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The Vietnamese Studio That Creates Artworks for Makoto Shinkai, 'Attack on Titan'

Challenging the negative stereotypes surrounding the animation industry, Nam Hai Art opens a route for many passionate animators to pursue both passion and stable income.

As an enthusiastic anime lover, I couldn’t help but notice the many Vietnamese names on the ending credits for acclaimed anime such as Attack on Titan, Detective Conan, One Piece and many more. With curiosity, I began to research Vietnam's role in the programs.

After a two-minute Google search, Nam Hai Art pops up in the result box. After looking at their past projects, I was in complete awe. The studio has been drawing backgrounds for popular Japanese anime for nearly a decade. However, since the studio focuses more on the Japanese market, they do little to zero marketing here. Thus, despite the studio’s contribution to many sensational anime projects, the studio’s existence remained unknown by most local media outlets.

Video by Quang.

With much admiration, I gathered my confidence and requested an interview with Nam Hai Art. Luckily, the studio accepted my request while sharing how we will be their first foray into domestic media coverage. Prior to our arrival, Nam Hai Art made it clear that we can’t take any photos that showcased their projects due to the strict confidentiality involved in copyrights. 

My first impression upon arriving was the great number of anime posters around the office. Every two steps inside the building, a piece of artwork hung. The decorations made clear how proud everyone was of their work.

After a brief introduction, Nam Hai Art introduced us to Nguyễn Quốc, the studio’s manager for background animators who is also in charge of the backgrounds for the award-winning anime Weathering With You by the director Makoto Shinkai. From a child obsessed with Sailor Moon to the man behind one of the most critical scenes in Weathering With You, Quốc's journey inspires many apprentices under his mentorship.

Quốc grew up with a passion for art but like many, his family believed pursuing art means unemployment for their children. Moreover, there was no art institution at that time that he could attend despite his love for animation. From a young age, he could only express his interest through paintings that mimicked his favorite anime shows such as Sailor Moon, Doraemon, and Dragon Ball. To chase his dream of creating art, he secretly applied for architectural school but later decided to pursue Japanese in university. However, after coming to Japan, he had the opportunity to meet the founder of Nam Hai Art. Everything changed after he got accepted as an animation intern at Nam Hai Art.

His 12 years working at Nam Hai Art taught Quốc how a Vietnamese animation studio can play a critical role in a Japanese-dominated industry. Technology allows Vietnamese animation studios to participate in popular anime projects from Japan despite the geographical distance. The general process of a background animator usually goes in the following order: the contractor sends a script along with a rough sketch to show the scene’s vision and the animator then proceeded to fill in that vision using their own talents and intuitions. Even though the whole process sounds straightforward, there are circumstances where the animators struggle to achieve the imagination of the contractor.

As an animator and a team leader, his proudest achievement is his time working with Makoto Shinkai, the auteur behind the success of Your Name, The Garden of Words, 5 Centimeters per Second, and many more. In 2019, Nam Hai Art had the opportunity to work on his latest anime, Weathering With You. Quốc and his team created the background scenes for Weathering With You. The project was a great stepping stone in Quốc's career even though some scenes were challenging for them.

Weathering With You poster

The most difficult part was the weather transition scene where the main character used her power for the first time — one of the key scenes in the film. In it, a gloomy sky becomes clear and sunny. According to Quốc, the difficulties lie in the nuance in the transition from a rainy atmosphere to bright surroundings. However, prior to this project, Quốc and his team had done many kinds of research based on Makoto's previous anime, Your Name. Thanks to these researches and the whole team’s fortitude, they were able to finish all the scenes to Makoto's full satisfaction. Because he was highly impressed by Nam Hai Art’s works, Makoto booked and paid the studio for his next project.

Besides Weathering With You, Nam Hai Art also worked on the last season of Attack on Titan, one of the most influential animes of the decade. Due to the high anticipation for the show, it was nerve-wracking for animators to live up to the expectations of fans. Xuân, the team’s leader for this project, shared in Vietnamese, “Since the fourth season is mostly set in the night, it was difficult for the animation team to portray the fight scenes between the titans.” However, after back and forth communication with the Japanese studio, they managed to complete the scenes with great visuals.   

When working with a Japanese studio known for its perfectionism, Nam Hai Art follows two criteria: work ethic and mutual trust. Every month the studio submits thousands of drawings, not counting the ones they have to redraw. Despite the large amount of work, every drawing is done with care and refinement from one of the studio’s animators. Nam Hai Art believes that trust comes from consideration and integrity. Phương, the manager in charge of finding deals in Japan for Nam Hai Art, believes that the studio’s best selling point lies in the work's consistency and the skilled, resourceful artists.

Once the studio gathers enough resources and material, they plan to self-produce an independent animation project. In the general animation process, there are three main components: pre-production, production, and post-production. Since the studio has already proven they can succeed with the production, their next journey is to find a quality script and voice actors, which can cost a lot due to how niche that market is in Vietnam. Nevertheless, hearing Nam Hai Art’s vision for the future gives many anime lovers and animators in Vietnam a new hope for this growing industry.

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