Alongside exquisite food and space-age technology, animation is among Japan’s biggest exports. The style we recognize as anime was born in the 1960s from the brain of artist Osamu Tezuka, and since then its popularity has grown to such an extent that you’ll now find anime fans on every continent on planet Earth.
Wesley Louis grew up through the '80s and '90s in East London watching anime such as Samurai Pizza Cats, Giant Robo and Tetsujin 28. Fast forward to 2019 and Louis is now the director of his own animation studio, The Line, in London. After landing a job in animation and working his way up the ranks, Wesley soon realized that, as a British-born lad with Caribbean roots, the artists he loved and worked with didn’t look like him. So, after getting lost in Japanese culture for years, he’s now bringing his own story into his work.
PRØHBTD caught up with Wesley to talk about his life, his new project and how sometimes it’s important to look for inspiration closer to home.
Hello, friend! Introduce yourself.
My name is Wesley Louis, and I am the creator and director of The Mighty Grand Piton.
What is The Mighty Grand Piton?
So, it's based on an idea I had about a robot that's lain dormant in the Caribbean Island of Saint Lucia, which is where me, my parents and my family are from. A girl named Connie, British born and of Caribbean descent, travels there every year with her parents. She finds this robot and wakes it up. It’s actually named after the Twin Pitons, which are two mountains in the Caribbean: Gros Piton and Petit Piton. I tried to weave a narrative from that initial concept, what they go through together, what he has to fight, et cetera et cetera….
How much of it is autobiographical?
I guess there's going to be a lot of things in there that speak to me and speak to many who are second-generation or third-generation Caribbean. It’s even got my gran's house in it! So there are a few things I can definitely relate to, but in terms of my opinion, the way I view the world, I don't know if there's going to be as much of that. I kind of want the characters to be their own thing and not just me speaking through them.
Some of your other projects were made as homages or are directly influenced by other animation. What inspired you to make something closer to home?
It's funny because previous projects that I did, like Super Turbo Atomic Ninja Rabbit, which I still want to develop as a series, that kind of spoke to my childhood and the things that got me into animation. Things like Thundercats, that kind of stuff. So that definitely resonated with me and probably people who grew up with that stuff. I've always been into Japanese animation and I think my style, out of everyone in the company, probably feels the most Japanese. On my visit to Japan, I realized how many of the things that we see as clichés or motifs in anime are actually taken from their own culture. So just little things like people doing the peace sign, the way people stand, you know when you draw anime girls and they have their feet pointed towards each other, and even how small the vehicles are. It made me realize that the artists are not just doing comic or cartoon stuff, they're actually taking from their environment and putting it into their work.
Over the last couple of years I’ve posted on my Instagram here and there like, "Oh, here's a St. Lucian superhero" or "Here's a St. Lucian astronaut." Then I did a quick design, and I think I put on a hashtag like, #CaribbeansLikeRobotsToo and the idea just stuck. I had a positive response from it, not just from Caribbeans, but from everyone, you know? It just made me think for the first time, "Well, why can't this happen in the Caribbean?”
Even though it's been done before a million times, it has a completely different voice. I've always wanted to do something about the Caribbean, but maybe speaking about poverty, some sort of award-winning thing… then I thought, why can't it be fun? Why can't it be about robots and something fantastical and fantasy based?
The animation industry in the U.K. isn’t as diverse as it should be. Why do you think that is? Are the barriers for BAME people the same as in other industries?
You could argue that maybe a part of it is exclusion, but the other part is cultural. I know growing up it was very difficult for my parents to understand what I wanted to do. From their perspective, growing up and becoming a lawyer or a doctor is the thing that will make money and give you security and stuff. Also, there's almost like this thing with media or art, it's almost like it's not for us. I don't know where that comes from. Is it a byproduct of exclusion and maybe even racism?
For me, I never felt like the industry wasn't for me. It's only other people that have made me feel like that. It comes from a good place, to protect me from harm, like, "Do this job, you'll be more secure,” et cetera. Then it's also not seeing people in those kinds of positions. I guess it’s a cyclical thing where if you don't see someone doing it then you don't think you can do it, and it just goes around in circles.
Why do you think nothing like this has been made before, and why did you choose to make it now?
There's a strange thing going around right now where, if you make a film, there is a push for more female leads or more black leads or more gay leads and any kind of, I guess, minority group. There's a big push for it, but for me I feel like these things almost need to come organically. I do think they need to happen, but they need to happen organically. So, for instance, when I was growing up, I'd watch Star Wars and Back to the Future and all of these films, and there weren't any black leads or much diversity, but I never felt like they weren't for me. I doubt George Lucas was racist or anything like that, but I always felt like he made those films based upon his demographic and how he sees the world. I've never expected anyone that has never been to the Caribbean or isn't my race to tell stories like The Mighty Grand Piton. I think sometimes people have the expectation of people who are on big platforms to tell these stories. But I think their job is to give the opportunities, and then it's for us to get good at our craft, learn, work with people and tell these stories ourselves.
I heard you’ve been doing this for 10 years. Has TMGP been ten years in the making?
I don't think it's been 10 years in the making, but I guess me developing, me being around different people, me learning how to animate, I think that's taken 12 years. That's all part of it. If I didn't have the company and I wasn't working with these guys, would this exist? And you asked before, why now? Well, I feel like there are more gates now than there are gatekeepers. If you wanted to get something out there before, you'd have to put it on TV or go through networks, but now you have YouTube and Instagram. So you can actually build up a following by putting it out there.
So, what’s next for The Mighty Grand Piton?
I definitely would like to go further with it because I think I do have a story to tell. I have a place for these characters to go, and I can see how they interact and how they speak. I don't want it to be just for St. Lucians, I don't want it to be just for Caribbeans, I want everyone to be able to watch it and relate to it.
Obviously, there are things in it that people will see for the first time. They'll be like, "Oh, what’s he saying there?! What kind of food is that?!" But as you get used to it, it becomes normal. If you think about the first time you watched a Japanese anime, how many things were once foreign to us? Also, I’d like to just get people to think differently about their own heritage. It doesn't even have to be Caribbean, it doesn't matter where you're from. You don't just have to tell stories that are based in Japan or the States or Europe. If you build your skills up enough, you can tell a story anywhere, from any perspective.
Follow Jak on Twitter: @Jak_TH.