From Watcher to Maker: Storytelling in Anime

Note: This article was written for an on-line animation discussion
group in August, 1994. --CSR
For fifteen years, I'd been carrying around a set of ideas that when presented properly, should tell a pretty good story. Throughout high school and college I would attempt to write short stories covering the various ideas; some of the results were pretty good, even reading over them them today. I had a problem, though--none of the writings were complete! They would start off well, but then they would lose their novelty value and just...well, stop. I had more than twenty pieces like this. Some were hardly more than a page; the longest one was over seventy pages (and yet failed to even get to the heart of its story).

These bits of stories sat in the computer (or, for the older ones, on a legal pad) forever. Then, quite by accident, I stumbled across anime.

My first real exposure to anime was in 1973: a regional kid's show called 'Paul Shannon's Adventure Time' (Shannon used to appear on Mister Rogers from time to time back then) would show episodes of the cartoon series Kimba, the White Lion. As I was only nine years old at the time, I had no idea I was watching an anime. (Of course I later learned it had historical significance as the first color anime. Side note: Kimba is, as most of you know, getting some new exposure as Disney's Lion King is being compared [and criticized for seeming similarites] to the Tezuka manga/anime series.) All I remember of the time is that I liked the way the characters were drawn. I knew nothing about backgrounds or cels, just the the style was atypical of the typical 1960s animation (Birdman, etc.). Then Kimba was gone, and Speed Racer appeared on my TV. The Car Acrobatic Team, the GRX, the Mammoth Car, Kabala and his student--Racer X, Cruncher Block, Ace Duecey--this show was so odd I remember these bits of trivia even today! Then I started building electronic gadgets, and forgot about animation for a few years.

In 1981, Showtime broadcast the 'Force-Five' (Grandizer, et al) animes. By this time, we had a VCR in the house, and I *still* have them on tape. In 1985, I saw some of the Robotech episodes on TV, which is probably the origin of a lot of anime fans on this side of the Pacific.

What got my attention, however, was a happy accident last year (1993). The Sci-Fi channel was showing Robot Carnival, and I flipped the TV on just as the short film _Presence_ had started. Twenty minutes later, I knew I had found the way to tell my stories.

What I had seen was a story with scenes visualized on-screen almost exactly the way I visualize them in my head. I needed to see more. I got on internet and found a list of start-up anime. BGC, Kyuuketsuke Miyu, Gunbuster, UY...I found who was selling them, who was renting them, and started to watch and learn. I had a definite purpose to watching the shows; not merely for enjoyment, but to learn the anime standards of scene set-ups, camera motions and character actions. I settled down to a crash course in impromptu screenwriting and animation directing.

Almost exactly a year ago, I started work on a script, that as luck would have it, be the last story to be made of the series--if ever. It took three months to complete, but I had the complete story, dialogue, scene setups, camera directions-- everything was contained in a script that could create a two hour movie.

But how to get it *made*?

I asked that question of Steve Pearl (romulus/, who suggested I talk to a fellow named Mike Tatsugawa who headed some sort of national society of anime fans. He pointed me to Darold Higa (AnimeExpo '94 co-chairman) who in turn gave me the name "Running Ink Animation Productions", a studio in Los Angeles. They had apparently done a couple of short anime films before and were looking for other projects.

Mid-October of last year, I called David Ho, President of RIAP.

He wanted to see my script, for review. I sent him a copy. He liked it well enough, said it would work in the same style as Gunbuster, and cost about $500,000 to do the way I had outlined. "Don't let the high price tag scare you away," he said. :)

After the initial shock wore off, I realized I'd been thinking the wrong way. I needed a small experiment before attempting much bigger projects. Over the month of November 1993 I worked out an outline to what I originally intended to be story #2 of the OAV set, and reworked it to be presented first and within a reasonable budget. I'd have to wait to use backlit effects. :) Sometime in the middle of that month I ended up in Canada, and passed through Montreal. Emru Townsend did me the great favor of showing me the incredible film Wings of Honneamise--now I had a real goal. Anime, but written to feel of an Arthur C. Clarke story.

