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: May 2005

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

11:00:00 pm , 12 words, 3261 views     Categories: Mind Game

International media attention

Italian speakers can read some comments about Mind Game on this blog.

Monday, May 30, 2005

06:00:11 pm , 158 words, 856 views     Categories: Animation

Yoshiyuki Momose's new short

Yoshiyuki Momose has directed a followup to the short Portable Airport entitled Space Station No. 9 at Ghibli subsidiary Studio Cajino, once again set to a track from the same band's latest album, and once again it appears it's going to be impossible to see it for a long time (outside of the museum), though a clip is available (which I haven't seen because this page crashes my browser). Reportedly the animator lineup is up to par with the previous short, making it an item of interest. I've long wanted to see that Umacha commercial animated by Osamu Tanabe again, the first in a series done by him, and then there's the short films shown at the Ghibli Museum that would be nice to see, particularly Kujiratori with Masaaki Yuasa as an animator. All of that would fit nicely onto one DVD. Curious how Momose has been making the recent films/shorts there that attract all the interesting animators.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

09:30:07 pm , 393 words, 1227 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Where's Yuasa

Philip sent me a link to a vid a while back that totally entranced me. I had no idea what it was, but I loved it. Research has proven the following. Kid Koala is this multitalented guy who makes incredible scratch music, and for two of his songs he got his cousin, who's an animator, to make some video accompaniment for him. The results are just fab and I've been watching the two vids over and over recently. You can see them here.

Some people who've seen Mind Game might be wondering what Yuasa is doing now. For people who missed the news, he's directed a short in Studio 4C's upcoming Genius Party omnibus of 10 shorts directed by 10 different people.

Here's the list of the shorts that was posted in a comment a while back when a flyer was found with the information at a con in the US:

- Dimension Bomb (Dir: Koji Morimoto)
- Twilight World (Dir: Shinichiro Watanabe)
- Nayorani (Dir: Mahiro Maeda)
- Space-Time Wars (Dir: Shoji Kawamori)
- Dream Machine (Dir: Masaaki Yuasa)
- Genius Party (Dir: Atsuko Fukushima)
- Moondrive (Dir: Kazuto Nakazawa)
- Touni (Dir: Tadashi Hiramatsu)
- Limitcycle (Dir: Hideki Futamura)
- Wanwa the Puppy (Dir: Shinosuke Harada)

I was thinking they were planning a summer theatrical run, but they're being surprisingly tight-lipped about it if they're still planning on doing that.

Obviously that's finished by now (there was a drawing held for people to attend the voice-recording session on the survey card in the Mind Game DVD, which must have been in January or so), so the question is what's next. The answer: I don't know. He supposedly wasn't involved in the latest Shin-chan film, so we'll have to wait and see.

You know it's bad when you read the sentence "Representations of foreigners were always outside the strict rules governing depictions of Egyptians, and sculptors working during the Kushite dynasty may thus have had more scope to 'create' freely" in a book of Egyptian history, in a passage discussing the possible reasons why only foreign kings were depicted realistically in sculpture while Egyptian kings were depicted in the traditional stylized fashion, and the first thing you think is, "Yeah, that's right, that would explain why Japanese in anime are always stylized the same way but foreigners are always made to look totally different."

Saturday, May 28, 2005

12:23:27 pm , 450 words, 759 views     Categories: Animation

Watari

The question was asked if there are any anime set to a live-action background à la... the obvious examples. The opening sequence of Cleopatra, during which I recall hearing even Eiichi Yamamoto groaning in the audio commentary, and Toshio Hirata's Twilight of the Cockroaches were evoked. My contribution is Dai Ninjutsu Eiga Watari, which as far as I know was the first film to use the blue background system to combine animation with live-action in Japan.

I'd heard about this film long ago when putting together the Yasuji Mori filmography. It's the only live-action film in his filmography, so naturally it got me curious, but there was no way to see it, and there was pretty much no detailed information about it, so I wasn't sure what it was for a long time. It's now out on DVD, and though I haven't seen it yet, I know basically what it is.

The film was released July 21, 1966. There was a big fad for SFX movies at the time, with monster movies of all sorts coming out. At the same time there was a ninja fad among the younger set, partly due to Sanpei Shirato's manga. So the natural thing for Toei to do was to combine the two. Toei subsidiary Toei Doga had already done a job on Shirato's Kaze no Ishimaru in 1964, including renaming it to Kaze no Fujimaru because the sponsor was Fujisawa Yakuhin (the end of the credits has a chorus going "Fujisawaaa, Fujisawaaa, Fujisawaaa Yakuhiiin). Shirato should have learned his lesson, but he let Toei (actually Toei Kyoto) adapt his manga Watari into a film this time. As he should have expected, the result did away with everything brutal, dark and meaningful about his manga, focusing more on creating good entertainment. Supposedly he left the theater furious, and that was the last time he let Toei touch his stuff.

What the film did was to focus on the "ninjutsu" or special ninja technique aspect of his manga, using fast cutting and trick photography, basically all the means available to the studio - including their recent acquisition, Toei Doga. To add extra spice to the film, one fight scene was filmed on a blue screen and a few of the better animators at Toei Doga, namely Yasuji Mori, Sadao Kikuchi and Shoetsu Hane, were called in to provide the animation with which the live action would be combined.

This probably doesn't count, but Shirakawa Daisaku (who's also the one who came up with the disastrous idea of splitting Toei Doga up to work on several movies at once) had the loopy idea of tacking on a live-action "ninja lesson" at the end of each ep of Kaze no Fujimaru.

Friday, May 27, 2005

06:30:06 pm , 1297 words, 1321 views     Categories: Animation

Hisashi Mori's Spigura

My answer to a comment was getting long, so I decided to post it here:

This is something I've felt since ep 2 of Speed Grapher... I feel sorry of Masashi Ishihama. I don't know exactly what's going on, so I can't really say. Just seems obvious. No director would want every episode of his show to be farmed out to Korea and look like crap, so he's got to be tearing his hair out right now. I hear he left JC Staff because he thought he couldn't make good anime there, so it's really ironic that now JC Staff just made that ep of Honey & Clover...

I think this episode was a good example of the animation director AND the director being killed. It's curious because there are some companies that outsource to Korea, even for key animation, and the results aren't too bad. It's like they say, there are good and bad studios in Korea just like in Japan. So I'm thinking it's Gonzo's fault. I think they're just skimping on the schedule and the resources because they're overextended. Too bad Ishihama has to be caught in the middle.

And Mori. Finally a Mori episode, and they use him that badly. There were some shots that were nice, very Mori, but as you said, it actually seemed like they just didn't do the inbetweens, or couldn't because Mori's drawings were too hard - I particularly noticed it with his beautiful smoke. It really felt like pure KA, and I'm not talking "full limited", though he could probably do that if he wanted. Anyway, it's a shame.

To answer your question, the animation director is there purely to correct the drawings by the key animator, who specifies the inbetweens. I could be wrong about this, but here's my understanding of the flow:

1) Director assigns shots
2) Key animator draws his keys. He specifies the inbetweens using what's called a "time sheet".
3) The keys are collected by runners, if necessary, and sent to the animation director to be checked. If necessary, the animation director corrects the keys.
4) Keys are sent to be inbetweened. (Or they might first be sent to "daini genga" or second key animators to clean up the roughs of the "daiichi genga" or first key animators)
5) After the inbetweens come back, sometimes they might be corrected by the animation director, time permitting, if really execrous.
6) Finishing.

Jin-Roh innovated in ways other than the animation. The english translations of the credits seemed actually more accurate to the tasks than the traditional translation. The ambiguous title of "animation director", for example, was more aptly retitled to "key animation supervisor".

This process was actually described pretty well in Kuromi-chan, for example how the company tried to shaft the animation director by sending the keys directly to be inbetweened without letting her correct them. A far more extreme example occured in real life with ep 4 of Lost Universe, which was completely done in Korea by a studio where there was no animation director and obviously no real animators. The problem was that the execs had them do the finishing there as well, so when it came back they had no means of correcting anything, and no time anyway, so it went on air as is. "Yashigani" has since become a synonym for animation that has gone beyond the pale.

You can see the time sheets for that op dance animation that Ken'ichi Yoshida put up on his homepage, where it's all very clearly explained.

Look at the "Action" column. This is where the important part is done. This is where the key animator assigns each key and each inbetween to one of the 24 frames in a second. In this case, each sheet has six seconds.

Normally the key animator will draw a certain number of keys for a shot, each numbered starting from one, and write down that number under a column in "Action". The letters "A-H" indicate the layer. In this case there are two layers. Characters (or moving objects) are divided into different layers to make it easier for the animator to focus on each one. In this case, layer B has the girl, and layer A has Gainer.

You'll notice he's put up four shots. The black triangles on the time sheet indicate where each shot ends.

For layer A, in addition to keys (numbered under A) and inbetweens (indicated by a ` mark), he's also drawn "inbetween reference" drawings, where he's drawn the parts that move but left the unmoving parts undrawn, for the inbetweeners to fill in. These are lettered with katakana 'a' 'i' 'u' etc.

The column between "Action" and "CAMERA" is for the number of drawings in the full, inbetweened animation. So you'll see that there are a total of 8 drawings in the first layer of the first dancing shot, two of which are his key drawings, four of which are "inbetween reference" drawings, and two of which are pure inbetweens. He goes through the 8 drawings, then loops through the 8 drawings again, then goes through the first four before cutting to the first drawing in the next shot.

For the most part the opening is in what's called "nikoma", or two frames per drawing. There are some exceptions that are in "hitokoma" or one frame per drawing, indicated by two different numbers right next to each other in the time sheet.

Obviously this process can vary subtly between animators and studios.

It helps to know a bit about this to understand what Mitsuo Iso did. "Full animation" is two frames per drawing (or one in pans), and "limited animation" is anything less than that. Normally the key animator draws a few frames here and there and lets inbetweeners fill in the "inbetween" poses. Prior to this people like Masahito Yamashita and Yoshifumi Kondo actually did away with the inbetweens and drew all of the drawings themselves. It was still "limited" (or at unusual frame rates), but it was mostly drawn by them. What Iso did was to keep the frame rate an even 3 and draw every drawing himself to make the movement, albeit technically "limited", as "full" of interesting movement as possible. At least, that's my understanding of it. I'm not an animator, so this is just what I've been able to figure out. Of course, that's not the only thing he innovated, but just one part.

