A South Bronx native, LeSean Thomas is a young creator that’s achieved a varied and active career. The earliest days of his career in animation include character design and layout on Showtime’s web series WhirlGirl, and the creation of UBO Network’s web series BattleSeed as its director, producer and writer. During the early 00s he was also a comic book artist, contributing to Arkanium and Dreamweave Productions’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics in addition to creating an issue of his own creator-owned story Cannon Busters.
Mr. Thomas’ worked as a storyboard artist on Disney’s Kim Possible and a variety of Cartoon Network and Warner Bros productions, such as Ben 10: Alien Force, The Batman, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. took the opportunity to relocate to Seoul, South Korea in 2009 to work at JM Animation as part of its production staff. His time and effort there opened doors to later work in-house at Studio Mir when it was founded by Jae-Myung Yu in 2011, affording Thomas the chance to work as a production and storyboard artist on Book 1 of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra. Thomas also spent time working with staff at MOI Animation Studios and Sunmin Animation Studios, and served as as Character Supervisor and co-director on Adult Swim’s acclaimed animated sitcom The Boondocks. Thomas would return to America to work on Adult Swim’s blaxploitation action comedy Black Dynamite: The Animated Series, where he was a supervising director for both seasons and credited as a creative producer for the first season.
After Black Dynamite Mr. Thomas turned his attention back toward fully-original, creator-driven work by producing, directing and writing a revival of his Cannon Busters project in the form of an animated pilot crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Billed as “an animated adventure story about the value of friendship and just how far one is willing to go to maintain it”, Cannon Busters was produced by an eclectic group of talent joining Thomas: Contributing Character Designer Joe Madureira (Battle Chasers), Mechanical Designer Thomas Romain (Oban Star Racers, Space Dandy), Consulting Producer Tim Yoon (The Legend of Korra, Batman: Under the Red Hood), writer Eric Calderon (Afro Samurai) and animator Bahi JD (Ghost in the Shell: Arise, Space Dandy).
Cannon Busters follows the adventures of an unlikely trio: apparently immortal outlaw Philly the Kid, the outdated service droid Casey, and the “Royal Friendship Droid” S.A.M. When a sorcerer attacks S.A.M.’s kingdom at a time magic is supposedly extinct, she’s separated from the Prince she called master. Not one to give up on her directive so easily, S.A.M. manages to pull Casey and Philly into a quest to find the Prince again and discover just what happened in the past. The recently-completed Cannon Busters pilot depicts how Philly winds up becoming the third member of S.A.M.’s group, thanks to a violent incident at a town reminiscent of the old west.
During Otakon 2016 in Baltimore, MD, Mr. Thomas appeared as a guest to discuss Cannon Busters and Toonzone was able to sit down with him for a brief interview that touched on Cannon Busters, his reflections on working with such a diverse array of talent, and even a bit of advice for aspiring creators.
LESEAN THOMAS: Cannon Busters is my love letter to action cartoons. As someone who’s worked in TV animation production for the last 10-12 years in America, over the years comedy has taken precedent over other types of genres that are being made. I just felt like there weren’t any more action fantasy cartoons outside of the mainstay massive franchises like Batman and Superman and Spider-Man. The kind of stuff we take for granted from Japan, tons and tons of different genres of animated action shows, we used to do a lot of that stuff in the 80s and it faded away and I started to see that as I worked in the industry myself. When I knew I’d get the chance to maybe raise some money to produce at least a sample size of that, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go. So Cannon Busters is a love letter to the kind of stuff I’d like to see more from our animation production outlets.
TZN: I understand that at London Comic Con you said the world of Cannon Busters is an basically an eclectic blend of settings beyond the old west we see in the pilot, and you’ve said before you wanted to basically bring to people the kind of adventure you grew up with. Were there specific sterling examples that really inspired you?
LESEAN THOMAS: Dungeons and Dragons, anything from Shinichiro Watanabe, Outlaw Star, Photon: The Idiot Adventures, El Hazard. I guess I can add video games as well, like Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire. It’s really a combination of types of stories where characters go on adventures together, those are the kinds of shows that influenced me.
TZN: Cannon Busters has its origins in a graphic novel you created yourself some years ago, and now we have an animated adaptation that’s involved a lot of different talent. Do you find that it’s developed and changed significantly compared to your original concept?
LESEAN THOMAS: I think so. I think even if I’d finished the graphic novel, which I never did, knowing the type of person I am an animated version probably would have made a significant change because of the way I like to work with my talent. It would’ve changed in some degree, it wouldn’t have looked exactly like the comic.
TZN: How have you found the collaborative process with Thomas Romain and the other folks you’ve worked with?
