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Arthell Isom and Henry Thurlow on being moved by anime

Have you ever been moved by an animated film?

Arthell Isom was so deeply moved by the background paintings in Ghost in the Shell that he studied Japanese, bought plane tickets, learned the craft of background painting at the Yoyogi Animation Technical College, worked at Ogura Kobou (Hiromasa Ogura’s studio), and later founded his own studio: D’ART Shtajio.

His colleague, Henry Thurlow, could relate: Having been employed in the American animation industry, Henry felt dissatisfied with the productions he was working on. He wanted to create animation that was more like the horror OVAs he watched as a teenager, and that was not what the US animation industry was producing at the time. For Henry, the only way to work on that kind of project was to travel to the other side of the world, and eventually that led him to work with Arthell.

Based out of Tokyo, D’ART Shtajio is a 2D animation studio which specializes in the production of anime. If you are a fan of One PieceJojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Attack on Titan, D’ART Shtajio was one of the service studios which contributed to those productions. The studio also animated original shorts for Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury anthology, the music video for The Weeknd’s single Snowchild, and Shojo no Piero (The Doll).

We spoke with Arthell and Henry to understand why anime had such an influence on their careers as artists, how it led them to Japan, and what that experience was like.

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Shojo no Piero AKA “The Doll” is the first half of a short story written and produced by D’Art Shtajio.

In the first episode of your vlog, you describe the origin of your studio’s name, derived from ‘shtaji’ — the japanese term for the rough under-painting — and ‘studio.’ Why was this important to you?

Arthell: My original role in Japan was background painting, which is more of the fine-art side of animation. While I was working for Ogura Kobo it was really driven into our heads that the underpainting is really important. During that stage is where you should design how the painting looks: that’s where you decide what the lighting is going to be, you decide your base colours, and at that time we were still painting on paper.

Everything you wanted your painting to look like, you had to decide before you put your first brushstroke on a piece of paper. That stage is the shtaji — or the underpainting, essentially the most important part. When we were defining our company and what we stand for, that is the most important part: the foundation of what we’re making. If we’re directing or animating or creating a character, that first stage is what audiences — even if they don’t see it, it’s what they’re perceiving.

It’s how much work we put into the design or the base of our production. It’s what I want our studio to stand for. -Arthell Isom

Now everything’s digital, so you can change it — you don’t have to think that far ahead.

Henry: I was just going to throw in that I don’t have anything to say about this because this is one-hundred percent Arthell’s original word.

Arthell: And then we mixed the word studio with shtaji, so that’s how we got Shtajio.

Henry: I think it’s easier to explain in Japanese, because everyone here knows the english word studio, and when Arthell brings up shtaji to represent underpainting, it’s a Japanese word. Here it’s a one-or-two sentence explanation, while in English you need to explain it over the course of a paragraph.

Layout from Sturgill Simpson’s Sound and Fury by Takeshi Shirato, provided by D’ART Shtajio.

When you were speaking about productions that you had more creative control over, you mentioned Sound and Fury, Indigo Ignited, The Doll, and your studio’s commercial work. What did that creative control allow you to do differently?

Arthell: Between the two types of productions: There’s one where the client hires us to do a specific job for them and then there’s one where we have control — where we do everything and decide essentially what we’re going to do.

For the first kind of production, the client will provide us with a story, and essentially their vision of what they hope to see, how they want the pacing to go, and what they charge us with doing. They give us a very detailed map of what they want, where we’re providing more of a service. With the other case, because we have creative control over that map and everything we create ourselves — we get to tell our own story.

Henry: I am the main director so often — not always — a project will get passed to me. My role is to take care of the project and make sure it gets produced correctly. During the first meeting when I am hearing about the project, whether the client has full control and they’re just telling us what to make, or whether it’s an artistic project that we get to have creative control over — that makes all the difference in the world to me.

I am going to deliver something good either way. But for me, if I hear the client just wants this commercial and they’ve already figured out how they want it to play out, and the timing and absolutely nothing can change — a part of me is relieved because that means I don’t need to think too hard while making this thing.

