Animator Paul “Otaking” Johnson Talks His Insane Star Wars Anime
If you haven't seen Paul Johnson's animated TIE Fighter short, you don't deserve the Internet.
Paul “Otaking” Johnson’s name might not ring any bells, but you’ve probably come across his work on the Web. Some know Johnson for his outspoken love of 1980s anime, while others may be familiar with his animated Doctor Who short from 2011. But if you haven’t seen his animated Star Wars TIE Fighter short (above), you don’t deserve the Internet.
This self-professed otaku from the U.K. turned his anime hobby into a 9-5, yet continues to animate in all his free time as well. With the TIE Fighter surpassing 3.7 million views on YouTube, all eyes are on Mighty Otaking!
Mass Appeal: Tell the readers who you are.
Paul “Otaking” Johnson: I’m a former Japanese-English novel/video game translator and now animator for Australian studio Planet 55. I live in the U.K. with a cat and a bunch of ‘90s game consoles, and drink about 10 cups of coffee a day. My life is non-stop excitement.
I did a little research and you have been vocal about your love of ’80s anime for a while, speak on what makes ’80s anime unique.
I think it’s the detailed visual style and the high production values of the time which make a lot of jaded old folk like me think of the ‘80s as being the golden age of anime art.
I remember growing up in the early ‘90s, right in the middle of the U.K.’s big anime craze, when all the tabloids were warning parents about these violent, pornographic Japanese cartoons. BBC had just aired Akira, Manga Video and other labels were pumping out a stream of really nice looking high-budget ‘80s anime like Project A-Ko, Bubblegum Crisis, and Dominion Tank Police. Every video shop had an anime section all of a sudden. Up until then, most of us had thought cartoons were all just Disney, Bugs Bunny, and the like. Then along came this Japanese stuff with all these details and colors and insane levels of shading. It was kind of a culture shock to see animation that looked like this. Obviously, it helped that there was death and nudity and gore as well. And because Japan had the economic boom going on at the time, they could afford to take risks and just throw money at visually incredible movies like Five Star Stories and Venus Wars. Anime’s gotten a lot more simplistic looking over the years, and these days it uses a lot less shading and a lot more CGI. We just don’t get stuff that looks as detailed as Megazone 23 now.
What is your all time favorite anime title?
Probably either the 1984 Macross movie, or the 6-part Gunbuster from ’88.
You did another fan short a couple years ago where Doctor Who visits Japan, how did that come about?
I saw that floating about on YouTube the other day, and kind of cringed. It looked like some sort of “edgy teenager tries to draw anime for the first time” kind of deal. Still, I guess it means I must have improved, at least? But anyway, yeah, I remember I’d just gotten some proper animation software and Doctor Who had just come back on TV after being cancelled in 1989. So, there were all these kids watching the new show who’d never seen the stuff from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and I wanted to show new fans what they’d been missing. So, I threw all my favorite characters from 30 years of Doctor Who into Tokyo and just animated this incoherent, 10-minute mess, with space battles and planes exploding and all the stuff I wished they could have done on TV when I was a kid, but couldn’t due to budget.
That short disappeared off the Web, and then word was you started working for the company producing Doctor Who audio adventures. True? False?
It did get me spotted by Planet 55 Studios, and I was brought onboard to help animate some lost black-and-white Doctor Who episodes for the BBC. So, I didn’t work with Big Finish, the company who produced the Doctor Who audios, but the owner, Jason Haigh-Ellery, and co-founder, Gary Russell, of Big Finish run Planet 55, so in a way I did. Going over to Australia and having a beer with two people who made some of my favorite audio plays was a pretty cool feeling.
Is it true this project took eight years to produce?
It took about four years, but I was only working on it at weekends, so it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. During the week, I was,and am, drawing and animating various secret things for Planet 55 that I’m not allowed to mention.
Did you really handle all of the animation/art yourself?
I did, yeah, though a lot of the ships are simple 3D models which I then colored by hand; that alone saved me months of animation time. If I had to draw each TIE Fighter individually, I’d probably still be working on it 20 years from now. I got through a hell of a lot of music and audiobooks whilst animating it all.
