In the animation world, particularly in our friendly subculture, LeSean Thomas is kind of a rock star. The South Bronx native has become one of the industry’s brightest stars, with a career that spans the globe. Thomas has helped to bring the Legend of Korra to life, and helped to shape the direction of cult classics like The Boondocks and Black Dynamite. His work is an adventurous blend of eastern and western sensibilities, which is clean, appealing, and unmistakably his.
Thomas has worked with Crunchyroll to produce Children of Ether, which made a splash in theaters as part of Crunchyroll’s Anime Movie Night initiative. Most recently, though, he’s been working with studio Satelight to produce Cannon Busters, an animated series based on his comics that is slated to hit Netflix in 2018.
At Anime NYC, LeSean Thomas hosted a live panel on the event’s Main Stage. The room quickly filled with eager fans, as Thomas sat at a table, wearing a camouflage hat and shirt, as his laptop rested open before him. He greeted the crowd, and joked that he was “still kinda day three,” having traveled to the convention from Tokyo.
He offered a brief introduction to the audience, talking up his career, which started with work as a comic artist in the South Bronx, before moving on to serve as a production artist for Legend of Korra. From there, he traveled to South Korea to work as a subcontractor, before returning to the west to work on Black Dynamite. From there, he was off to Japan, where he’d begin work on Cannon Busters and Children of Ether.
Through the entire discussion, which spanned his career as an indie, to a pro in the TV world, he stressed the importance of carving out a place for one’s own in this ever-changing market. He noted that it’s an “exciting time to be a creative than any other time. Lot of streaming, lot of opportunities for new voices.”
He also took a moment to marvel at what Anime NYC was able to bring. “New York hasn’t really had a legit anime con,” he mused, “[anime is] always kind of sidelined when NYCC gets recommended. It’s nice to focus Japanese animation and East-Asian culture into one event.”
After a brief applause, Thomas opened the floor to questions.
His first inquiry was pretty upfront: “When we will get more Children of Ether?” Thomas let out a small chuckle, before responding explaining that he’s having that discussion with Crunchyroll at the moment. “That’s a Crunchyroll project I created,” he noted, before explaining that this was “a question I’ve stopped answering questions about on Twitter.” He finished his answer with “we’ll see what happens.”
The next question moved on to Black Dynamite, with the attendee asking if more Black Dynamite was in the cards. Thomas explained that this was a bit difficult to answer. “I dunno about that,” he stated, explaining that the rights to the show were owned by Artisan Entertainment. He took a moment to reflect on the series, noting that he was hired that he “was a talent hired by a Carl Jones to work on it. I was living in South Korea when he called to bring me onboard.” He expressed a desire to return to the project, despite the uncertain nature of a revival.
The third one to the mic thanked Thomas for bringing the New York rep back. Thomas laughed before explaining that he doesn’t wear his state on his back. “I don’t want to get in trouble!” he exclaimed with a small chuckle, before growing serious. “To be able to come back to this city, in the position I’m in as a guest of honor is super humbling.”
The next dove a bit deeper into Thomas’s overall creative process. “As an individual content creator,” they asked, “is it easy to have creator freedom over projects? Are you able to retain everything you put out for them?”
Thomas replied quickly, stating “to the best of my ability!” He explained further, though, noting that ceding some control can lead to a positive outcome. “I’m sure everyone in this crowd is in some degree of collaboration, whether it’s in financing or some other outlet. It’s not always a bad thing to let go of control, because it can lead to input revealing perspectives I hadn’t considered. On two projects I was working on last year, Children of Ether and Cannon Busters, I was approached after I started production, making them co-productions.” he did consider the flip side, though, particularly in how it relates to a more traditional network environment. “I think the issue you mentioned is more related to network TV, because you need to change a show to fit a specific advertiser demographic. If you have a show with a female character, they may want you to skew it to a boy’s audience, because that’s what they sold the advertising block for.” he continued, though, noting that he doesn’t feel quite the same pressures, because he “works outside the lines.” He pointed to Netflix in particular, explaining that “Netflix has 160 million subscribers, so they’re not beholden to the same forces. That allows them to just finance shows and allow a great degree of creative freedom.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a guest panel without the proverbial choosing of the favorite children. The next questioner asked which of Thomas’s works was his favorite. He was quick to answer, stating “Cannon Busters! Of all the shows, it’s my favorite. It’s creative, [has a] female lead, [it’s] a show that my niece can watch.” He admitted, though, that the show he’s working on is always his favorite. He admitted that he does adore The Boondocks, and had plenty of emotional attachment to the project, as it was the show that put him on the map.
The next inquiry moved more to the business side of things, asking how Thomas went about in getting Netflix to pick up Cannon Busters as a title. “It’s finished!” he exclaimed. “If you have finished content, chances are, if you’re in the right place at the right time, if what you’re doing fits their agenda, [companies will] invest in you.” He continued, explaining that “The Netflix case isn’t an isolated incident. We’re currently in a Wild West, where companies have money to invest in projects that they feel fits their catalog, and that project just happens to be one of them. Same thing with Children of Ether,” he noted, “Crunchyroll approached me and said ‘We like what you’re doing. How can we help you?’ And I said ‘Here’s seven or nine ideas,’ and they said ‘We like this one. Let us know how much is costs and we’ll let you know when we can afford it!'”