As for Honey and Clover 7, I didn't know what to expect, but I was very impressed by what I saw. I can believe that none of the other episodes reach this level without even seeing them, because the movement here was incredibly nuanced and full for any show. This was indeed a perfect example of an episode where a talented animator was given free reign of the floor to strut his stuff, with glorious results. Normally highlights would be the last thing in the world I would compliment an animator on drawing, but what he did with that last little bit of animation of the girl was incredibly effective and unlike anything I've seen anywhere else. It's the kind of animation full of such nuance that it sent shivers down my spine. It's a great example of through-conceived animation. The inbetweener list was very short, and it makes sense. You could see that most of it was drawn by him just by looking at it. Indeed a figure I'll be keeping an eye on from here on out.

I hadn't watched anything but the first ep until now, but even besides the animation I was impressed. The story was well told and convincing. The directing was impressive. Koji Masunari of ROD fame storyboarded/directed and Yosuke Kuroda wrote the ep. A very nice piece of work. A good example of how shoujo anime should be done.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

05:44:00 pm , 4206 words, 7580 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Toshiyuki Inoue interview - Part 2

PA WORKS: Maybe we could talk a little about the different animation 'tasks' you've gone through over the years.

Inoue: It's hard to remember specifically, but what basically happens is that whenever I'm feeling stuck, I don't have to go looking for a task - the task finds me.

PA WORKS: Kosuke Kawazura here, one of my key animators working on GITS: SAC, once approached me with a certain drawing and said, "I can't draw this." What exactly was it that was giving you trouble?

Inoue: That can be hard to express in words.

KAWAZURA: I figured out what it was - my drawing skills.

Inoue: That can be a pretty painful thing to go through, not being able to improve your drawing skills - not being able to draw things the way you want. But, strange as it may sound, that can actually be the first step to getting better. You've got to feel dissatisfied with your drawings, or you won't improve. Figuring out how to do that can be hard. One thing you can do is to find someone who draws the way you're trying to draw, who draws a certain pose just the way you want to draw it. That can help you to find the way out. Though it's not good to just cheat and use that to learn shortcuts to make your drawing look passable. (laughs)

Another technique is to accept the fact that you can't get that one drawing right for now, and be satisfied with getting the surrounding drawings down. After all, the whole point isn't to draw the hardest-to-draw pose. What should concern you is making sure that you get the overall movement down as you wanted. Being stubborn about it and getting held up by one drawing isn't a good thing. Animation isn't illustration, after all. So long as it moves the way you wanted it to move, then that's all that matters. If you get hung up on drawing it the way so-and-so draws it, from this difficult angle, no matter what, then any lack of drawing skill is going to be painfully obvious in the finished drawing.

Because in animation, there are any number of ways of getting a similar result. You don't necessarily have to draw this complicated split-second slice of an action to achieve the same effect. It's not a contest to see who can draw the most difficult drawing. There are plenty of people who don't necessarily have the best drafting skills, but they can still achieve incredible results with the movement. I for one probably couldn't beat Hiroyuki Okiura in a straight drawing contest, but I don't let that get me down, because what's unique about animation is that, if you figure out a style suited to your skill level, then you can create movement that achieves a comparable effect.

If you've got to finish the shot by tomorrow, and you're stuck on this one drawing from this hard angle, then that's no time for being stubborn. You've got to settle for passable. Any other time, you can go back to being stubborn. It's important to have that determination to draw a drawing a certain way no matter what. Drawing skill comes as a result of that process. Even if you can't draw it as well as you want, you're definitely getting better by trying. If you're not struggling to draw a drawing right, then you'll never get better. It's important to have that determination to get better no matter what when you're young, because that's how you improve. Of course, it's also important to learn when to give in and move on, as contradictory as that may sound. Both are important.

PA WORKS: Aside from drawing skills, there's also the pursuit of movement. I once heard that Mitsuo Iso went through all of your animation in Gu-Gu Ganmo one frame at a time.

Inoue: I think he's reading too much into my work. He's too smart for his own good.

PA WORKS: The fact that he should have gone so far as to invent his own personal style of animation that he calls "full limited" would seem to suggest that he had a strong conviction that the current way of drawing animation didn't allow him to create the kind of movement that he wanted to create.

Inoue: That's something you're either born with or you're not. Mitsuo Iso's really a special case. Of all the people I've met, he's a genius among geniuses.

PA WORKS: And yet I think even he's not satisfied with his work. Provided you're not someone who's convinced of his own genius, I think most people have an awareness of their problems.

Inoue: Absolutely. And nobody moreso than people who are already considered 'good'. I for one have almost never been completely satisfied with movements I've made. It's precisely the desire to be more satisfied with my work that acts a major motivation to keep working. Some people might think it'd be horrible to never be satisfied with your work, but it's just the opposite - that's what keeps you going. There's nothing more thrilling. Maybe there are some rare cases of a true animation genius who gets so good that he's satisfied with his work and loses that motivation, but hardly anyone is that good. I really think that's a lifelong task - getting better, getting to the point where you're satisfied with your work. I don't mind one bit feeling like something's missing all the time, because it means I can keep working without getting tired of my work. I wouldn't have it any other way.

PA WORKS: Maybe it's just that I've gotten better at judging animation, but I'm almost never really surprised by a piece animation anymore. Many say animation has lost a lot of its power since the old days.

Inoue: I think people nowadays are just afraid. They're afraid of angering the director, so they play it safe. It would probably help if companies would set up situations that would actively encourage people to be freer with the animation, to do more with it. I also think that to a certain extent information has made people a little lazy. They know how it's done, but they don't have the drive to try their hand at actually drawing it. They know smoke twirls, but they don't feel an overpowering need to draw it. People who can draw it draw it, those who can't don't. I think a divide has sort of grown between the two. Lately scenes seem to tend to get assigned based on just what you're good at. You hardly ever see a girl getting assigned a mecha scene, for example. Well I think they should. Give them a scene full of really complicated effects.

PA WORKS: Freelancers won't do it if they don't want to. You can't force them. One told me he didn't want to draw a scene because it had a mechanical pencil in it.

Inoue: (laughs) "But I can't draw mecha. There's a phone in that scene. Phones are mecha too."

PA WORKS: I'd like my key animators to be able to draw anything, regardless of preference. Just because one guy likes drawing crowd scenes doesn't mean that's all I'm going to give him.

Inoue: I used to hate drawing smoke.

PA WORKS: (laughs uncontrollably)

Inoue: I'm serious! Until Akira, for the longest time I couldn't get smoke right no matter how I tried. I actually had an inferiority complex about it. Then around the time I was working on Roujin Z I happened to run across a copy of some smoke animation by Mitsuo Iso, and that gave me the hint I needed.

"If I draw this part like that, it'll have the right form". Up until then smoke used to be a big lump with a bunch of bumps for shadows, which didn't have any feeling of three-dimensionality at all. Without a drawing that feels three-dimensional, how are you going to be able to create movement that feels three-dimensional? I was stuck because I couldn't figure out a way over that. Anno's smoke didn't do the trick for me. His smoke was well drawn, but it was lacking in refinement somehow. Iso drew shadows that had a refined form. The second I saw the way he drew the shadows, I had a eureka moment. "That's it! You draw the outline of the smoke this way, but the shadows you can just draw like this." I figured out that if you draw the shadows as little depressions in the cloud, it gives the overall form a feeling of three-dimensionality, and it makes it easier to animate.

I tested it out in Roujin Z and Hashire Melos, but it took me a while to learn how to do it well. Once I finally got the hang of it I actually started liking animating smoke. If I had gone on avoiding it all this time just because I didn't like drawing it back then, I might still not know how to do it. That's how it works. I knew I had a problem drawing smoke, so I was able to figure out a way over the problem pretty quickly once I saw Iso's work. You've got to really feel cornered, to the extent that you almost don't want to draw it anymore, before you can make progress sometimes. Whenever you're cornered, if you put up your antenna and wait impatiently enough for a hint, you'll usually find something.

PA WORKS: Yesterday you talked about how you try to keep your personality from showing up in your work. "I can't hide my personality completely, but I try to keep it from being distracting." You're one of the few people who thinks that way.

Inoue: Well, in my case it's just that I don't have that much inside that's itching to come out. But there seems to be a feeling these days that if it's not individualistic, then it's no good. Individuality isn't something you force out because there's pressure on you to be individual. That's not the real thing. Individuality is something that comes out whether you like it or not after you've been working for years and years to develop your skills. What I was trying to say is that you shouldn't feel frustrated if you're having a hard time forcing out your individuality. Something about that worries me. You can see that struggle especially clearly in kids who've just graduated from art school, where they've been educated to try to find a personal means of expression. I think it'll only wind up being a burden if they come to animation feeling pressured to come up with some new, personal approach to the drawings or the movement. Because, comparatively speaking, animation is hardly the line of work most conducive to personal expression. Say you start working as an inbetweener - you're going to have pretty much zero opportunity for personal expression while you're doing that. So I was just trying to say "Keep your cool". After ten years as a key animator you'll find that your work will be full of personality without even trying.

PA WORKS: You know how animators prefer certain character designs? It's so hard finding animators these days that before I accept work now I give some thought to how many people the character design might attract.

Inoue: The animator shortage has reached the point that each animator gets a lot of requests, so naturally they're going to choose the designs they prefer. It's interesting because that has even started to influence the kind of designs the production side tends to choose.

PA WORKS: Whenever I look through magazines, honestly I'm struck by the gap between the design-as-product that I'm seeing and the kind of designs that animators go for. My reaction is, "I have to work with that?!"

Inoue: You shouldn't let that concern you. If the customers demand a certain thing, then the production side has no choice but to pass on that demand to the production floor. People know what they're getting into when they enter this line of work, so I think there's no need to worry excessively about it. To a certain extent there's even a kind of pleasure in putting up with certain things to eventually do what you want.

PA WORKS: That may be the ideal, but the fact is that animators today have reached the point of exhaustion from constantly having to force themselves to put up with those things. They may understand the principle, but in the end, constantly having these things forced upon them from the top down only has the effect of wearing down their motivation.

PA WORKS: I think many people enter this line of work simply hoping to earn enough to put food on the table. Nobody becomes an animator to get rich. If you want to improve that situation - so at least people think they might be able to earn enough to buy a house and not just scrape by - I think people have to start thinking of themselves more as workers in this sector of industry, so to speak. Company policy should do something to reinforce that consciousness.

