A big thanks to my friend, Xin, without whom this interview would not have been possible!
To Be Hero has finally wrapped up. I had laughed until my sides ached, stood in awe and amazement before vistas of animation, and even teared up a little at the end. But when the final credit rolled, I simply could not except it as the end. My fandom of the show has felt like something of a crusade, trying to put such an amazing work in front of as many people as possible – even making a friend or two along the way. I suppose if I ever make it over to Shanghai I’ll have to share drinks with the folks at Haoliner’s studio and thank them for such an amazing work.
This interview was held after the final episode of To Be Hero had aired. I sat down with lead animator and animation director LAN to talk about the production, how things had gone and what changed. We go into great detail with questions about the production, right down to individual cuts. This is the second interview featured we have featured with, the first interview can be found here, and I strongly suggest that you read it. But without further ado, here’s the interview!
– So now it’s over – I would say To Be Hero was pretty well received, wouldn’t you?
LAN: The current reaction was to be expected. Personally, I am quite confident of Director Li’s storytelling. Before making this series, I realized this was going to be a show that isn’t accepted by everyone, or that people might even hate it because of Li’s dirty jokes as well as my art style. So, to me and my team, we just tried our best to attract audience’s attention, like increasing more action scenes.
– What was it like seeing the last episode on TV? What does it feel like when your drawings are on TV for everyone to see?
LAN: REST! I NEED A VACATION! (laughs) I thought the voice acting was awesome! I rewatched every episode again and again, read audience’s comments, and summarized experience.
– So tell us about Studio LAN. How many people are at the studio? What is the structure and set up? How did it come into being?
LAN: At first, we only had 3 people, and it took us 3 years to gradually become a team with about a dozen people. At the start, most staff members were still relatively green, but after To Be Hero, several of them were promoted from secondary key animators and became qualified key animators proper. The video I sent to you is some of their first work as a formal key animators.
– Do you have any thoughts of moving to Japan and working there?
LAN: The prospect doesn’t attract me too much. It is good enough to have the chance to cooperate with a Japanese team. Japan has too many intelligent animators, it’s full of competition, on the other hand, China needs more people like us making anime, so I choose to stay.
– So how did you become involved with To Be Hero? Did you choose it because you saw an opportunity for lots of action animation or was it by assignment?
LAN: We have been cooperating with director Li for a long time, he knows us as well, so this kind of show, you know, dirty with a funny style, is very suitable for us. To Be Hero doesn’t have much action, it aims for comedy. As for the action part, we often just ignore storyboard and added them according to our own preference.
– Director Li allows you a lot of free reign?
LAN: We were so worried that they would be deleted by the director, but he just accepted them in the end. But you know, it came to a point that in the action parts for episodes 11 and 12 he wrote “LAN” directly in a totally blank storyboard, meaning, ‘Do it as you like.’ (laughs)
– How many animators do you typically have on an episode?
LAN: We only had 4 key animator at that time, so every episode only had 4, others worked as secondary.
– You mentioned style in the 1st question, and I have to ask: Who was responsible for the overall art style of the show? Was it deliberately made to look rough?
LAN: The was a prior drafted version of To Be Hero, but what I wanted to make is totally different than that. I wanted to focus more on action, but that would increase the number of cuts, and the problem was that we didn’t have enough people, so we chose to give the show an individualized style. The rough outlines were advised by Shinichi Watanabe. We even considered changing the background art quite a few times throughout the show. To some extent, it is kind risky to choose an alternative art style, if audience didn’t accept it, we probably would have been abandoned.
– Do you feel there is a distinct Chinese identity to To Be Hero?
LAN: When it comes to To Be Hero, I think the script itself has some strong local features. Although we used absurd stories to overstate main character ‘s personality and experience, you can still find some typical Chinese citizen’s specialty.
LAN: We pay much attention on relations between people in Chinese culture, so you can see lots of business banquets, awkwardness between family members and coworkers. Feasts always make an important part in our life, ‘eating with family’ or ‘eating for business,’ we use eating to increase emotions. Pushing the story developments and emotion changes is how we use it in our show. From the beginning, our story takes place at a canteen if you recall. Half of Pop’s memories with family were also related with eating. Even the turning point – his plan being stolen by his colleague happens over dinner. So personally, I think script and characters decide what we called an identity, or a style.
