Japanese anime continues to gain popularity around the world. We’re conducting interviews of anime studios and asking them about the behind-the-scenes process and the thoughts that go into anime production. This is a large-scale project that is being done in collaboration with anime sites around the world, including the anime information site Anime Anime!, Tokyo Otaku Mode with 20 million likes on Facebook, and the huge Chinese site Bahamut.
Polygon Pictures’s best-known works: Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Blame!, Knights of Sidonia, Ajin, Lost in Oz, Tron: Uprising, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and more.
Polygon Pictures is a studio with a mission to do what no other has done, in unparalleled quality, for all the world to see and enjoy..
Their release of Knights of Sidonia in 2014 caused a stir in the animation industry in both Japan and around the world. It had cel animation moving as CGI in a brand new style that took comic-like expressions and made them digital. After that, they released Ajin and Blame!, establishing their production style.
Polygon Pictures opened in 1983, making it the world’s oldest CGI animation studio in existence. It can be said that its existence has been supported not by tradition but by its continuing innovation.
We sat down with Hideki Moriya, a producer and the vice president of Polygon Pictures.
The Oldest CGI Animation Studio in Existence
– Please tell us about the founding of Polygon Pictures.
Hideki Moriya: It was founded in 1983, so this year is the studio’s 35th anniversary. It’s the oldest CGI studio in the world. It’s even older than Pixar (laughs).
When the studio first opened our focus was on making CGI tools, but in the ‘90s, we had a hit with the characters we designed, Rocky and Hopper. However, focusing solely on and investing in our own projects didn’t last long and we reached a point where our business was in danger, so in the 2000s, we started working on projects for other companies as well.
That’s when we started working on My Friends Tigger & Pooh, and after that we got orders for series like Hasbro Studios’ Transformers Prime, Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Disney asked for Tron: Uprising after Pooh. Our business finally became stable. By the way, we’ve made over 100 episodes for Transformers.
– Recently, you’ve been working on Lost in Oz for Amazon. You’ve also been awarded Emmy Awards five times for your titles, including Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, which you produced in collaboration with Studio Ghibli.
Moriya Polygon Pictures is different from other Japanese studios in that we’ve been working with lots of different people, including some in Hollywood, since the ‘90s. Because of that network, we’ve ended up making a lot of foreign titles.
In 2014, you used CGI technology to create a Japanese-style title, Knights of Sidonia, and followed it up with Ajin, Blame!, and the Godzilla trilogy.
Moriya: There are multiple companies that make CGI animation that imitate cel animation like we do, but I think we’re the studio that makes the most titles in the world. Knights of Sidonia and Ajin total 50 episodes while Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter has 26. Right now we’re working on Fist of the Blue Sky: Regenesis.
They’re foreign titles, but both Transformers: Robots in Disguise and the recently announced Star Wars Resistance are made with CGI animation made to look 2D. For movies, we did Blame! and the Godzilla trilogy. I feel that our CGI techniques mimicking cel animation have really improved over the past five years.
– You have a solid business working on titles meant for a foreign audience, so it’s surprising that you entered the difficult Japanese market.
Moriya: One of the reasons is the market condition overseas. Around 2010, foreign TV series made up the majority of our work. The Star Wars and Transformers cartoons had a much bigger budget than most Japanese 2D anime do.
But there aren’t many companies in the world that can allocate such a big budget to CGI, and in the second half of 2012, cartoons like 2D comedies and other low-budget titles became the trend in the United States. We thought our business was in danger.
Another reason is that we began developing the technology to make CGI animation that looked Japanese for Tron: Uprising around the same time. We thought that we could use this technology freely to make Japanese-style animation, so why not try making our own titles and copyrights again?
There was also the American market situation, so we ended up making the decision to enter the Japanese market then. We started by speaking with various people in the anime industry, but it wasn’t easy to reach a point where we could start working on a title. That’s only natural. There weren’t any anime aimed towards adults using CGI at the time, so we were asked countless times about what it would look like and if CGI would actually sell, so it took a lot of time.
I just kept repeating myself, saying that we didn’t know but I knew it would end up being something good, so I wanted them to trust us (laughs). In the end, King Records became the biggest investor in our anime production, and we made Knights of Sidonia.
The Challenge of Knights of Sidonia, Followed by Ajin and Godzilla
– How did you choose Knights of Sidonia as a title to produce?
