Animator and comic artist LeSean Thomas discusses his Cannon Busters Kickstarter, culture shock, and what “anime” really means.
LeSean Thomas is not one to ever worry about idle hands. After all, for more than ten years, the comic artist/animator has kept those hands busy contributing his artistic talent to a slew of shows, including Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, the Peabody Award-winning animated series The Boondocks and Adult Swim’s raucous, over-the-top Black Dynamite: The Animated Series. What little free time Thomas has, is now being spent developing his own animated series, Cannon Busters, based off his creator owned comic book.
Cannon Busters tells the story of S.A.M, a “high-end, royal-class friendship droid”, who finds herself exiled from her homeland after a mysterious sorcerer seizes control. Joined by a discarded maintenance robot and young but deadly outlaw, S.A.M. sets out to find her missing friend, the last heir to the throne, in hopes of saving the kingdom from the clutches of the dark sorcerer, Locke.
With a Kickstarter effort in place, Thomas hopes to raise $120,000 to put together an initial pilot for the series. He’s not doing it alone, though, as Thomas has teamed up with some big names in both comics and animation to bring Cannon Busters to life. We had a chance to sit down with Thomas to discuss Cannon Busters‘ development, how working globally has affected his work as an artist, and what really defines the term “anime”.
For those who may not have heard of Cannon Busters before now, give us a little background on the story and how it came to be.
Cannon Busters is a comic book idea I developed while home in NYC over fourteen years ago. It was one of the many ideas I had for comics at a time when I’d just wrapped up work in animation as an assistant animator on Disney’s Lizzie McGuire show. The book itself had only two issues before I stopped work on it, because I couldn’t develop the book and be a Supervising Character Designer and Co-Director on The Boondocks on Adult Swim. I underestimated how much work was involved trying to do both a comic and help make a wildly successful animated TV series, so I decided to put the book on hold, with the plan to continue work on it at my leisure and eventually release it as one graphic novel. That didn’t go so well, either.
Fast forward to me having an opportunity to relocate to Seoul South Korea to work as an employee at sub-contracting animation house, JM Animation in Seoul, which allowed me to meet animators and directors to collaborate with. This was when I saw an opportunity to adapt it in animated form.
Did you always plan to develop a Cannon Busters animated series, or did it come about as a result of your own shift from comics to animation?
Yes and no. Actually, it was something that I always hoped would happen, but at the time of its inception, I had more access to making comic books than producing animation. And since my experience and credentials weren’t quite where they needed to be to make it an animated project first, making it a comic book was the logical choice at the time. At the same time, building my experience and relationships over the last ten years while still developing it allowed it to make the transition to animation more naturally, seeing as my primary focus was 2D animation production.
What’s been the process of bringing Cannon Busters off the page and into motion on the screen?
It all started at JM Animation. I’d met colleague Kim Kidoo, a talented animator/animation director. I planned a pilot myself, with me directing and him as my animation director. I had Fabian Schlaga on board as art director, and clean-up/compositing/in-between was divided between MOI animation Studio in Seoul and Parks Movie, a smaller animation house in Seoul. But I ran out of time, and before I knew it, I was tapped as Creative Producer/Supervising Director on Black Dynamite: The Animated Series. So I inevitably moved back to America to help the project along at Titmouse. The decision to launch a Kickstarter for Cannon Busters came earlier this year as my production time on Black Dynamite Season Two crossed its halfway point of production, and I began facing what my next move was content-wise.
What can you tell about the team you’ve pulled together for the Cannon Busters pilot? It seems like you’ve got talent from all over the globe.
Joe Madureira (Battle Chasers, Darksiders) was among several artists I’ve looked to for inspiration, motivation and idolized in my early days. He did a lot for mainstream comic books in America at a time when anime/manga was still largely a mystery. His works on Uncanny X-Men and Battle Chasers showed it was okay to be influenced by Eastern artists in comics and animation. At least to me, he did. Over the years he began to recognize my work and we eventually connected and became good colleagues. He was always an open supporter of my works. When I finally showed him the stuff I’d been producing/directing in Korea for the Cannon Busters project, he responded with full support. That was what motivated me to inquire about his involvement in the project. When he agreed, I was elated.
Thomas Romain was someone I learned of years ago, from his work on the Sav! The World/HAL Filmmaker co-production, Oban Star Racers. I encountered him on this inspirational “Making of Oban Star Racers” documentary on the DVD. It was basically a behind-the-scenes look at these French talents which were a mix of independent artists and Gobelins graduates moving to Japan to live and work in this Japanese animation studio to make Oban. It was fascinating and encouraging at the same time. I was inspired to say the least. I would even go as far as to say it played a small role in my decision to move to Korea. Thomas has since moved on to be one of the most recognizable anime creators in Japan, co-creating Code Lyoko, as well as teaming up with Macross legend Shoji Kawamori to create Basquash!, and recently serving as a mecha designer on Space Dandy. He’s currently a staffer at Satelight, Inc. Japan, one of the most popular anime studios in Tokyo.
Fast-forward six years later, and Thomas reaches out to me randomly on Twitter, saying he saw “Failing Your Way to Success”, my TedxTalk lecture in Sinchon, Seoul about facing fear head on. Thomas mentioned that he and I were similar in our choices to move and work in animation abroad. Once an opportunity to go to Tokyo came up this past July, I saw reason to visit Thomas and Satelight studios and pitched my idea. The rest is history.
