Exclusive Interview with Sejoon Kim – Director of Gundam Twilight Axis

Exclusive Interview with Sejoon Kim – Director of Gundam Twilight Axis

Sejoon Kim (金世俊) is one of the rising stars of the animation industry. Excelling in mecha and effect animation he has had a long history working with Studio Sunrise on a variety of their shows from Kekkaishi and Tales of the Abyss to several Gundam shows such as Gundam Unicorn and Gundam Build Fighters. Having worked his way up the industry, he finds himself in the director seat for the most recent Gundam spin-off, Twilight Axis, currently being streamed online. We reached out to Kim and he kindly agreed to have a chat with us!

First off, welcome to the Sakuga Blog! Thank you for taking your time to talk to us!

Hello, this is Sejoon Kim. I look forward to speaking with you today.

To start with, can you tell us about what inspired you to become an animator in the first place? What was the spark that lit the fire?

At first, my goal was to become a manga artist, but after my plans to study in Japan had been finalized, I received an invitation from a Korean comics publisher. It was then that I came to think that I would always have manga to fall back on, since I had already received an offer. I was then set on the idea of, “Well, let’s study anime then, since I’ve never worked on that!”
Thinking about it now, it was a pretty outrageous way to get started.

You started at Sunrise by joining the Sunrise Animation School (known as the Sunrise Saplings School back then). What was it like studying and working there?

It’s probably easiest to think of the Sunrise Saplings School as a sort of training agency for new animators. It’s a place where fledging animators can learn the basic skills and other fundamentals needed for the job before they actually start working on-site.
As such, it may be a bit on the boring side for the type of person who worked diligently in art school.
I wanted to get out and start working as soon as possible, but it didn’t work out as I wanted.
However, my fellow animators from the Saplings School are now working on many different anime projects, so I’m glad I was able to build those connections back then.

You’ve worked your way up from inbetweener to being a 2nd key animator, and quickly moved to becoming a key animator and eventually, working as an animation director. The first shows you had major KA work on were Gintama and Kekkaishi. What was it like working on long-running shows that ran for over a year?

Ah, that’s not an easy question.
The basic work process itself is the same.
Personally, the two things I watch out for are schedule management and taking care of my body.
Long-running anime series, of course, run for a long period of time, and so once you start falling behind, it’s pretty hard to get back on schedule. Which is why I take great care in doing my work while maintaining communication with the production staff, so we fall behind schedule as little as possible.
Taking care of your body is a must as a professional, but for long-running anime, you also can’t take long absences from work. If you get sick and have to rest for several days, there’s a high likelihood that you will fall behind schedule. So as a basic rule, I avoid all-nighters and get six to eight hours of sleep at night. Also, I go to the gym to exercise two to three times a week, and try not to skimp on food expenses.
It’s all very standard advice, but that’s about it.

I understand you worked with Hirotoshi Takaya on Kekkaishi and Tales of the Abyss. Can you tell us about your experience working alongside him? Is it accurate to say you see him as a mentor figure?

I was still new back then, so it was a stimulating experience in a lot of ways.
At the time, my desk was next to those of Takaya-san and Nobuhiko Genma-san, so when I went over to greet them each day, I would have small conversations and take a look at how they worked.
In that sense you could say that I was influenced by Takaya-san, but I didn’t receive any personal instruction from him, and I didn’t particularly pursue his animation style.
That being said, I do like the way Takaya-san draws characters, so it is possible that I might have picked up things like how he draws expressions without realizing it.

You then worked quite a bit on Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn. This is a show that had a lot of effort put into creating some incredibly detailed robot and character animation. You’ve said in the past this was an important milestone project for you. Can you tell us more about that?

That’s right. I definitely expanded my repertoire as a mecha animator thanks to this show. There aren’t many works nowadays with subdued robot movement. It’s quite difficult to get that experience unless you work on anime like Zeta Gundam: A New Translation or Gundam Unicorn.
Also, that kind of understated robot animation is really challenging work, so the reality is that there are less and less people who can do it as time goes on. In that sense, I was quite fortunate to be able to work as a key animator and animation director on Gundam Unicorn as early as my third or fourth year as an animator.
Being able to see seasoned experts like Genma-san, Morifumi Naka-san, and Seiichi Nakatani-san working with my own eyes has guided the way that I draw robots now in many ways.

I first became aware of you on Mobile Suit Gundam AGE, specifically episode 24 when the main character launches in his new Gundam. Looking back on it, almost every episode you worked had loads of expressive work from you. What made you go all out on Gundam AGE?