The next question moved over to Children of Ether, notably asking Thomas’s inspiration behind the project. He paused for a moment, before explaining that “We’ve all seen shows like Spider-Man set in New York, but I always wanted to do a more dystopian story. Like Escape from New York, The Warriors. I like this idea of New York City being ravaged by global warming, and water levels rising, climates changing, and the boroughs becoming islands. And the narrative would be studying the life of the daughter of a Cyrus-type character. And it was dope that Crunchyroll wanted to join with that. The fact that their first project would be an afro-latino work, that’s a good look. I always wanted to do this work about an afro-latina chick who understands Spanish but doesn’t speak it, I feel the Puerto Rican cultures are marginalized. So that comes from that nerd-fantasy. So major props to Crunchyroll for choosing this.”
The next question dove straight into the popular debate of today. Given his background, the person asked, with his background in moving between various industries, could he speak to the idea that anime is changing by ideas of people not in Japan showing interest? The person cited Shelter as an example.
Thomas laughed, before answering:
Oh Boy. (laughs) I’m not sure how many are aware of the Japanese animation machine, and there are people who can speak on this more eloquently than I. The industry pumps out 30 to 45 new shows a season. That’s a LOT of animated TV. 30-45 shows a season, 70 films a year. We don’t really get a lot of these. We’re really at the mercy of the licensing taste makers who pick up, edit, and release the show to the west. There’s so much content that isn’t picked up – there’s so many projects right now, like Shelter, Neo Yokio, that’s isolated incidents.
We’re talking about descriptors, right? The whole “anime/not anime” thing, everyone has a different opinion. Everyone’s allowed to say anime is a descriptor of animation from Japan, that’s OK for them. They got it from uninformed journalists in the ’80s who didn’t realize that anime was a Japanese shorthand for animation. They decided to “other” it. And licensing companies jumped on it, because they needed something exotic. So I think they served each other. Kids grew up, marketing’s very powerful, and that became the language.
At the end of the day, anime is what you think it is. You can call it anime, you can call it animation, you can call it black anime… in short, anime is just a term for animation in Japan. Frozen is “anime” in Japan. These projects and shows are very important to their identity. And when you attach your identity to a work, it’s easy to feel like you’re losing control of that. So you keep these descriptors and gatekeep. Same thing as hip-hop. What is hip-hop? Nobody knows! It’s just a phrase in Rapper’s Delight, and white journalists picked up on the phrase, and black cultures said “oh yeah, that’s hip-hop!” Does spaghetti stay spaghetti if it’s not from Italy? […] What I’m saying is the real problem is gatekeeping. If they’re not making it, they’re just sitting on chat forums. Have your opinions, but don’t ever make anyone feel bad about it.
The next question returned to Thomas’s roots, asking what inspired him to create. The asker noted that he got a few Akira vibes from Children of Eden. Thomas noted that he just likes post-apocalyptic themes, and doesn’t see these themes often. More notably, he doesn’t see many animated adaptations of a post-apocalyptic New York City. He cited Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe as his favorite creator of all time, as well as his biggest influence.
The inquiries continued along this path, with the next questioner asking how Thomas is able to maintain his own personal flair, while maintaining that overall anime influence in his work. He stated, simply, that he hires Japanese animators and designers to make his shows. It’s as simple as that. He elaborated, explaining that “I can make this to the best of my ability. I could’ve designed that, and I could’ve asked them to follow my character designs, but how do I convince viewers [that] it’s authentic? I hired the character designer for Michiko & Hatchin. I like to work with different people. And for character design, I hire an original character designer, who interprets my ideas. Then I hire a character designer like FLCL 3 designer Chikashi Kubota, and there’s this amalgamation of designs. When you work with Japanese elite, it’s not about trying to emulate, but hiring cats who can deliver on the project’s promises.”
The conversation quickly bounced back to the field of content creation, as an attendee asked what actions a user should take if they want to enter the anime industry. Thomas thought about his answer for a moment, before responding. “I can give you a canned response,” he explains, “I only speak from personal experience, and my path is an unorthodox path. I wanted to be the next Jim Lee or Joe Madd, and it didn’t work out. I moved over to children’s projects, and I met someone who introduced me to an opportunity to animate for the Lizzy Maguire cartoon.”
He admits that the answer is a bit trite. “You work hard, but I took every opportunity I could get. I started in the ’80s, and animation was harder to get into. Still is. Comics are easier. That’s why there’s so many comic imprints, but so few animation studios. To get into the industry, it’s about stepping outside your comfort zone. One of the biggest challenges, particularly inner city kids, more particular inner city female kids of color, the biggest obstacles you run into doing animation are your family and situation. if you don’t have a safe environment, you’re going to be discouraged. Then there’s family, if you don’t have someone who nurtures your ability, who says ‘you’re going to be a lawyer’, You’re going to face discouragement. I don’t know how to explain this to kids fighting their secret battles at home, how to give a blanket statement […] because each experience varies. I can only say persistence is the best way, how they use that persistence matters.”
