Justin Leach misses Japan. His first trip was in 1999, hot off the Academy Award success of his short film Bunny. He wasn’t the director or producer or anything, but he used his role as an animator on that film to meet his biggest inspirations in the anime industry, including Hayao Miyazaki himself. Justin would return a few years later as one of the first foreigners to work at Production I.G, serving as technical animator on Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and Last Exile.
After returning to the United States and working on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and later as a rigging supervisor for Blue Sky Studios, Leach eventually found his way back to working in anime. In fact, he’d already been working on several projects on the side, including producing the first successful Kickstarter anime, Masaaki Yuasa‘s Kick-Heart and later Masahiro Ando‘s Under the Dog. Eventually, Justin realized that rigging characters wasn’t as fulfilling as being able to tell stories with Japanese creators.
Today, he regards Japan as his second home, one that he’s unable to return to due to COVID-19. Instead, he’ll be celebrating the release of Eden from his home in New York City. An unlikely place for the creator of an anime to reside, but then you could likely say the same thing about many of Eden‘s global creators. In my 90-minute interview with him about his new Netflix Original anime series Eden, he spoke at length about how fulfilling it was to be able to learn about the anime production process from within the studio itself, and how it’s inspired his future projects.
Eden is a story that’s sat on Justin Leach‘s shelf for far too long. It’s a story about a girl raised by robots that he first developed in 1998, and it had been close to being turned into a feature film at a major studio. While working on mobile games in Silicon Valley, he met up with Taiki Sakurai – once an old friend from the Production I.G days, now Chief Anime Content Producer at Netflix Japan – and after discussing a short film he was working on, was given the unique chance to pitch to the world’s largest streaming service. Eden was one of many that were pitched to Sakurai, but it wasn’t the first time he’d heard about it. Back at Production I.G, Justin had mentioned the idea to him, but now Sakurai had the opportunity to actually make sure it got realized.
From there, it was time to assemble a team. He quit his job and became an anime producer full-time. He’d been using the brand “8-Bit Pictures” to work on Under the Dog and his projects with Masaaki Yuasa in the past, but he rebranded (partly due to the fact that there’s already a studio 8-bit) to Qubic Pictures. It’s not so much a studio as it is a group of creatives around the world, led by Justin, that work with animation creators to develop new stories. In the future, he hopes that it could become a fully-fledged animation studio in Japan (Kyoto’s the dream), but he doesn’t yet have those resources, especially since he’s dedicated to paying his staff a livable wage.
Justin was given one month to recruit the core staff of Eden, and this was his opportunity to cash in what he jokingly refers to as “friendship tokens.” Even after he returned to the States, he was frequently working with Japanese creators on the side, and had kept in touch with long-time friends. One of these old friends was Cowboy Bebop character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, who designed the human cast as well as the main robot character Zero, coincidentally voiced by Spike Spiegel’s Kōichi Yamadera. Another was the animation studio, the Taiwan-based CGCG Studio, which he’d worked with on Star Wars: The Clone Wars in the past. He was initially planning on working with animation teams in Japan, but when those plans fell through, CGCG was there to put their top team on realising the show.
Alongside Justin Leach were several other producers who define Qubic Pictures today. Irene Chung serves as Head of Story at the company, while Kanako Shirasaki is the company’s Head of Production. Another important addition to the Eden project was co-producer Hiromi Hasegawa, whom Justin frequently brought up as an essential part of bringing on some of the show’s talents. She’s worked in the anime industry in translation and management roles in the past, but in her role as Producer on Eden, she was able to recommend creators for key roles, including Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood‘s Yasuhiro Irie as director. Hasegawa was also the one to scout Kevin Penkin for Under the Dog, leading to their further collaboration on Eden. Regarding Penkin’s soundtrack, Justin said, “I can’t wait for people to hear it, I really want people to hear it.”
Being able to bring on this dream team of creators was a mix of these “friendship tokens” and luck. With the anime industry producing more anime than ever before, its creators are all incredibly busy, usually being booked out for at least three years in advance. Some creators will shift around their schedules for prestigious projects, but Justin got lucky in that these veteran creators all happened to open up their schedules at the exact right moment.
“It was this weird sort of alignment, where (Irie-san) just happened to be rolling off a project and just happened to be free, and Kawamoto-san just happened to have the time, and CGCG just happened to have an opening. All of these talented people just happened to be available at just the right moment in time. It felt mysterious and almost too serendipitous given the odds.”