Inoue: But people today are definitely more concerned about the pay than before. In my day I never worried about whether I'd make enough to eat, because I saw that other people were eating, so I assumed I could too. I was just happy to be able to work in animation, so I didn't care if I even made enough to eat - I loved it that much. That might not have been a good thing. I probably should have thought about it more seriously, as a way of earning a living. Anyway, I get the feeling there's already more consciousness of what you're saying than there used to be. People have a stronger consciousness of wanting to work in animation and get a good pay for it. But as to whether they're putting in the commensurate effort, I'm not so sure. There's a feeling of wanting more pay for the same amount of work. It's accepted without question that the unit price is in animation today is too low. It's certainly low, but to a certain extent it feels like they're hiding behind that as an excuse for why they're not earning enough. The unit price is much better than it used to be.

PA WORKS: Meaning it's more a lack of horsepower?

Inoue: Well... There are people even today making a good living doing piecework, so if you do the same you should be able to earn the same. But it's definitely true. The unit price today is extremely low. It's anything but high. But then is the answer to demand that the unit price be raised higher and higher? I think that would only make the situation worse.

Say you raise the unit price. As a result, you don't have to do as much, so you do less and less. But then it starts spreading around that the unit price is too low again, so people start asking for a higher unit price, and the unit price gets even higher. The end result is that productivity only keeps getting lower and lower. It's hard to find the perfect balance.

PA WORKS: Hardly any of the GITS: SAC key animation was turned in any faster despite the higher unit price, at least compared with the regular "low" unit price for TV key animation.

Inoue: To them, that's probably the right price to earn a living at their natural pace. Not higher, just right. Even if they were to draw more just because the unit price was a little higher, they still wouldn't be able to get by. I'm guessing that's what it is - they can't make a living at the normal price, but at the GITS: SAC price they can finally make a living at their own pace.

PA WORKS: But I'm not just talking about the balance between turnover and unit price. What I'm talking about is key animation so bad that it has to be totally redone by the director and the animation director. Some might say that's what the director and animation director are being paid for, but at the very minimum we have to be doing the kind of "amalgamated work" that Isao Takahata talks about, otherwise the situation gets totally out of control. There's a phrase that was invented recently to describe when the animation director is overloaded: killing the animation director. Well, the situation has gotten to the point that we're not just killing the animation director - we're even killing the director. There's a real sense of impending crisis, like it's almost gone beyond our control. Japan has built up a great store of animation knowhow over the last few decades, and we've got to transmit that to the younger generation.

PA WORKS: The production costs are set beforehand, so the only way we can raise the pay is if the show's a hit and we get revenue from that. I'd like the company to give the staff a taste for that, sort of as a way of bringing out a more proffessional attitude. But to do that, we have to become a player, a company that can produce results. It was so nice when I was just another worker and didn't have to think about any of this stuff. (laughs)

Inoue: It's always nice to have a guarantee in place like that. If the series hits a home run, then that bounces back on you in the form of 'success pay'. Of course, I don't think that accounts for even half of people's motivation to do good work. But I don't think it would necessarily be a bad thing if people came in just for that reason. That aspiration to make a hit is something that's been missing lately. If a series does hit it big and that doesn't even slightly bounce back onto the staff, and on top of that the pay is low, it's hard to feel motivated. We'd be getting closer to the ideal situation in commercial animation if a show were popular on video or in the theater and that were to ricochet back onto the staff. We've got to try to figure out what people actually want to see, even if it's a little forced for now. For the longest time it felt like the industry didn't even give the slightest thought to what actually interested people. Say you're doing storyboard on a gag anime. When you're given the script, ask yourself: Is this script funny? Did it make me laugh? If not, what can I do to make people laugh with my storyboard? Of course, it sucks if you make people laugh with your storyboard the pay only comes back to the writer, but we've got to take it one step at a time. At the very least it would be a healthy improvement if the people involved in the production were to become the ones to profit from any popularity of their work.

(turning to animator Kosuke Kawazura) You're not in it to get rich, right? You just want to earn enough to get by respectably well?

KAWAZURA: Actually, a lot of people coming in these days do seem concerned about living a good lifestyle.

Inoue: Right.

KAWAZURA: Personally, I'm just happy to be able to be working in animation.

Inoue: That's how it was with me. I spent years just scraping by doing piecework, though suddenly now I find myself at a fixed salary. It's normal to want to live as well as other people. If anything it's unhealthy seeing all this wealth all around you and not being able to touch any of it.

KAWAZURA: Some people are doing pretty well for themselves.

Inoue: Absolutely. Some people are working their asses off and making a lot of money. So it's not impossible. It's just become polarized. And what's more, back when I was starting out the people making a good living were the ones pumping out low-quality key animation by the bucketfull, but now you've got people like Norio Matsumoto drawing huge amounts and keeping it all extremely high-quality. Don't just shrug and say, "Oh, they're special" and give up trying to figure out how they do it. Ask yourself, "How could I draw that much that good?" That's my own 'task' right now - figuring out Norio Matsumoto's secret. (laughs) He's got to have some kind of secret.

PA WORKS: Drawing by intuition? I know he's really fast.

Inoue: Really fast. It feels like he doesn't do any sort of planning. I go through with a light line first to get down the basic shape, but it feels like he just gets right to the drawing and does it all in one go. Otherwise I don't see how he could draw that much. And yet it always feels like he took his time. Mysterious.

PA WORKS: I know you work on a fixed salary for films, but what surprises me is that someone of your skills still does piecework, with a fixed price per shot. The upshot is that you earn less per key, but still have to draw just as much. You've already done so much to contribute to raising the quality of films and keeping them on schedule, so why don't you focus on salary work, which would allow you to do less volume and focus on raising the quality?

Inoue: Well... the reason is simple. I just want to draw as much as possible. You're right that if I did that, I'd make more per drawing, and then I'd be able to spend my time more as I wanted. But would I use that extra time to focus on improving other areas? No. Because in the end all I'm interested in is drawing as many good shots as possible. I've never even thought about the money. If you do it the right way, the money will follow. That money would have absolutely no effect on the way I do things.

PA WORKS: What's your biggest problem when you're teaching the techniques to younger animators?

Inoue: That's easy. Figuring out how to clearly convey the information in my head. Finding the right wording.

PA WORKS: What about the fact that studios aren't set up for that sort of thing? And attitude, experience, that sort of thing?

Inoue: Naturally those are also issues, since my audience consist largely of young people. But in the end the main problem isn't out there, it's in here. It's never being able to find a clear way of organizing my thoughts. Reading books like The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams and The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, I'm always amazed how they can verbalize the absolute minimum of necessary information about animation in the clearest fashion. Not just amazed, but embarrased at my own inability to do so.

PA WORKS: I understand that you've never been in a position to educate people in a work situation.

Inoue: That's right. I've never even trained inbetweeners. I never did anything like that even when I was at IG.

PA WORKS: IG has people like Takayuki Goto and Kazuchika Kise to do that, and at Junio you were out of the studio most of the time. What if you were to finally be put in charge of a workplace like that, so you were responsible for maintaining the level of animation quality?

Inoue: With me as the animation director? I don't know. I never do animation directing, and I've never even taught new key animators, so I think it might rub some people the wrong way.

PA WORKS: I hope it'll happen someday. I don't mean lecturing. I hope someday you can have a place of your own where you can finally settle down and help train the next generation. But I know there are a lot of films that still need you, and you yourself still have a lot you want to do.

Inoue: And I don't think I'm going to run out of things I want to do until the day I die. So I just can't picture myself ever reaching a point where I'm satisfied enough to give that up to focus on training people. People might say that's selfish of me, but it's my entire reason for living, so it's a little hard to give that up. I wish I could just say, "Hey, just do like I did" and be done with it, but if I say that, it'll be like saying that the people who are already good can get better and everyone else is on their own, which isn't right. That's the reason I've been taking time out recently to take on responsibilities unrelated to work, like lecturing. I want to say that sort of thing isn't my responsibiliy - because in the end all I really care about is leaving behind proof of my existence - but still, it's lonely not having anyone to compete with. That gets to me. There may be some, but they're definitely fewer. So it's a tough call.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

08:46:29 pm , 300 words, 1599 views     Categories: Animation

Recent solos

Toshiyuki Inoue talks about how in the 80s the average time for someone to animate a half-episode was a month, which gets me to wondering how long it took Hisashi Mori on Samurai Seven 7. It looks like Mori is back in the animator's seat in the upcoming Speed Grapher 8. If he's in for another half-ep, then it'd be interesting, because he'd be the only animator I know of doing half-eps on a regular basis like in the old days, and definitely the only one doing that much volume combined with quality on TV right now, aside from Norio Matsumoto. I only wonder that because it looks like he hasn't done any other animating since Samurai Seven 7, where he animated the first half and Hiroyuki Okuno handled the directing and animation of the second half (adding a few corrections to the first half here and there, thankfully sparingly - ie, closeups of the main characters), so it would make sense.

A person I'm not familiar with, Tetsuya Takeuchi, supposedly just did a whole ep, next week's Honey & Clover (7), that show that had the unusual Svankmajer-inspired opening by designer Nagi Noda.

And finally, the animator that Masaaki Yuasa mentions as being someone he thought was really good at Asia-do, Masaya Fujimori, animated the entire opening of the studio's Zettai Shonen series that started yesterday, and it's quite a nice op. He's obviously got incredible drafting skills. The colors were nice, also. Just be sure to turn the sound off.

In the 80s it was pretty common to see solo eps like this, and I doubt the quality was very high most of the time, as it was probably more of a lack of schedule/resources thing than necessarily being a way of spotlighting a talented animator the way it seems today.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

04:25:28 pm , 28 words, 644 views     Categories: Misc

Rainy day photos

It's raining and gray today, so I - what else? - went out and took photographs of the rain, since it's such a rare occurrence here in Vancouver.



Friday, May 20, 2005

09:40:33 pm , 933 words, 2175 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada

Birth

I've been playing catch-up lately. First I was ten years behind on Banipal Witt, and now I've seen the masterpiece from a decade earlier of that other karisuma star of the 80s, Yoshinori Kanada - Birth. Everything I've heard was right and wrong at the same time. It was the insane, nonstop freewheeling extravaganza that everybody said it was, and at the same time I felt they overstated the story problems. Admittedly it's oddly shaped, but as it stands it's an incredible piece like no other from that generation. I felt that in its way it's perfect as it is.