Visually, it’s what works for the story. We can’t just stay on stressing that traditional Chinese style, like red lanterns, dragons, clouds of good luck… This story is on a modern city stage, if I just add those sorts of things wherever I wanted that would be weird. We just tried not to make the way our characters speech or movements look like Japanese or American animation. For an example: American animation shows the movement in hand and mouth, while Japan stresses on expression in eyes – I can’t conclude what Chinese animation looks like, I just try to make a Chinese audience feel intimacy. How much progress have we made? I guess that’s up to the audience.
– Do you see Chinese animation gradually creating it’s own identity?
LAN: If you mean aesthetics, for me I think we haven’t formed a conspicuous style; we are still in a study period. What we need to do is to draw lessons from others to express a good story. Style needs time to be gradually built up, but I can see these trends, maybe one day you will see too.
– Were there any productions problems during the course of the show? Was the show able to stay on schedule? What were some of the challenges?
LAN: The biggest problem was cooperation – I don’t have any work experience in Japan, and this is the first time working with a Japanese director and camera operator. We even went to Japan to consult the details to solve the problem. After about 2 episodes of cooperation, we finally got used to the situation. As for the schedule, we were nearly always behind. It took almost five months to confirm project, then we had preparation works, and had to coordinate with the Japanese voice actor’s schedule. In the last few episodes, we began to catch up. Some episodes were even finished within a week. For both episode 11 and 12, I broke through my limit drawing 30 cuts in one day. That is not something to be proud of, no one likes working until midnight. Our studio didn’t have a day off for an entire 3 months, so when making episode 12, I gave everyone a vacation, leaving myself and the producer to finish the rest. Because part of the animation was outsourced, I did have to do some revise work.
– There are differences between the Chinese and the Japanese versions of To Be Hero, including a heartfelt message from Director Li. Can you tell us why that was cut in the Japanese version?
LAN: So many elements caused differences between the 2 versions, but there is one thing I need to point out: the Japanese version is not a revised Chinese aired version, but is more revised from the Chinese version’s storyboard. Shinichi Watanabe would get the storyboard from Li around the same time as the production staff to take to a translation team. Big thanks to the Japanese translators, without their professional work this project things wouldn’t have gone so smoothly. In addition to culture difference, the Japanese team needs to consider their TV station’s opinions. We are more free without too many limits airing online in China. As for the message in final episode, I also didn’t know it was coming. BIt wasn’t in the storyboard, so the Japanese team didn’t know either! Li secretly added it when editing (episode 12 was edited entirely by himself)!
Messages from Mr Li:
– So how did you come up the idea? Deliberately? Wanna make a surprise for all audience or is your true emotion?
LI: Part of it is my true emotions, but you know, creation is proceed by emotions.
– Was it always part of the plan? Or made it up on the spot?
LI: It’s hard to tell, At beginning it’s just a vague thoughts, but gradually it becomes more clearly.
– You and I have been in touch, confirming which cuts belong to which animator, but I wanted to talk about a few of yours: So let’s start with this cut – I see you move the camera a lot. That’s really impressive! How difficult is to move the camera’s perspective like that? How long did it take you to draw it all?
LAN: It is not so difficult, I simplified lots of details, this scene was made of two cuts, I wanna show his frightened appearance. Besides that, there isn’t any action cut in this episode, so I add it to increase difficulty of drawing. I just drew the draft, took me about 1 hour, then handed it off to the secondary. He spent 2 days finishing most of it. I am surprised you like this part, Japanese editor Hida Aya preferred the next part, the bird ‘s expression. I am kind agree with him.
– Let’s talk about that, you drew the chicken villain with some crazy expressions, especially the eyes, the pupils go all over the place! What had you come up with the idea for that?
LAN: I’m surprised you liked it! (laughs) This chicken I put a lot of effort into it. His neck is very flexible, and his two pupils just like a plastic chicken toy. Director Li had pointed it out to use as a reference, so we finally decided drawing it like a toy. So when the chicken villain discovers chickens are governed by humans, his eyeballs turn like that.