I prefer this kind of project, but admittedly it is a lot harder. -Henry Thurlow

The other projects that occasionally come in, where we have full creative control — say we need a short film to participate in an anthology, like Sound & Fury — in that case it’s a lot more work for me. I am going to be working non-stop and completely stressed out for the next year or however much production time we have. The flip-side of all that hard work and the non-stop thinking about making everything connected, is that at the end I feel that we have a D’ART Shtajio original.

Arthell: I am going to add, because it’s where Henry and I differ a little: Even with productions where we don’t have creative control — I am an art director, so my job is to think about what the world looks like. Perhaps because of that, I still have a little more control. I get to design the world, so for my role these projects are both the same creatively.

Either way, I still try to find ways where I can make a project fun for me. I can put myself into it, like what can I make this world look like, what colours am I going to use, and how is the lighting going to look. For me both projects still are fun. Directing and art directing is a bit different. With Sound & Fury, I also got to write the story, so I was taking a different tack.

Still image from Sturgill Simpson’s Sound and Fury, provided by D’ART Shtajio.

What kinds of misconceptions or misunderstandings do you most often hear about Japan’s animation industry?

Henry: You would think I would have a ton of answers, because I did work in the American industry for a few years, and still have a lot of friends who work in studios out there. I don’t think they think about it very often.

I think there’s a handful of artists now who really want to work in anime-styles, and maybe they do think about it: “How can I get freelance work? What’s the status of the industry out there?” But I think the people working on American shows are just thinking about the industry in America. “How can we get better contracts here? How can we make better projects here?”

Arthell: I follow it from a different perspective, more of the art side. One misconception I hear, from peers at schools I graduated from — for some reason — artists in the states think that Japanese anime is easier or a lesser art form.

I have to explain to them that Japanese anime is really difficult. It’s not just putting big eyes on a character or making their hair blue. You can see the end result doesn’t look like anime at all, it just looks like a character with big eyes and blue hair.

Henry: I see that whenever a series tries to parody anime. I haven’t been in America for 10 years — so I actually don’t know, but I feel like this happens less now because anime’s gotten so popular.

If you’re talking about art school people or art teachers, I totally agree with Arthell, because there were totally teachers in my art school who said: “You’re going to make that? Well you’re not going to have a chance to make that in America — and besides, it’s not even animation because they don’t even move. Where’s the good acting if they’re not even doing anything?”

I have to believe that they’re just lying to themselves because they must know that Akira looks better than what they’re making. They must know that. Even if there are still frames in anime, the cinematography, the mood, the backgrounds, the stunning detail level, the depth in the story… you know it’s amazing.

In what ways can art and design impact a film? How does your experience designing the way a world looks influence how you approach projects?

Arthell: I feel that the world and design is often forgotten. Of course people focus on the characters — the story is about the characters and their role in the plot. But without the audience realizing it, design adds to the story and characters. It’s up to the world designer to fill in details about where the story is taking place, who the characters are, how the characters are feeling. Design actually gives you more of the story.

You can tell a lot of the story just through the way the world looks. If there is a poor character, or if a character is in a war, just by designing the world. That’s the importance of world design: In some cases we are telling more of the story than the characters do.

Colour, the way you approach a style, brush strokes — that all impacts story. Colour affects the way we feel. Blues are somber, warm colours make things excited. It all affects viewers as they’re watching.

If we can tell more of the story with just the environment, which I feel anime does a good job with, sometimes you’ll see cutaways where it’s just the background. Sometimes there are no characters on the screen and you’ll just see trees slowly moving.

Henry: Or the cityscape…

Arthell: For example, in my Sound & Fury episodes, I tried to use mostly backgrounds. You didn’t see the main character. There were a few city characters in the environment. I tried to use the world to tell the audience what was happening. It starts off in an alley. It’s dark, there are dark colours, it’s a little dirty. It tells us that this character is not part of the world. The main street was much brighter — and there was somewhat… life happening there. I wanted to use the alley to express how the homeless character felt. That was one use of environmental storytelling.

