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: March 2007, 21

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

01:01:36 am , 1688 words, 7465 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Topcraft

I remember enjoying The Last Unicorn when I was younger, so I rewatched it a while back to see how it would compare with memory. I must have been quite partial to it because I remembered many of the details quite clearly. This time around what fascinated me was the animation, which was a very strange beast. Usually it's easy to tell with one glance whether a piece of animation is from the west or Japan, but here it's like your senses are confused by conflicting information. Some elements scream western, while other elements scream Japan. Stylistically and in terms of the storytelling and visuals and pacing it's very western, but something about the animation strikes an odd note that doesn't seem to jive with that information. It's got a sort sheen to the drawings and approach to timing that doesn't seem western. It's clearly presco rather than afureco, i.e. the music & voices are recorded first and the animation follows, rather than after as is usual in Japan, but it doesn't feel natural somehow.

Clearly a lot of work is being put into interpreting the voices and coming up with movement, but there's something fundamentally different about it from everything else that was being made in Japan at the time. It's like a small pocket of animators developed completely isolated from the history of the development of animation in Japan, doing things their own way. Rather than focusing on using few drawings, well timed, to achieve good effect, they use lots of detailed drawings to try to create fuller animation than what came to be typical of the rest of Japanese animation. The downside is that the animation doesn't have that good 'feeling' that developed out of that need to focus on the timing to make up for the lack of drawings. The animation is full, yet the movement isn't particularly appealing. It's lacking a feeling of weight and zip, the movements seem added for the sake of moving rather than for any real purpose.

The contrast is thrown into sharp relief by the film they did soon afterwards - Nausicaa. Here a person who had seen all of those developments and advances in the approach to commercial feature animation in Japan since its inception was brought in to a studio that had a completely different approach - western, yet not quite western. It seems like an odd choice, because I couldn't imagine a studio producing animation more different from Miyazaki's, but presumably they must have chosen this studio because Topcraft was one of the few studios in Japan at the time equipped with all of the material to create a final product, i.e. they could do the animation as well as the photography and final editing.

The Topcraft animators who had worked on Unicorn and Hobbit and everything else worked on the film, although many other outside figures like Takashi Nakamura and Yoshinori Kanada were brought in from elsewhere, so that it's not really a purely Topcraft production. Topcraft animator Kazuyuki Kobayashi did the scene where Nausicaa meets Teto, but apparently the scene went through a considerable amount of reworking and touching up, so we're not seeing his work in the raw. Tadakatsu Yoshida did the Ohmu running towards the screen near the end. The keys are incredibly detailed and precise, and the work seems to better represent what the studio's animators would have been better at - much denser and heavily worked drawings. That's the feeling I get from their other films, that the drawings are very detailed and the images are very rich and painterly. There's more of an emphasis on traditional drafting skills than in other domestic productions, but on the other hand, the animation works better as drawings than as animation, as movement. The drawings have a bit of a cold and impersonal feeling to them. The contrast is sharpest with folks like Kanada, whose drawings are very loose and free, but create an incredible feeling of exhilaration in motion. Yoshida points out that he was impressed by the great feeling of the timing of the explosions in Kanada's work. It must have been a real eye-opener to the studio's animators to work on that film with figures whose approach was much more individualistic and focused on creating movement that felt good.

Topcraft was a unique studio in Japan and they left behind films with a different approach from the other domestic studios, so it's intriguing to look back on how their work differs from the rest of the industry. Telecom was a near analogue of about a decade later, a Japanese studio focused on foreign co-productions for overseas viewers. But if Telecom was Toei Doga based, grounded in the fundamentals of movement and teaching its animators realistic weight and careful timing, keeping the drawings spare and simple, then in that sense Topcraft had a decidedly Tatsunoko tinge to it very different from Telecom, with a more photorealistic, 'western' look, detailed and liberal use of drawings, without that grounding in the fundamentals of movement and realistic timing. There's a surface of flashy poses and carefully rendered drawings, but underneath there's a feeling of spinning the wheels, so to speak.

