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An interview with artist Patrick Awa

Thursday 14th June 2012

Andrew Osmond interviews artist and designer Patrick Awa

Patrick AwaPatrick Awa has seen anime and animation from many sides, stepping between East and West since he was born. His parents are Japanese; he was born in California, then taken to Japan before he was one. He’s been involved with anime that fans may have missed; hands up if you’ve heard of the penguin CGI film Hopper, or the SF Baton. But they’re only a tiny part of Awa’s artistic career. When we conducted this interview, Awa was just about to display his art at the haleARTS Space gallery in Santa Monica. You can see images from the show on his Five Rings blog.

Awa went to school in Tokyo, then to university in Chiba, studying Industrial and Product Design. He speaks of drawing as something he never grew out of. “I was one of those average infants with crayolas, making a mess on mom's favourite kitchen wall,” he told the blog of the animation studio Maverix. “I think usually kids find other interesting things to do like baseball or skateboards as they get older, and only a few uncelebrated ones are left behind with stubby crayolas. That's me.”

At university, Awa thought of being a product designer at Toyota or Sony. However, one of his teachers was Toshi Kawahara, who’d founded Polygon Pictures in 1983. Polygon was (and is) one of the oldest studios to specialise in CGI, working in a range of media: TV commercials, special effects and films for exhibitions. It’s also worked with Production I.G, providing the stunning titles for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and cloud battles for The Sky Crawlers.

“Pixar has just released Toy Story,” remembers Awa, “and I had not even touched Photoshop yet. Polygon’s R&D team created original 3D software when there was no major commercial software available. When I first visited Polygon, they were a small group of artistic innovators. Their CGI work felt a bit like an unconventional new design tool to me, like when the synthesiser came out in the music scene.”

For about three years, Awa worked at Polygon as a rookie designer. Then in 1997, Kawahara developed a dream – to produce the first wholly CG Japanese feature film. It would have been called Hopper, about penguins nine years before Happy Feet. Kawahara created a separate Tokyo studio, dedicated to featurs, and opened a US pre-production office to hire American artists and writers. Hopper was planned to appeal to an international audience. Awa was picked to join the American team as a character designer, a move taking him back to his birthplace, Santa Monica.

Polygon ZuThe roster of American talent on Hopper was awesome. John Stevenson, who would later co-direct Kung Fu Panda, was the head of story. Chris Miller (Shrek The Third, Puss in Boots) and Tom McGrath (Madagascar) were lead story artists. Barry Jackson, who has numerous Hollywood credits, was a production designer, and Peter de Seve, who would design Ice Age’s nut-loving Scrat, drew concept sketches. “I do not know how much you need to put these people back together now,” says Awa.

Awa was the head of the character design department. His team spent a year and half on Hopper’s pre-production. “We had a small tour of San Diego Zoo to play with Antarctic penguins in their freezing habitat. We did some sketches until our hands could not hold pencils any longer. It was my first experience in many respects, to work with an international staff, to learn the feature film making process... Everything was new to me.”

How would Hopper have compared with Hollywood’s Happy Feet and Surf’s Up? “It’s a tough question,” says Awa. “Story-wise we were trying to make something that could fit the Hollywood standard. But way back then, the only CGI film was Toy Story, so we were not sure how to sculpt our film. We were going more for an epic drama than a comedy, I think. Visually, we were going for semi-photoreal, like Happy Feet, though we were working with the beta version of the very first Maya software, so there could have been have been many technical problems to resolve.”

Sadly, Hopper never got past pre-production. “We kind of covered the entire storyboards and the production and character designs,” says Awa. “But the budget kept hiking up and eventually the investors pulled out when the Asian market crashed in ’98 and ’99.”

CrocotiresAfter Hopper’s cancellation, Awa returned to Tokyo and directed a four-minute film at Polygon, called Crocotires. The film’s subject is given away in the title – abandoned car tyres that turn into ‘dino-like’ creatures at night. “I wrote a short story, storyboarded and designed the characters and sets,” says Awa. “Luckily I got a very strong animation director, so he and other animators took care of the actual animation.”

In 2001, Awa moved back to California again and worked on numerous projects, including animated films such as Valiant, the science-fiction 9 and the much-underrated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Awa was also involved in an SF anime, Baton, made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Yokohama port in 2009. You can see its Japanese trailer below. “I was asked to do the initial concept design and the character designs,” says Awa. “Baton was done with rotoscoped animation [in which drawings are based on footage of real actors], and a hybrid of traditional animation and 3D effects.”

