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Working in Japan

AW: How did you get to work in Japan?

DB: Through my friend. She told me that Polygon Pictures (∗5) were hiring for their next big project. It was Transformers: Prime (2010) at that time. It was an adaptation of the 2D Japanese animation series in the 1980s. At that time, they decided to do it in Japanese animation, but in 3D CGI. It’s for a TV series. It’s commissioned by an American TV called Hub. It was a really big project because 26 episodes has to be delivered in one year. They needed a big crew. Japanese programmers were not enough. They opened up positions for foreigners. I remember that ad was in a Japanese page. And then only a few weeks later, the English page was up. So first they searched people in Japan and they could not find enough people, so they searched the people in the world. I had just wrote. It was really fast and quick. I had a Skype meeting. They asked me the documents to do for my work permit visa. I think I had my Skype interview in May and I was in Denmark. I could send my documents for a visa only in July after I finished my work here. It took two months to get my work permit. I went to Japan in October 2010 and worked on Transformer: Prime TV series. It was a really great experience.

∗5: Polygon Pictures Inc. (http://www.ppi.co.jp) is the CG animation studio in Japan. Their works are such as Transformers: Prime (2010-), Tron: Uprising (2012-), and Knights of Sidonia (2014).

Cultural differences between Japan and Europe

AW: How is it like to work in Japan?

DB: I was surprised by how serious it is. Compared to France, things like togetherness, sharing and playfulness, which I could experience, was almost not existing. I didn’t expect that. It was like this in every studio I worked, from the big studio like Polygon Pictures, to a small studio like Kanaban Graphics (∗6). It’s not the size of studio or the number of people. Culturally Japanese creators are not as wild as we can be in Europe. Not only in France, I worked in Denmark and Norway. We make jokes, play around and listen to music. In Japan, everyone is serious. In the beginning it was hard for me but I got used to it. I wish I could find the place with a little bit of balance between the calmness which is very good sometimes but also a little bit of friendship and playfulness. It was little bit too serious. I never worked in a bank, but I think it would be similar. It was kind of surprising and almost shocking, but I got used to it. All the foreigners were feeling the same. We were cheering up each other. It was a big surprise.

∗6: Kanaban Graphics (http://www.kanaban.com) is an animation studio in Japan. Their recent work is CG animation Usavich (2006-). 

Meeting in Annecy led to the very special day

AW: Could you please share your memorable experiences in both Japan and in global projects?

DB: It’s not really related to work. In 1999, in France, it was my third time to go to the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. It was big but not as big as today. Every year they have a cultural guest. In 1999 it was Japan. So there were a lot of Japanese guests: Koji Morimoto, Michael Arias, and Yasuo Otsuka. Since I spent 4 years in the “Langues’ O” university in Paris, I could speak Japanese. I was young and bold and went to talk to them like “Hey, Hello. I’ve seen your work. I think I know what you do. I really like your work … blah-blah-blah. Listen, I work in Paris in a small company. We do TV programs for kids. If you happened to be in Paris after the festival, please don’t hesitate to come and visit us”. And I gave my card to Morimoto-san. He was together with Michael Arias. They were presenting the very first draft of Tekkonkinkreet in 3D. It was in 3D, not in 2D. It was the very first test done in 3D in 1999. It was just a pilot to get funding. I also gave my card to Yasuo Otsuka-sensei. My friends were very impressed that I could speak Japanese. For me, it was normal because I learned Japanese for four years in university. That was my formal education. Me, I was impressed by the level of skills my friends and co-workers had in animation. You always want what you don’t have.

After the Annecy Festival, I almost forgot about this episode and I returned to my work in Paris. I remember it was in a company called Sparx∗ (∗7). One day, the production manager knocked at the door and said “Drifa, there are people waiting for you downstairs”. And it was Morimoto-san with his crew. Back then, my boss at Sparx∗, now created a very nice and cool company called TeamTO (∗8) in France, he was a big fan of anime. He was like “I know you, I know you” and he was very happy and impressed that very big masters came to his studio. They were like “yes, we came because Drifa invited us”. We had some tea and coffee in a super beautiful meeting room which is usually reserved for clients. My boss was super thrilled and happy, and the Japanese crew was very happy to visit an animation studio in Paris. I was very happy too because I created a bridge between those two worlds. A few days later Otsuka-sensei came as well. My boss was very happy because Otsuka-sensei did the animation direction of many episodes of Lupin the Third. He was so happy that he invited us, me and another co-worker, the Japanese crew, and Otsuka-sensei to the restaurant. It’s a little funny because he invited us to a Sushi restaurant. The Japanese crew did not say anything but their faces were saying that “we would love to go to Bistro or typical French place, why are we going to a Sushi restaurant??”. That was memorable. It was in June 1999.

∗7: Sparx∗ (http://www.sparx.com) is a 3D animation studio.