Moriya: First, I spoke with some acquaintances and ended up meeting with Kodansha. They gave me advice that since we had made Transformers and Star Wars, if we were going to enter the Japanese market, it would be easiest for the audience if we started with a sci-fi robot story. Since we at Polygon want to make titles that have world-wide appeal, we decided that animating Mr. Nihei’s internationally popular Knights of Sidonia would be the best route to take.
By the way, in order to get permission to make this anime, I made this absurd request to Mr. Nihei by telling him that it would be the first time that Polygon would make a late night anime series using CGI that looked like cel animation, but that we wanted him to believe in us and give us permission (laughs). Hiroyuki Seshita, the co-director on Sidonia, and Naoya Tanaka, the production designer, both used their time off to draw us a ton of Sidonia sketches, which showed our enthusiasm for the project and helped us get permission.
– Knights of Sidonia was the first anime to be broadcast on Netflix in Japan, so it received a lot of attention for that.
Moriya: Around 2012-2013, regular Japanese 2D anime weren’t very expensive to license overseas. Neither Netflix Japan nor Amazon were streaming yet, and the international licensees for Japanese animation were largely already decided.
For Knights of Sidonia, we invested in it ourselves and were the sales window for the United States. Because Polygon didn’t have any licensing activities before, we also didn’t have any ties of obligation. We took a different approach and tried to see if we couldn’t monetize it in big way. That’s when someone brought up how Netflix had become a success in the United States, so it was worth taking a risk.
That’s when we used the connections we had built in the United States. We were able to get a direct meeting with someone from Netflix through some people we knew. That person knew our work on Tron: Uprising very well, and said that they had wanted to start making animated titles and that they trusted in our production quality. That’s how we were able to make Knights of Sidonia the first original anime that Netflix streamed in the Western market.
– After Knights of Sidonia, you produced Ajin.
Moriya: We were in the middle of producing Sidonia, but when King Records and Kodansha saw some of our test footage, they were impressed and asked us to do Ajin. Ajin is a contemporary drama and road movie that has a lot of different settings, so it was very difficult to do in CGI. But we were newcomers in the Japanese anime market, so there was a need to keep making releases so we wouldn’t end with Sidonia. We were able to get everyone on board and start working on it.
On the other hand, although Mr. Seshita was busy directing the second season of Knights of Sidonia, he was also the supervising director for Ajin. Mr. Seshita came up with the concept for the series, which is a suspense-action series with a documentary-style touch, so that it could be accessible to audiences throughout the world. We wanted it to have a similar tension to the American TV show, 24.
– In 2014, you also produced Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, directed by Goro Miyazaki.
Moriya: Studio Ghibli contacted us when we were in the middle of working on Knights of Sidonia. At the time, Naoya Tanaka, who had worked as the artistic director on Princess Mononoke, and Mitsunori Kataama, who had been the digital animation director on Howl’s Moving Castle, were both working with us, so Toshio Suzuki and Goro Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli reached out to us. Mr. Miyazaki said that they wanted to branch out into CGI animation, so they wanted our help. We thought it would be difficult for us to make our CGI animation have that special Ghibli touch, but just like with Ajin, we decided to take on the challenge (laughs).
The credits state that Studio Ghibli cooperated with us for production, but actually, the production design was entirely to Ghibli’s orders. Now that I think about it, there aren’t many titles in Japan that Studio Ghibli made with other studios, so it became a really memorable title.
That’s how we ended up producing three cel animation-style CGI series almost at the same time between 2012 and 2014. We then got the OK to produce an anime based on Mr. Nihei’s manga, Blame!, and Toho Co. asked us to do the Godzilla trilogy after watching Knights of Sidonia. That’s how we ended up becoming the axis for cel animation-style CGI production in the Japanese animation industry in such a short time, but I’m really grateful that Knights of Sidonia became our connection to working on lots of anime, just like how My Friends Tigger & Pooh led to us working on many foreign TV series.
Actually, last year we got some good news regarding our cel animation-style CGI. A former Polygon staff member is now working at Pixar, and they contacted us because they wanted to show Blame! to Pixar members as an example of cel animation-style CGI. We’ve thought a lot about how it would be difficult for us to make a title like one of Pixar’s, and we wondered what our own distinguishing characteristics that couldn’t be matched by Pixar would be, but that conversation became a big hint.
