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May 15
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

SCOTT PILGRIM TAKES OFF AS AN ANIME SERIES FOR NETFLIX

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix.

Time is not always cruel to box-office bombs. Just look at the cult status achieved for Blade Runner, Fight Club, The Shawshank Redemption and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Much of the original cast of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World reunited with filmmaker Edgar Wright during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic for a table read to mark the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release. Also present at the time was the creator and illustrator of the graphic novel, Bryan Lee O’Malley, who would get an opportunity four years later for another a reunion, but this time for anime version produced by Netflix. O’Malley partnered with BenDavid Grabinski,  with both of them serving as executive producers, writers and showrunners for the eight episodes that revisit and reimagine the story about an aspiring musician living in Toronto who has to battle the evil exes of his ladylove.

“Science SARU [Japanese animation studio headquartered in Kichijōji, Tokyo] is so amazing and can push things so much further than I would have done in my 20s in a black-and-white comic book with my level of drawing. Having this Olympic team at our disposal, we were like, ‘Let’s come up with some fun and powerful images that we couldn’t have created on our own.’”

—Bryan Lee O’Malley. Executive Producer/Writer/Showrunner

Romona Flowers changing her hair color is a visual motif that honors the anime tradition of repeating shots and emphasizes to the viewer that she is the main protagonist of the story.

Ramona Flowers changing her hair color is a visual motif that honors the anime tradition of repeating shots and emphasizes to the viewer that she is the main protagonist of the story.

Two decades after the publication of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, O’Malley has a different perspective of the source material. “Like a 1000%,” he says. “That’s why, despite maybe people thinking anime should be a complete direct translation of the book into animation, I wanted to revisit and re-excavate it and do different things with it, and that’s how I ended up reinventing it as a whole and we ended up coming up with these scripts. Science SARU [Japanese animation studio headquartered in Kichijōji, Tokyo] is so amazing and can push things so much further than I would have done in my 20s in a black-and-white comic book with my level of drawing. Having this Olympic team at our disposal, we were like, ‘Let’s come up with some fun and powerful images that we couldn’t have created on our own.’” A key plot point was altered. “BenDavid came up with this great idea of reversing the first fight and having Matthew Patel win, and then we started coming up with new stuff that could spin off of that and new ways to look at the characters. It felt freeing,” O’Malley reveals.

Fight sequences take advantage of the fact that Scott Pilgrim was turned into an action RPG video game, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game.

Fight sequences take advantage of the fact that Scott Pilgrim was turned into an action RPG video game, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game.

Along with being responsible for helming Science SARU’s contribution to Star Wars: Visions called “T0-B1,” Spanish animator Abel Góngora directed the eight episodes of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.  “Having part of the team in the U.S. added an extra level of difficulty because we have very different ways of developing animation and cinema,“ Góngora states. “Nevertheless, most of the production followed the same development process as any other Japanese anime series.  Bryan, BenDavid and I had meetings often where we shared ideas and opinions. Our creative team in Japan would develop the concepts and designs from the script, and we could share them every week and get feedback by email or have a discussion in a video call. Sometimes they would update the script based on our new ideas that would enrich the story.” A variety of visual research was conducted. Góngora remarks, “We traveled to Canada and took so many photos, visiting the places you see in the original story and the film, and also visiting the studios where the film was produced. We wanted to know how it feels to walk around Toronto. We also collected a lot of pop culture references from cinema, music, video games and comics; that was already very important in the graphic novel, so I wanted to push it much more.”

The thick linework was not something usually associated with anime.

The thick linework was not something usually associated with anime.


One of the characters that benefited from an expanded storyline is Knives Chau.

One of the characters that benefited from an expanded storyline is Knives Chau.

“I was worried about whether or not we’d be able to maintain that [use of thicker lines]. Because of how many different key animators and in-betweeners take part in commercial anime projects, you often see variation in linework. There was a lot of trial-and-error as we tried to get a look Abel [director Abel Góngora] was happy with, including with the effects we used on the lines.”

—Masamichi Ishiyama, Character Designer and Executive Animation Director

Toronto remains a character in its own right. “It’s tricky because Toronto has changed so much, so do you do 2000’s Toronto or now Toronto?” O’Malley notes.  “We had to split the difference and do a fantasy homage of Toronto, like in the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie, but we also branched out into this futuristic version of Toronto which is a contrasting weird anime thing. That was fun.” Hanging in O’Malley’s office is a poster of Sailor Moon, which was his introduction to anime and consequently was an inspiration for the production. “Sailor Moon played on Canadian TV back in 1994 or 1995, and my little sister was watching it before school and I would peak in and go, ‘This is girlie stuff.’ But then the story got so intricate and interesting that eventually I was on the couch with her every morning watching it.” Anime is well-suited to the subject matter. “Animation is one of the most ideal forms for doing this type of story,” Grabinski believes. “Bryan’s thing is a collection of different approaches where there is some level of realism of human behavior and a recognizable reality, but then there is heightened action and impressionistic things. When it all becomes animated, to me it feels more cohesive.”

