Bringing backgrounds to the fore: Interview with Mateusz Urbanowicz
About the artist
Mateusz Urbanowicz was born and raised in Silesia, Poland. He studied electronic engineering until he found out that making art could be more than a weird hobby. Following his graduation he moved to Japan in order to study animation and comics at Kobe Design University, thanks to a Japanese government scholarship. He then graduated with honors with a short animated movie Right Places.
From 2013, Mateusz has been working as a full-time background artist in the Comix Wave Films animation studio in Tokyo. Taking part in the making of commercials, animated TV series (Space Dandy) and movies (Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name).
He has now moved to a freelance artist career to focus on original work (such as comics, illustrations and animations).
So, first of all, how did you come to be in Japan?
I applied for a scholarship along many other people, and was among the eight people that got one. I was accepted at Kobe university for a 3-year course in animation (anime) and comic (manga) making.
Did you already know Japanese before going?
I had zero Japanese knowledge. I took the test in English, which was the only foreign language I could speak. About ten other people in my course couldn’t speak Japanese either, so the first thing we did was a four-month intensive Japanese course, before even attending our university. Then, I went to Kobe Design University to study manga and animation, although it was really hard at first to understand the classes. I think I understood about 30 percent of what people were saying. I could read and write relatively easily if something was on the computer, but if it’s handwritten, it gets difficult.
Did the transition from your home country to Japan — of being a stranger, a gaijin — influence your art?
It changed my art 180 degrees. When I came to Japan, I was still in this kind of mainstream anime mindset. Cute girls and so on… I thought that I would be able to do that by learning, but after some years at uni, I discovered that it wouldn’t work. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to make your drawings and art look like Japanese comics. I realised that the story behind the art has to be good. The style doesn’t have a meaning. I really tried to enter the manga community, but I failed, which led me to wonder what should I do with my career. I was going to finish university, but I didn’t have anything to work with. But my professor, who is also a manga artist, told me that maybe I should try my hand at animation. I had one year left at uni, so I did my graduation project as a short animation movie, since I’m good at drawing backgrounds and buildings. That got a lot of attention and I was able to stay in Japan and work in an animation studio. Although my original call was in comics, I realise now that I tried to do something that isn’t me. Now I do things that are mine and my own original style. It’s completely different than the art I wanted to do when I came to Japan.
How did you come to drawing backgrounds? What do you like about it?
When I was still in Poland, I was doing a lot of drawings and paintings of buildings and scenery. In high school, where most people like to draw cool stuff, I was doing buildings. Some cartoons as well, but mostly buildings. When I did my animation graduation project, I painted my backgrounds digitally. I wasn’t that good at characters so really focused on the environments. I tried to get the style of Makoto Shinkai because I really admire his (digitally painted) backgrounds. It’s not that I wanted to do backgrounds for animation, but I found myself doing it because it was the only thing I could do then. I then did this professionally for 4 years, and then I quit.
So, you’ve worked in a Japanese studio. There’s a myth about how Japanese people work very hard and for extended hours. Did you find it hard to work in this environment as a European?
This kind of environment has rules, and often, they are unspoken. No one tells you about them. You have to know about them naturally. So for example, if your superior doesn’t go home, you can’t go home. If there’s work to be done, you don’t go home. And if there’s no work to be done, you don’t go home either, as it would be viewed as slacking off, and that you don’t take the company seriously. This kind of approach can be really toxic for some people. For others, who know the rules, the rules protect them and they know they are safe from getting fired. Most of the time, these people tend to be specialists — highly skilled craftsmen more than artists. The work gets done, on time and quickly, and they move on to the next task. For people who would like a bit more creative freedom, or different hours, or work on their own stuff, it gets a little more difficult in this kind of environment. The studio I was working at was good. We had free time, the pay was good and I was hired on a contract, which felt stable. But in some cases, you have a rate of 200 yen per page, and you get paid by how many pages you do, and it can make things really difficult for animators. The first few months were really stressful because I didn’t know what was wrong and what was right, since no one tells you in a straightforward way. Everyone is supposed to know from school, really. But, in the end, I was okay with this. I like rules and I like when everything is moving in a way that I can predict. On the other side, though, I came to Japan to do my own work, and in this company, I wasn’t able to do my own work at all. This was the main reason why I quit, although it’s not impossible to work full-time in a studio and do your own stuff after work hours.
What did you learn from working in a Japanese studio?
I got better at drawing backgrounds, that’s for sure. We did a lot of them and I was surrounded by good artists who told me what to do to get better. I also gained confidence in my work because I got to work on some big projects and I learnt how they work. I actually directed some animated shorts during the 4 years. So I have a better picture of the process. Now, I’d like to do my own movie, and I know how to do it: what’s needed, the various steps and who does what.
A bit more about what you want to do now, your personal practice. In an interview, you said that you want to tell your own stories, with your own illustrations. What kind of stories would you like to tell people?
