Toonzone @ MCM London Comic Con October 2015 – LeSean Thomas “Cannon Busters” Panel
Held in the ExCel Platinum Suite, the Cannon Busters panel was chaired by Manga/Animatsu representative Jerome Mazandarani and Cannon Busters creator LeSean Thomas.
Cannon Busters is an animated series covering the adventures of S.A.M., a friendship robot who is a companion to a prince of an affluent kingdom that produces robots. When a sorcerer wielding the lost art of magic attacks the kingdom, none possesses the knowledge to defeat him and S.A.M. and the prince are separated. Travelling the wider world alone, S.A.M.’s only clue is the name of a hidden sanctuary.
The panel began with a music video presentation highlighting the combination of animation talent involved with Cannon Busters, followed by a brief trailer of animation from the pilot.
LeSean started by thanking the convention and Animatsu/Manga Entertainment for hosting him as a guest. He explained that he had been working in Hollywood for a decade, moving from his home of the South Bronx, NYC in 2004 in order to work on Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, helmed by original creator Aaron McGruder. LeSean worked as supervising character designer on the first two seasons, also acting as co-director on the first season. This led to him being hired by Glen Murakami and the late Dwayne McDuffie to work on Ben 10: Alien Force, before being poached by Warner Brothers Animation where he produced storyboards for Green Lantern: First Flight, served as supervising character designer for Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and also worked on Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
It was at this time that he became disillusioned by the procedures of the American animation industry, partly caused by how much of the actual animation is created externally in locations such as Korea. Aspiring to become a producer/director himself and not wishing to wait an extended period for the possible opportunity, he decided to forge an uncertain path by going directly to the Korean animators. This led him to meet with Jung Mi, who brought LeSean into to work at her JM Animation studio (acclaimed for their work on Avatar: The Last Airbender) as part of her own interest of creating co-productions with western partners. There he was tutored by Yoo Jae Myung, who had directed the animation for the Avatar finale ‘Sozin’s Comet’. When series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko attempted to secure JM Animation to produce the animation for sequel The Legend of Korra, studio politics saw Yoo leave to found his own studio- Studio Mir, which would produce the animation for Korra Book 1. LeSean worked on the project as a storyboard /animation production artist.
He explained that when staff on an American production visit Korea for production work, the American studio covers costs such as travel and lodging. This was a luxury he did not have, having chosen to move to a foreign country as an independent. However, he was confident that the connections he would forge and the creative freedom he gained would make his aspirations pay off. He elaborated that the procedure and bureaucracy of pitching an animated show in America means relying on a limited short with an accompanying static series bible. But being where the bulk of the animation is produced and having formed genuine friendships with many of the key talent meant he had the option to produce a far more dynamic and unique pitch.
It was at this point that he was contacted by Carl Jones to request his involvement with Black Dynamite, a project being worked on by many Boondocks alumni and for which he returned to America. During this period the crowd funding platform Kickstarter emerged and LeSean believed it could be a means to help him create an original project, citing how successes like Mighty No. 9 show that Japan is embracing the crowd funding concept in order to create things free of the stipulations enforced by Japanese entertainment production committees. Speaking from his experience as a foreign licensor for Japanese titles, Jerome added that due to dwindling domestic sales the production committees are cracking down further and seeking more control of a show/merchandising as product.
During his contemplation about using Kickstarter, LeSean was contacted by Thomas Romain. Romain, who created Code Lyoko and provided production designs for anime series including Space Dandy, had moved to Japan from France for similar reasons and after becoming aware of his own efforts found in LeSean a kindred spirit. Although LeSean wished to enlist his mechanic design skills for the Cannon Busters pilot he was planning, Romain revealed that he was strictly under contract with Japanese studio Satelight and thus LeSean would need to run his concept past studio president Michiaki Sato first, which he did while making a trip to Japan to consult with Hiroyuki Imaishi (director of titles including Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill) about his direction of the Black Dynamite title sequence. Although it took Satelight a while to translate the pitch material they had received, they eventually informed him they were very excited by his proposal and keen to allow Romain to work with him on it.
LaSean was keen to express his admiration and excitement with regards to the people who had helped him work on taking the pitch further. He mentioned that his long-time friend Joe Madureira, creator of the comic Battle Chasers, had offered his support and a donation of $2000. Knowing of his friends long term wish to work in animation, LeSean instead brought him on board as a concept designer. When finally launched, the Kickstarter achieved half of its $120,000 target within five days and concluded at $160,000. Four months of negotiations followed, with LeSean co-writing the screenplay with Afro Samurai co-producer Eric Calderon.
The audience were then treated to a commentated collection of character concept art, beginning with S.A.M. Attendees were requested to not take photos of the displayed concept art, with which we have complied.
LeSean discussed how in collaborating with other artists he wanted to communicate his ideas and encourage them to suggest their own but at the same time wanted to steer away from suggestions he disliked without stemming freedom. This was highlighted with the concept sketches he received for S.A.M., who along the way to the final design he approved varied between being an anime-style moe (cute) little girl to a scantily clad older one. He had a clear vision of the character that was not defined by anything taken as sexually provocative.
Casey Turnbuckle, an older maintenance robot S.A.M. encounters, was influenced by old school animation characters/porcelain dolls and Thomas’ observation that as an outdated model she should visibly look robotic compared to the human looking S.A.M.
Philly the Kid is an infamous criminal that S.A.M and Casey encounter. LeSean highlighted that although what has been shown from the series thus far implies it to be a Western, the revealed content occurs on roughly the fourth day of S.A.M.’s adventure and that Cannon Busters will feature a range of settings. In turn each of the characters highlights a different motif; S.A.M. is European fantasy, Casey is steampunk and Philly is indeed an embodiment of the wild west.
Rejected designs for Philly included a Japanese kabuki style and one with a syringe perched between his teeth. LeSean ultimately gave the direction of ‘less Spike Spiegel, more a 25 year old Huey from The Boondocks’, stressing to the audience that Philly is an immortal (hence his nickname) and that his look should imply that in addition to a personal inspiration from Go Nagai’s Devilman. Every time Philly ‘dies’ he loses a piece of his memory, resulting in him being slightly crazy and stubborn. Further to that, Philly’s role of an immortal outlaw pursued by a menagerie of bounty hunters is an intentional nod to Vash the Stampede/Trigun.
Bessie, designed by Romain, is a gigantic Cadillac/land ship that Philly is in possession of. The car is quarter powered and has a subdued AI that forms a bond with Casey. When loaded with four quarters, Bessie transforms into her Raging Bull mecha form. This form is not as combat orientated as many famous mecha are, possessing limited built in weaponary.
Asked about the most challenging design aspect on Cannon Busters, LeSean commented he felt it was the bounty hunters. A group of designs they initially felt would be throwaway instead went through many changes and variants. Concerning the issue of racism against robot characters from human characters, he revealed that part of the setting backstory involves magically infused robotic war golems that unintentionally gained sentience and rebelled when peace treaties called for their destruction. This wiped out scores of the population and set the stage for the country that produced S.A.M. to produce various models of robots to help fill the now damaged sectors of society. S.A.M. will encounter differing reactions to robotic life and, although drawing on his work on both The Boondocks and Black Dynamite, LeSean sees this as a chance to go deeper with social commentary and allegory.
For those interested in keeping up with Cannon Busters, LeSean recommended keeping up with both the official website and official Twitter account. Although the Kickstarter has ended, people can currently still donate using Paypal via a page on the official site and in turn qualify for tiered rewards.
The Cannon Busters pilot is scheduled to be released January 2016.
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