The following interview was conducted with Tim Eldred, animation director, anime enthusiast and VOTOMS expert, at the New York Comic-Con on February 25 and 26, 2006, with some supplemental material provided via e-mail
TOON ZONE: How did you get into anime and manga professionally?
TIM ELDRED: I started out doing comics. Anime played a huge part in influencing the types of stories that I wrote and drew. I also worked on a lot of anime adaptations, such as Lensman, Captain Harlock, Robotech, Star Blazers, and MD Geist. The last comic I did was Armored Trooper VOTOMS, the graphic novel. These days, I’m doing Star Blazers: Rebirth for Star Blazers.com – every chapter is on-line – and I’m doing a graphic novel through Tor Books, called Grease Monkey. It’s an original science-fiction comedy. It’s coming out in June of 2006.
Animation-wise, I’ve worked on a lot of action-adventure shows like Heavy Gear, Spider-Man (the 2003 MTV CGI-animated version – ed), Godzilla, and most recently Xiaolin Showdown on WB.
TZ: How would you describe Armored Trooper VOTOMS to someone who had never seen it before?
ELDRED: VOTOMS is classic anime. It’s hard science-fiction anime, and that may not sound unusual at first, but a lot of science fiction anime these days has other elements added to it. VOTOMS, I think, is one of the only surviving pure science fiction anime shows, meaning that it doesn’t cross over into other genres. It also came from the time when writing was much more important than it seems to be now. It came from what I call “The Golden Age,” which was the first half of the 1980’s, in Japan, when the “super-robot” shows of the 1970’s had been supplanted by the “real” robot shows of the 1980’s, the first of those being Mobile Suit Gundam. Gundam started moving the emphasis away from the highly individual robots into more mass-produced, military-style robots, and it started to move the emphasis back on the characters. The motivations of the characters became much more important than the super powers of the robots they were driving.
VOTOMS came after Gundam by about 4 years, and it took the concept one step further, where all of the robots were mass-produced and didn’t have any attitude or personality of their own. That put the emphasis completely back onto the characters, because at this point the robot wasn’t special any more. It was just a tool – it was another machine of war. This gave the show it’s hard science-fiction element, and it opened up a lot of new options for writers who came after. What I think is really interesting is that the anime – the science fiction anime – that’s being done today is created by people who were TV viewers about 20 years ago, when this show was originally on the air. And so we see the direct influence at work.
It’s sometimes easy to tell when one show is a knockoff of another. It’s harder to make that connection with VOTOMS, because what it presented was much more subtle and much more philosophical. So, you can’t really look at any one show today and say, “Oh, that’s a knockoff of VOTOMS,” but you can look at some of the ideas that are being presented today and say that VOTOMS created the opening for that idea.
So that’s a very long way of saying what the show is about (laughing).
TZ: Given those thematic complexities in VOTOMS, did the producers face challenges getting it or keeping it on the air during its 52-episode run?
ELDRED: The 52 episodes of the show were broken up into smaller, 13-episode arcs, which was a radical way of staying ahead of the usual ratings dropoff by giving the audience a periodic “jumping on” point. It also meant anyone who had been drawn in by the buzz of other viewers didn’t necessarily have to catch up on everything they’d missed. That, coupled with an aggressive merchandising campaign, allowed the writing team to create the story they wanted. I don’t know if it would have been as successful or as interesting as a single story arc.
TZ: What was keeping VOTOMS from coming to the American market before?
ELDRED: I think the biggest obstacle has always been its animation. The animation quality was done on a very low budget for television, at a time when the standards are not as high as they are now and the technical expertise was not as sophisticated. So, every time you go back and look at this show, it seems very dated. And that’s entirely on the surface. That’s only because of the time and the conditions under which it was animated.
TZ: Do you think it was simply the visiual style that kept people from importing it to America?
ELDRED: Well, it is because right now …well, there are several factors. I think, chronologically speaking, the earliest factor was that it came out before anime was being imported en masse. It was from an earlier generation of shows, and the only way to get it in the early days was by trading with other fans, who picked it up on VHS. So, it pre-dated the massive influx that we have now, and it’s not alone in that respect. Just about all the shows from that era fall into that same category. And there’s so much new anime that’s being created, it’s very difficult for anything to get through, let alone something that doesn’t compete with these newer shows on a visual level.
I think in any medium, when the market gets saturated, people tend to respond to something that they have an immediate reaction to, and so that’s what drives all the marketing we see today. VOTOMS is a little of a tougher sell, because of its age. But once you get past that surface level and start to see the layers of story underneath and the strong characters and the rich design work, it’s very easy to get involved with it and stick with it all the way to the end.
TZ: What kinds of issues did you run into with the older material and trying to get it presentable for a DVD release today?
ELDRED: Well, I didn’t really deal with any of the technical details. My end of it is more in the packaging and adding extra materials. Many, many years ago, before (VOTOMS distributor) Central Park Media was even in existence, I had collected a lot of information about VOTOMS and published a VOTOMS fanzine, called The VOTOMS Viewer’s Guide. It had a very low circulation – it was just photocopied and passed around. But it was, for the time, the biggest source of information that had ever been created on a single anime series. This caught the attention of CPM, and made them realize that they ought to try and bring this show over. And that’s resulted in a long-standing relationship between CPM and myself. It allowed me to do, among other things, a graphic novel adaptation and a role-playing game and, finally, a guidebook that’s going to be sold with this new VOTOMS boxed set.