I don't even know where to begin but to say that I haven't been so constantly thrilled by almost every shot of animation in a film since perhaps Dead Leaves or, in a different sense, Mind Game. Because DL is the apt comparison. Birth was the aptly titled mother of DL. It's hard to succinctly verbalize what it is that makes the animation that Kanada developed so unique, but basically it's all about the thrill of animation, of movement, of soaring through the air, animated backgrounds, of packing in as many interesting ideas into every frame as possible, of constantly moving everything on the screen, of messing with the frame rate to make interesting effects, exercising absolute freedom with the shape of the characters, ignoring gravity. He was the one who taught us that thrill. The 80s may well have been the golden age of animated backgrounds in Japan. Three years later Shinya Ohira did that Captain Power video game, which is essentially 30 minutes of nonstop background/FX animation. But something lacking in the latter is the wonderful feeling of momentum in the earlier film. Another film that came to mind was the Fuma Lupin - yes, the famous car chase, which I thought could never be topped.

Even moreso than in DL in Birth I felt like I caught every single solitary animator baton touch, even though I don't know the styles of all the folks in the film so I wasn't able to say who did what except for the probably unmistakable salad sequence by Masahito Yamashita, and yes indeed, that was some good Yamashita. There's something to be said for youthfulness in animation, for not knowing that you're not supposed to draw that way. It's sad that Yamashita has learned that now.

The wonderful thing is, Kanada hasn't. More than 20 years after doing this film, Kanada is every bit as wild as he was then (as an animator), if not more. After trying his hand at some CG animation on the Final Fantasy movie, just to see how it was done and maybe broaden his horizons, it looks like the experience humbled him and he has come back full force to his hand-drawn home turf with a series of openings for console games in the last few years that are must-see to anyone who may have enjoyed follies like this and DL. In fact, he personally picked out Imaishi to animate/direct the opening for the recent Musashi game, after providing him with the storyboard, because he wanted someone who would play it fast and loose and have fun with the drawings. After sampling Imaishi's work over the last few years he knew he'd found his man, according to a recent interview.

This came just after Kanada had directed and animated the drawn part of the half-CG, half-hand-drawn opening for the Hanjuku Eiyu 3D game. And as if two Kanada openings in nearly as few years wasn't enough, the fourth volley of the Hanjuku game is coming out six days from now, with an opening (and ending!) done entirely by Kanada himself. Reportedly the production time for the opening - just the opening! - was eight months. He even drew the backgrounds himself. Very worth looking forward to.

But to get back to Birth, I was also impressed by the directing, and the handling of the sounds, for example the way the entire first ten minutes are almost wordless. You get the feeling he was out to remind people that animation is a visual form of communication, and not verbal, and at the same time you kind of also feel the influence of Nausicaa in that respect, which I suppose he must have done just before or perhaps during. For a film that is practically an 80-minute-long chase scene, the rhythm of the various sequences is amazingly tight and convincing. It doesn't flag. Most amazing of all is, of course, the animation. Another keyword here is playfulness. You really get the feeling of the animators playing around on this film. It's almost overwhelming if you're only used to seeing that sort of animation in small doses here and there, because almost every scene is full of that sort of playful spirit, with the posing, with the little jokes added here and there. They're always trying to come up with something.

And it doesn't feel forced, which is another thing I liked about the film. Particularly the humor, which had an understated quality I really liked. The muteness of the opening continues throughout the film to incredibly good effect, with the little dialogue there is witty and well-timed. Not having seen anything directed by Kanada before, I felt like I'd gotten my first true glimpse at the man as creator and not simply animator. It's a shame he hasn't done any more full-length features, or even short ones. But that's what I love about him, that he's been faithful to his first love without going to another, just like Toshiyuki Inoue.

Friday, May 20, 2005

08:43:00 am , 5077 words, 10476 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Toshiyuki Inoue interview

Here's my translation of an interview with the "perfect animator" Toshiyuki Inoue. Inoue feels like a contemporary version of Yasuo Otsuka in terms of his ability to effortlessly articulate the problems faced by his generation of animators in the most elegant, easy to follow and insightful fashion. The interview was done on March 14 by Kenji Horikawa, head of animation studio P.A. Works.

PA WORKS: I'd like to start by talking about what the traditional animator needs to do to survive.

Toshiyuki Inoue: That's a tough one. Actually, no, it's not.

PA WORKS: First of all, develop the physical endurance to make it in the long run.

Inoue: Yes. Physical endurance in the sense of the basic skills of an animator, not the cardio-vascular kind.

PA WORKS: There's a tendency these days for young people to go freelance before building up these skills.

Inoue: True. It's rarer these days for people to stay on at one company for ten years like before.

PA WORKS: Once you're freelance, you can pick your work, so your animation tends to develop in only one direction.

Inoue: In my case, when I started out at Studio Junio, I was lucky enough to get to pick the sort of work I wanted to do pretty early on. I went outside of the studio to work on Akira when I was around 26 or 27. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was pretty lucky compared to the other people around me who had to do whatever the company assigned them. But even apart from that it was all worth it. There was always something to learn from whatever I did. Maybe there were some things I'd rather not have done, but it's not like I knew anybody in the ideal situation of being able to choose only whatever they wanted to do. So it's not like I felt like I was being held back. I think having done lots of things that in retrospect were the diametric opposite of what I want to be doing now was a good experience in terms of building up patience and endurance. But maybe I was just more patient than kids today. (laughs)

Nowadays it feels like animators are still young at 30. Maybe it's just because I've gotten older. What age was Tetsuya Nishio when he did Jin-Roh?

PA WORKS: He turned 30 during production, so...

Inoue: Definitely young. He'd just come unto his own. I'm hardly one to talk, but it feels like people become adults much later these days, in the true sense of an adult. The same applies to animators.

When I was younger you could start to tell if a guy might be going places around 23 or 24 when suddenly you'd feel this sense of assurance and zeal in his work, but it seems rarer to see kids bloom that fast these days.

It's not like kids are any worse today than they used to be, so there has to be a reason for that. I think the reason is simply that there's so much more to learn these days than when I started out that people are too busy trying to assimilate it all, and they don't have the time to actually master anything. But the quality at the top has definitely gone up. Actually, if you look back at the situation at Toei Doga during its best years and compare it with the situation today, you'll see that things haven't really improved that much. Twenty years ago you could fall back on the knowhow of the day to express most of what you wanted to express without having to come up with anything new. But today there are so many more forms out there than there were in the old days. Now you can get films like Jin-Roh that make use of expressive means that would have been impossible to achieve using the knowhow that was available just 20 years ago. And then there's the fact that the range of material has expanded. So maybe it's just that, confronted with all these new sophisticated forms of expression, people want to learn this and that, and that makes it hard for them to find a focus. Beginners today have a lot of work to do just to learn the basics. There seems to be a general feeling of not having enough hands to get around to learning everything.

For one, back then there weren't people trying to create totally realistic depictions of the movement of the surface of water or flames or whatever. Effects animation has developed in all sorts of different directions. Twenty years ago you just had to master the basic pattern and you were set for most situations. If you'd have asked me to draw the complex, twirling style of smoke you see nowadays when I started out twenty years ago, I might have had a seriously hard time figuring out how to do it. First I learned the simple pattern, and then, feeling constricted by that, I started learning from the methods that people like Hideaki Anno and Mitsuo Iso had invented. That's why I managed to do it. Throwing new people in the deep end and asking them to learn sophisiticated forms like that right at first may well be asking a little much of them. So that may be why people are slower to reach maturity as animators today, though I have no way of knowing for sure if that's the right interpretation.

It's similar to the way scientists in the past were able to study a number of fields, but today it's hard for any one scientist to keep up with all of the developments in all of the different fields. First they learn the basics, then if they want to go on to the next level, they have to limit themselves to one field.
Right.

PA WORKS: Is the animator forced to aim for that sort of specialization if he wants to reach the top of his field?

Inoue: I'm not sure how far the science parallel will go... It's hard to say.

PA WORKS: My thinking is, if you learn the basics while you're young, then even if you go freelance, you'll be able to pick from a broader range of work, which would keep you from becoming too narrowly focused on any one type of work.

Inoue: The problem is, animation isn't like science, where you have the basics over here and the advanced applications over there. It's all on the same playing field. It's hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

Take the traditional way of animating walking - three inbetweens to get the basic movements, then add some body motion to give it a more realistic feeling. Is the best way of doing it really to learn the simple pattern first, and then to learn the more realistic version? I'm not so sure. It might be better to try to figure out what walking is on your own right from the start. That was our dilemma. First they pounded these ridiculously simplistic, mechanical patterns into our heads, and only afterwards did we start to notice something was wrong and start actually thinking about what walking is. Well, instead of having to re-learn everything from scratch like that, why not study how it's actually done right from the beginning? It might make the hurdle seem higher at the start, but if anything, in the end it'll probably wind up saving you a lot of time.

I think we took the long way around. If somebody had just been there by our side to ask the simple question, "Is this right?", we might very well have been able to reach a higher level a lot sooner than we did. I almost feel like we wasted ten years. The absolute essentials haven't changed that much in the twenty years since we learned them. I just wonder if we might not be taking the long way around again by forcing basics on them. It's hard to say which is right.

I get the feeling the essence of Japanese animation is under question right now. "Japanimation", as they call it over there - actually, I hear they don't really call it that - is becoming more and more popular overseas. But it feels like what people are reacting to is just the eccentric, outré side of Japanese animation. If we want to really target the world, we have to bring it back to something more universal.

To make an analogy, in the 19th century, Japanese ukiyo-e were taken out of the country and became popular in the art world in Europe, creating a fad for what was known as "Japonisme". What I think was happening there was that the Europeans, suddenly confronted with this strange and inexplicable but deeply refined art form from a faraway island nation - an art form that didn't fit into any of their notions of art -, were simply surprised by its alienness. Here they were confronted with something like Hokusai's wave, this totally unlikely and unrealistic but at the same time appealing and dynamic picture that you would never have gotten just from observed reality. That cultural dislocation is what they were reacting to. What if, instead of that kind of exoticism, the Japanese pictures had been judged the same way other arts of the time were - what if the ukiyo-e had to compete on the same playing field as western art? It would have been a total massacre.

What's happening with the popularity of Japanese animation is probably something similar. You have this highly refined form of animation specially made for this small group of animation fans on this faraway island nation, which a small handful of fans on the other side of the planet in turn take up and lionize precisely for that decadent refinement - even while there's always this part of them that's still not completely sure what to make of it. How would that sort of thing fly if we started trying for a worldwide audience? The younger generation has to start looking at animation more as animation, and come up with an approach more closely based on the fundamental idea of movement. In many ways we're probably in a transitional period right now. But this is starting to get a little beyond the scope of your question. (laughs)

PA WORKS: You're talking about raising the overall skill level. Let's bring it back to how young animators today might go about building up the endurance needed to make a living as an animator.

Inoue: I think it's largely a matter of practice.

