September 14, 2015

Shigeto Koyama, the guy responsible for the adorable Baymax in Big Hero 6, prefers to let his work speak for him. He has very few portraits of himself online, but countless images of his work (just do a quick Google search on him). It was his first time in Singapore last weekend when he came for the Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention (STGCC), which was held at Marina Bay Sands. He has always wanted to be a designer for product packaging since young because both his parents and grandparents worked in the make-up industry, but he got his first break when his teacher and idol, character designer Mr Sadamoto, invited him to join the production team for an anime called Diebuster. He sketches on his MacBook Pro and Wacom Cintiq 13HD, with the help of Adobe Photoshop and Clipstudio, but finds it easier to sketch on paper. We speak with him to delve deeper into his world.

How do you come up with the ideas for your characters?
My main inspiration are things that I’ve seen and touched. It’s possible to connect all the things that exist in this world to my designing process. Anything you see around you can become an inspiration. For example, to design a character, I would derive inspiration from the colour of the cake that I am eating at the moment, and maybe the shape of the lighter in my hand.

What is your creative process for each mecha and character once you’ve got a rough idea?
For animation, the first step would be the silhouette. You have to design it in a way that even after you ink it in black, you’ll still be able to recognise the character or the mecha through the silhouette. That is a very important element. From there, I’ll add in the looks that reflect the characteristic and background of the character.

You dabble in both character designs and mecha designs, above all else. What are some differences and various difficulties you face when designing either one?
I don’t think there is any difference. If you focus on a car that is running at full speed, you have to make it look like it is a characteristic of the car, and even the moving mechanism must have a character of its own. With regard to difficulties, there are times when the mechanic movement has too many parts to draw. That will make it extremely difficult. (laughs) Difficulties that surface in drawing for both genres are pretty much the same.

Who are some of your influences?
There are too many and I can’t answer this without doing justice to the rest whom I don’t mention. (laughs) But I certainly feel the first anime production team I joined has influenced quite a bit. The team for Diebuster, inclusive of Mr Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Mr Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Mr Yoji Enokido, would be my biggest influences.

You’ve worked with numerous studios before like Gainax, TRIGGER, BONES, etc. What are some of the things you’ve taken away from the various studios?
Thanks to working with various studios, I’ve had the chance to experience various production techniques and styles. To summarise, it is like playing an RPG game as the main character, through the roles of the Warrior, the Mage and the Bard, eventually fully experiencing the whole game (in the context of animation). Till this day, I am still very thankful for all these opportunities.

One of your career highlights is working with Disney on Big Hero 6, an animated film set in the dystopian city of San Fransokyo. How did you land yourself that gig?
The director, Don Hall, was in Japan to gather material about Japanese culture for Big Hero 6. He happened to be in Akihabara and bought figurines there. We had a dinner together that day and he told me, “The figurine that I bought today was very interesting.” When he revealed what the specific figurine was, it turned out to be the figurine of a robot I had designed. I answered him, “Hey! I designed this robot!” He replied, “Then help me out!” (laughs)

From the looks of it, what you were doing with Disney was very different from what you’re used to. What were your main challenges when conceptualising Baymax in Big Hero 6?
Actually it is totally the same. It is the same as how I worked on other titles, right down to communication with the staff. I really enjoyed the process. Even though we were separated by language and physical location, I was able to brainstorm ideas with the guys in Disney’s studios and created Baymax with them. There weren’t any real barriers. There were also no other particular difficulties even though Disney is a very big studio.

However, with regard to challenges, it would stem from how we had to moderate the culture gap. As this movie was for a worldwide audience, we had to design it in a way that can be easily understood by the audiences from any country. As a result, I felt that I wasn’t able to incorporate the “spirit” of Japan into the design.

What are some of the biggest differences in terms of animation (both mecha and character design) between the East and West?
The scale of production and the budget. Apart from these, there are no real differences in terms of animation between the East and West. I have participated in production for both for Japanese and American titles. Even though we live in different geographical locations, most of the things that we do are actually the same. We reacted and even boo-ed to the same scene. (laughs) I think as long as you love animation, it does not matter where you are from.

Congratulations on directing your first short film earlier this year! Can you tell us a little bit more about Obake-chan?
Obake-chan is an original short animation that I did together with designer Mr Tsuyoshi Kusano. It is about a young ghost and her ghost cat, who are just frolicking around, living their seemingly empty everyday life. It is a very weird anime. (laughs) I think for everyone, there is a time that one is just bored and spends the whole day doing nothing. This is the anime about that day.

What motivated you to create this short film?
“An anime without colour and background art will be easy!!!” was my main motivation to create Obake-chan! Okay, that was a joke because as I progressed, it became obvious that doing an “easy” animation is actually pretty challenging.

In the animation world of Hollywood and Japan, the images and pictures used are becoming increasingly crowded with colours and information. So we created Obake-chan, to try to challenge the limit of simplicity and a minimalistic world, in which we omitted many expressions. For example, it would be a rock band with only a drummer, or a dinner with only bread on the table. (laughs)

Obake-chan definitely serves for some comic relief, but is there a deeper meaning to each of these adventures?
I would like the people to watch it and derive a meaning for themselves. Please look forward to watching it.

What was it like working with Tsuyoshi Kusano?
Mr Kusano is my senior, my friend, my dad (figurative), my rival, and also my partner. The encounter with him has made an immense impact on my life. We are both very influenced by each other. He is an irreplaceable existence in my life. On a side note, many may not have had the chance to see it, but when he is designing, he is so fast that you can’t see the movement of his fingers. We call him the “Design Machine”. (laughs)

I understand that you prefer working with interesting people rather than choosing a company to work with. But have you ever considered strapping yourself down with a studio you like for good in the near future, or perhaps even starting up your own studio?
Please keep this a secret, but actually there is already one.

It’s called “S”ecret “F”actory and it’s somewhere in Tokyo. I still can’t share anything in specific, but I have few things on my work list that will surprise everyone! Even though it’s still in the planning stages, I’m really excited about the development.

Photos courtesy: Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention STGCC 2015