Your recommendations on YouTube sent me down a spiral through a number of OVAs, including Unico in the Island of Magic. How do you feel that the anime industry has changed since you were watching the OVAs that influenced you?

Henry: That one I saw as a kid, even before I started getting into all those OVAs. Unico in the Island of Magic was unique in that Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, could get productions done however he wanted. So Unico in the Island of Magic is outrageously fluid in its animation.

To talk about the OVAs that I used to like, I think that the industry has changed a lot, and to be honest not in ways I love. Change is always going to happen, but the kind of stuff that I always used to watch and rent from my video store really isn’t produced anymore. When I thought of Japanese Anime in the early years — for me middle school, high school, college — anime represented that super serious animation that no one else was making, with outrageous levels of details and shadows.

Yes, series with more simple character designs did exist, but when I thought of anime I wasn’t really thinking of that.

When I was thinking of anime I was thinking of Record of Lodoss War OVA, Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust, Twilight of the Dark Master, Bio Hunter. Look up screenshots from any of these. It must have taken three-to-five hours to do one drawing correctly, because there are so many layers of shadow. They had teams of people just slowly making these unbelievably detailed animation. And it was super dark, and scary. Nobody else was making scary animation.

When I was going to a video store on a Friday, I went to get, essentially, a horror movie: “I am going to watch a scary cartoon. That’s going to be fun!” They don’t really make that anymore.

Arthell: For me, the background designs in the 80s were phenomenal, and background designs now are just as good. There’s a different approach to it now, because of digital tools. They still look good and in some cases are even better than they used to look.

Henry: The backgrounds didn’t get simplified in the way that the characters did. Maybe on some individual productions, but not overall.

Arthell: Our approach is still the hand-painting way, but we use digital tools.

Henry: Studios still hand us paper sequences, will tell us that they need to be finished on paper, and ask if we can do it. Every now and then I’ll get something like that, and as I’m drawing a line with my right hand, I definitely notice my left hand wants to go to that Ctrl-Z. And it can’t.

Production art from Shojo no Piero (The Doll), provided by D’ART Shtajio.

What led you to work as animation artists in Japan?

Arthell: I decided to come here because I watched Ghost in the Shell. That’s what made me realize that I wanted to be a background artist, and that this was the place I wanted to learn and study. I came to school out here, and that’s essentially what led to me moving here and deciding that my future in animation would be in Japan.

Actually, it was very easy for me. I guess I should have thought more about it, probably. I was still young, at the age where I was like, “Whatever, I am going to do this.” -Arthell Isom

Henry: I have the same story, almost, as Arthell. One day, I moved out here.

I worked in the American industry, in New York, for a few years. I worked on Superjail!, I worked on a few Dora the Explorer video games, commercials and music videos. I didn’t have any plans to move to japan, because I thought, “Oh, we’re going to start producing amazing Ghost in the Shell-type things here in New York — any day now.” Anime was becoming popular. That’s how I felt.

After working there for a few years, I realized: No, we’re not. It was very depressing. So I just kept my eyes and ears open to opportunities to get to Japan, which was the only country producing content I actually wanted to work on. I saw an opening for an English-teaching job out here, and they essentially flew me over.

Production art from Shojo no Piero (The Doll), provided by D’ART Shtajio.

Was it a hard decision and was it different than you expected?

Henry: Our goal is kind of the same, but everything is also quite different. The work ethic, the attitude of career versus personal life, the way of producing the anime. It’s changing a bit now because the world is getting globalized and everyone is learning different processes, so Japan has adopted some of the West’s practices, like working in software instead of on paper. The west is also adopting some of the ways they draw layouts here…

Arthell: I’ve actually never worked in America. I’ve only worked in the industry here in Japan. I can’t really compare the two, though the mindset is very different. That did stand out to me when I moved here. I think it made me work harder and made me more invested in the craft. Everyone was so focused and loved their jobs. You could see that it was hard, we would be at the office for two or three days straight, because we would have crunch time or something, but no one was complaining that they were going to quit. Everyone enthusiastically came to work, stayed all day, and tried to do the best thing they could do.

