Five years ago, art directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi traded in stability at Pixar for the unknown as they launched Tonko House, a Berkeley-based multimedia production company. Since then, they’ve developed a range of projects and educational initiatives to support their mission of telling stories that inspire curiosity and increase social awareness.
Mere months before founding Tonko House, the filmmakers’ animated short “The Dam Keeper” was nominated for an Oscar. The film is about Pig, who is bullied by an entire town, and Fox, who offers him friendship. The company takes its name from combining Japanese terms for pig (ton) and fox (ko).
While the publicity from the short gave Tonko House a confident start, building a company is never simple. “We had a lot of rough times, as much as great times,” says Tsutsumi, a native of Japan. “We’re very fortunate that we’re able to go through so much good and bad in such a short amount of time.”
Over the past half-decade, Tonko House’s projects have included a month-long film festival in Tokyo, a graphic novel based on “The Dam Keeper” and educational YouTube videos.
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They also re-visited “The Dam Keeper” by producing “The Dam Keeper Poems,” with the film’s original supervising animator, Erick Oh, coming on board as the writer and director. In spite of the name, the animated project is more like an episodic series.
“We saw them as little memories almost that Erick was exploring within the psyche of Pig as a character,” Kondo says. There are more plans for Pig and Fox in the future as well. A feature version had been in development at Fox, though in the wake of that studio’s acquisition by Disney, Tonko House took back the rights and is developing it as one of the studio’s top priorities.
As with any new undertaking, creating Tonko House has come with a growth edge, and their barometer for success may transform on a day-to-day basis. Whereas Kondo and Tsutsumi’s previous roles at Pixar involved a specific segment of the company, where they were supported by multiple departments, now they have a lot more to oversee.
“We’re accountable for everything from installing software on people’s computers to really defining the vision of our studio,” Kondo says. “Both are critical to the existence of our studio.”
In the interest of remaining true to their educational mission, the Tonko House founders have embraced their slip-ups with honesty and model a relatable candor rarely seen in perfectly curated social media. Tsutsumi says they want to share “not only the successful kind of fantasy aspects of filmmaking, but the struggles.”
The Tonko House founders return repeatedly to their core beliefs when making decisions. Their unique perspective extends to including “house” in their name rather than “studio,” an idea rooted in their mission.
Our hope is to “create a house for creatives to freely come and go and have an experience to create something,” Tsutsumi says. It’s about starting a societal dialogue. There is also an extension of the Tonko House company based in Tokyo.
Tonko House has a multitude of projects in the pipeline. Tsutsumi is attached as showrunner to “Oni,” a series in development at Netflix that he envisions as a stop-motion and computer-based hybrid.
“This is like a dream come true project for us, to collaborate with Netflix, to be able to talk about the stories from my country,” he says. Tsutsumi has longed to share his culture with this part of the world via production.
Japanese see oni — a kind of devilish presence, often expressed as an ogre or troll in their culture — as a classic villain, but that’s not necessarily true in this story. “What is good and what is bad and who decides it and from which perspective [gives you] the idea of [the show],” he says.
Another project they’re excited about features a set of anthropomorphized acorns that explore the world. In choosing the nut as their lead, they wanted to find something that could be imbued with personality, a point of view and perspective. Tonko is developing an art-style CG pipeline for the project that also will be a key step toward being able to produce features.
“I think more than anything, we’re trying to provide multiple perspectives on human stories. And I think this project is no different in that way,” says Kondo of the unconventional traveling acorns. They plan to release the project in installments directly to audiences, hopefully in 2020, though the precise details have yet to be finalized. The look will retain Tonko House’s distinct style.
Additionally, “I’m allowed to say we’re in development with Apple on a current project,” says Kondo, though he cannot reveal more.
The varied slate of multimedia projects and educational initiatives could seem to be a liability for such a young company. Though they plan to sharpen their focus by pulling the seemingly diverse projects together in the months ahead, it’s also not a quality they desperately want to change.
“We believe that having a north star and helping each other to see where we are at all times will actually help us to understand the best decisions to be made on a day-to-day basis,” says Tsutsumi. He says they constantly ask themselves: “‘Are we still empowering curiosity? Are we still inspired in terms of our own curiosity?’ And if that’s not happening, it doesn’t matter what it is that we’re doing.”
Tonko House is poised for the future. “In the end, it’s about surrounding yourself with the people you really love working with,” says Kondo. “Those are the people that provide balance, perspective. I think that’s the thing that this whole journey has been about, is gaining new perspectives.”