Under the guidance of Gundam AGE‘s chief mecha animator, Ken Otsuka-san, I was told that I was free to experiment if there was anything I wanted to try. That is, given that it didn’t deviate too much from the world view of the show, of course.
As such, I hashed out all sorts of ideas with Otsuka-san and constructed scenes. I also learned a lot from working with episode director Kazuo Sakai-san.
The work as a whole had a fairly unrestrained feel to it, which is why I think the animation was allowed to flourish as well.

When I heard you’d be working on Gundam Build Fighters, I was really excited to see more of your energetic animation. This time you were promoted to chief mecha animation director. What were the responsibilities of being the chief mecha AD, and what kind of challenges did you face?

The biggest responsibility is making decisions for the general direction and feel of how the robots are going to be depicted. Depending on the project, there may be a general chief animation director as well, but Gundam Build Fighters didn’t have one.
Coming from Gundam AGE, I worked to create as much an environment as possible where you could work freely.
There weren’t any challenges in particular that stood out. Other than that I was too overeager and ended up falling ill, I suppose.

I remember watching the 2nd ending sequence where you animated a very short cut at the end in the most elaborate way possible! Was this originally in the storyboard?

During the meeting, I was told by the director, Kenji Nagasaki, that since the storyboard didn’t look that cool, I should ignore it and just “make it look awesome”. And so, I changed it from what was in the storyboard when I animated it. I didn’t have much time, but it was a fun project.

In particular one of my favourite bits of work by you is the cut you drew for the 1st opening; that really blew me away! That opening was directed by Masami Obari. What was it like working with a robot anime veteran like Obari?

I was pretty worried. I spent several days deciding how much I should correct as the animation director. There were a bunch of places where I thought, “If you changed it like this, it’d be even cooler”…
In the end, I did not hesitate in making corrections, so that I would not have any regrets after the fact. However, there were one or two cuts that showed up partway through with Obari-san’s instructions, “Please don’t make corrections on this cut” written on them.
It was a fun project to work on, and I have fond memories.

In terms of your style, some people feel there is some Obari influence embedded in it. Takaya was influenced by Obari back in the 90s, would you say it was through working with Takaya that you gained this influence?

I wouldn’t say that.
I often hear from non-animators that the robots I draw resemble Obari-san’s, but the mecha animators I talk to tell me that they’re completely different.
I’m often told that my style is close to that of Hirotoshi Sano-san‘s.
If I had to say, I think my robots take elements from Yoshinori Kanada-san and Hirotoshi Sano-san, mixed in with some influence from Gundam Unicorn.
Of course, having worked together with Takaya-san and Obari-san, I’m sure they’ve shaped my work here and there. But broadly speaking, I think Yoshinori Kanada-san (Mospeada’s opening is my favorite piece of animation), Hirotoshi Sano-san (Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory is awesome!!!), and Gundam Unicorn (especially Genma-san) have influenced me the most.
Also, the fact that I had barely ever drawn robots until I had to draw them for animation cuts might play an important role as well.

Your style is really expressive and almost always stands out in whatever show you work on. Recurring elements of your style include elaborate explosions and intense missile/laser chase sequences. One aspect that is a particular favourite of mine is how you constantly shift the camera and subject, never quite staying in the same plane and mixing it all around. Could you talk to us about how you went about developing your animation style? Were there any key moments in your career that caused a shift in how you thought about your drawings?

When I was in school, I was able to learn many things from Yukiyoshi Hane-san. As a student attending his lectures, I got to talk with him about a broad range of topics including anime, drawing, and the arts. I believe it’s thanks to him that I’ve been able to build the fundamentals as an animator.
One day, the topic of camera work and tracking shots came up in our conversation, and I received all sorts of valuable advice from him. Ever since then, I’ve been slowly searching for camera work that I can truly call my own.
If I went into detail it would run extremely long, but roughly speaking, I suppose it comes down to thinking about the back and forth between the cameraman and the subject.
In terms of developing a sense of expression, I draw a lot from music, films (Wong Kar-wai, F.W. Murnau, Ingmar Bergman, Shunji Iwai, etc.), literature, and fine art. Music especially is essential for me. I take a lot of inspiration from non-anime genres like these. Also, Yoshinori Kanada’s opening to Mospeada.

You have quite a knack for character work too. You drew the pivotal scene in the final episode of Gundam AGE where Flit runs towards Yurin; I really enjoyed the nuanced work you did there. Do you enjoy doing character animation based more on emotion and drama?