That really made an impression on me. Where I was like, “This is crazy, I wanna be just like them. I want to love my work just as much.” I felt this is what I needed, and I don’t know I would have the same feeling if I was in the States.

Henry: Nowadays I see more ‘foreigner’ names in the credits of Anime. They might not recognize exactly what they are signing up for like how many hours for how little money, but for us we moved to the other side of the planet, and then both of us didn’t get into the industry immediately. We had to work for over a year before finally breaking in. During that time we were doing tons of research.

Still image from Sturgill Simpson’s Sound and Fury, provided by D’ART Shtajio.

Do you have advice for animation students in, say, New Jersey who want to follow a similar path?

Arthell: It’s different if they’re in college. If they’re in high school, I say really buckle down. Definitely focus on studying, where you’re going to go to college and how you’re going to improve on your current level of skills in art.

I do think that if you’re in high school, you should have an idea of where you want to work. That way you can then decide what’s necessary to get into that company: “What colleges I should be going to?,” or, “Where should I focus?” If you’re in high school and you want to work in Japan, then definitely you want a head start on learning Japanese, so by the time you graduate you’ll be more prepared to come out here.

Henry: I feel like I kind of did this the long way. I feel like I was the hardest worker in my classes, but I feel like I should have worked harder in hindsight. I worked to be the head of my class and get noticed by my teacher, but in hindsight nobody in that class was going to get jobs, professionally. I needed to compare my work with professionals and try to get my work at their level earlier on, as opposed to trying really hard to get the A.

You mentioned that you wanted to create a company that can tell different kinds of stories, different perspectives, grounded in reality. What would you like to see next for D’ART Shtajio?

Arthell: Even when we were in college, getting to here, I felt like there were all these baby steps we still had to take. I feel as a company we haven’t found what we want to be yet.

Henry: Not at all. We’ve done a sprinkling of the creativity that we wanted to make in our first few years here. The Doll short film, the Indigo Ignited pilot, Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury anthology — all of those shorts are mostly what we want to make, but that’s it. The other stuff is all client-based, delivering what a client needs. Certainly not D’ART Shtajio originals.

At the end of the day we’re not even looking to be a studio that produces just short films and pilots. What we want to be is a feature film and series producing studio. If you look at it that way, we haven’t created one project we really wanted to make.

So what we’d like to see for D’ART Shtajio? For us to land a high-budget project with a good schedule to finally produce what we are looking to do.

Arthell: Like Henry said, our goal from here is to produce our own feature film or series. Definitely not what you’re seeing on TV now. I think for us, we wanted to push the industry, push the storytelling. There’s so many more types of stories that can be told.

Henry: It breaks my heart a little when we get people messaging us to say, “I have an original idea for an anime I’m looking to produce: It’s Hunter x Hunter meets Cowboy Bebop.”

Then it’s not original. It’s a world and set of powers that already exists. And a set of fight scenes that you want to emulate.

That’s not truly a story from a different perspective with a different set of characters that you completely don’t see. -Henry Thurlow

How would you like to see the industry grow and change?

Arthell: Everyone’s essentially creating anime and everyone’s trying to tell different types of stories — which is good. I think that’s what’s going to happen. I think the industry’s getting broader and broader. There are going to be more people moving out to Japan. But even now, I’ve been in Japan for fifteen years, Henry’s been here…

Henry: Coming up on eleven.

Arthell: When we first got out here, I think character animators, there were a few more sprinklings of foreigners. Background art was maybe number two. Now when you look at the credits there are many animators — tons of foreigners. I think as the industry gets broader, there will be more countries trying to produce anime, trying to tell stories within this genre. I think Japan as a whole will also be telling different kinds of stories. I hope our studio will be one of those studios leading as a vanguard.

Henry: I would like to see all the animators and staff members get treated with respect and get the salaries they want, of course. Hopefully that’s the direction we’re headed in.

In terms of what gets produced? I just hope we get opportunities to produce what we want here. What the industry does is almost of no concern to me, so long as our company gets the chances we hopefully will have. I wouldn’t mind if it grows completely separate from us, because then we would stand out.