TZ: In that case, when you’re talking about adding extras for material like this, what kind of challenges did you face trying to find good-enough extra material for the show?
ELDRED: Well, that wasn’t a challenge for me at all because I’ve been collecting information and products for this show since I first learned about it in 1984, so I had a huge archive of material ready to go, which included background information on the story, “making of” accounts from the creators, and a huge library of artwork.
TZ: What are some of the things in your collection of VOTOMS material that you really wish you could have included in the DVD release, but weren’t able to?
ELDRED: I really, really wish CPM could have obtained the rights for all the OVA spinoffs, but those rights remain unavailable. This is a shame, because the OVAs have one advantage over the TV series: newer animation. I think there is still some resistance to older anime programs because the animation quality gets more and more dated every year (despite the timeless excellence of the writing), and the OVAs would very easily cut through that resistance.
TZ: Were you able to contact any of the original creators of VOTOMS?
ELDRED: No, we don’t really have connections with them. All the connections to Japan have been through CPM and Sunrise (the original Japanese production company – ed). But there was no point at which any of the creators came forward and said, “We’d like to advise you on this,” or help with it. Everything we’ve done has been home grown.
TZ: What would you say has been the biggest surprise you’ve run in to so far bringing this material back for modern audiences?
ELDRED: Just today here, at the convention, so many people have come up to me and told me how much they love this show. Some of them said I had something to do with that, that the fanzine I wrote a while ago gave them their first exposure to it and they decided that they had to look into it. Some of them had made the discovery the same way I did, through the products – finding toys and model kits.
But this show attracts what I call a “self-selected” anime fan. Because it’s more dated and because it’s not as visually attractive as the newer stuff, you have to be one of those fans who’s willing to look beyond the surface and have a genuine interest in the history of this art form and a willingness to explore things that are harder to find and harder to collect and harder to understand.
TZ: Do you know if there are any plans to broadcast the show on TV or cable channels?
ELDRED: I know CPM has been trying for a long time to get it on television. I think there was a company, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, that ran it on some overnight cable network. I can’t remember who they were, but they contacted me at one point, and I recommended VOTOMS. It was probably one of the first cable programming blocks that had anime. It was “Midnight Anime” or “Overnight Anime” or something like that, and it included VOTOMS and some other shows.
TZ: Do you know of any plans to re-visit the VOTOMS world?
ELDRED: Rumors of a new VOTOMS anime series continue to pop up, so perhaps we’ll finally get to see that combination of stellar writing with state of the art high-tech animation. Meanwhile, new books, toys and model kits continue to roll out of Japan at a steady pace. In many ways it’s as if the series never went away!
TZ: What kind of stuff out there now do you like?
ELDRED: Oh, gosh, let’s see…the latest thing I’ve seen is Gundam SEED and Gundam SEED Destiny. I really like those. Full Metal Alchemist. Planetes turned into one of my favorites, and Galaxy Railways is really awesome.
With the exception of Full Metal Alchemist and maybe Planetes, Galaxy Railways and the two Gundam shows have a direct link back to that Golden Age of anime in the 1980’s. Of course, Gundam got its start in 1979 and it still re-invents itself constantly. Galaxy Railways was one of the more recent creations by Leiji Matsumoto, who came to great fame in the late 70’s with his works. But the other shows, Full Metal Alchemist and Planetes, show a very strong influence — you can still taste that 1980’s flavor. Whenever it comes up again, maybe I’m just attuned to it and I can recognize it, but I’m pretty sure that the creators of those shows were watching anime 20 years ago and that their creative choices were informed by what they liked in their youth.
TZ: If you could bring over any other anime aside from VOTOMS, what’s on your wish list?
ELDRED: Well, that’s easy. The creator of VOTOMS is called Ryusuke Takashi. He did a whole string of shows during that Golden Age. Right after VOTOMS, he did a show called Panzer World Galient and then he did a series called SPT Layzner. They’re very similar in tone to VOTOMS, though the stories are very different. But Takashi has always had this penchant for really strong foundations and very compelling plots, and everything he works on has that same tonality to it.
TZ: What would you say to convince an anime fan who’s feeling burned out over the quantity of material that’s out there, or is just saying, “Oh, I don’t want to see another giant robot cartoon” … what would your pitch those anime fans be?
ELDRED: If you’re sick of formulas, then VOTOMS is definitely a show that you’ll like, because it doesn’t follow any formulas. At the time it was created, it was an intentional break from the trend that had developed where the robots always had to be giants and the characters always had to be likable, and the plots always had to be dumbed down…well, not dumbed down, that’s not fair. The plots had to be simple enough for children to follow. This is the first show that was intentionally created for a mature audience. It takes a little while to get started, but after just a few episodes, you’ll find yourself compelled to want to see much more.
It’s also a series that really rewards your attention. It rewards the long attention span, and that’s pretty rare these days. I think some of the best anime I’ve ever seen is still being done these days, but there’s always a larger percentage of throwaway material produced that you can watch and just forget about. It doesn’t stay with you, and it’s not really meant to. But VOTOMS continues to resonate. Every time I go back and watch it -I think I’ve probably seen it about a dozen times, from start to finish – I always find something new in it,. The emotions and the characterizations are timeless. They’re always going to be rock solid.
(UPDATED: Some last-minute additions to this interview were added on March 6, 2006. Newer questions are in italic red text.)
Toon Zone News would like to thank Tim Eldred for taking the time to talk with us, and Central Park Media for their assistance. The first set of Armored Trooper VOTOMS is available now; read Toon Zone’s review of the set.