Thank you.
Yes, I do. I really love it. I like working on action scenes, effects work, and mecha animation, but I also really like emotional character scenes. When I work on scenes like the one in the final episode of Gundam AGE, I empathize a bit too much and end up half crying by the end. If somebody were to see me, I’m sure they’d be weirded out.
In that sense, working on the first ending animation for Gundam AGE was very fun as well.

Throughout your career you’ve no doubt faced obstacles. What would you say was the most challenging cut you’ve ever had to animate?

Let me think.
It’d probably have to be a cut in the Gundam 00 movie where the robot is dodging beams and missiles.
At the time, I had no experience working on cuts like those. However, I had no intention of asking someone for help, so I struggled through animating it by myself. I remember that when I saw it in motion, I became depressed at how poorly done it was, and ended up drinking all night in Shinjuku until I was completely drunk. It hurt me physically and mentally.
But it’s thanks to that trial and error that I was able to discover my own work process, so I think back on it now as a valuable experience.

Let’s move on to your most recent project. How did you get involved working as a director for Gundam: Twilight Axis?

It all started when Taniguchi, a producer at Sunrise, reached out to me. I had gone drinking with Taniguchi several times before. We’d had the chance to talk about all sorts of things on those occasions, and it’s possible that Taniguchi had felt I was the right person from the conversations back then. At least, I suppose this is what led to an offer to direct this project.
As for the anime itself, it was originally planned as four to five short picture dramas that would each be directed by a different director, including myself. However, for whatever reason, I ended up directing the entire project by myself.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you’ve faced going from just an animator to directing your own work? Were there any challenges you were not prepared for?

The toughest part might have been the meetings with the non-animation departments.
Having started out as an animator, most of my meetings up until now had been with just animators. Amongst fellow animators, it’s incredibly easy to get your ideas across. However, when meeting with other departments, I needed to easily and properly convey the ideas in my head. So I prepared as many materials as possible, and held meetings over and over again when needed.
Also, I came to truly understand just how important the cutting and editing process really is.

On Twilight Axis, not only are you the director, but you’ve handled the storyboards, character and mecha designs (alongside Shingo Abe), even working on the script yourself. I can imagine that working in all the key roles yourself must have been quite the ordeal, but how was it really?

Yes it was. To begin with, there’s a lot of work. The sheer amount of things to get done on a limited schedule was probably the toughest part.
Still, all of the different roles were so much fun. I especially got hooked on the screenwriting and storyboarding process, to the point where I lost track of time while working.

Now that you have a taste of being a director, would you want to direct more going forwards? I’d love to see you direct some anime openings!

Given the chance, I would want to work as a director again. Well, my goal is to create an original work of my own though.
I’ve received a number of offers to direct opening animations in the past, but the timing just hasn’t worked out. If I’m free at the right time, I’d like to give it a try.

You’ve been working as an animator for around 12 years. If you could, what advice would you tell new animators or those interested in working in the industry?

Yet another difficult question.
As long as you keep on living, it is only obvious as a human being to put in effort. No matter how much work an animator puts in at a studio, if that work cannot be used, then that animator can be said to have no value. New animators and those interested in entering the industry must think carefully about whether they’re suited to be an animator. It’s a bit dangerous to go into animation without the basic talent that is required because you love anime. Your job is not a hobby. This is a rough line of work unless you really love making anime. There’s a big difference between watching and enjoying manga or anime, and actually creating those things. I think that’s about all I can say at this point… (Of course, this is just my personal opinion. I’m sure there are many people who think otherwise.)

Finally, is there a message you’d like to give Sakugabooru users and Sakuga Blog readers, as well as your fans overseas?

I’m happy that I’ve gotten to meet overseas fans like this through the Sakuga Blog.
Thanks to the internet, you can now enjoy anime regardless of where you live. As a result, I too have come to interact with people from all over the world.
There’s no doubt that the internet growing like this has had a tremendous effect on the state of anime as well. I hope with all my heart that anime will continue to be loved in the future, and become more wholesome and abundant than ever before. I believe that we will need everyone’s help for this to happen, so please continue to support anime from here on out.

I really appreciate the time you’ve spent replying to all of our questions; thank you!

Thank you very much.

Support us on Patreon to help us reach our new goal to sustain the animation archive at Sakugabooru, Sakuga Video on Youtube, as well as this Sakuga Blog. Thanks to everyone who’s helped out so far!

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4 years ago

Really nice interview, however, it would be nice to have more links to the works you are talking about. Not having watched Gundam Age, I was a bit lost when you start talking about how amazing a certain piece was.