Polygon Pictures, one of the oldest digital animation studios worldwide, has been turning its lights off at 10 p.m. sharp since 2011. Employees can turn them back on again but they automatically go dark every hour.
In Japanese animation companies, where workers normally stay at the office for days until their project is finished, this kind of attitude is not just rare — it’s nonexistent.
Shuzo Shiota, 49, president of Tokyo-based Polygon Pictures, chuckled, saying it was initially meant to save electricity following the March 2011 mega-quake and tsunami. But it also allowed the company to maintain strict management of production — more like a factory line — as well as a better working environment for employees.
“The process (of making animation) is no different from manufacturing. Our priority must be to be creative and make interesting content. But as a business, it must be something that we can continue doing,” he said.
This is just one example of how Shiota has introduced Western standards to an industry often considered run by its own rules. Opaque to outsiders, this operating culture has made it difficult to deal with potential partners overseas.
But Shiota’s Western-style sensibilities have led to Polygon Pictures’ high-tech animation works, including “Knights of Sidonia,” being streamed to viewers in 50 countries exclusively via Netflix, marking a first for a Japanese title.
Shiota traces his American attitude to the nine years he spent growing up in California. After graduating from Sophia University, he joined Nippon Steel Corp. in 1991, only to quit five years later when he was 29.
Working as a business consultant, he became involved in creating Dream Pictures Studio, a joint venture funded by Polygon Pictures, Sony Computer Entertainment and Namco. The goal of Dream Pictures Studio was to produce an animation solely by computer with an eye-popping budget of ¥8 billion, for worldwide distribution.
Sadly, the project didn’t succeed and Dream Pictures folded in 1999. Polygon Pictures took Shiota and his staff under its wing.
Despite the failure, Shiota saw potential in the Westernized production line that was used at Dream Pictures.
“Watching Pixar having a production line with experts in various fields working under different sections, and from my experience at Nippon Steel and studying business process re-engineering (workflow analysis), I was confident that video production is no different from manufacturing. There were no competitors in Japan that saw animation in such a way,” he said.
“I thought there’s a huge opportunity since no one was even trying to make a full length film using computer graphics exclusively. At the same time, I also believed that Japanese creativity is competitive with the rest of the world.”
But with many employees and no project, Polygon Pictures was going south, rapidly using up its venture capital.
Relying on the network he built at Dream Pictures, Shiota, who became president of Polygon Pictures in 2003, went looking for business opportunities in the United States, where demand for computer-animation studios to make films, TV programs and anime was surging.
So it was natural, or even inevitable, for Polygon Pictures to adopt a Westernized business style. And that has opened the door for numerous opportunities.
Collaborating with Disney was one.
“In 2005, we were able to work with Disney for the first time, on their TV series ‘My Friends Tigger and Pooh.’ It took five years for us to get into the business,” Shiota said.
After getting on track, their work for Disney’s “Tron: Uprising” (2012) and several episodes of the Cartoon Network show “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2011-2013) received four nominations for the Annie Award, a prominent animation prize, in 2013.
“Tron: Uprising” won the Character Design and Production Design award.
While Polygon Pictures rose to stardom in the American animation industry, it didn’t go anywhere in Japan.
The firm had been involved in producing popular Japanese anime including director Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell 2.0” (2008) and “The Sky Crawlers” (2008), but remained a virtual unknown in its home country.
Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the Japanese animation industry prefers hand-drawn illustrations, putting Polygon Pictures, known for its computer graphics prowess, at a disadvantage.
But through its work on “Tron: Uprising,” the company developed a new technique dubbed “toon shade,” which makes computerized graphics appear similar to hand-drawn illustrations.
The company took a turn upward after hiring Hideki Moriya, who worked at film distributor Gaga and animation studio Gonzo, as a director in 2011. Moriya’s domestic network allowed Polygon to get involved in “Knights of Sidonia.”
International praise for its work on “Tron: Uprising” also helped the studio get its content available for streaming on Netflix.
“Knights of Sidonia” became available for streaming in 50 countries in July 2014, making it the first Japanese content to be streamed exclusively on Netflix.
That was when Polygon Pictures moved to improve its working environment, resulting in a big payoff.
The better working conditions triggered an influx of foreign workers to Polygon Pictures, many of them translators fed up with the notoriously long working hours at other Japanese animation firms.
As a result, 20 percent of its employees hail from roughly 20 other countries.
Strict management of the production line allowed the company to release the title in 10 languages, for it required editing of the characters’ mouth motions to put them in sync with all the different languages spoken.
“It was a huge impact for the industry that we teamed up with Netflix. It caused Japanese companies that would not normally team up, to create streaming services together,” Shiota said. “Overseas partners such as Amazon and Hulu have joined the Japanese market in a very short period of time.”
But that is not the goal of Shiota or Polygon Pictures.
According to Polygon Pictures founder Toshifumi Kawahara, the company’s goal is: “To do what no other has done, in unparalleled quality, for all the world to see and enjoy,” so that it becomes the first company to achieve success in new fields.
And that is just what Shiota plans to do.
“We are aiming to distribute content, including Japanese animations, worldwide at the same time in all countries. It’s something never accomplished before, so we are going to become a pioneer,” he said.
Key events in Shiota’s life
1974 — Moves to California.
1991 — Graduates from Sophia University Law Department.
1991 — Joins Nippon Steel Corp.
1997 — Participates in the launch of Dream Pictures Studio.
1999 — Joins Polygon Pictures.
2003 — Becomes president of Polygon Pictures.
2008 — Becomes one of the “25 Toon Titans of Asia” listed by Animation Magazine.
2012 — “Transformers: Prime” wins Outstanding Special Class Animated Program at the 39th Daytime Emmy Awards.
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appears on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.