LESEAN THOMAS: I love it so much, I’m a process junkie at heart. My first purchased movie as a teenager in high school was the Akira production report, they put out the film and a separate making-of film. I thought I had bought the movie! So I was pissed off at first, but then I’m watching people interviewing a 30-something Katsuhiro Otomo, and him storyboarding and showing designs. And I was just hooked from that point on. Every time I worked in a studio, I always recall that feeling – being in a studio with directors and talent with different skill sets. That VHS was the catalyst of my love for the studio production process, I must have watched it hundreds of times because I couldn’t afford the movie until later in the year. As I got older, I started to work in studios and I wanted to have a similar environment to the Akira production crew. It all leads to my love for the process. I moved from New York to Los Angeles to work at Warner Bros Animation, and then I quit Warner Bros to work in Korea. I’m always a fan of working with different types of people. So Thomas and those guys are incredible, and really fun to work with.
TZN: I’d like to touch on that – your career has taken a fairly unusual tack in that you’ve spent time here, in Korea you were in the trenches for The Legend of Korra and then came back to spearhead Black Dynamite. What’s been your impression of the creative environments for animation abroad compared to here in America?
LESEAN THOMAS: In what regard?
TZN: In terms of both animation production and their willingness to hear ideas.
LESEAN THOMAS: I had one stint with JM Animation where they were trying to create an original property, but I don’t have a lot of experience with that versus the United States. The U.S., in my experience, has a lot more ground covered in terms of collaborating and creating ideas from nothing. Korea is largely a service-oriented country, they’re all about production. I will say that the biggest thing is that we don’t animate our stuff here, largely. That’s invaluable, the layout process. The types of shows we enjoy, Batman, Spider-Man, Avatar: The Last Airbender, they’re all produced by Korean studios. So for me, being able to work in that system and see how to put things together was invaluable. I think the biggest difference between working in Korea and America is that we don’t animate anything, and that’s a different experience. And in Korea, it largely doesn’t do preproduction. It’s like having one part of the puzzle and missing the other, and vice versa. But both are rewarding experiences, to be able to know how things are controlled and maintained and having relationships with top talent there.
TZN: Before the Cannon Busters kickstarter basically pitched the pilot to the general public, I understand you had to go to Satelight in Japan and pitch it to them in order to recruit Thomas Romain. Can you tell us the story of how that pitch went?
LESEAN THOMAS: That’s right. Thomas and I met online and originally I was going to do the kickstarter at the end of that year, but Thomas and I started a dialogue and I inquired if he did freelance. I didn’t know his schedule, I wanted to see if he could do a couple of turns at a mecha robot car that turns into a sentient bull. I showed him the idea, he thought he was cool, but he told me he was exclusive to Satelight and so he needed permission from his boss to work on it. But when the boss saw it he said this is cool, would you be available to meet with us. The weekend I came to Japan to meet with Studio Trigger – because we were working with Hiroyuki Imanishi on the main title for season 2 of Black Dynamite – I went to Satelight to pitch my series just to get Thomas on board. Once [Michiaki] Satō-san, the President of Satelight, saw it, he said we could use Thomas. Then when the pilot got funded, I made steps to push Satelight to be the ones to make the animation.
TZN: I know it’s early and you’re probably limited in what you can say, but have there been conversations about expanding Cannon Busters into a series?
LESEAN THOMAS: Yes, without question, that’s been our goal. I can’t really say for now, but certainly there’s some potential magic happening.
LESEAN THOMAS: Yes, from the very beginning.
TZN: You’re quite active on social media and dispense no small amount of advice directed at “aspiring artists” regarding the creative process. If you had to cut through to the bottom line, what do you think is most vital for the artists and creatives of tomorrow to understand?
LESEAN THOMAS: Finish things. That’s it, we have to finish. You spend a lot of time waxing poetic and pontificating about how we draw this and how we draw that, and we get in the cycle of redraw, redraw, redraw. It’s more important to learn how to finish a project than it is to get better, you’ll always get better. But being able to start something and having content out there to share, that’s one of the most important things. That’s part of the reason why there’s a lot of mediocre stuff out there. It’s not because of nepotism, but because they actually have something finished. People need to sell stuff, so if more people with talent put their ego aside to actually get work done even if they don’t like it, they’ll get better for their next project. So I always encourage people, style and all that stuff you learn down the line. But any project you start, even if you don’t like it, you need to finish it.
Toonzone News would like to thank LeSean Thomas for the time he took out of his busy schedule to speak with us. For more with LeSean Thomas, great places to start include Toonzone’s coverage of Cannon Busters at the 2015 MCM London Comic Con and The Seoul Sessions, a web documentary produced by Mr. Thomas himself about the time he spent working in the Korean Animation Industry.
To date, the pilot Cannon Busters has been shown to its backers and shown at select screenings at events like Otakon, with further distribution hopefully on the way in the near future. Fans can learn more and keep up on the latest news by visiting CannonBusters.com and following @Cannon_Busters on twitter.