PA WORKS: Yesterday I had you respond to a lot of dry statistical questions about animation, and basically what I got from that was the importance of learning to draw a lot to build up horsepower and self-discipline. I've heard that when you're animating a scene, you always draw a rough layout for the entire scene and only then do you draw the finished layout.

Inoue: That's because you have to look at the entire scene to keep the proportions and placement of the characters right. That's something you should drive home to students. It's worth emphasizing.

PA WORKS: And what's your reason for drawing each shot in order, no matter what?

Inoue: A lot of people think I'm just being obstinate about that. (laughs) I think if you're really stuck, it's OK to skip ahead. I'm just pig-headed, which sometimes works against me, though usually it works out for the best. There was this scene I did in Gegege no Kitaro, for example, that I had to put on hold because I didn't have enough information to know how to do it. There have been cases like that where I've skipped ahead because I didn't have enough to go by, but never once have I skipped ahead just because I had a block. I've never once left a scene undone after starting it. I always finish a scene I've started. When I'm doing work for a TV show, I make it a rule never to spend more than one day on one shot, no matter how hard the shot. I managed to uphold that rule for a long time, until just recently for an episode of Paranoia Agent and an episode of GITS: SAC. Putting aside extreme examples like were you're asked to animate a "bank" (the term used to describe a special stock scene used in each episode), it's rare to encounter a shot that you wouldn't be able to finish in a day no matter how hard you tried. With the possible exception of a TV show like GITS: SAC, where you might be asked to provide a level of quality slightly higher than normal for a corresponding price, then provided there's nothing wrong with the storyboard, it's usually a case of the animator simply not trying hard enough - I'd even say of not knowing how to adapt to the situation.

PA WORKS: Is speed something you can gain just from practicing the basics?

Inoue: I can't say what's missing without looking at the specific situation, but I think it's feasible even at the normal level. People will say I'm a special case, which would be the end of that, but I can tell you honestly that I was neither the fastest guy of my generation, nor the most technically skilled. Which is why it's so strange to find that now people tell me I'm "Nippon Ichi". What happened to all the people who were at the same level as me when I was 23, 24? Suddenly I'm 40 and I find that there's a lot fewer animators at the same level as me. I know for a fact that there were people just as good as me back then, and there still are. For whatever reason - they go married, they had children - they found that animation alone didn't put enough food on the table, so I've lost a lot of my rivals, and I find that pretty lonely, even sad. It shouldn't be that way.

PA WORKS: So rivalry is essential to building up stamina?

Inoue: Absolutely. It's essential. You can look up to someone really good who's older than you, but that's a different thing from having a rival your own age who you feel you can actually compete with. That feeling of rivalry is the most important thing.

PA WORKS: And having someone to look up to?

Inoue: It's important to have someone you feel you'd like to be able to draw like. I asked one of your animators yesterday to give me some names, and he was drawing a blank. That's baffling to me! I suppose that nowadays there are so many animators in films that it's hard to figure out who did whatever shots you like, even after looking at the credits, so people have a hard time figuring out who they like and want to aspire to. I noticed a lack of that sort of knowledge after a series of lectures I did at IG. I really wish people would find someone really good who they like and follow their work. In my case it was people like Koji Morimoto and Takashi Nakamura who I admired, even though their style of animation was totally different from mine. Back then Morimoto was just a great animator who drew lots of really outstading scenes I liked. I'm not talking about the much more original work he's doing now, but just his work as a lone animator. I think it's a good idea to have people like that to admire - people who have a similar mindset to you but are technically more advanced, as well as people who draw interesting things you'd never have come up with yourself. In other words, if you only go after what comes most easily to you, you'll never try to get what you don't have, so you might become good at what you do, but you won't be an 'almighty' animator who can do it all.

PA WORKS: I think it's important to have someone on the workfloor to provide an example. Someone who can show a new person the paces - how to do this in what order.

Inoue: That's also important.

PA WORKS: It's important to see how it's done close-up. The first time I hired an inbetweener, I had the monthly target at 500 drawings, but the guy didn't believe me and said, "If there's someone who can draw 500 in a month, I'd like to meet him."

Inoue: That's the way it is. He hasn't seen it, so how do you expect him to believe it?

PA WORKS: It also makes a big difference whether or not there's a key animator there to show the way. Though it's the end of the story if they say their talent lies elsewhere.

Inoue: I've heard that so many times. I want to believe they're not serious when they say that. That maybe they say "Oh, you're special" or "I'm good at other things" at work, but they don't really believe it, and when they get home it bothers them so much that they kick over the desk and tear their hear out wishing they could draw that much. Otherwise your animation will never get better - either in quality or quantity.

PA WORKS: Fifteen years ago the ideal was to be able to draw 80 shots a month.

Inoue: To my generation it was half an episode a month (about 150 shots). For a long time I was told "You're too slow!" because I could only manage about 100 shots a month - and that was TV anime 20 years ago. But of course the people who were saying that were drawing really simple key animation. Deep down I knew that I could probably draw half an episode a month if I drew like them, but I wouldn't have been satisfied to do that because what I was interested in was making the movement as active and interesting as I could. I was hoping to catch up to them in terms of the numbers and outdo them in terms of the quality at the same time, but that turned out to be too hard and I never quite made it.

The current trend seems to be to not worry that much about the volume and only focus on quality. That really worries me. It's not a fair match if you can't achieve the same level of quality with the same amount. It should be like in sports, where you have all the contenders lined by their body class. You should line up with the same amount, and see who can produce the best quality within that limit. Nowadays it's nothing but quality at the expense of quantity. Of course, if you've got the talent of a Mitsuo Iso, there's ample value in the work even if the quantity is very small, but that's a very rare thing.

People see the latest developments and want to live up to those, so they run to quality and their numbers plummet. That's not a good thing.

PA WORKS: You don't go from quality to quantity as an animator. You can learn to draw a lot first and then pursue quality, but I've never heard of anybody doing it the other way around.

Inoue: That's how it was with a lot of people of my generation. They managed to reach a point where they had some good volume going, but then they started to go after the quality, so their numbers dropped.

Once you realize that you can't draw the way you've been drawing if you want to improve the quality, that makes it hard to do things fast, so you focus on the details and your numbers drop.
You can resign yourself to it, but if you try hard enough to keep the volume up, it's possible to keep your numbers from going below a certain point. If you go for quality, your numbers will drop. If you don't try to keep the numbers up, they'll drop even more. You'll eventually get to the point where all you can do is one shot in a movie. That's the way it is in this line of work. You have to constantly have a goal in mind in terms of volume or you'll run out of work. Your biggest motivator has to be the desire to draw as many good shots as possible.

PA WORKS: I want my animators to become the best there is. I've been throwing around ideas for how to create an environment that would be most conducive to education. Have you run across any great ideas in your visits to various studio over the years? You were at Junio for the longest, as I recall.

Inoue: Hmm... Environment... Junio was certainly less spartan than other studios I've seen. Not sure. Well, I think first of all the number of people is one issue to consider. Between 20 and 30 is probably ideal. From my own experience, too many only leads to problems. The number of people increases, you have to split the studio into different floors, then different buildings, and people lose a sense of the studio they're working at. They become less productive. When you're working at a big company, it's hard to believe that just because your work is bad it'll have any effect on the company. But if your studio is just two people working in an apartment splitting the rent, then you've got a better sense of the reality of the situation, because if you do bad work your studio will go under in no time. With 100 or 200 people in a company, you've got no real feeling that your work is connected to keeping that company running, when in fact everybody's work is supposed to be equally important to the company. The companies keep getting bigger and bigger, and I don't see the sense in it at all. They're probably attracted to the bigger turnover, but if you look at it in terms of individual productivity, there's tremendous waste going on compared to slimmer companies. It's the whole "Who cares if my work isn't great? It's a big company" mindset. I just don't see the point.

From a management standpoint, my feeling is basically that I'm afraid of finding myself in the position where everything comes screeching to a halt just because one person hasn't finished his shots. I don't want to have to be a prick about it, but it comes with the territory in a way. That's what an animation studio is. The only thing that keeps us in business is selling however many shots. If you want to get away from that and find another way of earning profit, you have to make a name for your studio, and to do that you need to reach a certain scale.
I don't know much about management, so...

PA WORKS: I'm just surprised to find someone else who feels the same way about it as I do.

Inoue: Even if you do manage to run your company that way, I think what you'll need is to educate people about that fact. To let them know that their work is what's keeping the business running. Like I said, from my experience 20 to 30 people is about the ideal size for a studio, if you want to keep a feeling of life. Things feel like they're going really well at all the studios I've seen of that size.

PA WORKS: About 30 key animators?

Inoue: Key animators and inbetweeners combined. At Junio we were split into teams of around 3 key animators and 3 inbetweeners.

PA WORKS: You were split into teams as well?

Inoue: That's right. The inbetweeners even attended the saku uchi (short for sakuga uchiawase or animation meetings, normally held only between key animators and the director). Back then it was typical for a studio to take on an entire episode rather than scattered shots, and the director would call in all the key animators to brief them on what he wanted from the episode. The inbetweeners were called along too, and they'd sit by the side and listen in, that way they could learn what sort of things went on at the meetings. I think that's why they were called in - as an education tool. The inbetweeners were even given a copy of the storyboard to share among themselves, so that they knew exactly where in the episode they were working on as they worked. That was a good way of doing it, including the inbetweeners in the team, but I think it would be hard to bring that back in this day and age.

And one more thing, all the studios I visit these days are so noisy. So much chatter going on. Obviously that's not necessarily a bad thing. Just the opposite, it's great to see people exchanging all this gritty information about their work, which I've been worried was disappearing lately. It's a good thing, but still, it's really noisy. Junio was totally quiet. There was a feeling like you weren't supposed to talk during work. A friend of mine at the time, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, came by the studio one day for a visit, and he was by my desk at one point showing me some of his key animation.

I remember him telling me, "This place freaks me out. Is it always this quiet here? Is something special going on today?" So I told him, "No, it's always this quiet here," and he said, "I can't take it anymore. I'm getting out of here." (laughs)

PA WORKS: One thing I think is important for an animator to do if you want to grow and get better is to actively and constantly keep track of your strengths and your weaknesses - what you'd like to improve - and to sort of keep your antenna up on the lookout for interesting ideas in the work of the people around you, so that if this guy has something you think might help you out with your weaknesses, you might be able to steal a bit of it.

Inoue: Absolutely right. That's very important.

PA WORKS: One of the things I'd like to do with my company is to create an environment where the animators would naturally feel the need to have a "task" like that to be working on.

