An Anime Producer Looking to the Future
Established in 2011, TRIGGER has quickly built a reputation as one of Japan’s leading animation studios. Founded by alumni of legendary studio GAINAX, TRIGGER has continued to refine that studio’s legacy of frenetic, fast-paced and beautifully rendered animation with original titles like Little Witch Academia, KILL la KILL and the hit film PROMARE.
One large reason for the success of TRIGGER’s properties is producer MASUMOTO Kazuya. MASUMOTO, another GAINAX alumnus, has been at TRIGGER since its founding, and has shepherded many of its most memorable works to completion. MASUMOTO spoke with Tokyo University of the Arts vice president and professor OKAMOTO Mitsuko about his own career path, the unique challenges facing TRIGGER and the industry at large, and why he believes anime producers must take on a stronger role in the future.
Executive staff and managing director of TRIGGER.Creator’s File
Born in Yamaguchi prefecture in 1976, MASUMOTO is a graduate of Yoyogi Animation School Fukuoka. Starting his career as a production assistant, he participated in numerous titles such as Digimon, Zatch Bell!, Ojamajo Doremi, Popolocrois Story, Hamtaro, and Hajime no Ippo. In 2006, MASUMOTO joined GAINAX and produced the popular series GURREN LAGANN and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. In 2011, MASUMOTO left GAINAX with IMAISHI Hiroyuki and OTSUKA Masahiko and created Studio TRIGGER. Some of his titles he has produced include KILL la KILL, Ninja Slayer from animation, and Space Patrol Luluco.
Interviewer OKAMOTO Mitsuko
Producer/Vice President, Tokyo University of the Arts; Professor, Department of Animation, Postgraduate School of Film and New Media.Full Profile
Produces and curates numerous TV programs, visual works, and events.
The Path to Becoming an Animation Producer
OKAMOTO: Could you give us a quick look back at your career up to now?
MASUMOTO: I’ve personally been a huge anime fan, an otaku, since way back. After I graduated from university, I decided I wanted to become an animator and spent about two years studying drawing at an animation school. Unfortunately, my drawing didn’t improve much during that time. My advisor told me my personality was more suited to management, so I entered the anime industry as a so-called "production assistant," a position responsible for the management of the individual episodes, in 2000. In 2006, I switched companies to GAINAX to participate in the production of GURREN LAGANN as a "production desk," which translates to project manager. On that project, I met director IMAISHI Hiroyuki and OTSUKA Masahiko, with whom I would later create TRIGGER together.
After GURREN LAGANN, I worked on a series called Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt as a line producer. That’s one step above "production desk" and involves not just being in the trenches on the project but creating the entire production line. I also had the opportunity to work as the animation producer in charge of business decisions for the project. After Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, in 2011, I left GAINAX to found TRIGGER with OTSUKA and IMAISHI. At TRIGGER, I currently work as animation producer and in production control.
TRIGGER: Triumphs and Challenges
OKAMOTO: I’d like to start by talking about the 2019 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, where PROMARE was shown. How was the reaction?
MASUMOTO: There was a lot of clapping and cheering. It seemed like the audience really got into it and enjoyed themselves.
OKAMOTO: The film has since been released in several countries. How has the reaction been?
MASUMOTO: We’ve had a great response from places like North America, Europe and Taiwan. There are many fans around the world who love TRIGGER’s work, and it felt like many of those passionate fans had eagerly been waiting for PROMARE, our first original theatrical film.
OKAMOTO: Why do you think your properties have been so popular with those fans abroad?
MASUMOTO: This is just my own theory, but I think what’s special about TRIGGER’s anime is its addictive presentation in a form of filmic pleasure. While it features carefully-written stories, it also has direction that works almost like a catalyst, animation that’s truly fun to watch, and fast-paced action that barely gives viewers time to think. Our animation is doused with those addictive qualities that we picked up from our GAINAX days, and that’s what appeals to our audience.
MASUMOTO: I think that kind of anime hops over the language barrier and appeals to fans abroad too.
OKAMOTO: Regarding PROMARE’s English-language release, how closely did you work with the licensor to guarantee its quality was up to your standards?
MASUMOTO: PROMARE was quite a special case. Normally, when a company like us licenses its properties abroad, it’s the business producer who’s in control. In other words, it’s uncommon for people on the creative side to have much input on international releases. But GKIDS, the licensor which released PROMARE in North America, is very understanding of the importance of creative input.
I think there were two major factors in TRIGGER being able to maintain such high quality on the PROMARE release. One, when GKIDS was holding auditions for the English-language cast, our creative director, WAKABAYASHI Hiromi, helped lead the process. That normally doesn’t happen. I think us being able to help choose the cast members was a huge factor. The other big factor was that our international manager, TATEMOTO Tatsuru, from our PR department, checked all the translated lines of dialogue. Many of our works have very particular dialogue and character names, and TATEMOTO works to make sure those unique nuances don’t get lost in translation. That was another major factor in the high quality of the localization.
The TRIGGER team (SUSHiO, TATEMOTO Tatsuru, WAKABAYASHI Hiromi and KOYAMA Shigeto) attending a panel at Anime Expo 2018 held at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
OKAMOTO: The whole industry is talking about how international co-productions are going to increase in the coming years. Are there any unique challenges there?