Why did you decide to tell the story from the Empire’s point-of-view?
At the time I started it, Star Wars was pretty much totally focussed on the prequel stuff and it didn’t look like we were going to be seeing anything based on the classic films any time soon. So, I was starved for some TIE Fighters and star destroyers and all that other iconic Empire good stuff. Also, I was addicted to the 1994 TIE Fighter CD-Rom game at the time, which had you playing on the Empire’s side. I don’t know…I just always liked the bad guys more. Their stuff just looked cooler, no offense to X-Wings.
The music fit the feel and era perfectly, how did Zak Rahman come onboard?
Zak’s actually one of my housemates, so it was pretty convenient to walk into his room and get him to compose a 7-minute guitar solo. It also made it easy for me to bug him to finish it. We both have the same favorite bands—Iron Maiden, Megadeth, X-Japan, etc.—so we were both on the same page when it came to the kind of music to go for.
Are you excited about Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
I’m a little worried that the battle scenes will be shakey-cam and lens flare, but apart from that I’m excited! No matter what I say though, I’m obviously gonna be there at the cinema on opening night with the rest of the world, so…
Obviously, the Net was going nuts when the TIE Fighter short dropped, what has developed since then?
My inbox has filled up and I’ve moved into a cave to hide from the world until the Internet forgets about me. I’ve trained a couple of wild pigeons to deliver food and groceries each morning. Seriously though, I’ve had a few offers, but my current job is pretty fantastic. Life is comfy and I’ve got enough 1990s video game remixes on my headphones to last me years, so there’s no real need to think about changing anything.
In your description for the short on YouTube, you say that you don’t do this stuff for monetary gain and if one wants to support you, they should hook someone they care about up with a pop or chocolate bar. Love that. Would you or have you considered doing a Kickstarter project?
Thanks! Hopefully, a few million people have randomly been handed chocolate and I’ve made the world a bit better. Kickstarter is tricky, because if people are going to be paying me to make a full-length animated film, then I’d need to work on it seriously, seven days a week, to feel like I was giving them their money’s worth. Any less and I’d feel like I’d be ripping people off, which would mean quitting my cushy day job. On top of that, I think that the video only got so many views because it’s Star Wars-related and pretty much everybody loves Star Wars…add in anime popularity and it was kind of a winning formula. If I did a Kickstarter, it would be for my own personal project, and who would really care about some random guy’s indie animation? So, I reckon my best course is to keep animating my own stuff on weekends, really. Right now I’m working on a 50-minute “Generation Kill with mechs”-style film whilst watching a lot of documentaries on tanks and tactics and whatnot for research. So, who knows where that’ll go.
You’ve done Star Wars and Doctor Who, is there any other properties you love enough to do another anime short for?
If I had the time, I’d like to do a really short homage to all the arcade games I grew up playing. So, a sort of 2-minute crazy action mash-up of stuff like R-Type, Golden Axe, Street Fighter 2, etc. A sort of animated retro game montage, I guess?
Otaking is a portmanteau of “otaku” and “king,” sounds very hip hop to me. When/how did you come up with the name?
Since I’m a boring, tea-drinking Limey, the only hip hop I really know is whatever MTV played back in the day when I was getting ready for high school (so, mainly “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” by P.M. Dawn). My street cred is off the chart, as you can probably tell.
That said, Biggie Smalls did teach me to never accept IOUs and to acquire mad cheddar, so there’s that. And I really like cheddar.
The name Otaking is actually from this bizarre 2-part 1991 anime called Otaku no Video. [It’s] about a dude in 1982 who starts off pretty normal and gradually gets sucked into watching famous anime of the time until he ends up doing all-night viewing sessions, sleeping outside movie theaters overnight, starting a bootleg plastic figure company, building a theme park, and becoming the king of otaku over a 10-year journey through the history of anime. It still hits me in the feels now. It’s like ‘80s nostalgia: the animation. It’s well worth taking a look at for anyone interested in anime or what the scene was like back in the day.