Inoue: Hmm...

PA WORKS: A workplace where you'd feel out of place if you're not constantly thinking.

Inoue: That should come naturally, in each person, rather than from the outside.

PA WORKS: It's just that I've kind of given up on waiting for it to happen on its own.

Inoue: I remember Satoshi Kon saying something similar: "If you have to wait for someone to tell you what the problem is, then you'll never get better." He talked about how that sort of self-questioning has to be just that - it has to come from within. It's impossible to force another person into soul-searching.

PA WORKS: The only other option is to do nothing, and then the good get better while everyone else stays the same.

Inoue: That's the dilemma.

PA WORKS: I don't see the point in sitting around waiting for another genius to turn up.

Inoue: Let's get this straight, I'm not a genius. I'm not even special. There used to plenty of people just like me.

PA WORKS: Okay, but in that case, where have they all gone?

Inoue: That I can't tell you. (laughs)

PA WORKS: It's because studios have stopped being educating environments.

Inoue: I'm not so sure... Even back then it didn't feel like studios were educating environments.

PA WORKS: But say you had a lot of talented people come together in one place. Wouldn't it naturally result in some productive technical debate?

Inoue: Perhaps... All I can say for sure is that I have no way of knowing for sure.

PA WORKS: If just by making suggestions about what to watch, for example, or leaving out books and suggesting they read them - if just by doing that you could create an environment that would facilitate animators discovering tasks for themselves, then I think it would be worth doing. The environment you're in makes a big difference in terms of absorption of information. At the very least, the company can create that kind of environment. The rest - coming up with tasks - is up to them.

Inoue: If the willingness to actively seek out tasks for yourself is just another aspect of talent, then basically all you can do is wait for that sort of person to appear on their own.

PA WORKS: Maybe so for the most talented people, but I think you can actually teach most people to use that skill to at least the point that they can make a living as an animator. Anything beyond that is innate. Almost everybody has questions. They see something interesting and they wonder how it's done. But usually it ends there. They don't pursue it any further. Well, the other day I was at a meeting with my inbetweeners. They'd been watching each week's episode of FMA and afterwards holding a debate strictly about that week's animation. The series had ended, so they came up with the idea that, once a week, each of them bring in a DVD they want the others to watch, and that they hold a debate afterwards. So I made this suggestion. Don't just have them watch your DVD, but point out specifically what aspect of the animation you want the others to pay attention to. Alone you might be able to get by without being able to verbalize it beyond a simple "That's so cool", but in front of others you'll have to come up with something a bit more convincing. You'll have to think about it first to put your thoughts in order before talking. Take for example Animal Treasure Island. So you liked Miyazaki's scenes. You'll have to wrack your brain to figure out what it was about Miyazaki's scenes that suggested to you that they were done by Miyazaki - what exactly it was that made them look different from the other scenes. Just because you knew beforehand what part he'd done won't cut it. So I had them do that.

Inoue: I've never done that myself, but it's not a bad idea, and I don't see what harm it could do.

To be continued

Sunday, May 15, 2005

06:40:59 pm , 947 words, 1193 views     Categories: Animation

Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne

As a longtime Masami Hata fan, I was quite happy to find out that his Andersen TV series had been released on DVD. Watching it, the first few episodes left me a little worried, but after getting attuned to the pace, and accepting the fact that it was aimed at a phase of myself that flourished some two decades ago, I was able to see that the later episodes were possessed of the unusual but surprisingly convincing combination of self-deprecating irony and deep-felt pathos that I've come to associate with Hata's best work, so I was satisfied to have seen it.

The series is an omnibus that retells all the famous Andersen stories. There are two invented characters who act as guides through the series, purportedly there to do good deeds. Their presence as comic releif and foil to the otherwise unrelievedly tragic stories that unfold is typically Hata in that their every effort to do good falls flat on its face. Every easy way out is met with a smirk. Throughout his career, Hata, like Yasuji Mori, consistently put his talent as an animator to the service of young audiences, without pandering or abandoning his desire to do drama that addressed the complexity of the human situation. That's how I interpret Hata's work, though there's a lot that puzzles me in what he's done over the years. In the end there's no way of really understanding what drives him short of asking him.

Taku Sugiyama directed and Shun'ichi Yukimuro wrote the final episode, which adapts the most famous story, itself recently turned into "music with pictures" by the great German Helmut Lachenmann, who, in one of those curious instances of cultural cross-fertilization that I so enjoy discovering, himself got inspiration for the project from a hearing of "a Japanese radio play version" in 1975, a few years after the last volley in Masami Hata's interpretation of the great Dane's oeuvre had finished vibrating in the airwaves above the archipelago.

The German's version had moved me more than any other version I've come across prior to this one. Where Lachenmann's forbiddingly beautiful music invests this otherwise banal and maudlin children's story with multiple layers of interpretation that shed new light on the serious modern implications of the story, this anime version provides the more basic emotional wringing one expects (and no small dose of Lachenmann's "Japanese stylized cheerful sadness"). I was watery-eyed, to put it simply - and I only cry when I see good art. The match-striking sequence proved to be the most interesting scene in Toei Doga's Andersen movie of three years earlier, and so it is here.

The drama is not overdone, and the images are left to convey the sequence of events without overly explanatory dialogue. The balance is perfect within the given limits of the medium. This is a good example of Mushi Pro's limited movement being put to good effect. The lack of movement is not felt like a lack of movement. It feels like a picture-book, with the animation there to enhance the strikingly composed images. The layout is always interesting and the dramatic flow is just right. This episode acts as a good example of what it was that set Mushi Pro apart from Toei Doga in the TV format - the emphasis on storytelling and artistic presentation over movement.

The scene is buoyed by great music by Seiichiro Uno, whose music throughout the series is of extremely high caliber, going far beyond the insultingly unmusical fare one is accustomed to hearing in children's shows of this kind. I knew of his talent from Mushi Pro's 1967 Goku no Daiboken, where he provided music specifically for each episode, not just a series of tracks to be used by the directors as they saw fit, and his work on this show is equally impressive, with an almost improvised, bebop quality at times.

TV animation at this date was still in the experimental stage, so different companies had different ways of crediting staff, reflecting different production styles, which can make it hard to figure out how the work was divided. The credits on this show are hard to figure out for just this reason. Supposedly the credit of "character design" only came into use two years later in 1974 with Yoichi Kotabe and Heidi, and on my DVD the only corresponding credit I'm able to find is either "genga design" (key animation design), which goes out to Keiichi Makino, or "sakuga settei" (animation planning), which goes out to Masami Hata. Confusing things is the fact that elsewhere I've seen a different version of the ending not on these eps where Hata is credited as "animation director" and Shuichi Seki as "character design", both credits I thought only came into play later. Also, I've always thought Hata was the chief director of this series, but in fact nobody is credited as director, even though it seems obvious that Hata must have been the one in charge.

After this series ended in December 1971, for the first three months of 1972 Mushi Pro didn't have a TV show on the air for the first first time since the studio was founded. Eiichi Yamamoto's Wansa-kun started in April and in November the studio went out of business. A more stark contrast with Mushi Pro's last film there couldn't be, which sort of shows the strange beast this studio was, as if torn between commercialism and experiment. Of what has yet to be released of Andersen I'm particularly curious about Osamu Dezaki's Psyche episode, as I actually prefer Dezaki's youthful work (or at least what I know of it from Goku) to the mannerisms of the rest of his career.

Friday, May 13, 2005

10:32:45 pm , 314 words, 727 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Banipal Witt

Watched Banipal Witt AKA Catnapped. I'm only about ten years late on this one. I must say, this is probably the best thing Takashi Nakamura has ever made, at least to my eyes. I talked about how they don't make movies like Puss 'n Boots anymore in my last post, which should have been enough to indicate that I hadn't seen this film yet. Truly magnificent in every respect. This is what Takashi Nakamura is about. I like his more serious side, but it's a shame to let the incredible imagination on display in this film remain buried. I was reminded of Masaaki Yuasa in terms of the designs, and I got to thinking that this is the kind of film I'd like to see Yuasa make - a crazy fantasy adventure in the Toei Doga/Shin'ei Doga vein plastered head to toe with his inventions, a feature version of what we saw in Nanchatte Vampiyan. What I most like about the film is that Nakamura the animator comes through in a way he didn't in Palme. The animation is like nothing you'll find anywhere else. The acting is very active and always interesting, full of ideas that are not the stock in trade of anime but pure Nakamura. Most of all, Nakamura's particular genius for knowing what to do to make the animation feel incredible is what made him so unique - the way you'll have one shot at the normal rate followed by a quick action shot at full-frame to give it that extra turbo kick, for example. Knoweldge of how to use all the tricks that only an animator would know to increase the impact of the animation is what I like most about Nakamura, and this film was a tour-de-force display of Nakamura's very special animation wizardry. And to top it all off, Toshio Hirata did the opening and ending.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

11:26:18 pm , 146 words, 991 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Puss 'n Boots

Today I watched Toei Doga's Puss 'n Boots for the first time in Japanese. Prior to this I'd only seen Fred Ladd's amazingly good dub. There were parts where the animation was tied to the humor of the dialogue and to the overall rhythm in a way that obviously couldn't be conveyed in an English dub, though it's been a while so I don't remember specifically how they were handled. The Japanese script had a real feeling of understated wry humor throughout it that I liked and that made me see the film differently. A real joy of a pick-me-up movie. Structurally it's great because it keeps building and building, and just when you think it couldn't get any better, there's the amazing extended chase sequence, which I've already seen too many times. It's really a shame they don't make movies like this anymore in Japan.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

09:10:32 pm , 978 words, 1888 views     Categories: Animation

Twenty

Philip asked me to put together a list. As usual with me, I wound up thinking myself into a corner by giving the question a lot more thought than rationally warranted, hounded by pedantic questions that I won't detail here. Suffice it to say that I decided to settle for a humble list of 20 anime TV episodes from the last few years that caught my eye for whatever reason, for the simple reason that anything less openly subjective would be too full of holes, and anything more stringent about quality would be a very short list indeed (besides which the notion of "quality" itself is subjective). Honestly, normally I wouldn't actively recommend most of the items on this list, so be aware of that. I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill this list out. The list is in roughly descending order of preference. So don't kill yourself if you can't find the lower items.

   ▫ 1 ▫    Naruto 133

For Norio Matsumoto's animation of the action scenes. Norio Matsumoto is a prolific TV animator, but this episode has possibly the highest volume of his work. It's his summum opus of sorts.