MASUMOTO: Yes, I think opportunities for Japanese creators to make anime aimed at the foreign market are already increasing. But I’m not sure the infrastructure for international development for Japanese animation is where it needs to be yet. Looking at the situation from a bird’s eye view, when it comes to exporting anime to the rest of the world, there are several key elements that aren’t up to industry standard: things like translation quality, contracts, licensing fees, rights issues and quality assurance. Those are the problems from a business perspective.
From the animation studio point of view, the challenge is whether studios have the perspective to decide if a series or film’s content or quality will be able to make it in the international market. For better or for worse, Japanese animation has a wide range of expression. It’s a mature medium that’s able to provide entertainment even for adults. But outside Japan, animation is still largely thought of as something for children, and there are limits in terms of what some countries consider "moral" for animation to depict. For international productions, it may become necessary to balance the diversity of expression with market concerns at earlier stages of production, such as the planning stages.
OKAMOTO: I’d like to talk about how TRIGGER trains new animators. It’s my impression that TRIGGER animators have a high skill level. Do you put a lot of emphasis on training?
MASUMOTO: Yes, we’ve actively focused on training since our founding. It’s a key part of our philosophy.
Anime o Shigoto ni!
TRIGGER-ryu Anime Seisaku-Shinko Mihon [Working in Anime! A Look at TRIGGER’s Production Process] (2014, Star Seas Company, MASUMOTO Kazuya).
A book that explores how anime is made from the perspective of an "animation runner." Currently available in Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
Production process of "Little Witch Academia" (TRIGGER)
This is a tutorial video, which MASUMOTO made as a supplemental material for his book, explaining the process of animation production.
OKAMOTO: Could you explain how the system works?
MASUMOTO: It’s basically an industry-standard approach. I’ll start with animators. The first thing a new animator learns is in-between frames. New animators are first given technical training on in-betweens for three months. Next, we have them work in the in-between section for a year. We have four animators designated to help these new animators learn. They perform quality checks and provide instruction.
Next, when those animators improve, they move up to the next level: key frames. As with in-betweens, new key frame animators are given one-on-one instruction as they work.
On the management side, the "production assistant" role I talked about at the beginning, I personally give new hires classroom-style instruction for about a month. After they learn the fundamentals of anime production and who’s who on an anime production staff, we move on to on-the-job training. We have them help out on projects for about six months, after which they’re given their own responsibilities.
Both the animator side and management side run on long-established industry practices. However, the Japanese animation industry is currently lacking both human and financial resources, so there are many studios who can’t offer proper training even if they want to. This is a huge challenge which requires urgent action. But many individual studios are in a tough situation and don’t have the ability to undertake such drastic changes. Many titles from the anime industry are winning praise around the world, but I think the training problem needs to be tackled on a worldwide scale as well.
OKAMOTO: Are there people from around the world applying to work at TRIGGER?
MASUMOTO: Yes, we’re receiving a lot of interest in different roles, including animator and production assistant positions.
OKAMOTO: Do you think you’ll be taking on such applicants?
MASUMOTO: It might be difficult for us, at least in the immediate future. We’re still a small company, and there are challenges when it comes to visas, the working environment and wages. It will be hard for us to employ foreign animators until we can overcome those three hurdles. However, we do plan to continue working with illustrators abroad in the pre-production stages on various projects.
OKAMOTO: My impression is that you’re always trying new ideas, including expanding into internet distribution. What’s your position on trying out new things like that?
MASUMOTO: Our young employees are always giving us new ideas, telling us about the latest trends. We definitely want to be proactive in trying new things.
OKAMOTO: What’s your impression of internet distribution? When you’re making a title for the internet, does it have an influence on the content itself?
MASUMOTO: It doesn’t influence the content or story in a significant way. However, when it comes to succeeding from a business standpoint, my impression is that it’s quite difficult to monetize such properties. It’s a great tool for getting more viewers. But I still think there are barriers to direct monetization of net-based properties.
The Role of an Anime Producer
OKAMOTO: Finally, I wanted to touch on the role of a producer. What do you think the role of anime producers like yourself will be going forward?
MASUMOTO: Compared to producers of live-action content, anime producers are quite weak. To give an example that might be easy to understand, the role of an anime producer is somewhat like that of a manga editor. The manga artist him or herself has the stronger role and the editor is there to provide support. The relationship between an anime director and producer is similar.
Naturally, providing support and security to creators is indeed part of the job. But anime producers must improve their strength in terms of things like their business outlook, the production schedule and overall staffing. If they don’t improve when it comes to these things, it’ll be fatal when they begin to take on work from abroad. At present, when it comes to international business, Japanese anime producers are weak. When it comes to business factors like company management and deliverables, they must get stronger.
OKAMOTO: On the other hand, if they don’t understand the creative side of things, their decision making might be flawed. I think producers like you, who wanted to be animators but then switched to the management side, have a big advantage.
MASUMOTO: With Japanese animation, the roles of business producer and creative producer are separate. Business producers must expand business development. At the same time, creative producers have to take that development and apply it to their deliverables, to quality control, etc. It’s like the two wheels of a bicycle. If they don’t properly communicate and work together, they won’t succeed. If you think about it like that, producers need to know a lot about what happens on the ground level of an anime production, so giving them training in the trenches is a big advantage.
In addition, in Japanese animation, we often get funding through something called a production committee. That’s when several companies come together as business partners to fund a project. For that reason, decisions are often made by committee, and there are cases in which that can slow down things on the business side. That’s one of the many challenges producers will have to consider as they think about their roles going forward.
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