Image: Millennium Exile / Ty Hanson
Not being born in Japan doesn't mean you can't make your own anime.
That's Ty Hanson's idea, at any rate. Over the last several years, the Brisbane-based photographer and animator has been working on an anime of his own called Millennium Exile.
So rather than simply working on it as a labour of love, a fan project to be released on YouTube down the road, Hanson is going one step further: he wants to pitch his anime to Netflix, and through the content conglomerate, Japan as well.
But there's several thousand steps from turning a dream into a living, breathing series. And the journey didn't start out as a dream, but as an escape from reality.
"When I was 11 my mother lost her fight to lung cancer and this threw my life into disarray, with myself and my father struggling to cope with the grief," Hanson said. "My father was still struggling with having lost my mother, and with no friends, I found myself in a very dark place."
Ty found himself gravitating towards anime, away from the Western humour of shows like Tom & Jerry or Superted for shows that tackled heavy, human themes.
"I found myself gravitating towards [anime] ... because the darker and more mature nature of the stories held my interest. These stories weren't just the regular cartoons that kids my age were watching like Super Ted, Argh! Real Monsters or Tom & Jerry ... these shows dealt with war, hate, love and peace to name just a few."
It's a relationship a lot of anime fans understand. And after coping with his own struggles throughout high school by drawing inspiration from Tenkoman, Macross and Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Ty wanted to give back to the industry. Evangelion, and Hideki Anno's troubles in particular, resonated.
"Here was a man, suffering and fighting his very own demons," Hanson said. "However he used that suffering, and channelled it into creating a title that was becoming a worldwide sensation."
So while he was working his way through an animation and graphic design degree, Hanson started working on Millennium Exile.
It started with a character called Vincent.
Image: Millennium Exile concept art / Ty Hanson
"I created Vincent in a much more simplistic picture, almost like a beyblade Digimon design for an assignment," Hanson explained. Vincent was an orphan, blessed with a supernatural power from a previous era when all humans possessed magic.
The backstory was well received, but Vincent's early visual design didn't quite fit. So Hanson went back to the drawing board, and Vincent went from an early draft to the beginnings of a more complete character.
A before and after of Vincent's evolving character designs
Buoyed by the feedback, Hanson fleshed out the idea further. Having superhuman abilities meant that Vincent was a good fit for a superhero-style series, or battle manga. And since Hanson had also grown up in a time where shows like Naruto, One Piece, Dragon Ball, Claymore, Bleach had all found their mark, there was an obvious target market.
But there was one major hurdle: Hanson's art wasn't quite good enough. He needed better artists to help bring the world to life, and to build Millennium Exile into a proper series.
So he began commissioning artists through Deviantart, working part-time jobs, doing odds and ends to cover the bills. "I would just become a member of a particular artists comment community, follow them on social networks and decide if I thought their particular art style would work for Millennium Exile," Hanson said.
Cover art for a Millennium Exile artbook. Image: Hary Istiyoso
While the art started to form, Hanson continued working on the plot, characterisation, and the different factions that would make up the Millennium Exile world.
It's a tried-and-tested formula that has worked for countless anime series before. Our hero is an exceptionally powerful being, but a flawed one. Vincent is pitched in between good and evil, being a powerful asset for either. He's either society's saviour, or the harbinger of its demise.
Image: Millennium Exile
Magic doesn't flow through every town and village anymore, but Vincent's got plenty of supernatural folk to spend time with. There's clans of vampires, biomehcanical soldiers, forest-dwelling dragons, the Pope, immortal demons, and a whole host of magical beings stuck in between.
Having worked on the project for a decade, Hanson's had time to really flesh out the story. Each character, each faction, and every location has an extensive bio on the official site. Want to know the individual powers of each of the dragons? They're there. Want to know how Nexus's evil robots were made and where their powers came from? Here you go. Want to just look at a ton of concept art to get a gist of the world? There's plenty.
Hanson also started to corral voice-over talent from the United States to help put a demo reel together. He wouldn't name the artists publicly, but mentioned that they'd worked on shows such as Fate Stay Night, Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, Neon Genesis and Dragon Ball Z.
And while the support sounds impressive, and the body of work is exhaustive, Hanson is still based in Queensland. Netflix isn't there, and neither is the anime industry.
So how does Millennium Exile go from a passion project to a fully-funded production?
For now, the entire project has been funded by Hanson's disposable income and the generosity of fans, donating to Hanson's PayPal. The Queenslander has tried to reach out for additional funding, particularly for government arts grants. One grant was apparently turned down because he was "working with 'international artists'". Another application to a philanthropic foundation also fell on deaf ears.
But the project has continued regardless, as many passion projects do. And it's progressed a fair way: despite being stuck in Queensland, Hanson's managed to secure international voice-over talent for the full demo reel, and the site has an extensive list of commissioned concept, environment and character art.
Whether it takes that step further? To a large degree, that's out of Hanson's hands. He'll spend this year actively lobbying Netflix, animation studios, and other contacts to try and get the anime over the line. And that process could have all sorts of influence on the end product. Executives have made all kinds of crazy demands about creative projects before.
Regardless of what happens, Millennium Exile's progress from a basic drawing of Vincent to a virtual world, complete with factions, weapons, magic, conflict and characters is impressive alone. The will to keep going, to keep funding something for so long, is something Aussie anime fans can be proud of.
"I'll work hard and make my own opportunity once the project is pitch ready, but if someone should notice [Millennium Exile] in the mean time then so be it," Hanson said. "I'll keep knocking on doors, making appointments and pitching until the day I die. I believe in my dream, in myself, and the story I have created."