Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: January 2005, 01

Saturday, January 1, 2004

06:42:56 pm , 2249 words, 1848 views     Categories: Mind Game, Translation, Interview, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Animeister Masaaki Yuasa Interview

Link: http://plaza.bunka.go.jp/museum/animeister/200412yuasa/interview/index.html

 1  I was a Teenage Frame-Stepper

First off, congratulations on Mind Game winning the Animation Division Grand Prize at this year's Japan Media Arts Festival.

Thank you.

How does it feel?

It feels good. The film was well received critically, but I don't think very many people got to see it in the theaters, so I hope this prize will do something about that and help to get more people to see the film. I want to emphasize that I myself am only here as a representative. Mind Game would never have been able to win this prize were it not for the work of all the people involved in its production, particularly the author of the original manga, Robin Nishi, and the producer. I consider myself just one of the people who was involved. So on the part of the entire staff, thank you for choosing Mind Game.

How did you become interested in animation?

I was in the seventh grade when I saw Hayao Miyazaki's Cagliostro's Castle, which is what caused me to become interested in the idea of making pictures move. During high school I watched Gold Lightan, particularly Takashi Nakamura's episodes - not for the designs, but purely for the animation; for the quality of the drawings and movements. Anime was mass produced back then, so there wasn't a lot that moved very well. But Gold Lightan was different. It had great drawings and incredible movement. Video decks having just come along, during high school I'd go around to different shops renting anime videos that looked as if they might have the kind of movement that interested me based on the package art - although, needless to say, the cover art didn't always match what was inside. I also recorded anime that I liked off of TV and watched it over and over again. Again, not so much for the anime itself, but just to see the parts done by my favorite animators. When I got to college I kept doing more of the same, and started playing the movements in slo-mo, one frame at a time, to understand the sequence better. After I went pro I learned that people looked down on that sort of thing, but I loved doing it back then. After graduating from college I joined animation studio Asia-Do. I picked Asia-Do first of all because it was run by Tsutomu Shibayama, who had done Dokonjo Gaeru, whose drawings and movements I absolutely loved, but also because I was interested in children's literature at the time, and Asia-Do did a lot of one-off releases based on that kind of material.

 2  From Animator to Director

You started as an animator. How did you come to work as a director?

While I was at Asia-Do I was given the chance to do things like draw storyboard for song scenes¹, or set rakugo to pictures². But that was all in the capacity of an animator. After that I started working under Mitsuru Hongo on Crayon Shin-chan. As a director his stance was to remain open to suggestions; if anyone had a good idea, he would use it. In the first film, Action Kamen vs. Haigure Mao, he used an idea I came up with. He drew the storyboard for the scene, and I animated it. When I saw the finished product I felt it was the best thing I'd done since I started working in the industry. It was an incredible feeling to see something I'd come up with moving up there on the screen. It made me really happy. After that, I was invited to draw storyboard on the Shin-chan TV series, and I'd do about one episode a month. Back when I was working as an animator directors would often tell me that I didn't get this or that about their directing, which I found extremely frustrating. It made me want to respond, 'Okay then, why don't you give me a chance to show you that I do get it.' Besides, I was curious to test my own abilities, and felt that the experience of directing might prove helpful to my animation. But even more than that, I wondered what I was going to to do in the future if I was still working as an animator at 40 or 50. I've been lucky so far to work under good directors like Mitsuru Hongo and Keiichi Hara, but I knew I'd find it stressful to have to work under a director with a style that I couldn't get into. If I knew how to direct, then I could avoid that. I worked as the designer for the films, so I drew lots of things, but of course not all of them got used. Another thing I like about directing is being able to see all of my ideas go directly into the final product.

 3  Mind Game

And so we come to your directing debut, Mind Game, in which you use a variety of experimental techniques such as inserting photographs of the faces of the voice-actors. What were you seeking to acheive with this approach?

I wanted to give the film a 'rough' feeling. I felt mixing together different media would be the best way of conveying the rushed feeling of Robin Nishi's drawings. In live-action films CG is often used in combination with live-action footage because otherwise the CG lacks a feeling of reality; it feels kind of predictable. I felt that the same applied to this film: sticking to one media throughout - CG or drawings - would have led to a feeling of predictability. So I wanted to jump around between lots of different styles, almost randomly, throwing in photos every now and then to add some reality, to make the whole thing feel rather bizarre. I'm hoping it comes together like a collage, with all sorts of things thrown together, but nonetheless with a feeling of unity. When the characters feel kind of out of touch with the world around them, the background looks a little more rough to reflect that. I thought that was the more interesting way of doing it. So long as there's a clear story to follow, people seem forgiving if drawings are a little rough on the edges and lacking in unity. On the other hand, the project came about because of this manga, so I had no intention of veering away from the manga. But to be perfectly honest the manga lost be a bit in the second half, so that part I handled in a way that made more sense to me personally. If you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, the results can be disastrous. Take for example Cat Soup. The original manga is a vitriolic satire of all the brutality that exists in the world. Personally there's a lot I can't follow in there. So what I did was to pick out one vignette that seemed to offer a shred of hope, and mold the story around that. So instead of brutality for bruality's sake, the brutality is there to give a realistic weight to the message of hope that lies at the core. In that way I was able to find an approach that made sense to me personally. In the case of Mind Game, that message isn't hidden at all, it's spoken aloud - quite vocally, in fact. In this case I thought it was important to be loud and clear. There are lots of things in life that can't be accomplished unless you take them head on like that.