   ▫ 2 ▫    Paranoia Agent 8

For Satoru Utsunomiya's work (director/storyboard/animation director). Possibly the only episode I've seen over the last few years that is crafted in such a way as to stand entirely on its own, as a solid unit, without the series that gave it birth. If the other episodes are good, this one is great, and stands apart from the others in most respects.

   ▫ 3 ▫    Soul Taker 1

For Akiyuki Shinbo's directing. Later episodes are watered down, so that this is the only episode that feels 100% Shinbo. Shinbo's first fully mature work.

   ▫ 4 ▫    RahXephon 15

For Mitsuo Iso's work (director/storyboard/animation director/animator). Again a classic example of a film that is completely at odds with the containing series. Measured pacing and detailed visuals, and moments of animated genius. Focus on the lush animation and coloring of the rocks.

   ▫ 5 ▫    Haibane Renmei 8

For the directing, animation, story and mood combined, which are all a cut above the other episodes. A fine film that stands well on its own and holds up to revisiting, which I do often. The emotions throughout this series are well handled and strike close to home, but particularly so in this very well-crafted episode.

   ▫ 6 ▫    Tweeny Witches 20

For Yasuhiro Aoki's work (director/storyboard/animation director). Interchangable with his other episodes. A promising new face on the block who emerged in this series with a bold, in-your-face style of storytelling.

   ▫ 7 ▫    Samurai Champloo 18

A representative example of the work of writer Dai Sato/director Sayo Yamamoto in this series.

   ▫ 8 ▫    Popolo Crois (2003) 6

For Kanada Yoshinori's work (storyboard). Harkens back to a style of animation that might have gone the way of the dinosaurs but for folks like Hiroyuki Imaishi, who's involved along with numerous other similarly-inclined animators.

   ▫ 9 ▫    Samurai Seven 7

For Hisashi Mori's delectable animation in the first half, boldly done entirely in his own personal style full of jagged lines and realistically-inspired movements. An exceedingly rare moment when an actual person could be seen beneath the veneer of the dominant anime design style.

   ▫ 10 ▫    Windy Tales 5

For the unique designs and overall artistic conception of the world, highly unrealistic and stylized in a way that blends curiously well with the otherwise very low-key slice-of-life stories that are told, of which this strangely moving, dreamy episode seems exemplary.

   ▫ 11 ▫    Earth Girl Arjuna 9

For Omori Takahiro's work (director/storyboard). A very powerfully directed episode, the subject matter of which was too much for the TV station; they refused to air it.

   ▫ 12 ▫    Kino's Travels 2

A representative example of this well-written series. I was taken by the treatment of the screen. Every shot is totally washed out, as if blinded by the whiteness of the snow, and this grows apace as the story approaches the climax, which is among the series' more affecting.

   ▫ 13 ▫    Planetes 11

A representative example of this series, which against the odds used the sci-fi genre to touch on a variety of topical issues in a somewhat intelligent, albeit melodramatic, way.

   ▫ 14 ▫    Beck 1

For Osamu Kobayashi's work (director/storyboard/writer). The hip, cosmopolitan Kobayashi's taste comes through well here as he makes comparative good of otherwise well-tried subject matter.

   ▫ 15 ▫    Gankutsuoh 6

For Takaaki Wada's work (director/animation director/animator). Working totally with the given design, Wada manages to invest more life=anima(tion) into these characters than anybody else, and his handling of the drama is comparatively convincing, especially for someone who has a long history as an animator and only a short one directing.

   ▫ 16 ▫    King Gainer 1

For no particular reason, though perhaps as a high-quality example of the robot genre, and of recent Yoshiyuki Tomino, with his huge cast of characters and breakneck pacing.

   ▫ 17 ▫    Abenobashi Maho Shotengai 3

For Hiroyuki Imaishi's work (director/storyboard/animation director).

   ▫ 18 ▫    Jungle wa Itsumo Hale Nochi Guu 18

For Yuichiro Sueyoshi's animation of Dama, a rare example of animation that feels like animation in TV anime.

   ▫ 19 ▫    Ojamajo Doremi Dokkan 40

For Mamoru Hosoda's directing, with its humanistic touch and consummate attention to detail.

   ▫ 20 ▫    Here and There, Now and Then 6

For Tadashi Hiramatsu's gritty directing.

Do yourself a favor and read a book instead.

Monday, May 9, 2005

11:18:51 pm , 1518 words, 4054 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Shanghai Animation Film Studio

Bell on a Deer (Lu Ling) 1982

This Thursday, NHK's satellite station will be broadcasting a 90-minute documentary about the making of Kihachiro Kawamoto's recently completed film The Book of a Dead Person. The documentary will look in on both the director's studio and the film set in Hachioji where the film was shot over the length of one year, providing a comprehensive overview of the making of the film - what it was like on the set during filming, how all the lighting and heavy set material was transported and set up, how the puppets were made and so on. The documentary will also provide insight into Kawamoto's views on the art of puppet creation and animation, which have occupied Kawamoto constantly for fully half a century now.

I've been perusing the films made by Shanghai Animation Film Studio lately, so by chance I recently got to see Fushanosha 不射之射, a 25-minute film made by Kihachiro Kawamoto at the studio in 1988. Soon after completing the latter, back in Japan Kihachiro Kawamoto made a version of Sleeping Beauty, following which there appears to be a hiatus of a decade until Winter Days in 2003. The animation and all the technical aspects of the production of Fushanosha (which is a zenlike phrase that is difficult to translate, but means approximately Shooting Without Shooting) were done entirely by the team over there. Only the puppets and directing were done by Kawamoto. Otherwise the production quality is good enough that if I hadn't seen the credits I would never have known that it wasn't made in Japan like all of his previous films. The making of this film at Shanghai Animation Film Studios surely had symbolic significance for Kawamoto. By making it there he had now come back full circle from his earliest work in the 50s under Tadahito Mochinaga, the man who had pioneered puppet animation in China in the years immediately prior to that.

Even besides Kawamoto's link to Chinese animation, Shanghai Animation Film Studios had been making great object and cel animation films for decades by that point, so it only makes sense that they'd have the skill to be able to make a film exactly the way Kihachiro Kawamoto wanted. From what I've seen, despite being a big studio, Shanghai Animation Film Studio brought real love of the art to everything they did. Technically the animation can be a little crude at times, particularly with their drawn animation, but with each project they innovated and tried new techniques - be it a completely new visual style or a new material in stop-motion animation - and they had a knack for figuring out ways of overcoming any limitations and making interesting films with limited means. Combined with the fact that their films are all aimed at children, this inevitably bring to mind Tadanari Okamoto, the independent stop-motion animator who, with very little at his disposal, similarly turned deficiency on its head into an opportunity to innovate constantly with techniques with each film. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they created a vast body of short children's stop-motion films that is surely among the richest in variety of any made anywhere in the world over the same period.

The films are always full of invention in the designs and art, and charming and convincing in the way the simple stories are told. The taste of the designs and layout of the screen are impeccable, always with a good eye for an unforced and clean visual appeal. The style changes radically depending on the material, and there is more of a variety of techniques here than anywhere else I've seen. Semi-relief animation is the most common of the methods used after puppets, but cel also figures, and in all cases the materials are constantly reinvented along with the designs.

In the second film pictured above, The Mouse Marries of 1983, the background is kept dark the entire time, focusing attention on the sprightly and unpredictable movement of the mice dashing around the screen. Paper cutouts are ideally suited to creating a piece full of as much movement as this one. The dark background suggests the environs but also helps to focus attention on the appealing but not overdone bright pastel clothing of the lively white mice, who are excellently defined by a few simple shapes and touches. The protagonists and visual and narrative style are reminiscent of a film from another decade and country, Story of a Streetcorner (1962), one of Mushi Pro's most unique and memorable creations.

In the fourth film pictured above, The Hunter Hunted of 1978, another semi-relief paper cutout animation, the designs are more detailed, and the movement less frantic. Everything from the color to the pacing and narrative style is toned down and lusher. The characters and backgrounds seems straight out of the storybook world of Peter and the Wolf, or perhaps Sleeping Beauty, designed with incredible refinement and skill, flat and intricate like the work of a traditional craftsman. Many of these films are cautionary stories of comeuppance, including this one, which has two wolves picking on a lackluster hunter until the tables are turned. The endings can often be shockingly brutal, true to the nature of traditional folktales. The soundtrack is a solo piano score of a Bartokian vein.

The Straw Man of 1985, pictured below, tells the story of two waterfowl who antagonize a rural fisherman by stealing his fish. The antics of the two bird characters are both naturalistic and invested with genuine wit, which makes them interesting and convincing characters. Converseley, the hunter is portrayed as a sort of sourpuss country bumpkin. Which is why it's such a surprise that the main characters, or the ones we've come to root for as the main characters, the birds, get outwitted by the hunter in the end, presumably ending up as dinner. The films often have endings that seemed shocking, bizarre or abrupt to my eyes, which obviously stems from cultural differences. If it's a fable pitting humans against animals, the humans will always win, which is a little dissatisfying, if realistic.

The music in all of the films is invariably an essential part of the whole, especially in the wordless films such as The Straw Man. As is often the case, the sound is traditional in instrumentation, and expository like an opera score commenting on the events at every moment. Te Wei's films have the most beautiful soundtracks, full of evocative and virtuosic instrumental solos, like a symphonic translation of the visual music being played out on the screen, and the soundtracks of all of Shanghai Animation Film Studio's other films are always equally well considered. In The Straw Man the mood of the music is more boisterous to suit the playful atmosphere, but the music is still incredibly inventive and responsive to the events throughout. To ears unattuned to the traditional sounds, there's admittedly a certain element of exoticism in the enjoyment, but whatever - it's beautiful.

The other semi-relief films are too numerous to list here, though I can mention in passing the popular 13-episode Calabash Brothers TV series of 1986 and the memorable Monkeys Catching the Moon of 1981, both films with real dynamism and punch. Wong Bai-Rong, the only Chinese creator involved in Winter Days, is probably most famous for his 1984 film Fire Child, the ornate, colorful designs and sharp lines of which are at the opposite end of the spare and evocative ink and brush animation of a Te Wei.

The third film pictured above, Weighing the Elephant of 1982, is a good example of what makes me admire the studio's films - daring and bold use of materials to achieve strong visual impact. In this case they've used what would appear to be some sort of traditional handcrafted wooden doll, looking like nothing so much as oriental Lego figures. But they're magnificently gorgeous, carved and painted with painstaking precision and detail, and they feel alive on the screen. The movement and camerawork is spare to provide ample time to appreciate the beautiful figurines. Watching the film surprisingly evoked a strange sensation in me, as if I was a child again watching the film in the genuine belief that those wooden blocks were really alive and moving around. The studio's films are full of that kind of magic.