We’re in the position where we are a CGI studio that has a production point of view that comes from being raised in the Japanese manga and animation culture, but also has a very strong global consciousness. That is our distinguishing characteristic and we want to continue to strengthen that.
To do what no other has done, in unparalleled quality, for all the world to see and enjoy
– You’ve released plenty of titles. How is the studio organized in order to do that?
Moriya: We have about 250-300 people in total, and our subsidiary in Malaysia called Silver Ant PPI has about 70-80 people. The offices in Tokyo and Malaysia are a group corporation, so the data created in either company can be shared within a few hours, leading to an environment equipped with smooth data sharing.
There are about 200 employees in Tokyo. We also usually hire 50 to 100 contract workers for different projects, so we’re Japan’s biggest CGI studio.
There are about 10 producers, including myself, and about 40 staff members in management positions, such as line producers and production managers, which allows us to have anywhere from 20 to 30 projects of various sizes running at the same time.
The production management section has more people than those in other anime studios, but we have a large number of employees, so even one day’s delay has a huge financial impact on us. As a result, we pay close attention to every day’s progress and aim to keep a strict production schedule.
We have about twenty people in our technology department which oversees R&D and our systems, as well as ten people in administration who take care of tasks like general affairs and accounting. Since roughly half of our work comes from overseas, we have about ten people in our translation team who translate our emails or interpret for us in video meetings.
The number of artists we have differs depending on the period, but we have about 150-180 people, including contract workers. One of our biggest differences is that in other studios, the staff is broken up by project, but in ours, they’re broken up by department. For example, our 3D modeling department is in charge of the 3D models for all of our titles.
– So you aren’t organized by title at all?
Moriya: Of course, each project has a team, but breaking up the production by process or department allows the knowhow learned on each project to be used on the next one. Also, we want to have the artists handle as many different titles as possible, so it’s good for their futures to be in an environment where they can see how other titles are being worked on.
For example, an artist who worked on Transformers Prime and Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter worked on Godzilla next. There are many artists who want to improve their skills, so having the chance to be involved in different projects will make them more motivated. If our scale as a studio isn’t big enough then we won’t be able to accept different types of orders, which wouldn’t allow us to create this kind of structure. That’s one of our strengths.
Polygon Pictures Continues to Challenge Itself
– You’re branching into VR as your next challenge.
Moriya: We teamed up with Kodansha to create a company called Kodansha VR Lab, but I don’t think of VR simply as a new media. This year, we created a business partnership with GREE and started working on developing a structure where we can expand our 3D model for use in various media. We create titles using 3D, so we want to use that strength in various ways. For example, can’t we take the 3D character model we made for an anime and use it speedily in a video or VR game? We plan on developing a system where we can create one 3D model and use it in different types of media with just one click.
The issue with developing the same content for different types of media is that there’s a big time lag. For example, if an anime is broadcast and they decide to make a video game afterwards, by the time the video game is ready for release, it’s two years after the anime aired. We want to use 3D models as much as we can and develop different media for the same content in a short period of time.
In the future, we’ll be able to use the system that we are developing with GREE to develop content that expands beyond anime, such as in new media, including VR, video games, live concerts with 3D characters, and more.
– Please give a message to anime fans around the world.
Moriya: I believe that most people have seen multiple works by studios like Ghibli or Pixar. If this article made you interested in Polygon Pictures and you’ve already seen Knights of Sidonia or Godzilla, I would like you to please watch some of our other works like Blame! or Lost in Oz. All of those titles are precious because they were made with great effort to challenge new things while overcoming daily troubles.
Right now, we are widening the limits of what we produce, like anime, video games, events, VR, and virtual YouTubers. We’re constantly announcing things on our homepage, but I’d like it if everyone could check out the various projects that we’re working on. Our vision is to do what no other has done, in unparalleled quality, for all the world to see and enjoy. I want to continue challenging new styles and creating titles that surprise the world using Polygon’s unique sense of expression.
This project also includes fan participation, featuring Otaku Coin, a community currency which is set to launch this fall. The aspirations of Otaku Coin are to connect Japanese otaku culture fans and creators throughout the world and to create a community that transcends borders with a community currency.
In collaboration with that, fans who read these articles will be able to use the Otaku Coin Official App to send the studios messages of support and gratitude. The support project will launch at the same time as the app in fall 2018. Please subscribe to the Otaku Coin mail magazine to receive the latest information and updates.