The animation industry in Japan is smaller than you would think; go to a party and you’re bound to meet someone you know—or at least someone who knows that other someone you know.
Being a small industry has its advantages and disadvantages. One possible advantage is that if you’re a westerner, there’s a much higher chance people will remember you. Being blonde will get you even more rare points as a shiny Pokémon of sorts, as Japan doesn’t really have many westerners or natural blondes. A disadvantage, however, is that because the industry is very small, it’s hard to make your way in.
It’s even harder when you’re a foreigner. Remember those cliques in elementary school? The ones you couldn’t break into unless you had a referral from a friend who was already in the clique? Yeah, the Japanese animation industry is basically like that.
This and other factors (including the barrier of language) make it so you don’t see many western staff members in the ending credits of any given anime. Scotland native Scott MacDonald, however, has broken down walls and made his way up the ladder to become an esteemed member of the animation industry.
Not only has he done background art for a plenitude of anime including Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, Dog Days season 3, and my personal favorite, Pretty Rhythm Aurora Dream, he will also be serving as art director on the ViVid Strike! anime, which is scheduled to premiere this fall. Recently, MacDonald gave me the chance to talk with him about his origins.
“Before anime, I was actually more interested in monster movies, so when I was young, I used to get my mother to record on VHS all the Godzillas that played throughout the night.” He told me, “And then there were certain anime… Three stand out to me. One is The Mysterious Cities of Gold which is a long TV series, and Ulysses 31, which is another long one. [Also,] Thundercats, which I didn’t think was Japanese anime but when I worked on [an anime in the past], I realized that producer was tied with Thundercats, so it was nice to meet him. He’s a little bit older now, but when I found out…” Unable to express his admiration with words, he made ecstatic sound effects.
While MacDonald enjoyed anime to a point in his childhood, his love for the art form didn’t really kick off until his late teens when a company called Manga Entertainment opened its doors in the UK and began releasing more adult-oriented titles. For some of his favorite titles as a teenager, he listed off 3×3 Eyes, Tank Police, Appleseed, and Vampire Hunter D.
MacDonald has had a passion for art since childhood–since before he even got into anime.
“I’ve always been drawing and making stuff, and then when I came over to Japan, thinking about making a career out of art wasn’t at the tip of my mind, but when I was studying at Japanese school… I couldn’t decide what to do career-wise,” he admitted, “I had a little conversation with my Japanese teacher and she said, ‘Well, you’re always doodling in class, so why don’t you do something with that?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, OK.'”
After having a fateful encounter with an art teacher at a job fair, MacDonald attended a vocational school for artists. He got an internship at prestigious background art studio Kobayashi Productions, but found that it was too difficult. “I couldn’t see myself managing to survive as a foreigner,” he told me, “If I was Japanese, I could live with my family. Then I could maybe not have had to think about living expenses.”
After spending less than a month at the internship, MacDonald decided to send out his resume to a large amount of studios. The same day, he got a call from background art company Studio Tulip (Monogatari series, Girls und Panzer), who offered him a job as a background artist after a quick interview.
“It was a very quick interview. It was a, ‘When can you start?’ kind of interview.” He recalled, “I basically started that week and we didn’t even have time to do our normal training [that you usually do at a company], but we were so busy at the time so I was put straight [to work on an] anime. I think it was Bamboo Blade.” Looking back on the experience, he mused, “It was a very turbulent start. Sometimes it’s good to be pushed in at the deep end so suddenly.”
When Scott first began working at Tulip, things were a bit different than the current situation he’s in now. Employees kept roll-up mattresses and pillows under their desks so they could stay overnight in order to meet a deadline. As someone from abroad, this seemed strange to him.
“It was kind of stressful for the first year at the company. I was constantly getting told by senior directors, ‘You’ve got to be more serious about your job’ and things like that–and I was your typical forigner when I first came to Japan: I wanted to leave at the time I was supposed to be leaving at and I didn’t want to work overtime.” He continued, “It took a long time for me to realize that I had to sacrifice some things. My personal life… I had to cut back on going out and partying and I couldn’t meet my friends every day. I had to cut back a lot of that.” The stress eventually caught up to him when his doctor ordered him to take time off because his stress levels were too high.
Only a few years into his job, the animation industry changed forever when reports started coming up in newspapers about the industry’s working conditions.
“The boss called for a meeting, and he told us, ‘All right, no more overnight work.’ He did a lot of things to change the way we worked. He made a lot of phone calls and a lot of meetings with other animation and production companies to say basically, you know, ‘we can’t keep doing this. It’s not working.'” After that, MacDonald and his fellow employees never had to stay overnight again. Overtime still existed, but the working conditions improved, allowing him and his team to take more time to create more detailed art. Because of the strict deadlines, artists were forced to turn in very simplistic pieces. Now, they can try and negotiate to push back a deadline if they need the extra time, which leads to a better product. This time is vital for projects like the K: Missing Kings film, which had extremely detailed art in every single picture.
— Scott MacDonald (@sukochi_anime) July 7, 2016
MacDonald provided the background art for the key visual for the rebroadcast of the Majestic Prince anime.
With so many works under his belt, surely he must have inspiration? In terms of anime, he gave the post-apocalyptic anime film Akira as his main object of adoration.
“I think Akira was the second movie I ever bought.” He grinned, “I was awestruck at Neo Tokyo and the action scenes and the way the characters were moving.”
In the category of people that give him inspiration, he named director and artist Makoto Shinkai as an important figure.
“I love his work. I have his artbooks at my company. It inspired me a lot to play with colors. His work has a large range of colors, and he always uses colors which I would have never thought to use–like within the shadows–and his background art and things like that. It’s quite interesting to look at his detailed work style.”
Studio Ghibli and the Nagi no Asukara (A Lull in the Sea) anime are also muses for the art director; MacDonald even goes so far as to follow the background artist for the latter on Twitter and save every piece of background artwork he uploads so he can use them later to give himself ideas.
As one of the only westerners working as an art director in Japanese animation, MacDonald was able to give me some tips for those abroad aspiring to work in Japanese agency: open-mindedness, willingness to take criticism, and determination.
“If you’re coming over to Japan to work, you’re not going to be working at director level right away; you have to work your way up. A lot of people joining the background art area of animation get the impression that they get to draw what they want to draw, which isn’t the case,” he explained, “You have to draw what you’re given, and you have to be able to work as a team because you’re not usually given one scene for you to do. People assume that they’re just going to be working on their own and doing what they want to do, and it tends to not work out for those kinds of people.” Despite having many struggles—including dealing with certain directors who aren’t happy with your work—MacDonald told me that he thinks it’s worth it.
“It’s very rewarding job, though. It’s very nice when things do go smoothly, but you have to be prepared to try hard.”
What does MacDonald hope to challenge in the animation world in the future? Besides maybe making a whacky comedy anime about the crazy characters at his studio, he says he’d like to go visually dark.
“I have a reputation for having very cute anime in my repertoire. There’s a lot of cute colors—lots of pinks and purples—I’d like to go the complete opposite and do something really dark. Like a dark fantasy or a dark horror would be nice to do. It certainly would challenge me.”
You’ll be able to see MacDonald’s artwork in the ViVid Strike! anime this fall, as well as in the BanG Dream! anime idol project’s newest music video (preview seen above) that will be bundled with the group’s second single when it ships next month. The art director also has a few other projects up his sleeve that he can’t announce just yet, but he promised that he’s not going anywhere in the forseeable future.
You can check out Scott MacDonald and his various musings on daily life on his Twitter account.