I would like to do stories that are interesting and fun. Stories that entertain, but at the same time, give you something you didn’t ask for. I think this is really important. Most (but, of course not all) of the animation and comics in Japan right now are made to soothe the needs of the fanbase. It’s made by who grew up as fans for fans. Of course, they seek the most popular thing that will sell, and although the work is good, in most cases, they are only doing what the fanbase wants. I would like to do stories that you didn’t know you wanted. For example, everyone wants Hayao Miyazaki to make the next Laputa or the next Totoro, or Ponyo 2, just as Disney does, but he wants to tell stories that have value and are needed right now. I would like to tell stories that educate you. There are different ways of storytelling I would like to explore. I’m working on a comic right now, but also on an album about old Tokyo stores. I would also like to do something bigger, but of course it’s really hard if you’re just one person.
So you draw a lot of Japan. Tokyo streets, shops,… Do you do the same when you go back to Poland, either for holidays or visiting family?
There are things in Poland I would like to draw. Some old cities, places I would like to use in my art. I did some art about Poland for my father’s book. When I’m in Japan, most of the things I see are interesting to me. Maybe not for Japanese people, as it’s their everyday, but for me everything is interesting, and I would like to share that feeling with other people. I see a story in all the small details. Maybe I will do work on other countries. I went to Scotland and I really liked it. But right now, I’m concentrating on Japan. But moreso on the small places, the ones not visited by foreigners or noticed by Japanese people. They all have their history and I’m keen to explore this right now.
Do you feel a bit like an explorer when you stroll the residential areas and Tokyo streets for your drawings?
Yes, I think so. Even though I’ve been in Japan for 8 years already, I still am interested by a lot of things, people, buildings, streets and small houses. I feel like an explorer but it’s also relaxing, as it’s relatively safe and no one pays attention to you. It’s one of the good sides of Japan. You can go outside and relax, watch things and people and no one will have anything to say about it. I feel like an explorer, but also at home.
You’re talking about home. How do you define it?
In a way, Japan has become my home. I got married to my wife Kana here. But it is interesting because, before I came to Japan, I watched a lot of Japanese content, and when I first came to the country, I was surprised by how much exactly like the animations it looked like. It felt like I knew this place, without having ever been here. And when I started living here for good, I realised that the image of the real Japan was bigger than the image of the fantastic Japan from animation or comics. So, for me, I feel at home in Japan. When I go to Poland, I feel more like an explorer.
Why do you draw yourself as a dog?
I’m not sure. We always had dogs in Poland when I was still living there, so it’s kind of natural for me to draw them, more than other animals. I drew dogs for the Yokohama series. It was a series of 10 illustrations, a dog going to Yokohama, walking around and meeting some friends. I did some sketches of this character to get a feel of him, of how he looks and moves. I write a lot, and I used it to represent myself, almost like a logo. It felt natural and now, my character is also in my wife’s comic.
Which artists or art practitioners influence you?
To be honest, until I was at university, I was doing my own art as a hobby. I wasn’t doing any formal learning or art school, nothing like that. When I started doing art more seriously, I had a lot of influence from people I saw on the internet. It was both a good influence and a bad influence, but I found some art that stuck with me. For example, Hayao Miyazaki. I liked his animations, but also found on the internet all his comics. And, of course, I was inspired by other people who use watercolour for creative work, like these two French artists Atelier Sento who do watercolour comics and games. I was really happy to meet them when they came to Tokyo a few years ago. We influence each other, and there are a lot of artists on the internet who help me become a better artist. If I had to chose, though, I would say that Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest influence on my art for some years now.
You’re very generous with your time, doing videos on Youtube explaining your art, the tools you’re using, and so on. Would you ever consider being a teacher or is it just that you like sharing your process?
When I was still in high school, in my last year, I was still thinking that my art was a hobby. I met some people in Poland that were selling the Wacom tablets and they approached me, and said “We can’t do art, we just sell those. However, you can do art with this tablet, so would you come to art shows and events with us, and show people how to use these tools”. This became my first job, and it convinced me that I can do something with my art to support myself. I think that it comes from there, that all the time I was doing my own art, I was also teaching people how to use those tablets. I think it’s the same with watercolours. You can buy them everywhere and they are relatively cheap, but using them is actually difficult. The least I can do is give a little back to the community, whether it’s a little bit of inspiration, or to show that you can live and survive as an illustrator or as an artist. In Poland, there isn’t so much of a market for illustrators, or comic artists or animators, but because of the internet, I saw a thriving community of people that do something, and I like to give back a bit of my time.
I don’t think I’d like to be a teacher. I had some friends in Japan that studied comics, manga, just to become teachers. They went to uni to get the knowledge to become art teachers, but it didn’t appeal to me. I want to share the art I do, but for me, the process behind the art is also a part of the story. It’s not the one picture, but how and why it was made and what inspired it that’s important to its understanding. Providing this kind of information as a movie on Youtube, or as an article on Tumblr is completing the picture, so a person can look at it can understand how it came to be. This is the complete picture of the work.
Youtube : mattjabbar
Instagram : mateusz_urbanowicz
Twitter : @gommatt