Right around that time, I’d met another talent from France, Yann Le Gall, a BG artist on Basquash! as well. Amazingly talented, and who also contributed great development work to the project.
Tim Yoon was someone I’d met during my time on Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra as a storyboard/production artist. I was still living in Seoul during this time and had come home for a visit. I met Tim during a visit to Nickelodeon and we talked a lot about the process abroad, the difference in production as well as politics. After we both moved on, we reconnected and when I asked if he’d be interested in joining this project, he agreed. I’m blessed to have his support. He’s a brilliant guy and knows a lot about making really good things on time, ha, ha.
Animator Bahi JD was a younger talent I’d known via DeviantArt. He was someone who I’d exchange discussion about my art or his art back when he was doing experimental GIF animations. He’s grown to be a strong up-and-coming key animator, having lent his work to Ghost in the Shell: Arise, Space Dandy, Ping Pong, and Kids on the Slope among others. We had planned to originally work together on another project of mine, before I decided to launch the CB Kickstarter. But once this project got going, I asked if he’d work with me on this instead. He agreed and we’d been working together since.
All of these relationships kind of formed organically in their own way and it’s quite exciting to have such an international team from different walks of life, experience and regions come together to create something unique.
You’ve worked in animation in the States and overseas. How do those experiences differ?
There are the obvious differences, like the language difference, the cultural history, the homogenous nature and etiquette. Those have a surprising effect on how it affects you as an artist on a day to day.
From a more subtle standpoint, creativity, at least to me, isn’t a switch you can just cut on and off. I believe emotional context and confidence affects how good you do a thing. When you’re outside the box in such a culturally shocking environment like South Korea, being able to just do well isn’t always an option, you have to find a comfort to do well. That took me a while.
Also, there isn’t much pre-production and post-production in Korea’s animation production community, as that’s an American domain, at least as far as the shows created in America are concerned. You’re only doing main production (layout, key animation. in-between, clean up and ink/paint), whereas in America it’s largely just pre-production and post-production (scripts, records, design to editing, ADR, SFX and final delivery). So in America, it’s largely like experiencing only A and C, but not B. And in Korea, it’s like only experiencing only B, and not having access to be involved with A and C. It’s very compartmentalized.
Since we’re talking about the differences you’ve experienced working in the East and the West … After a recent online interview, you mentioned there was a lot of debate in the comments over whether or not Cannon Busters should be called “anime”. So how would you categorize Cannon Busters? And what about other projects you’ve worked on, like The Legend of Korra, The Boondocks, and Black Dynamite … projects that were developed primarily for American audiences?
I would categorize Cannon Busters as a very cool, adventure/dramedy with action. Visually, there are clear, stylistic influences that are apparently visual motifs one would consistently find in animated shows from Japan if they looked hard enough, but there’s plenty of Eastern inflections in there as well as it being an Eastern story and concept. As for Legend of Korra, The Boondocks, and Black Dynamite, I would say they are also animated shows that showcase a strong visual style seen in most Eastern animated projects, but there’s a lot of strong Western sensibilities, not only in the design, but the concept, story and writing of those shows you’ve mentioned as well.
So what do you think defines “anime” and what qualifies as such? Is it a particular style or technique? A more abstract genre? Or is it even something that needs to be specifically defined?
I think there is no one, definition of what “anime” is. I personally think it depends on who you talk to. Some believe it has to be made all by the hands of a Japanese person who was raised by anime gods and ritualized to be a contributor to all things anime. His/her hands would have to be touched by the ghost of Osamu Tezuka himself in order to be labeled as legitimate anime.
Seriously, though, what’s really in a label? I’ve heard this “anime/not anime” argument mostly from those who usually have the least interest or influence on the genre or work in the field. Dai Sato, one of the most respected creators/writers in Japanese animation, who has contributed to hits like Cowboy Bebop, Ghost In The Shell: S.A.C., Eureka Seven, and Samurai Champloo, had a fascinating interview several years ago for Japan Society where he was asked his opinion on The Boondocks, and if Sato-san considered The Boondocks as “anime”. He answered, “Yes, I think it does count as anime. The foreign otaku might not see it that way. But I would take the stance of looking at it from a technical standpoint, and whether it belongs to this historical line of animation, or that. And it is limited animation, like Japanese anime.”
I think “anime” simply means “animation” in Japanese. It’s even derived from the French phrase for animation: “dessin animé”. The style itself which was largely ushered in by the “Godfather of Anime”, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy), who was largely influence by Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop’s designs from America at the time of Astro Boy‘s inception. Historically, the animation medium in general has always been a shared medium, influencing many across the globe for decades, and the folks who are more passionate and less informed of the history of the stylistic approach to the medium known as anime they so vehemently protect will see that someday, too.
The tricky part is who you say it to. In my experience the “it is/isn’t anime” rule book is also a guard tactic amongst consumers and fanatics who create a sort of mutually-agreed upon term or box or label to protect their fandom. But I assure you, the people I’ve worked with who create anime don’t see it that way, we don’t have those discussions. They’re just making stuff together, style differences notwithstanding. What we’re doing with Cannon Busters, should we be fortunate enough to be funded successfully, is what I like to call a term coined by Thomas Romain as “World Animation.”
If you’ve noticed, not one usage of the word “anime” is in our campaign presentation. It’s something others have projected onto the project. We’re not interested in the labels. We as professionals with like-minded interests just see an opportunity to take all of our experiences in the field and create something awesome together for the first time. I think anyone who has a true love for the medium of animation can appreciate that.