– Another thing that interested me is that his face also showed a lot of rough lines when acting.
LAN: Yeah, I like using various lines in anime, however To Be Hero is a commercial work, I can’t risk it and try different styles that aren’t efficient.
– You seem to use a lot of smears in your work, like from this cut. Are smears you favorite way of displaying fast movement?
LAN: This cut was drew by kilo, I did secondary job. Yeah, smash stresses on the feeling of speed, I couldn’t make it feels like she was punching him like a spoiled child . You remember there is an flashback scene in the following episode, when Min’s mom left her, she punch Pops like that too. So it’s totally different, Min is not a little kid anymore. Moreover, kilo’s sense of speed in drawing is top even in whole China. He animated a lot on-the-ones (24 frames per second) in the previous episode, but in 11 and 12 was on-the-threes to show the sense of speed . Especially seeing his part in episode 12, I think few people in China can manage something like that.
– When I watch this shot, I see a lot of influence from Yutaka Nakamura: the super attention to detail on the lips and the cube breakage. However I see you slipped a little bit of Hiroyuki Imaishi into things as well! lol You seem to mix the two a lot, especially in the final episodes.
LAN: Just like I like said before, Hiroyuki Imaishi is always my idol, and I believe many other animators learned something from Yutaka Nakamura, not just me. They both are able to give a impressive image to the audience through key frames, which is also what I try to do . So I added details on lips in order to impress the audience.
– So now that To Be Hero is over, what is the next project you’ll be working on? Can you tell us what you have lined up?
LAN: To Be Hero will continue, and I am making several anime’s opening and ending, they will be airing soon!
– Will they air in foreign countries?
LAN: Yeah, and LAN studios will also post some original stuff – our schedule can be arranged until 2020.
– Do you feel like you’ve grown as an animator over the course of To Be Hero? I feel like your work has always been impressive, but by the end of the show I was completely blown away. Did you actually become better, or did I just not realize how good you really were?
LAN: I would rather say I gained many experiences rather than technical improvement after working on Mantou’s Diary. Being able to draw with a a ready-formed plan is probably my biggest improvement.
– As a webgen animator, do you feel that digital animation will overtake traditional pencil and paper animation?
LAN: No. Maybe they will be gradually combined with each other. I can’t find any other way which is more efficient and visible than hand draw 2d anime production. As for other software, they should serve a purpose for making it better and easier. Who knows what computer technology will develop into? But a hand will always be a hand. I believe there will be various techniques mixed in the future to make better anime!
– LAN, I want to thank you, on behalf of everyone in America, for making such an amazing show! It made me laugh, it made me cry, and turned out to be one of the best anime of the year! Thank you!
LAN: Thanks so much for all you have done ! And paying attention to all staff members, this is not only a great reward for us, but also brought us encouragement to make it better! Though we speak different languages, and we are from different countries, and even with a vast Pacific Ocean between us, anime connects everyone! Falling in love with anime and being an animator, I feel so lucky! Please continue supporting us!
What a fantastic interview. So many highlights here. Thanks so much for doing this, Josh. I actually started watching TO BE HERO because of your original interview with LAN, and I really appreciate the followup.
I had no idea that the staff for this anime was so small. Just four key animators! That’s amazing.
The Japanese translation took place at the storyboarding stage. In that sense, it’s more of a localisation than just a translation.
The idea that a lot of the father’s memories of his family revolves around eating intrigues me. I had no idea this was deliberate, but it totally makes sense.
As for Chinese animation styles, this part of the interview reminded me a lot of what Sadao Tsukioka was saying about where he can see Chinese animators improving (https://ontheones.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/sadao-tsukioka-interview-part-22-chinese-animation-cg/). It’s true that at the moment, Chinese animation doesn’t really have a distinct style, even though it is heavily influenced by Japanese and American animation. I’m really curious to see where the young animators in China take this art form in the future. Best of luck to LAN, kilo, and all the other talented people who worked on TO BE HERO!
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