Showrunner Bryan Lee O’Malley got to revisit his early musician days by songwriting with American chiptune-based pop and rock band Anamanaguchi.

Showrunner Bryan Lee O’Malley got to revisit his early musician days by songwriting with American chiptune-based pop and rock band Anamanaguchi.

Serving as the Character Designer and Executive Animation Director was Masamichi Ishiyama. “The biggest difference was of course the art style. There isn’t a lot of cartoon-style animation produced domestically in Japan, so you don’t get the chance to work on that very often. Personally, I’d always wanted to work on something more cartoony, so it was really great luck that I ended up working on Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. It was also quite fresh to do an adaptation of a foreign property.” An unusual decision was to make use of much thicker lines than what was usually done in anime. Ishiyama explains, “I was worried about whether or not we’d be able to maintain that. Because of how many different key animators and in-betweeners take part in commercial anime projects, you often see variation in linework. There was a lot of trial-and-error as we tried to get a look Abel was happy with, including with the effects we used on the lines. There was also the language barrier [which required the assistance of a Japanese-English interpreter]. There were some times when my understanding was different from the director’s, which led to retakes.”

There is a graphic-novel aesthetic to the visual language that incorporates split screens.

There is a graphic-novel aesthetic to the visual language that incorporates split screens.

“It was my first anime. It was Bryan’s [creator/showrunner Bryan Lee O’Malley] first show. Science SARU’s first time working with ‘outside’  showrunners. We were all, every single day, learning a new part of it. It was fun, where we would spend so much time over here on the music and then they would be doing sound effects over there. The first time we hear those things combined, there were so many surprises. It was a fun process.”

—BenDavid Grabinski, Executive Producer/Writer/Showrunner

An environment revisited from the original graphic novel is the video store.

An environment revisited from the original graphic novel is the video store.

Even though Scott Pilgrim is in the title, he is not the actual protagonist of the series, which is reflected by Ramona Flowers changing her hair color each time there is a shift in the narrative. “It felt to us like a great visual concept to keep telling the viewer this is Ramona’s show, not Scott’s,” Grabinski observes. The creative and thematic choice was also a homage. “It’s an anime thing too,” O’Malley remarks. “I was thinking back to time-saving, cost-cutting measures of anime where you’re always going to repeat scenes. I thought it would be a fun nod to that, even though we ended up having a lavish anime that doesn’t cut any corners.” Familiar and new environments are explored. O’Malley notes, “We figured out what each episode was, where we would go and what kind of locations we would bring back from the books, like the video store. We spent two episodes in a movie studio, which is totally new. That’s me working out my demons from having gone through the whole process of making the Scott Pilgrim movie. That was fun for me.”

One of the new environments is the movie studio storyline, which was inspired in part by the making of the feature Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

One of the new environments is the movie studio storyline, which was inspired in part by the making of the feature Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Graphic novel and video game aesthetics are central to the visual language and shot design. “There are two main worlds in Scott Pilgrim,” Góngora points out. “The normal world is the around 2010 Toronto, where Scott lives, that I wanted to make look realistic and cinematic. We would use darker colors than usual and some other effects to integrate the characters in the backgrounds in a more realistic way.  The second is the fantasy world, connected with Ramona and the League of Evil Exes, characterized by impossible fight scenes and flashy video game-style concepts. It is part of the Scott Pilgrim universe that anything can happen, and visually crazy things are definitely going to distract you from the story, but that is the point.” Visual effects were an essential tool. Góngora explains, “I gave special importance to the depth of field blur and perspective for more realistic visuals. The characters might look simple and two-dimensional, but I wanted to have rich and textured images, coming from underground-rock-band aesthetics and punk fanzines made with photocopies and then mixed with ’90s video game pixel-style graphics.”

Visually crazy things are going to distract from the storytelling, but that is the point.

Visually crazy things are going to distract from the storytelling, but that is the point.

“Another special case would be the Ninja Paparazzi design, who started as a normal, stereotyped paparazzi man, but going through many back and forth notes, the misunderstandings lead us to make them look like evil ninja. This was unexpected, but Bryan and BenDavid loved it in the end.”

—Abel Góngora, Director

The casual acting featured in the coffee shop between Ramona Flowers and Julie Powers is a personal favorite of Character Designer and Executive Animation Director Masamichi Ishiyama.

The casual acting featured in the coffee shop between Ramona Flowers and Julie Powers is a personal favorite of Character Designer and Executive Animation Director Masamichi Ishiyama.

