How Science SARU Animation Studio is Redefining the Japanese Animation Industry

Animation of child playing guitar in the rain.

It was June 2017. Sitting in a small suburban house they’d converted into an impromptu and improbable animation studio, the small artistic team was exhausted and speechless. The last 24 hours had been surreal. They had just won the highest award for an animated feature film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France for their first feature film, “Lu Over The Wall.” This was a groundbreaking moment not just for the artists, but for Japanese animation as a whole. This team defied industry norms and managed to create a full-length feature film in less than 16 months utilizing trailblazing new animation techniques. With this win, Science SARU provided a significant boost to the continued evolution of the Japanese animation industry.

Imageboard of Lu over the Wall. Artwork by Masaaki Yuasa. ©︎2017 Lu Film Partners .

Imageboard of Lu over the Wall. Artwork by Masaaki Yuasa. ©︎2017 Lu Film Partners .

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Eunyoung Choi and Abel Gongora of Science SARU. Eunyoung is the studio’s founder and executive producer. She partnered with Masaaki Yuasa, the acclaimed director behind such critical hits and fan favorites “Ping-Pong The Animation,” “The Tatami Galaxy,” and “Mind Game” to create Science SARU. Abel is the chief Adobe Animate artist at Science SARU. After having gained extensive experience working in studios in Ireland and France, he came to Japan and joined Science SARU as one of the studio’s first animators. Using Adobe Animate, he animated on a number of the company’s early projects, including “Ping-Pong The Animation” and the award-nominated “Food Chain” episode of the American TV series “Adventure Time.”

Can you please talk about the nature of the Japanese animation industry and how you sought to utilize new techniques while working on “Lu Over The Wall?”

Eunyoung: The Japanese animation industry, known as anime, is a mature industry going back over 100 years. Anime has achieved great popularity worldwide, but unlike computer animation made in the rest of the world, the anime industry relies on animating the traditional way — on paper. Traditional hand-drawn animation is a style that remains well-loved and respected in Japan. The rough ideas, character designs, key animation frames (used to create the character’s animated performance), and in-between drawings (used to create smooth movement), are all done on paper and require large teams and long timelines. Nonetheless, animators take pride in the fact that their unique art and style of drawings are what is seen on the screen through the use of traditional animation. The use of technology is sometimes seen as a compromise, and artists are reluctant to use digital animation due to fear that it will limit their creativity.

Science SARU managed to leverage technology to create a new form of anime while maintaining the spirit and individual personality of traditional animation. We originally started with a crew of just five people, and as we slowly grew with a limited team, we created our first film in just 16 months. Despite our small size and short production schedule, we kept the quality and anime aesthetic at the high standards of the Japanese industry. We did this not by replacing traditional animation, but by using technology to create digitally assisted animation in our own way. And we worked hard to show that, rather than sublimating an individual animator’s unique style and skills, digitally assisted animation can help artists express new strengths that draw from their traditional experience. After winning the Cristal for Best Feature Film in Annecy 2017, more animators are looking at digitally assisted animation in a new light. They now feel comfortable working in a digital medium, and Adobe has done a great job providing simple tools that help us express our creativity while maintaining our individuality.

Abel: When I started at the studio five years ago, only Adobe Animate allowed us to produce high-quality animation with a limited amount of time and capital. The software gave us unique opportunities to innovate and grow the means by which we make animation. At that time, the only program the digital animators in our studio were familiar with was Adobe Animate. However, we now utilize more Adobe software to improve our productivity and tackle new challenges. I think Adobe software allows us to collaborate well with our traditional animation colleagues, and to combine the classic and cutting-edge aspects of animation production.

Imageboard of Lu over the Wall. Artwork by Masaaki Yuasa. ©︎2017 Lu Film Partners .

What prompted you to create digital animation, and why did you want to bring these techniques to the Japanese industry?

Eunyoung: I grew up with a healthy dose of high-quality animation in South Korea and Japan. My interest in animation allowed me to explore the digital world, and I quickly understood the efficiency that can be achieved with digitally assisted animation. Utilizing programs like Adobe Animate, we can have our skilled traditional animators create the keyframes that convey an animated performance, and then utilize the software to help create the in-between frames for smooth, fluid motion. And in the coloring stage of production, for example, you can easily color and recolor your assets without having to replace everything. I also wanted to take on the challenge of creating high-quality animation digitally in Japan, where many didn’t believe it could work with the time-honored traditional ways. Now that it’s done, I hope that we’ve added a new chapter to the traditions that came before and inspired us.

How did Adobe Animate help you achieve your objectives?

Eunyoung: Animate provides us with immense flexibility to achieve the specific look we are striving for. It has a simple interface that is very easy to learn and allows us to merge production processes and art assets easily. Finding new animators has been fairly easy, and despite the fact that many of our initial Animate artists came from abroad and did not speak Japanese, training others has worked surprisingly well. The software itself has provided a common language to bring our international team together. It also helps that the software comes as a part of the Creative Cloud package that allows us to leverage the full pipeline of Adobe programs. We routinely use Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere Pro as well.

What are some of your projects since “Lu Over The Wall,” and how have they been received? Can you please give us a sneak peek of your upcoming projects?

Eunyoung: Since “Lu Over The Wall,” we’ve grown as a company. We produced “Devilman Crybaby” for Netflix, which was a hit around the world. We’ve also produced two additional films: “Night is Short,” “Walk on Girl,” and a new film that we just released this summer, “Ride Your Wave.” The reception has been very good.

We are also very excited about our upcoming projects, which include the TV series “Super Shiro” and “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!,” a Netflix original series “Japan Sinks: 2020,” as well as the feature film “Inu-Oh.”

What is your advice for young animators trying to get into the industry in general and into Science SARU in particular?

Abel: You should be humble and always willing to learn new things. It is also very important to have passion for animation.

Eunyoung: There are of course the basics, like the ability to visualize, draw, and animate, and the willingness and ability to learn new tools and techniques. Above all, it’s about staying humble and being willing to learn. This is a field where you may have spent 10 years working as an artist, but you have to believe that you are still learning.

About Science SARU

Science SARU is an animation studio founded by Masaaki Yuasa and Eunyoung Choi in 2013. In their first year, the studio was invited by the staff of the hit American TV series “Adventure Time” to create a special episode in their own style. That episode, entitled “Food Chain”, was nominated for an Annie Award for Directing. After contributing work to productions by other studios, in 2017 Science SARU debuted their first two feature films: “Lu Over the Wall”, which won the Cristal at the Annecy International Animation Festival, and “Night is Short, Walk on Girl”, which won the Japan Academy Prize for Animation. In 2018, the studio produced the Netflix Original Series “Devilman crybaby”, which became a viral hit worldwide. And in 2019, the studio’s latest feature film, “Ride Your Wave”, won top animation prizes at the Shanghai and Fantasia International Film Festivals. Recent projects include the TV series “SUPER SHIRO” (2019), “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!” (2020), “JAPAN SINKS: 2020” (2020) and the feature film “INU-OH (due for release in 2021).