The next inquiry continued this line, asking what advice Thomas could give to those who are just finding their footing in the industry. How, specifically, could one carve out a niche in the market?
He paused to think for a second, before going into his answer:
I think the biggest thing is your work. A well-respected director posted a “how to” video online. In the video, she said “if you’re so thirsty to do this, here are these tactics, I could talk to this guy.” Meanwhile, their work is wack. The only thing that can move you forward in this industry is your content. Content is king in this industry.
You need to spend copious time working on content, to the point that people are asking “When can you start,” or “why aren’t you working with us?” Also, you need to be wack for a REALLY long time. I still think I’m wack. You know, Hayao Miyazaki, celebrated animator of our time, was an in-betweener for six years. SIX YEARS. His first work was Castle of Caglistro. He was 40. Ridley Scott’s first film was Alien. He was 40. Aliens, he was 42. It takes a long time to get good.
To get those opportunities, you need to put in the work, meaning you need to be really good and obscure for a long time. Need to lose a few friends, a few boyfriends. Anyone who’s really good isn’t in the clubs. They’re going to be working and honing their craft for 18 hours a day. Every time I see someone that’s young and they’re that good, I say “man that’s good! …That person must be lonely. I can relate!” (laughs).
You have to be focused. Sometimes, being focused means being boring. And the only way you can get good enough to get a lot of people to recognize you, you need to be boring. I hate giving these canned responses, but it really is that simple. You need to put in the work, and that’s the only way that you can get to a point that you get recognized.
Also, you need to finish your stuff, even if it’s trash. Knowing when to start, finish, and end is how you get nice. I know a lot of cats who can’t get past the sketch phase. But you need to know how to finish your work. If you start doing unfinished stuff that gets millions of views, if you get hired, how are you gonna work on a deadline? Be boring, hone your craft. I dropped out of college and learned through sponging my information. Whatever your hustle is, take advantage of that and you’ll arrive in a space where people are willing to invest in your project and support you. It’s better to have 10-15 projects of various quality that people are willing to finance than a stack of unfinished drawings.
Time was beginning to run short at this point, and there was time for just two more questions. The first, was a question of “what’s next?” In regards to younger content creators, a trend has been to move toward streaming, leading to perceptions that traditional TV is on the out and out. In that regard, the questioner sought Thomas’s opinion on the general lean of the market.
Thomas replied, stating that “TV isn’t going anywhere […] and anyone screaming ‘the sky is falling’ about TV is people who were making money the old way. Streaming is just broadening the market. If you have a show that you want to get on Cartoon Network, go and do that. If you want to get your work online, go and do that.” Thomas noted that he started work on The Boondocks in 2003, so he’s had nearly fourteen years of familiarity with the broadcast system. He explained the pitfalls of the format, stating that “When you work at the big providers like Nick, [Cartoon Network], or even Sony, the target demo for animation is boys, ages 6-7. It’s not for you. It’s the creators trying to sneak mature stuff in for you, because it’s the only way they can get outside that market. With Netflix, you can really embrace a trans-genre mentality. Creators like me, who want to step outside the box, create a show for girls, Netflix allows you to step outside of the advertising bias. You can just make good content. If you have content that skews older and they think it suits their platform, they’ll buy it. As a creator working in kids’ environment, environments like Netflix are attractive to creators like me, and help to expand the market.”
The final inquiry of the night was a simple matter of the differences in the work environments between the Americas, South Korea, and Japan. Thomas thought about the question for a moment, before answering:
The Korean animation industry is largely a subcontracting hub for the US, China, Japan. We have a long history of South Korea being a US subcontracting industry, so there’s a number of places who require staffers to speak English. So, when I went to Studio JN, many staffers spoke English, which let me get into the industry and learn some Korean. It was a lot easier than going against the rapids. There are a lot of English speakers in the Korean industry by way of producers, co-producers, so it was surprisingly comfortable to step into. When I left JN to join Dong-Woo, it was a bit of a challenge, but I knew enough Korean to work in regards to the specific requirements.
When I moved to Japan, it was a different prospect. We had a unique case where Ian translated everything form Japanese. I wouldn’t recommend going straight to Japan if you don’t understand Japanese. But even in Korea, your talent is a major factor in regards to artwork and reworks, and what have you. If you go to Japan, though, you better step your Kanji game up!
As the discussion ended and folks made their way to the exit, it was clear that LeSean Thomas was in his element tonight. His insights were sharp, and his commentary was candid as he discussed his work, and the industry writ large. His sense of humor charmed and delighted, while his sheer honesty of the animation world provided a sober reminder that this is a place where dreams are honed by blood, sweat, and tears to produce the masterpieces we consume on a daily basis. His humility and wit were genuine, and his statements belied the fact that Thomas had just departed from Tokyo just a few days before.
This was a man who found his way outside the box that holds many animators back. It It was clear that he was hoping to lead others out, to see the brighter horizons of animation with him.