*8: TeamTO (http://www.teamto.com/en/) is an animation studio.

The Meeting with the biggest masters in Japan

DB: I thought this opportunity was great and that I should not let this die. In the same year at the end of the summer I had a break from work. I decided to go back to Japan for two weeks holidays and see all those people again. I had a feeling that I should not let this disappear. At that time I was so much into Japan. I was going to Japan as soon as  I had time and money. I didn’t travel anywhere else in the world but Japan. When I met Otsuka-sensei, he made a call with his cell phone. It was impressive to see because it was still not common to have cell phones in France back then, especially with an elder person. He was pushing buttons on the cell phone, “pi pi pi”. I couldn’t fully understand what he was saying. After he finished his phone call, he said “I called Studio Ghibli. You can go there today if you want. They are waiting for you to give you a tour”. Because of Otsuka-sensei I could visit Ghibli. He said “I don’t know if Miyazaiki is now in the studio or not”. I think they were working on Chihiro (∗9), or it was maybe a short movie for Ghibli museum (*10) because I clearly remember seeing images of the “Chibi Nekobus” on a table. But I couldn’t understand what it was.

∗9: Chihiro stands for Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, the original  Japanese title of Spirited Away (2001).

*10: Ghibli museum (http://www.ghibli-museum.jp/en/) located in Mitaka, Tokyo.

DB: Before going to Japan, I bought two bottles of wine from France. They were supposed to be for Otsuka-sensei. When I was about to give these two bottles to Otsuka-sensei, he said “Keep one and give it to Miyazaki. If he’s not there, leave it in the studio”. When I arrived, Hayao Miyazaki was there. I was super super impressed and humble. I almost could not speak. I had a big smile and there’s nothing I could say when he was in front of me. Anything I could say sounds stupid. I just said “Thank you so much for having me. I hope I didn’t disturb them. This is from France. Please enjoy”. That’s all. He said “Thank you” and went to his desk and took a Shikishi (∗11). He drew me a picture of Totoro and said “Thank you”. It has been my treasure since then.

∗11: “Shikishi” indicates a thick and high quality white paper in Japan. Its shape is generally square. When Japanese Manga or animation artists draw an illustration with a signature as a gift, they normally use Shikishi.

DB: I had a tour, I could see the desks. I was super impressed by the desk of a guy who was doing backgrounds. I couldn’t take pictures but it’s OK, everything is clearly in my memory. I remember that day very clearly. It was the 3rd September 1999. It was the best day in my life. It was like I was walking on clouds. Maybe for Hayao Miyazaki, it was like another “gaijin” visiting the studio. I heard that he never gives his drawing but only for girls and non-Japanese. I was non-Japanese and a girl. Everybody was saying like “can you imagine how special this is? He never gives out signs or giveaways”. I was very honoured.

I’m not sure how I ended up visiting STUDIO4℃ (∗12) but I was able to visit STUDIO4℃ and met Morimoto-san. I didn’t have a bottle of wine to give him. He gave me a Shikishi anyway. On the same day, I met three of the biggest masters for me. Since then, it never happened. It’s kind of a magic that I never forget. It was just amazing. It was not work. It was because I met them at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. I think it’s a big coincidence. That’s a very memorable thing. This is very personal. I don’t know if this can happen again. It was very amazing.

∗12: STUDIO4℃ Co.,Ltd. (http://www.studio4c.co.jp/english/) is an animation studio in Japan. Their works include MEMORIES (1995), Spriggan (1998), The Animatrix (2003), Mind Game (2004), Tekkonkinkreet (2006), and a music video for Ken Ishii’s EXTRA (1996).

AW: Thank you for sharing your precious memory with us. Do you have any memorable things at work?

DB: Yes, I remember. It was in 2007 or 2008. I finished a project. I was on a break. I was waiting for the next project. I got a call from a company because I was recommended by my previous students from Gobelins, from my first class. My students said “it would be great to have Drifa as our supervisor” . It was actually for French-Japanese collaboration with MADHOUSE (∗13) for a Japanese animation director Rintaro’s movie, Yona Yona Penguin (2009).

∗13: MADHOUSE Inc. (http://www.madhouse.co.jp) is one of the oldest animation studios in Japan. This studio is famous for Satoshi Kon’s works Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2002), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), Paranoia Agent (2004), and Paprika (2006).

I just went for the interview and they decided to hire me immediately. They had a supervisor for the animation but he had a Disney or American like style. They always got retakes from Japan because the animation was “too smooth”. What an irony. They wanted something more like an “Anime” (∗14) style like pose to pose. So the previous supervisor said “I don’t understand the demands of the Japanese”. They called me and I said “I understand, this means Japanese style. I think I can do it”. They said “that’s great, you’re in. There’s a meeting next Saturday with Rintaro. He is coming from Japan with the whole team”. I went to the meeting and I started to speak in Japanese with some of the Japanese team to present myself. All the French crew was like “What!? You speak Japanese?”. The people who hired me actually didn’t know that I could speak Japanese. It was a good surprise. It was a good memory. When we were exchanging Meishi (∗15), all my French collaborators were so surprised, you could read it on their faces.