 4  Animation in the Digital Age

With the transformation from cel-based analog animation to computer-based digital animation, how have things changed on the workfloor, both technically, in terms of how animation is produced, as well as mentally, in terms of how animators approach this new situation?

It's easier to draw storyboards now, because you can draw shots that would have been impossible to animate before. On the other hand, digital can also be a pain in the ass. Before you could draw everything on one cel, but now you have to split one drawing into a whole bunch of different layers for the character and the effects and try to keep all of them straight in your head. That's the major disadvantage. But again, you can do a lot more now with digital. You can add sketchy effects to create a drawing that feels more analog than what you would have been able to acheive before in analog. That's what I'd like to pursue. I want to achieve a freer digital line to see if I can overcome the hard-to-avoid stiffness of digital drawings. Anything is possibile in digital, but that can also be a handicap, because there's so much freedom that it's hard to figure out what should be done. The good thing is that you can play it by ear and try out different things pretty easily. Before it was a real hassle and you had to re-shoot everything, but in digital you can fix it with one click, so you can test something out as many times as you want. Everything is data, so making changes is easy. Editing, coloring, everything is a lot easier, which I think accounts for why you see so much anime being made nowdays in spite of the fact that production conditions have actually worsened. Digital is what made that possible.

But the most interesting thing about digital is that anybody can use it. Even amateurs can make high-quality animation on their PC if they have the right software. The hurdle has thus been greatly lowered. However, a danger of this new freedom is that people seem more prone to settle for less; for good enough. Overall quality has improved, but what seems to have been lost in the equation is the movement. People seem less attracted to the idea of creating movement. Most anime seems to focus on the pictures and the directing. The quality of the drawings has risen so high that moving them has become extremely difficult. Personally, I'm not bothered if a drawing isn't very good. I just want to make it move. I love it when a character runs and the background moves. I love that feeling. It's like I'm in there running with him. That's why you see a lot of eye-perspective shots in my work. That's me in there. Also, subsequent DVD sales are an important part of the picture nowadays, so you have to make an anime that will look good on repeated viewings, which has had this adverse side-effect. The pictures are nice, but the movement is boring. There isn't much there that excites as animation.

As digitization continues to make it easier to do certain things, I think it will start to become more obvious when a project would be more suited to, for example, live action or 3DCG. In the same way, my goal is to continue to pursue the sort of animation that's only possible in 2D. Right now, I personally feel that live action is more interesting. The advent of digital has added a breadth to live-action filmmaking that literally makes it possible to create anything. But I want to try to continue to explore the virtues inherent to the flat medium of animation; to create animation that could only be done because it is animation.

 5  Animation for Whom?

I think animation is an excellent tool for opening kids' eyes to the interesting things in the world around us. Children who manage to grow up into adults who fit into the world are extremely lucky - the boy who grows up to do what he dreamed as child. When I was a boy, I was more interested in anime and manga than I was in the real world. The real world was a complicated and incomprehensible place. I didn't see where I fit in. That's a very painful thing for a child. Right now I get a lot of enjoyment out of looking up stuff for my animation, in encyclopedias and so on. For example, the way rain falls on mountains, which flows down to make a river, which creates sandbanks that change the landscape. Once you know that, it changes the way you look at the world around you, and leads to learning about other things. Animation is a good tool for transmitting this sort of knowledge in a fun and easy way. If you tried to do the same thing in live action, it would take a tremendous amount of work, to set up the shots and so on, and you'd pick up lots of irrelevant information in the shots. Animation is nothing but pictures, so it's easy to draw precisely what you want to convey in a way that's easy to follow for kids. Of course, that said, Mind Game was aimed at something more like the 20-up age range. (laughs)

I'm working on a short right now, but I'd like to do a TV series eventually. Directing, this time. Mind Game was based on someone else's story, but I'd like to get to the point where I can make up my own stories. It's easier to get approval for adult projects, but I'd eventually like to do a kids show. Something like the shows I enjoyed watching as a kid - Doraemon, Obake no Q-Taro, Hana no Pyun-Pyun-Maru. ◊

¹ Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song ちびまる子ちゃん わたしの好きな歌, movie, 1992.
² Anime Rakugokan アニメ落語館, 3 OVAs, 1992.

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