Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: January 2007, 19

Friday, January 19, 2007

12:14:42 am , 1581 words, 16439 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Music Video, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Amazing Nuts

I finally had a chance to watch Studio 4C's latest project, Amazing Nuts!, and it was very interesting in a lot of ways, not least the actual shorts. But even moreso it was interesting to see how Studio 4C continues to come up with new approaches to creation and distribution. As producer Eiko Tanaka describes it, this project was about killing three birds with one stone: Each short is (1) a standalone music video, (2) a promo pilot for a series or film, and (3) part of a standalone DVD release. Rather than just making standalone shorts as they always have, here they're making a wise investment in their future by trying to tie in their shorts to a future project. I admire that Tanaka is willing to take a chance on a risky project like this. It seems to suggest a possible way for people in the industry to free themselves from the endless mire of having to adapt popular manga in order to get the backing to make anything. Give talented creators a chance to create original works like this and see the results. Use the talent that's there rather than relying so much on another unrelated field. Having seen the shorts, I can say that they are all interesting in their own way. Two are entertainment, one is artsy, one is for (weird) children. They each work as a unit, and each seem to have their own future potential. The two traditionally animated shorts are full of interesting ideas and are the obvious major candidates for future expansion. I could see those two becoming popular TV shows. Another aspect of Tanaka's gambit is directly involving fans by the DVD method, so that they can make their voice heard in terms of what they would like to see. I remember how the results of the online Mind Game questionnaire were directly applied to the DVD release.

I was also impressed by the DVD package. The set comes in two version, a basic version and a full version. The full version comes with a big book containing lots of interviews as well as the full storyboard for the two shorts that had a storyboard, and a long interview DVD. Personally I came into this almost solely to see Yasuhiro Aoki's film. I was very happy with Studio 4C for giving him the chance to make his own film, and was eager to see the result. The result did not disappoint, but I also came away with not just that but an interview with the man as well as his full storyboard for the film, so as a fan I couldn't be happier. Studio 4C obviously understands that, and created a package that is very rewarding to fans who truly love the act of creation that is animation, want to know more about its every step, and want to support their favorite creators. Connecting the creators to the fans in this way is one of the things I most like about Studio 4C. I remember Tadanari Okamoto talking about how a similar idea of tying fans into the creation-support loop.

As a producer, Tanaka appears to be starting to try to take more control of things. I get the distinct impression that she mistakenly blames the studio's director-centric approach for Mind Game's not having become a big hit (how could it have become a megahit playing in three theaters and nobody knowing it even existed?), and is trying to take a more active part in the projects now, as she did in the studio's recent Black & White film, where she had direct input into the film in the American style. This also feels the case here, where Tanaka's concept is the driving force. Nonetheless in each project we still get to see a talented creator's voice very clearly and distinctly expressed, so the studio's major appeal has thankfully not changed.

As for the films, the first thing that strikes you is that each short looks and feels nothing like any of the others. It doesn't feel like they're just changing the look and style in a narrow stylistic sense for variety's sake, but rather that each director's unique approach and the unique nature of the material give rise to a different set of production methods. That is also something the studio has been known for. One film might demand detailed CG set, one might demand intricate and lively cel animation, one might demand a blend of CG and live action. Interestingly, apparently this is just the first sally in the series, and several other shorts are in different stages of production at the moment.

I came in aware of only two of the creators working on this set - Yasuhiro Aoki and Daisuke Nakayama. I knew their films would be interesting, but wasn't sure about the rest. Glass Eye was an interesting poetic meditation that I liked because it felt distinct from anything else I've seen from the studio. A writer with no experience in animation was brought in to direct the film because they had liked the very visual nature of a script he had written. I've often felt that some of the more refreshing and unexpected approaches to animation have come from people with no experience in animation like this. The other film was a much more commercial full-CGI film about a diva, but even this I could see finding its own niche on morning TV. Daisuke Nakayama's film was a revelation about the man's vivid and assured style. We'd seen design work from him before, but it feels like this is what he's been really wanting to do the whole time - wild, fun, somewhat western-influence cartoony mayhem, like a hip-hop version of Imaishi. I could see this being popular in the west.

But by far the film that appealed the most to me, personally, was Yasuhiro Aoki's Kung-Fu Love. It was a very accomplished film for a mere 10 minutes, full of the subtle humour and inventive directing I've come to expect from Aoki, with lots of excitingly choreographed and lovingly animated action, a very original approach to color full of radiant hues that make for consistently ravishing viewing, fun and catchy characters, a great story setup with lots of little subversive touches here and there courtesy of writer Shinji Obara, all of it gelling perfectly into compellingly unique whole that tantalizingly hints at a vast canvas that you come away hungering to know more about. Very successful both as a pilot and a short film. I hope we can see this hint of greatness given the chance to flower that it deserves. Apparently Aoki had in fact drawn enough storyboard and other background material to fill a full-length feature, but had to whittle all that down to a mere 10 minutes. I hope that one day we can see the full-length film that Aoki already had conceived fully-formed in his head. I could also see this working just as well as a TV series. Aoki has an intrinsically filmic approach - every shot is perfectly composed and thought out, every element of the screen communicates something interesting, and the rhythm is masterfully controlled. Aoki is a great entertainer. I could see him becoming a great director.

The timing and the forms of the animation in the short are also distinctive and hint at the huge amount of research and work Aoki obviously put into coming up with an original style of animation for the action that is at the heart of the film. Taking a hint from Hong Kong action flicks, the action shifts between very precise and fast action and extremely detailed and fluidly animated slo-mo shots that give the viewer a lingering and detailed look at the speedy moves that just flashed before our eyes. Testament to the effort that went into the animation is the fact that roughly 8000 drawings were used in the 10-minute film, which is about 5 times the volume of an average TV episode. I recall there was a slo-mo shot of Shiela cooking a pancake near the end of the last episodes of Tweeny Witches that Aoki did, #38, which in retrospect seems to point towards the slo-mo aesthetic in Kung-Fu Love. Aoki's surreal, somewhat meta sense of humor comes through pretty well in certain scenes, such as the scene where the two lovers argue in the ryokan. There's always an unexpected little amusing element somewhere livening things up. Sometimes he has a cunning strategy of tricking the viewer into focusing on a main action and then having something strange going on somewhere else on the screen, sort of in the spirit of the ball experiment by Daniel Simons. Revealing about Aoki's approach is a comment in the storyboard to the animator of the scene where the two lovers are sitting on the beach: "Put more effort into making the cat do things". We see the two protagonists sitting there without moving too much, but the cat is doing all these funny antics beside them. It's an intriguing method of hilighting the main action. Of course, a big part of this project is the collaboration with Japanese pop artists, and Aoki's protagonist was lovingly modeled after the singer of the song, Kumi Koda. Aoki is a real pro who approaches his work with sincerity and tremendous gusto. It feels like he's just reaching the peak of his powers, and I hope we get to see that energy put to good use in the coming years.

Kung-Fu Love