SK8 the Infinity surprised fans when it rolled out of the gate this season with incredible animation, likable characters and a unique take on the high-octane sport of skateboarding. So, what’s it like behind the scenes?
Thanks to the amazing team at Wakanim, we’re bringing you an interview with Thomas Romain, a designer working in Japan for Studio No Border, the team working hand in hand with Bones (My Hero Academia, Mob Psycho 100) on production of the original skateboarding anime.
Take a look below for some info on what it’s like to bring the extreme sport of skateboarding to life, and let us know what anime interviews you’d like to see next!
Can you introduce yourself and Studio No Border?
Romain: My name is Thomas Romain. I’m a designer, illustrator and art director working in Japan since 2003. I studied animation in France, then left my country soon after graduation to work in the Japanese animation industry, which was my dream. I’ve been involved in shows such as Oban Star-Racers, Macross Delta, Symphogear, Space Dandy and more.
Studio No Border is a child company of Ankama, a company based in the north of France, famous for its video game IPs Dofus and Wakfu. Ankama is unique because as far as I know, it is the only French company capable of producing video games, comics, animation and board games [completely] in-house.
In 2018, I decided to join Ankama group by creating Studio No Border around a team of French and Japanese artists to develop various projects. We are not specialized in a specific area and are currently developing our own animation projects, video games, comic books and board games.
Studio No Border focuses on the creation and design, while Ankama is mainly taking care of the business side. It is located in Nakano, Tokyo, and we have currently around 15 employees. We are still a small creative crew, but the studio is growing at a steady pace.
How long have you been working with Japanese studios, and Bones in particular?
Romain: Personally, I’ve been working for Japanese studios for 18 years. I’ve known Bones’ boss Minami-san for a long time, but I started to work for Bones in 2013 on Space Dandy, a show directed by Shinichiro Watanabe.
I was in charge of the design of the spaceships. Then in 2018, after the creation of Studio No Border, we were commissioned to design the world of Carole & Tuesday, once again a series created by Shinichiro Watanabe.
My friend Stanislas Brunet, also a member of Studio No Border, worked on the show with me. Stanislas is a specialist of science fiction environments, mechanical and robot designs. You can see him credited on lots of past and upcoming sci-fi anime shows.
How did you end up working on SK8 the Infinity?
Romain: Everything started in a corridor after leaving a Carole & Tuesday meeting at Bones. We ran into Suzuki-san, producer on SK8 the Infinity. I did not know her at that time, but I was glad to see that some women in Japan manage to break the glass ceiling and become producer or director.
This is still quite rare. She asked us right away if we were interested in designing skateboards for an original show. Back at that time we were still only five or six at the studio, with already quite a lot of projects to work on, and I wasn’t sure if it was reasonable, but the project looked promising, so I accepted.
Soon after, she sent us the first sketches of the main characters and introduced us to the director, Utsumi-san.
What are your responsibilities on SK8 the Infinity?
Romain: We were in charge of designing the skateboards of each character, including the decals. This kind of work is usually referred to as “prop design” and is part of the early stage of pre-production.
The design references we provided to Bones were then used both by 2D animators and the CG department, depending on the cuts. Designing the shape of the skateboard is pretty technical, but it was balanced by the work on the decals, which was the fun part.
What is collaboration like with studio Bones?
Romain: Utsumi-san, the director, is famous for being extremely talented and paying attention to the slightest details. This is actually the key to reaching outstanding quality, animation being a process where everything has to be carefully crafted.
She brought a consultant to the team, in order to be sure that the skateboards we designed for the show would look real enough. Most of the parts, like the trucks, the wheels, the curve of the deck, etc., had to be designed so that the skateboards could actually work if they were built in reality.
I asked a young designer, Juliette Mercier, who was starting at Studio No Border, to work on the designs. She happens to be familiar with skateboards and did a great job while I provided her with some advice about how to draw technical reference drawings to be used by the animators.
She started with quick sketches, then created 3D models before tracing the skateboards digitally. Then, we submitted the result to Utsumi-san to collect her feedback. Then, Juliette did some modifications until the designs were approved. Stanislas Brunet also designed two skateboards that will appear later in the show.
Utsumi-san then asked us to work on the decals. She wanted them to visually reflect the personality of each character, so we split the work between three different illustrators.
Ayumi Kakei (a.k.a. Nelnal), whose style is very “pop,” did the illustrations for Reki, Langa and Miya. Loic Locatelli, a French comic book artist, did the decals for SHADOW and JOE, and my job was to make ADAM’s decal.
For all the decals, we submitted several propositions and Utsumi-san chose her favorite and made some notes about things she wanted to improve. The overall process has really been about cooperative teamwork, with five different artists at Studio No Border working on the project, which is quite unusual.
Do you have a special message for Western fans watching SK8 the Infinity?
Romain: Actually, we are looking forward to discovering the show at the same time as the fans! We have not been involved in the production since the pre-production stage, which is the usual process for designers.
We hope that the fans will enjoy the show in general, and our work on the skateboards in particular. It is important to show support to original anime not adapted from source material.
And this time, I personally think it is also important to salute the work of two women at the highest level of responsibilities—director and producer—a very rare achievement in this industry. Thank you!