The phone calls to CA were numerous, and no real project was in work yet. Through December (somehow moving into a new house at the same time) I pulled in all the ideas I would use for what became No Enemy But Time. No dialogue--too expensive for the moment. Instead, I would concentrate on basic scene set-ups. Dissolves and pans, 'artistic' visuals (such as the scene motion carried as reflections of characters in water), convincing people they were looking at a *huge* starship...I was learning that every scene, not just the ones that appeal to my mind's eye, each one of them was important and needed to be treated as such.

Over the Christmas holidays, a verbal agreement was reached between myself and RIAP. I sent them an outline draft of the story, broken down into major and minor scenes with extra information such as camera actions on key areas. I spent the New Years' weekend in New Orleans, where I sketched out my original concepts of the space structures and ships I'd like to use. Doug Ferguson was ready to help with concept artwork. He knew the style I was after: Clean, Clarke, Kubrick. :)

As the first part of January passed, RIAP and myself has a real, signed agreement for the creation of a storyboard set from my original script and the conceptual art. David Ho, co-executive producer and art supervisor, created the character designs based on suggestions from me. Chad Kime, the director (and with whom I talked the most over the course of the project) was in charge of the actual production as far as directing the animators. He and I spent hundreds of hours on the phone arguing about how something should look or a set-up should be presented.

January, February and March saw the most of my efforts. I was writer/producer, and my part was pre-production. Phone calls, email, FAXes of sketches, sending videotapes to the background painter of Hubble Space Telescope shots se he could see what stellar gas clouds *really* looked like. (The background artist lives in Vancouver, B.C.) At the same time, Doug down in New Orleans was churning out more concept visuals as we needed them, and I had to constantly moderate between his accurate depictions of my ideas and what RIAP and I could actually afford to do with them. I insisted that one of Doug's works be incorporated directly; it appears as the end-title credit background. By mid-March, the production contracts were in place and the storyboards were finished. RIAP would find someone to write a musical score. (note: for the next project, I'll be doing a fair portion of the music :)

As far as the actual production went, I had to watch from the other side of the country. I kept in constant touch with the studio and provided details to solutions of the endless set of problems that cropped up during production. I needed something to do, so I told them I would take on the task of packaging the tape. Doug and I worked out a video J-card and mini artbook that could be laserprinted on good quality heavy papers and created enough for the inital 500 unit run.

The production itself was traditional cel animation; approx. 1250 cels were created, 140 backgrounds, and 15 minutes of music. With the deadline of June 27th, the day I went to Los Angeles, coming up all-too-fast, two minor scenes suffered edits due to the fact no time was left to paint cels! I first saw the complete animation the evening of June 27th. Up until that time, I had no work-in-progress material of any kind other than production sketches. It took me a few times watching it through to approve of it--it is a nervous experience to watch what you got versus what you originally visualized in the beginning. In the end, it worked quite well for me. A few things came across somewhat different than I intended, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see heretofore unobserved story elements come to the surface--things I wanted to show but yet never consciously mentioned.

July 1st, 1994, 11:00AM at AnimeExpo '94: No Enemy But Time premiered.

Now to *sell* this thing! RIAP will be pushing this product in their area (they are going to the San Diego Comic Con, a 30,000+ attendee event, for example). While I will do my best to get the film shown at conventions and into a few local comic/anime stores. In addition, I'll be talking about it on internet, trying to get it sold through mail-order.

As for other venues, this sort of story is not what I would submit to, say, MTV for their show Liquid Television. The tone of the story is not along the harsh lines LQTV seems to demand. I did notice they used the 'Running Man' short from Neo-Tokyo- -so anime can get on there--it is just that my stories have no visible Akira-like harshness to them, and as such would have to be shown in a different collection.

NEBT Animation Article 8/94 / Christopher S. Rider /