Eden‘s creatives are scattered around the world. Background artists in China, an animation studio in Taiwan, a composer in London, a producer in New York, and a core creative staff in Japan. So on behalf of all the purists out there, I had to ask whether he’d still consider it an anime. For him, it’s somewhat of a hybrid, although he doesn’t claim to adhere to any strict definition of what anime actually is. But what was important is that they retain the process and work with people who’ve been a part of the anime industry for decades.
One of my more important concerns, however, was communication between all of these teams. While Eden‘s translators and producers work between the groups in Japan and abroad using the project management system Shotgun, there is no way to ensure that the teams aren’t overworking to create Eden. This is a topic that both Justin and Irie, who is also the representative director of animator advocacy group JAniCA, are passionate about. Justin stated that while he’s asked the teams to manage workloads, there always will be a level of crunch on a production like this, so he has to rely on trust.
In the late 90s, when CG was still new and exciting, Justin visualized Eden as a film designed by artists in Japan, but created in a Pixar-like style at a major US animation studio. Today, he has a very different outlook, wanting instead to capture the feeling of traditional 2D Japanese animation, but not necessarily caring about whether that feeling is realized in 3D or 2D. For him, the most important thing is the storytelling, and he hopes that those who instinctively dislike 3D will try to look past it. One major difference between Eden and most 3D anime is that, at Irie’s request, it doesn’t employ any frame-skipping and is instead animated at a full 24 frames per second. It helps that CGCG has plenty of experience working on Western animation and are already comfortable with producing shows at a full 24 frames.
Justin Leach is a fan of the works of Studio Orange and Sanzigen, who’ve both near-perfected the art of replicating the feeling of 2D anime with 3D animation, but he recognizes that frame-skipping is an approach taken by pretty much every 3D anime series that exists today. Instead, Eden seeks to replicate the traditional feeling of anime by animating by hand (opposed to motion-capture), changing the geometry of each shot depending on the angle of the character, and taking a restrained approach to camerawork. Throughout the show, only 5% of all shots actually take advantage of the 3D camera, while the rest are either fixed or panning shots.
Even back in 2003, Justin Leach was planning on creating a global anime, but now he had tools to facilitate a smoother collaborative effort. One of these was custom built by a former Blue Sky Engineer which would make it easy for artists to upload their work to be reviewed by director Irie. As an animator in his own right, Irie would then draw 2D keyframes over the 3D work to give instructions visually. This echoes a process earlier on where character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto would draw over the 3D models to help the artists in Taiwan stay closer to his 2D designs.
Eden will release on May 27th with four episodes, a fitting runtime for a project that was initially pitched as a feature film. On the streaming platform, Netflix Originals are released in two different ways. Some are exclusively licensed within a specific region, while others are produced by Netflix themselves. While the vast majority of Originals are still licensed from studios, Netflix has been steadily growing the amount of produced original programming.
For Justin, selling the Eden IP to Netflix meant several things, but mainly it meant that he didn’t have to search for any other financiers. Once the pitch was accepted, his long-shelved idea would actually become a reality and delivered to viewers globally. This would become the first-ever Netflix Original anime series produced directly by Netflix, something that Justin is quite proud of. Much like producing the first Kickstarter anime Kick-Heart, he’s always aimed to be the first to tackle new innovations.
On Netflix‘s side, this means they have the ability to produce and earn revenue from merchandise and spin-off material directly. There are already two manga versions in serialization, one in Monthly Young King Ours GH from Tsuyoshi Isomoto and another in Bessatsu CoroCoro Comic by Kazuyoshi Yamada. They’ve also announced a series of figures in collaboration with Super7.
This also means that Netflix has the power to greenlight a potential sequel. While it’s still early, Justin already has some ideas that he’d like to explore within the world of Eden with plenty of areas intentionally left untouched. “If people want it, then there definitely is more story to tell,” he says as he goes on to talk about how excited he would be to work with his all-star creative team again.
If there’s one thing to learn from Eden‘s production, it’s this: Never give up on a good idea. During our interview, Justin put a lot of things down to lucky coincidences, but what I found most remarkable is that even after seemingly losing its chance in 1998, he still believed in it. Different parts of the original concept changed, especially after he became a father, but he persisted up to almost 20 years later when he found himself pitching the show yet again. Since conducting the interview, I’ve found myself reflecting: Have I had a great idea that I gave up on at the time? Maybe I should try again.