It was a different kind of experience, Awa says. “Unlike other projects I was used to, the film-makers on Baton built basic props and costumes for the live actors. It was a tight schedule – I had about two weeks to nail rough concepts on a few main characters, so that the costume/prop designers in Japan could prepare things for the shooting. Instead of finishing everything in practical terms, I was more drawing things ‘hell-out’ and sending them to the prop department to figure them out at their end.”

Around this time, Awa was also commencing work on another CGI movie, Gatchaman, based on the 1970s classic, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Awa watched the old show as a kid; British viewers saw it Americanised as Battle of the Planets.

“Gatchaman was one of the old shows which are sort of in my blood,” Awa says. He cites it alongside Yattaman (part of the Time Bokan franchise) and robot series like Mazinger Z and Getter Robo. “I loved them… They looked cool and sleek, acrobatic and elegant, probably even sexy to some degree. And there were Yoshitaka Amano's groundbreaking designs for most of them!” Awa also cites 1973’s Casshan: Robot Hunter, which has been reworked several times, including the ornate movie Casshern (2004), and the recent Casshern Sins.

Casshern Sins“I was thinking about Casshan and Casshern Sins, and why I like the new series,” says Awa. “Casshern Sins is very different from Casshan; there is almost no similarity in the story line. The new series has a really great visual style, very simple and elegant. Even though the style is quite far from the original, maybe there is some shared beauty from the original Amano design to this nicely evolved new one. Story-wise, Casshern Sins is depressing, but I think it has something to do with our emotional statement of the current Japanese situation. That's one of the things about remaking an old-school series; you have to find a reason to make it in this time.”

Which takes us back to the CGI Gatchaman. It wouldn’t have been an anime; rather, it was developed by the Hong Kong studio Imagi, following its CGI films of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (called TMNT) and Astro Boy. I was contacted by one of the Imagi producers regarding Gatchman; who could say no?” Awa says.

But things were different from what Awa expected. On the one side, there was a huge amount of goodwill: “The team was great, the directors were serious about the property; we all were trying to make a good film.” However, by the time Awa joined, Imagi was struggling to save Gatchaman after several restarts.

Awa spent more than a year working on pre-production in Los Angeles. “Because of the difficulty of developing this very Japanese, old-school content into a film for the international market, Imagi had to go through quite a few trials and errors. Ultimately it cost too much, and we weren’t able to proceed after Astro Boy’s disappointing box office.” Imagi canned Gatchaman in 2011.

“I have got mixed feelings about ‘crossover’ projects,” Awa says. He stresses the difference between a successful property – a Shonen Jump manga, for example – and its potential for being exploited in Hollywood. “I have been always interested to see if it’s possible to turn these Asian-based properties into internationally appealing films. There are of course properties that are just optioned in Hollywood and die there, or lose the track and end up as something totally different…”

Awa had witnessed the production of Imagi’s earlier film Astro Boy. “That was carried by consistent good effort. As I understand, Imagi and Tezuka Productions had a sincere relationship. I think the international team really tried to respect the original property. Unless you have a budget over 200 million dollars, you have limitations, but Imagi’s film was not a disrespectful film at all.” And yet Astro Boy flopped at the world box-office.

“So I guess the problem is not if the property is genuine or not,” Awa continues. “It is more about what’s the reason behind doing a remake. If the original property is a manga or a long-running TV series, it can be too much of a leap. At a movie, people want to get a tight conclusion paying off a two-hour experience, and it’s often hard to translate things into this format. So if you’ve decided to do it anyway, then it seems to be quite important to know what personal voice you wish to convey as a filmmaker through the adaptation.”

“I work in the US now,” Awa concludes, “but I grew up with Japanese anime and was influenced by Japanese artists. Regardless of whether I like it or not, it is in my blood. Unfortunately it seems to be really tough to make crossover products; it seems almost meant not to be. I guess you do not want to eat a hamburger and a cup of miso soup at the same time. However, I would still like to see if there are any untried combinations that could open some tasty options. It’s not easy for me to disentangle myself from the stuff I grew up with.”

Patrick Awa’s blog is at http://www.patrickawa.net/


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