shout out and thank my PA [at Pine Jam], Cyou (@christophermyna), who really went above and beyond not just for me but for all the English-speaking animators. Essentially, he bridged the gap between myself and the studio, translating the notes and materials passed to me, as well as sitting in and translating meetings for me.

Shirobako’s star freelancer, Misato Segawa.
Q: What about the business end of things? Would you say that working as a freelancer is the best way for international artists to become involved in anime, rather than, say, moving to Japan to work on site?

Working in animation can take many forms. You may be under contract for a period of time, under NDA [non-disclosure agreement] for a project that never gets green lit, or you may be working freelance. 

I can’t say I love the formats artists have to work through. There are a lot of handshakes exchanged in good faith, with things like commission work, over a product with subjective value. Artists need to be educated and savvy in business negotiations with any client, and I am certainly no businessman. I am an artist first, and my main priority is always asking myself, how can I make this art as good as I can! 

I hate to inject cynicism into the discussion, but artists end up getting taken for a ride, and it is part of being a freelancer, to try to cover your bases. 

Working in anime is quite a structured job, all things considered. It is a monthly payment based off of the amount of work you did, with room for growth, future employment, and gaining more responsibilities in the position. In general, the people in the animation industry are all in one huge melting pot. Studios work with and employ other studios to help out, animators pass from studio to studio, and if you can imagine, it is a complex network of contact points and overlapping good will. 

I cannot say for certain what the future will look like. I think I would still like to be in Japan, working in a studio if possible. With the pandemic, everything was shook up, and the studio turned into the home. For people like me, already working remotely, there was no change, but for some who did not have a home studio, the change was tumultuous. 

Sarasa’s arm smear of triumph upon hearing she made the cut in Kageki Shojo!!
Q: So now that you’ve “made it”, what would be your dream anime project? 

I would love to work on expanding my own ideas and storylines. Not only that, but work with storytellers and animation narratives that exist outside of Japan. [The anime I work on] have nothing to do with, say, how I experienced my youth. I grew up in middle America, and I spent my youth as a delinquent getting into all sorts of trouble. The symbols, objects, people and places I came into contact with are the things that fill the space in my personal work. 

I would like to be able to use animation as a platform to explore those familiar spaces in my mind, and in the same sense, allow people with stories from all over the world to do the same. Animation is a broad platform for storytelling of any kind. It can take any shape the creators and collaborators want it to. That limitless potential is something I would like to see explored more. 

Thank you so much to Atelier Gokujou for joining us and sharing your insights into becoming an artist in the anime industry!

Stay tuned everyone for Part II, where we’ll talk more about the specifics of animation and Atelier Gokujou’s work on Kageki Shojo as Layout artist and Second Key Animator (that is, working on the second phase of Keys).

You can connect with Atelier Gokujou on twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. The art is beautiful, and the insightful captions, revelatory!


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