The Boondocks’ LeSean Thomas bustin’ us an interview

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LeSean Thomas has one hell of a resume. From directing the award winning The Boondocks (Season one and two) and Black Dynamite to being the first American to work in a Korean animation house as an animator, Thomas has seen every aspect of the animation process. His latest work is an original animated series called Cannon Busters, which is well under production at renowned Japanese animation studio Satelight. Thomas was generous enough to give us an update on the project and how the series of circumstances all came together.

NR: So first off, let me congratulate you on the successful kickstarter of Cannon Busters. Could you tell us how the project is proceeding?

LeSean: We launched the campaign in November and funded in December. Originally Satelight was involved in the project just to assist in the design. But there was rumbling about them being involved. There was a potential opportunity for there to be another studio to produce the animation in the event we did get funded, but once we got funded we were like, “Okay, we’re gonna go with Satelight,” and we started the negotiation process. So that took a couple of months before we could move forward on the production. We came to a deal in March-ish or April.

We made the announcement on the Kickstarter updates that Satelight was to be the studio handling animation. Of course, once we landed a deal and budget and production schedule. I just got back from Tokyo. I was at Satelight for about a month working on the storyboards and meeting our character designer, SUEZEN, who was a former Gainax animator. He was animation director on Wings of Honneamise. He’s going to be our animation- excuse me, our final picture character designer. Our animation director we’ll announce at the later time. We just finished our storyboards and we’re working on preproduction. We’re still on schedule to deliver by the end of the year. It’s only a ten-minute pilot.

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NR: Since the project is being funded though Kickstarter, what challenges do you have managing Cannon Busters as opposed to doing a project that already has financial backing and is planned out like your previous works.

LeSean: The beauty of this circumstance is that once Satelight agreed to be on board to handle animation production, it was easy to do it all in one box. They have a history of producing very cool animated projects over the last decade and they have an array of in-house producers and production managers. So once we agreed to move forward on this project, Satelight just said “Okay here’s a producer available. He has experience on this; he’s worked with Thomas (Romain) on these other projects. He also know the character designer and so forth.” It wasn’t as challenging as I thought it was going to be. Once we decided that Satelight was the studio; okay here’s the budget and cost and who we have available that are willing to work with you. We need to make sure we have a producer dedicated to you while we work on the next Symphogear or Macross series. They’re busy working on other big shows and we have this tiny little ten-minute pilot. [Laugh] So to find a producer who’s available to take on the project and squeeze it in between all the other shows they’re working on; that’s really the challenge.

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Raising the money was a challenge as well; I was concerned about how to compartmentalize everything, but once Satelight came to us and said “Hey look, we’ll do this for this amount of money”. So okay great, we keep it all under one roof and not have to worry about finding staff. We still got some things to figure out with our voice talent, which is going to be recorded here (in the states). Because I have so much experience working internationally in South Korea. I lived there for three years working on Legend of Korra, and a lot of Warner Bros show and producing pilots of my own.

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NR: Do you get the final say in the decision making?

LeSean: Yeah for the most part. It’s always unique that when you’ve been working on for a while you kinda see it a certain way. And when it lives with you for a long period of time, you get this vision of what you think it should be. When you get other people involved, it changes and goes further away from what you originally had. I’ve been very flexible with the final look and the overall decision.

You know I want to give Satelight in particular; creative license as well. I don’t want this to be a service-oriented project where I just give them money and do whatever I say. Many cases that’s the terms and conditions they’re willing to work under. “Look if we can’t incorporate our own ideas then we’re not really into investing in it” and you want that, but in most cases I do have final say.

Other people like to put on movies while they work, but I like to watch making-of videos.

NR: How has their input helped your ideas?

LeSean: They’ve been really really cool about it. I think the biggest key for me for Cannon Busters is once I explain the vision and the world and the idea of what the content is, and they understand; Then any other idea they bring forward even if it’s a little out there; it’s still within the confines of this spirit of what it is I’m trying to make so I’m always open to it. A lot of times you run into a situation where you just have a ton of money and say this is our property; this is how much we’re giving you; give us Akira, but do everything we say. It’s a very service-oriented idea to have and common american way of dealing with things. So any idea that the staff brings forth to the table, it’s like “Oh, I never thought of that. That’s a cool idea” because it’s within the realm of what it is we’re doing. I’m way more flexible now than I was ten years ago. Especially Thomas Romain, who came on board originally as a mecha designer, now he’s taken on a little bit more responsibility with me on the project as it’s moved forward. It’s just cool to see someone kind of get inside the world I’ve always had in my head and starts playing around with things and I’m like “Okay, let’s try that!”. Obviously there are some things that I’m like this absolutely can’t be the case.