Getting the original cast to return to voice their anime personas was a coup. “They were all excited that they had new things to do and it wasn’t just coming back to do the same lines, emotions and scenes,” Grabinski observes. “They got to build on top of characters in a way they weren’t expecting to do because it could naturally feel like their entire experience in the Scott Pilgrim world had already been done. I don’t think that a lot of them had even planned to do more with it. I felt that people like Ellen Wong enjoyed getting to have Knives Chau have a new story and do a lot more fun stuff. Creatively, that’s a fun experience for anybody.” Pacing and tone had to be mapped out before animation commenced. “It was mostly instinct and our gut feeling about how much time we should be spending with each of these characters at this point of the story,” Grabinski explains. “How many digressions could we get away with? How often do we need to be on story? And how often could we go on these side quests? It became a lot of instinct as things would start coming together responding to [these questions], but there are not a lot of opportunities to change things at that point, so we have to be judicious at every stage of it.”

Visual effects were used to manipulate the depth of field.

Visual effects were used to manipulate the depth of field.

Making an appearance are futuristic versions of Ramona Flowers and Scott Pilgrim.

Making an appearance are futuristic versions of Ramona Flowers and Scott Pilgrim.

Making an appearance are futuristic versions of Ramona Flowers and Scott Pilgrim.

Ramona Flowers was the character who went through the most iterations. “Ramona becomes the main character, so we put special effort in her clothes and hair changing color,” Góngora notes. “We also developed two future Ramona designs that never appeared in the comics or other media. It was very complicated, but also a lot of fun. Ramona’s house was also important, so I put special effort in designing the rooms and furniture, making it more complex than the original design and adding some extra details. Another special case would be the Ninja Paparazzi design, who started as a normal, stereotyped paparazzi man, but going through many back and forth notes, the misunderstandings lead us to make them look like evil ninja. This was unexpected, but Bryan and BenDavid loved it in the end.” Music is a strong component of the storytelling. “I worked a lot on the songs with Anamanaguchi, the band,” O’Malley adds. “I used to be in a band and write songs. Actually, it was fulfilling to flex those muscles in this context and get to help them with songs. Filling the frame with music was totally new to me.”

Science SARU was not only responsible for the animation but was also a major collaborator in developing the story and look.

Science SARU was not only responsible for the animation but was also a major collaborator in developing the story and look.

Creating and executing the pilot episode was no easy task. “It was the most difficult to pull off in terms of figuring out how to structure, pacing, how it would play for someone who has never seen any version of it, and how it would play for someone who has seen the movie a bunch of times and read the books,” Grabinski states. “There was more time and thought put into that episode, but still at the end of the day you feel like you don’t have your objectivity about it. That’s one of the best things about telling a new story. We could be, ‘Does this work as a new thing?’ Even on the page, it took more out of me to write the first episode by far than any other episode because it felt like there were a million ways to do it and there was no clear path of what the exact right thing was to do.” The production found its groove. “We were blown away by all of the fights, especially Episode 102,” O’Malley singles out. “It’s an amazing fight. Then I was happy with how the ending came together. It all dovetailed nicely.” Ishiyama is looking forward to people seeing a couple of scenes in particular. “There are tons of great parts in all the episodes, but if I was to pick one, I’d choose the conversation between Ramona and Julie in the coffee shop in Episode 103. The casual acting is really amazing. The battle later in the video store feels great as well. If you’re after really exciting action, though, I’d recommend all the action scenes in Episode 104. That was probably the highest-level animation in the whole show.”

The North Star for the character designs for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off was a X-Men cover homage that Bryan Lee O’Malley did after he completed the six graphic novels.

The North Star for the character designs for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off was a X-Men cover homage that Bryan Lee O’Malley did after he completed the six graphic novels.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off was an educational experience for all of those involved with the production. “This was my first time working on a project, based on a foreign property, that primarily targeted a foreign market,” Ishiyama remarks. “I wasn’t sure how far all the skills I’d developed would get me. I was also worried that my technical skills wouldn’t be up to Abel’s high standards. It was a great honor to be able to serve as Chief Animation Director using Mr. Handa’s designs, which really deftly captured the good parts of the comic, while also being a great source of pressure. The entire project, from start to finish, was nothing but new challenges for me. I’m forever grateful to Bryan Lee O’Malley, BenDavid Grabinski and everyone else involved with the project for giving me a chance.” Grabinski went through his own learning curve. It was my first anime,” Grabinski states. “It was Bryan’s first show. Science SARU’s first time working with ‘outside’  showrunners. We were all, every single day, learning a new part of it. It was fun, where we would spend so much time over here on the music and then they would be doing sound effects over there. The first time we hear those things combined, there were so many surprises. It was a fun process.”



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