In Praise of the Background Artist

Often overlooked, background art is the unsung beauty of anime, and this artist can give a master class on it.

Published May 7, 2017

Grew up watching Dragon Ball Z, Slam Dunk or One Piece?

Chances are, you have seen the impressive background art by Roberto Lolong, a Taguigeño whose digital paintings have appeared in several well-known animé produced by TOEI Animation, the pioneer in Japanese animation.

“Originally, I wanted to become an IB or an ‘inbetweener’— the ones who make the characters move,” shared Lolong, who had previously worked as a farmer and baker. “Once the animator finishes with the key poses, they go to the IB’s who produce the drawings that create the illusion of movement. I wasn’t accepted in that position — they hired me as a background artist instead.”

Lolong has been working for TOEI Animation for 20 years now. Some of the works he has done can also be seen in Dr. Slump, Crying Kingdom, and Doremi.

“An animation character without a background is unappealing. What will you see behind them? Just plain white,” said Lolong. “That’s why having a background is very important in animation. You can’t do without it. Where will the character run? Where will the character sit? A character won’t be able to do anything without his surroundings.”

One of his most memorable experiences working for TOEI Animation is when they sent him to Japan for training, and leisure as well. He shared that the Japanese love Filipino artists because of their versatility.

“Filipinos are very good. It’s different in Japan. If you’re an IB, you hone your craft until you master it. Filipinos are not like that. We like to have a variety of skills. You can be an IB, an animator, a background artist. In the Philippines, you have to be versatile in order to survive,” he said.

His favorite anime character is Goku from Dragon Ball Z. “As a parent, you have to love your family, especially your children. You need to protect them like what Goku does.”

Outside animation, Lolong is slowly making a name for himself  as a painter. He has been featured in the city-sponsored “Tatak Likhang Kamay ng Taguigeño” art exhibit in February 2017. Recently, he taught kids about watercolor background painting during ManilArt 2017 in October.

“My advice to young people who want to go into animation, especially in background, is you have to be a painter. You have to know how to paint interiors, landscapes, and seascapes,” he shared.

But Lolong admits it is a lifelong learning process. “Look at me, I’m 48 years old, and yet I’m still studying and improving my education. According to the Japanese, once you stop learning, your career is over,” he said.

He also warns against self-doubt. “If you give up, you won’t get anywhere. Winners never quit and quitters never win.”