Berkeley-based animation studio Tonko House, founded by the creators of the 2015 Oscar-nominated short “The Dam Keeper,” has big plans for 2019, starting with a slate of four projects in development, including a feature-length version “The Dam Keeper.”
Until recently, “The Dam Keeper” feature had been in development at 20th Century Fox, but following Fox’s sale to Disney, the pic returned solely to Tonko House, which is actively seeking a new studio partner. The film is being directed by Tonko House founders Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, and produced by Kane Lee. The feature will expand on the world of the short, which tells the tale of shunned, orphaned Pig, who cares for a windmill that keeps his village safe from a dangerous fog, and his popular friend, Fox.
“We were partnered with Fox and everyone there was truly amazing,” Kondo says. “But with all the big changes that are happening over there and also as we evolved as a company, it felt like the right time to actually pull ‘The Dam Keeper’ back into our world of Tonko House.”
Working with Fox on “The Dam Keeper” feature “was a really great journey and learning experience,” Tsutsumi says. But getting the project back was also an opportunity for Tonko House to brainstorm ideas about other projects. “We spent the latter half of last year developing new projects,” Tsutsumi adds.
Kondo and Tsutsumi say other studios have expressed an interest in coming on board with them on “The Dam Keeper” feature and they hope to announce a new partnership soon.
In the meantime, they have plenty to keep them busy with a slate of three additional projects, a new film festival, and an expansion of their traveling Tonko House Exhibition.
First, Tsutsumi is the directing showrunner of a stop-motion/CGI animated TV series called “Oni,” about a human girl being raised by a mythical Japanese god. Tonko House has partnered with Japanese stop-motion house Dwarf Animation and CG studio Megalis on the project.
“It’s one of my passion projects,” says Tsutsumi. “It’s a story within the fantastical world of Japanese folklore with a modern spin on it.”
“What Dice and his team are doing is super exciting,” Kondo says. “They are taking these old Japanese myths that have this quirkiness to them and bringing them into a modern and contemporary context that is both fun and really rich with characters that I think a lot of kids nowadays can relate to. We just think that no one’s ever seen anything quite like this before.”
Tonko House plans to show test footage of “Oni” at its first-ever Tonko House Film Festival this spring in Tokyo. The studio exclusively shared never-before-seen concept art of “Oni,” “The Dam Keeper” feature, and two of its other development projects, “Sleepy Pines” and “Leo,” with Variety.
“Sleepy Pines” is another animated TV project planned by the studio and spearheaded by Chris Sasaki, an award-winning former Pixar art director. Sasaki, who worked with Kondo and Tsutsumi when they were at Pixar and also worked on “The Dam Keeper” short, is a recent hire by Tonko House. Sasaki joined Tonko House last year and has been working on the music- and mystery-driven TV project, which follows a group of young friends in a band finding their voices in a changing world. The series marks Sasaki’s directorial debut.
“Chris is an incredible storyteller and writer,” says Kondo. When he came to the studio, he pitched the “Sleepy Pines” idea, which Kondo and Tsutsumi found to be entertaining and timely.
“It’s a story about a band that is going through sort of a crisis of identity,” explains Kondo. “Meanwhile, the world around them, much like the world we live in, is going through environmental challenges.” The band members are a bird, a toad, a cricket, and a bee — creatures that would be especially attuned to climate changes. “Each of them uses their own insect and animalistic qualities to make music.”
Tonko House is looking for both distribution and musical partners on the 2D-animated series.
“We haven’t attached the musical talent to it yet, but there are some really exciting possibilities that we can’t announce publicly yet,” says Kondo.
Finally, Tonko House is developing a sci-fi fairy-tale feature from Erick Oh, who directed the studio’s award-winning Hulu Japan short-form series “The Dam Keeper Poems,” a whimsical reimagining of the feature.
“Leo” is Tonko House’s first foray into science fiction. “But, of course, it’s Tonko House’s take on science fiction,” notes Kondo. “It’s a robot adventure set in space, but has all the qualities of a fairy tale. A view of humanity through the eyes of a robot.”
Oh’s “The Dam Keeper Poems” took home the 2018 crystal jury award from Annecy 2018.
The studio is hosting the first Tonko House Film Festival at the 300-seat Kadokawa theater in Shinjuku, Tokyo, from April 27 to May 26, showcasing animated shorts by the studio and others from around the world. The festival was crowd-funded and reached its funding goal within three hours.
“This is something Tonko House has been dreaming about,” Tsutsumi explains. “We love being connected to the community — the community of artists and filmmakers. Of course, we’re very interested in showing our films, and this film festival will definitely feature Tonko House’s past work. But at the same time, we are always motivated to introduce or share the films that we’re inspired by,” he says. So the festival will also feature “some classic films that inspired us to start Tonko House or make ‘The Dam Keeper,’ as well as films that we’re excited to share with audiences, in this particular case, Japan.”
Tonko House has yet to announce the festival’s lineup, which currently stands at 24 films, including Tonko House’s, but Tsutsumi says they are excited to show these movies to the world. In addition to screening films, the Tonko House festival will also include a mini-gallery of Tonko House art and animation workshops.
Tonko House is also expanding its popular traveling exhibition from sites in Japan to South Korea. “The Journey of Tonko House to Seoul” will open on May 3 in Cheongdam in the Gangnam district of Seoul. It will share peeks at all of Tonko House’s projects as well as a vision for the future of the studio. In addition, it will mark the debut of Tonko House’s education program for children aged four to seven. The education project is an interactive exhibit and print project meant to inspire curiosity through the making of art. It was designed by Tonko House art director Mike Dutton.
“When Dice and I were growing up, we always used to draw in the margins of our test papers,” explains Kondo. “So what we’re doing [with this project] is creating prompts for kids where they’re allowed to draw in the spaces in between and fill in their own stories, their own ideas. It’s really about encouraging kids to express themselves and draw.”
The Korea exhibition will run through August.
Kondo and Tsutsumi don’t have project release dates yet for their development slate, but they are excited about where things are going for their animation studio.
“I think we’re in a place that we want to get moving and get things out there as soon as possible,” Kondo says.