Most of the work they did wound up not being seen by their own countrymen, but they clearly put a lot of effort into their films, and had pride in what they were doing. There must have been the feeling at the studio that they were among the few studios in Japan making real animation. Telecom later had that similar image of being the place where you have to go first if you want to learn how to create real movement. They were apparently free from the constraint of having to work in excessively tight schedules, giving them the time to pack in as much movement and detail as they wanted. Commercial animation in Japan in the 70s had a cheap image, so like Telecom in later years, people must have been attracted to the studio for the opportunity it offered to create a different kind of animation, more labored, with fuller movement. A notable case is Hidekazu Ohara, who drew the opening sequence of Nausicaa. One of the main things that attracted Ohara to the studio was the intricate, realistic, finely drafted look of the studio's characters, the work of Tsuguyuki Kubo.

Tsuguyuki Kubo was the main figure behind the character design side of Topcraft's work. He had started out at Tatsunoko in 1965, where he famously animated the opening of Speed Racer, before leaving to form his own studio, Studio Bees, where he did subcontracting for Toei and Tatsunoko, working notably on the likes of Rainbow Sentai Robin, finally arriving at Topcraft in 1972. Topcraft had been founded that year by Toru Hara, a Toei Doga expatriate who after Nausicaa would become Ghibli's early executive producer. Before the company was founded officially they had done a promotional video for Rankin/Bass, which presumably is how Topcraft came to focus almost exclusively on foreign subcontracting for them. Kubo was the character designer of the first of these, the TV series Kid Power, and he would go on to do much of the studio's character designing, giving the studio's work its unique look. Perhaps because of his past experience at Tatsunoko, he was also involved in the handful of the studio's domestic projects, most of which were for Tatsunoko. He also animated a number of TV advertisements for the studio starting 1973. The work for which he is probably best known was for the handful of feature films that occupied the studio in the second half of its decade-some lifespan. Kubo was animation director/co-storyboarder of The Hobbit in 1977; co-animation director/co-layout man/supervisor of Return of the King in 1980; co-character designer/co-storyboarder/supervisor of The Last Unicorn in 1981; and co-character designer/co-animation director of Flight of the Dragon in 1982. After leaving the studio, Kubo went on to work at a studio first called Masaki and then PAC (Pacific Animation Corporation), where he worked as animation supervisor on Wind in the Willows among other things, finally settling down at Studio Pierrot, where he remains quite active still today, 40-some years after he first began working as an animator, his most recent work being on Emma.

If Kubo was the face behind the drawings, Katsuhisa Yamada was the layout man and line director for many of the studio's productions. The main animators were the two mentioned before - Kazuyuki Kobayashi and Tadakatsu Yoshida - along with a few others like Hidemi Kubo. But I'll stop there, as there's already an excellent page outlining the history of Topcraft.

I've been going through Telecom's 2002 series Secret of Cerulean Sand lately. The big find was a nice bit of animation by Hiroyuki Aoyama in episode 7. Apart from that he also drew a bit in 2 and 25 and storyboard for 3, 17, 19, 23. Ep 3 had a more measured and dramatic atmosphere that stood apart from the others, so I look forward to the rest of his eps. As seems typical with latter-day Telecom, the story is unfortunately the weak link in the chain, and things aren't helped by the fact that just about every other episode is a nearly unwatchable outsourced catastrophe that looks like a different show. Fortunately Tomonaga Kazuhide and Atsuko Tanaka are involved later on, so there should be some nice work near the end. (Tanaka is first in 12 and storyboard + first in 22 and 26, and also did a bit in 13 & 25) Aoyama's part was quite something. Aoyama's work is what I associate with the Telecom at its best - incredibly nuanced, exciting, fun, lively movement with a brilliant sense of timing. Shojiro Nishimi also seemed identifiable in 7 with slightly more limited but still nicely timed movement that had a nice feeling to it, not quite to the extent of Aoyama, but still nice. His Yuasa-influenced forms were also identifiable and well suited to the simple Telecom look. It's also impressive to see that Yoshinobu Michihata is still creating the same incredibly fun and free movement he has been since at least Sherlock Hound. His animation is a joy to watch.