Interview: Tonari Animation CEO Jarrett Martin, Part 1
For an American anime studio, establishing a Japanese base of operations comes with a unique set of challenges
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Tonari Animation CEO: Foreign animators a boon for anime industry
Tonari Animation is a 2D digital animation studio headquartered in the United States, has a branch office in Japan, and has a staff of animators located around the world. Animenomics met with CEO Jarrett Martin to discuss the company’s operations and current trends in the anime industry in this two-part interview.
Richardson Handjaja: Thanks for taking the time to talk with Animenomics. I want to start by asking how you got started in the anime industry because I understand you’re an animator. I’d also love to hear more about how you decided to create Tonari Animation.
Jarrett Martin: I started off as a YouTuber, and my YouTube channel’s focus was teaching people about how to make anime. Even though I hadn’t been in the industry yet, I studied it on my own through friends I met online and through what I gathered on the Internet. There really wasn’t a resource for English-speaking animators at the time to learn how to get into the anime industry, so my goal for the channel was to get me into the industry by teaching people about it. I had to be very careful that I was teaching it properly, so it gave me a lot of motivation to really know what I was talking about. I’ve since pulled a lot of those videos down. Now that I’ve been in the industry for five years, I found that the information was okay, but I know I can do better, so now I’m rebuilding all that stuff.
Striving for Animation was the online group where I met my mentors that taught me about how to make anime. It started off as a Skype group that would meet daily and draw together and study art. That group was founded and advertised entirely on 4chan. On 4chan, there’s an art thread called /ic/, which is Artwork and Critique. This guy named Chi was advertising it when I was first in college and really getting into animation. I was posting my artwork on /ic/ because I just didn’t have any good artists around me to critique my work. I got a lot of good feedback, and that’s where I found Striving for Animation. A few people from that group actually got into the anime industry through the traditional route—learn Japanese, get an art degree, go to Japan, go to senmon gakko [vocational college], start at a studio as a doga-man [in-between animator], and then work your way up to key animation. He followed that route, was successful, and taught me and other people in the group.
After that, I pushed for the group to grow because there are way more people that need this information, so I advocated for the group to go to Discord. After the Discord server got too big, we realized that we needed videos because we were teaching the same thing over and over every time a new person comes in, so we made this YouTube channel to catalog what were teaching. It ended up blowing up, and that’s when I started Sakuga Foundry, which was an online forum for artists who wanted to get into animation. They would have a place where we could store resources and have professionals talking to people that are interested.
This huge community spawned a client base, naturally, and we started getting clients coming into the Discord server. I had a bunch of artists in my circle that were interested in getting into anime, so I wanted to make a studio and put the opportunity in my own hands, instead of hoping a studio will hire me someday, and then also help provide opportunities for other artists. I think I’ve gotten a lot of criticism by some members of that community that have since left. They think that artists shouldn’t be trying to make a business, that artists should work for a company and not be too capitalistic. But I think if there isn’t anyone doing what I’m doing, then there are going to be a lot of artists that are going to miss out on opportunities to get into the anime industry. I know now how hard it is for Japanese studios to hire foreigners, so having an anime company that specializes in hiring foreigners I think is a boon to the industry, not a negative.
Handjaja: Do you see any hesitancy from the Japanese side when hiring a company that’s run by a foreigner as a subcontractor?
Martin: Absolutely not. It’s actually the exact opposite. Basically, they’re all excited and happy. We’ve been given gifts from every major studio that’s in our client base. We’ve been very welcomed because the industry needs people.
Handjaja: That’s good to hear. From what I’ve seen, many of the overseas subcontractor studios are obviously run by foreigners, but there aren’t many studios in Japan that are run by non-Japanese people.
Martin: There are actually three—Sola Digital, Tonari Animation, and D’Art Shtajio. Sola, as far as I’m aware, is based in Tokyo and Los Angeles. D’Art Shtajio is strictly Tokyo, and then Tonari Animation is U.S. company with a Japanese branch.
Handjaja: Did you simultaneously set up in the U.S. and in Japan at the same time, or did you start in the U.S. first before branching out into Japan?
Martin: When I started Tonari Animation, I thought coming to Japan was kind of impossible. It was kind of a dream. I started Tonari Animation right when the pandemic started. Japan shut down, and there was no chance of actually coming here and setting up, so I just set up remotely instead. The entire company was founded on this cloud system. Everyone’s working asynchronously in different time zones. They can work from home anywhere in the world. It was always a goal of mine to eventually get to Japan and open a physical office, which I’ve since done, but it wasn’t easy.
Handjaja: Were there any the regulatory challenges that you had to face by being a studio in the cloud?