∗14: According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anime), “Anime” is a term used to refer to Japanese animated productions featuring hand-drawn or computer animation.

∗15: In Japanese, business card is called “Meishi” and the Japanese have a unique business custom when they exchange Meishi.

Future plan

Cultural exchange between European and Japanese creators

AW: What is your hope or plan for future?

DB: We were talking about it with some co-workers. It’d be great if Japanese creators, like animators, modellers, background artists, every creative person in this industry who would like to experience European culture, could come to Europe and have a cultural experience. Let’s say a Japanese artist who wants to experience European culture. I talk about Europe because I don’t know much about America or Canada. If there is a studio in Europe, maybe in France or Denmark, or in the UK, that were created by half Japanese and half European creators, there would be a direct communication. They could come to Europe even they don’t speak the language and they could feel comfortable. It would be great for them. And we have the same for Europe in Japan. One studio in Japan would be global. People are coming from different countries and they are choosing the projects. Anybody who would go there would not have a problem of a language or be totally lost in translation.

I think that the demand is there. People would like to exchange and discover all the countries. If you go somewhere, you don’t feel alone. It would be super helpful. For example, if you come here in Denmark, I’m here to show you around.

AW: Yes, it was really helpful.

A dedicated team for helping creators to settle would be ideal

DB: If you go to Japan then someone is there to help you with everything. Actually, in Polygon Pictures, there was a good department that was taking really good care of foreigners. There was like a two hour introduction to the company and explaining major aspects of Japanese culture and society. It is the only one company who does that. This was really good. When I arrived in Japan, I worked for Polygon Pictures first. So it never felt like a foreign country anymore. It was like going to my second home. A lot of the foreigners that arrived in Japan felt so lost. There could be an organisation that could help. If you don’t know where to sleep next week or how you go to the registration office, you can’t really work and can’t give your best. They can’t get to that zone of flow. You worry all the time. It makes the start very hard. If they could be relived from that, it would be so much helpful.

If this could exist in Europe, this could help the Italian and Spanish as well. I know a lot of Italian and Spanish people coming to Paris to work for big studios and they are totally lost. I think it’s really sad. It would be cool if there is a special department in the company for foreigners who come from abroad or anywhere. If this were to exist, exchanging would be much easier. If the work permit is easy to get, for example anybody under 30 years old can get a working holiday visa, it would be nice, especially in animation, if it could be up to 60 years old. Maybe one day, I don’t know. It would be great if administration is taken care of. It’s OK you can’t speak the language in the beginning because it will just come. At least you don’t feel like you are going to the dark woods. Now we have a lot of co-production in Europe. It’d be great if there is more co-production between Japan and Europe. Japanese culture is extremely fascinating.

Advice for young talents

“Follow your bliss” and “Don’t stay in your comfort zone”

AW: Do you have any general advice for those who want to work for animations?

DB: Follow your bliss. It will work. Don’t try to work for one big studio for all your life. It’s better to get many different experiences in different studios and meet a lot of different people. Don’t be scared to change. For me it was a really, extremely valuable learning experience. To be honest, I thought I would stay for all my life when I was hired by Ubisoft®. When they told me that the project was over and it’s okay we don’t need you any more, I was quite sad and devastated. I was like “No! I have to look for a job again”. For the first five years I thought it was very unfair, to be honest.

I had no choice. I moved forward. I found new studios. It was not easy all the time. I had to adapt each time to the new team and new projects. I didn’t know back then but I really develop my capacity of adaptation. It is a great quality. It’s only a few years later I realised it when I went back to Ubisoft®. They called me back for a project. I was together in a team with somebody who never left. For me it was surprising to see that I had evolved so much in two years going here and there and having to do my best to stay in the game, I had to always learn new things and adapt each time even though it was not comfortable.

I didn’t notice how much I evolved. It’s only after I came back to work again with the people who were comfortable for two years and I saw how much I learned and how much they didn’t change. I thought to myself that it’s good that they didn’t keep me because now I’m much stronger, I know so much more and I have so much more experience. This is when I realized it was a good thing. Two years earlier I was like “oh no! they didn’t keep me” but then I could think ahead and understand how good it was for my personal growth.

A general advice would be to not stay in your comfort zone. It will not be helpful. Follow your bliss. If you don’t feel good on a project, if you don’t feel like you are in the state of pure happiness, just move on … don’t stay because you are afraid or feel insecure. It’s really hard because you are going into the unknown. ”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

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