NR: What made you decide on Satelight versus your connections in Korea where you worked for a long time? Did you go to Satelight or did they come to you?

LeSean: Well, the way it happened was the things that what I had done during my stay in Korea created an opportunity for Thomas to meet me. Between the years of 2009 and 2012, I had been sort of documenting what I had been doing.

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NR: Seoul Sessions.

LeSean: Right! And it was more of like anyone putting videos together on YouTube and sharing it, but because I knew that the Point of View that I had was a little more unique, I wanted to document that otherwise I would have gone crazy. So I just did these little video diaries just to keep myself from going insane because all I was doing was working. I only had Sundays off and working 6 days a week most of the time “Alright, I gotta figure out to make this “fun”. I put out a couple of those videos just after I left. I returned to the States and Black Dynamite fell into my lap, after moving back to America to produce and direct that with Titmouse. We had some challenges where one of our studios couldn’t follow through on finishing the series, so we had to split the remainder of the work between three studios in Korea.

"A lot of times you run into a situation where you just have a ton of money and say this is our property; this is how much we’re giving you; give us Akira, but do everything we say."

So I have to fly back to Korea and spend the summer there. Apparently whoever was organizing the TEDx saw my videos and gave me a call about attending. I wanna say right around 2014, Thomas Romain had seen the TEDx talk video. So there’s this weird connection to everything. Thomas saw the video and tweeted about it and he emailed me saying “Hey man. I saw your TEDx video. I thought it was amazing! You’re like me when I left France to go to Japan and I really related to that.” I had known about Thomas back in 2009 watching a documentary on Oban Star Racer. I tend to watch making-of videos when I’m working because it gets me excited about it. Some people like to put on movies while they work, but I like to watch making-of videos. I had watch that documentary like forty times. I thought what they had done at the time was groundbreaking, being one of the first co-production between France and Japan.

When the time came for me to decide to do Cannon Busters and Kickstarter, I reached out to Thomas and said “Hey, I don’t know what your schedule is? Do you freelance? I have a small budget and I’d like to commission you for a couple of mecha designs.” At the time he was working on Space Dandy and said “Well I don’t freelance. I’m staff at Satelight, so you have to go through them to work with me. Let me talk to my boss.” So that’s how Thomas and I connected through that opportunity of the TEDx video I did and he had seen.

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NR: So once you secured Thomas, Satelight came on board with him?

LeSean: Well that’s what happened. I had a chance to go to Japan a month and half later. Thomas agreed to work on this project and at the time I was supervising director on Black Dynamite season two and we had commissioned Hiroyuki Imaishi-san (Gurren Lagann, KILL LA KILL) to direct the main title through SAIZIGEN, who was doing the animation production. Then I met Thomas and Kiyomi-chan, and pitched Cannon Busters to them and they thought it was a good idea. Thomas thought it was a good idea for him to step out of a designer role and get involved on more projects.

Satelight saw this as a small low-risk, high-reward opportunity to be attached to an American project. So everyone has an investment in it and they were getting paid to do it like “This is unique.” The project came together because of what I had done in Korea. The Korea trip is still haunting me in a positive way so to speak.

"So I just did these little video diaries just to keep myself from going insane because all I was doing was working."

NR: Last one. Since you mentioned Imaishi-san of TRIGGER. Do you have any one you’d like to work with in the future? 

LeSean: Oh wow. There are so many people I’d love to work with. I wasn’t expecting that question! [Laugh] That’s a crazy question.

NR: Assemble your animation dream team for me.

LeSean: Hey I got to meet a lot of my idols while I was in Japan last month. I met Koji Morimoto (Memories, Mind Game), Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Evangelion, Nadia). Yeah I would love to do a project with Morimoto and Sadamoto as character design with animation by TRIGGER and directed by Imaishi.

For me, I want to direct more. I’ve been directing for the last ten years on like Boondocks and Black Dynamite, but this being my auteur project as a creator and writer, I would like to collaborate more as a director with these guys. Working with the TRIGGER guys would be great. I would love to work with SANZIGEN; their CGI is really impressive! Science Saru with Maasaki Yuasa (Mind game, Ping Pong) and Eunyoung Choi. They would all be different projects obviously, but I would love to work with all of them at some point.

You can check out Cannon Buster on its official page and Kickstarter page.

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