There are numerous other puppet films, including the 13-episode Afanti (Effendi) series made between 1979 and 1988, as well as quite a lot of cel-based animation of equally high caliber, such as the beautifully stylized Butterfly Spring of 1983 and the witty, popular Three Monks of 1980. There are also a number of films done in a brush and ink style reminiscent of Te Wei, like 1982's Bell on a Deer (Lu Ling), pictured atop. All to say nothing of the feature films for which the studio is most well known, the classic Uproar in Heaven of 1964 and Ne Zha Fights the Sea of 1979, the country's first widescreen animated feature. With well over 50 films in every style imaginable, the studio's back-catalogue offers an unbelievable array of riches just waiting to be discovered for the fan of world animation.

The Straw Man (Cao Ren) 1985

Sunday, May 8, 2005

05:40:35 pm , 663 words, 873 views     Categories: Animation

Nishio's Pierrot

Watching last year's Naruto film, I was surprised to find that Tetsuya Nishio wasn't the animation director. The drawings were extremely close to his designs throughout, almost to a scary degree. But I was convinced when I realized that no less than fifteen people were credited as animation directors of some persuasion or other, including Takashi Hashimoto as the FX AD. I could just picture them all madly correcting away. The production side has a good understanding of what fans of this series demand. It would take fifteen people to equal what that crazy Nishio did singlehandedly in his Ninku movie ten years back.

I haven't seen the short event film completed a month before the TV series started in January 1995, which was his first job as AD, and which he reportedly put much work into - to prove himself to the world, as he put it - but only the movie from summer 1995, which was blessed with many good animators, meaning that he didn't have nearly as much work to do. But obviously he still did a huge amount in comparison with anybody else, judging by the results. Hearing that the feature was supposedly a cinch for him, and the event film is the one where he put in his all, naturally makes me curious to see it, though youthful fervor is probably a big part of why he says that.

He's always had a sort of perfectionist - or totalitarian - ethic about his work. If he's doing an opening, he animates it all himself. Naruto, Makibaoh, GTO, and more recently the 2nd Otogizoushi op were all done by him. If he's the character designer, he designs the characters in every episode. He'd like to be able to be the AD of every episode, too, the way it was back in the old days with Yoichi Kotabe on Heidi etc. and Akio Sugino on Treasure Island etc., but the situation on the production floor these days makes that sort of thing nearly impossible now, even for someone as determined as him.

There's an interesting anecdote about the episode I mentioned a while back as having impressed me and sort of opened my eyes to the genre, #41. The ep was done by Yoshihara Masayuki, who was sort of an 'oyabun' to Nishio during his Yu Yu Hakusho days, teaching him the ropes in terms of what was cool and no longer cool to do at any given period. (I recommend checking out ep 58 of Yu, my favorite, to taste the unique style of Y. Masayuki the animator, as well as early Shinbo at its best.) I said how this episode impressed me, but it's been such a long time that I didn't quite remember why, and I was reminded when reading that Nishio, who animated a part of the ep, wryly observed the fact that he, the character designer, was having his drawings corrected by Yoshihara on the episode. Yoshihara had apparently made his own design sheet for the episode. In every respect this was Yoshihara Masayuki's creation.

Just like the Wakabayashi episodes of Pierrot's latest milking cow, there are a few instances were certain figures were given seemingly free reign (or perhaps they wrested the reins) to do what they wanted, resulting in some very unique and memorable little gems. Even the most casual comparison of Wakabayashi's episodes with the others will reveal the maniacally close attention to detail in Wakabayashi's work - not only the great balance of the directing and choreography of the action, but also the nuanced color palette, even the very texture of the screen, which are are all exactingly polished in a way that's unlike anything in the rest of the show.

My favorite scene in the Naruto film was probably Takeshi Honda's, for one because Takeshi Honda rules, but for two because it looks like just about the only scene in the film that wasn't corrected. You just don't go correcting Takeshi "shisho" Honda's work!

Friday, May 6, 2005

08:52:50 pm , 23 words, 1071 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game review @ Cartoon Brew

Amid Amidi over at Cartoon Brew has put up a really nice review of Mind Game written by Joshua Smith. Check it out.

Friday, May 6, 2005

06:10:41 pm , 537 words, 2942 views     Categories: Animation, Animator, Animator: Shinya Ohira

Early Ohira

In his early years, Shinya Ohira was involved in a lot of projects that, shall we say, have not exactly stood up to the test of time. But in almost all cases his own personal contribution as an animator to those projects is still worth seeking out entirely on its own merits. One of the best examples, and surely one of the most obscure items I think I've ever managed to pull out of my hat (which is saying a lot), is an item entitled Captain Power: Battle Training Video (1987). I'm not sure how it worked, but basically it was a "video" game in three volumes, conceived to capitalize on the TV series, where you aimed a toy gun at the screen and shot different areas for points, à la Duck Hunt.

The whole game is just an extended sequence of animation, like Dragon's Lair, minus the branching. The animation was done at AIC, the same year Ohira worked there on Bubblegum Crisis and Gall Force. Shinya Ohira was the animation director along with Jun Yano, and animators include Hiroyuki Okiura and Toru Yoshida. The animation itself consists almost entirely of insanely intricate animation of backgrounds moving past, wildly baroque explosions, and scads of missiles. No story, no nothing. Effects, effects, effects. The styling of Ohira's work at this early period, with its Kaneda-esque sharp contrast and elegantly arced geometric forms (aptly likened to splashed milk by Takashi Murakami) reaches its peak in this piece, the year after which he was involved in Akira and began to gravitate towards the more realistic handling of natural phenomena, away from the eye-grabbing hattari posing that characterizes his great predecessor's work.

In his first few years Ohira took after the graphic look of Yoshinori Kanada and Yamashita Masahito, but he was already aiming in a different direction. Where the work of the former two seemed to be about exploiting the inherent possibilities of the nature of limited animation by experimenting with what sort of interesting movements and effects could be achieved by doing things like modulating the frame rate and flickering between extreme drawings, Ohira was already moving towards a more fluid style of animation that infused the elegance of the former with his own predilection for increased abstraction. At first sight it might seem merely a return to traditional fluidity, but in reality he was digging deeper. He was looking at movement in more close detail than anyone had done before, except for maybe Hideaki Anno, whose work on Honneamise from that year was another inspiration. Yamashita and Kanada showed the way, and Ohira upped the ante by pushing aside any hint of imposed anthropomorphism or emotion and focusing more intently on increasing the volume and impact of the effect at hand, as if in a mad quest to get to the core of the atom, to the core of what constitutes motion. In recent years he seems to have found a good balance by going back to being slightly more limited while retaining the same density of information. One thing he has retained from this early period is that sense of playfulness, of revelling in the inherent beauty of line, porting it over into a more realistic context.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

08:08:45 am , 211 words, 1985 views     Categories: Animation

Naruto 133

Norio Matsumoto is god. Seriously. To think that most of the action in Naruto 133 was seemingly drawn mostly by him... This episode may have surpassed the other two in terms of sheer volume of brilliant action by Matsumoto, and it was spread around much more evenly than previously, so the entire 23 minutes are filled practically tip to toe with the stuff. Magnificent work. I hope this converts many people to Matsumoto worshippers.

Matsumoto's been known for drawing entire episodes near-singlehandedly before this, but never has he done it with such gusto as here, and never non-stop action! He's really outdone himself here. It's like there's nobody out there with a project big enough for him, so he has to go make mini-movies entirely on his own in TV shows like this. If his work on Beck seemed a little restrained (though he still managed to do animation on about three episodes and animate an entire half-episode), it's because he was just helping out Osamu Kobayashi as a favor - in reality he was busy working on this little confection.

Watching the episode I couldn't help but guffaw through much of it out of sheer amazement. And it leaves you reeling for a while afterwards. This is what animation is all about.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

12:35:54 pm , 516 words, 4343 views     Categories: Animation, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Yuasa's Shin-chan

Around the time Mind Game had been completed and was waiting to hit the theaters one year ago, a new Shin-chan movie came out, Kasukabe Boys. For almost a decade Masaaki Yuasa had animated the climaxes for the films, but he hadn't been involved in them since starting work on Cat Soup. Having just seen last year's Shin-chan film, the last directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, I now realize Yuasa had come back to his alma mater right after finishing work on his own film, again to provide the climax. It's animated in such an unabashedly personal style that anyone seeing it will immediately know who animated it. I used to find that Yuichiro Sueyoshi's and Yuasa's styles were rather similar, but the difference here in their scenes is quite stark (Sueyoshi did the brawl - the faces all look straight out of Mind Game) and shows the direction in which Yuasa has continued to evolve. It's great, and kind of shocking, that they would keep those drawings in as is. The wonderfully strange and lively drawings and the incredible freedom of the movement (the soaring shot is particularly characteristic) help to heighten the feeling that this is the climax, and makes it a really exciting sequence. A new Shin-chan film by a new director came out last month (to very bad reviews), but Yuasa and Sueyoshi weren't involved. Reminds me of what happened to the old Toei films - as soon as all the good staff left in the years around 1970, they became pretty much unwatchable.

It's been about a year since the last Wakabayashi/Matsumoto piece for the series, but as hoped by fans, today's Naruto (133, D/S/AD Atsushi Wakabayashi, KA Norio Matsumoto, Atsushi Wakabayashi, Hirobumi Suzuki, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Atsuko Inoue) was indeed the return of 30 and 71, saying which should be enough to know what to expect for anyone who has seen those episodes. The team this time is expanded (Suzuki and Matsutake are both veterans of the genre - Suzuki's the CD, and most recently did CD/AD and some interesting photography in Cossette under ex-Wakabayashi partner Akiyuki Shinbo), and Matsumoto's parts are spread throughout, again presumably the effects. It's rare to see good action in a TV show, much less an entire episode at movie-level quality, and this team has produced among the most impressive action seen anywhere in the last few years in their work on this TV series. Quality over quantity is the keyword. Rather than pumping out episodes, they put in the time and spend time on raising the level of one episode. Their continued efforts to pool all their energy into creating these single, one-off masterpieces is really inspirational and goes against the typical style for TV anime in Japan, which is usually defined as a fight to see how much can be done in an extremely tight schedule. Matsumoto's a great animator because he can handle both, moving between TV limited and film full with the greatest of ease and always producing great results. (viz)

Mamoru Hosoda's new film will be coming out on DVD on July 21.