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: April 2007

Friday, April 27, 2007

11:48:56 pm , 145 words, 2939 views     Categories: Animation

Stepping out

Haven't had time to watch much recent stuff, but it was interesting to see that Osamu Kobayashi struck again so soon after his solo ep of Kemonozume, this time in Guren Lagan 4. Was what one would expect. I would have figured waiting a bit into the series might have been a more prudent thing to do. Most surprising of all is that Hisashi Mori has been in every ep since ep 2. I don't think I've ever seen such a thing, three straight eps from Mori. Someone there must really like him. Seeing ep 4 revealed that this was the ep where they got the transformation animation featured in the op, which I guess is why they didn't credit him.

I'll be heading out on a trip tomorrow and won't be back until May 12 (perfect timing), so the blog will probably be silent until then. Ja ne!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

01:48:28 am , 2434 words, 4278 views     Categories: Animation, Animator, Director

Osamu Tanabe

I was pleasantly surprised the other day to see that Osamu Tanabe had worked on the opening of fellow ex-Ghibli animator Hiroyuki Morita's Bokurano at Gonzo. It was surprising because for the last six or seven years Tanabe has been exclusively devoted to an extended train of animated thought over at Ghibli in the form of a handful of fascinating, stylistically interlinked animated experiments, the most recent being the music video Doredore no Uta. I thought his work to be among the most interesting I saw coming out of the studio over that period. I didn't expect to see him doing work elsewhere, much less on TV, now. I've been wanting to get down my thoughts about Tanabe for quite a while now, so I thought I would take this opportunity to do so.

The story behind Tanabe's work of recent years seems to begin with My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. Isao Takahata, of course, was director, but Takahata not being a director who draws, the actual, specific animation side of Takahata's work is always handled by talented animators. That's Takahata's genius - that he always orchestrates the best talent of the moment in the most perfect fashion imaginable in the various sections. In Yamadas, the faces behind the animation side were Yoshiyuki Momose, who storyboarded/directed the first half with the bobsledding, and Osamu Tanabe, who storyboarded/directed the rest, the portion based on the comics. Over the next few years after Yamadas, Tanabe created a few TV ads for the studio that continued to build on the cartoonish-yet-realistic, pared down style of Yamadas. Yoshiyuki Momose, on the other hand, continued to build on the rich, lively, colorful style seen in the first half of Yamadas first in the two Ghiblies films and most recently in a trio of shorts set to music by Capsule. So Yamadas is particularly interesting to look back on now, now that these two talented creators with their own unique vision have each slowly but surely advanced the ideas they began tinkering with in that film.

If Momose's work seemed to be all about the joy of motion, about swimming around and exploring a three-dimensional space with lots of imaginative ideas, Osamu Tanabe's work was all about delicate nuance, about the beauty of the little details in everyday life that any other animator would have overlooked. Tanabe's pacing of scenes and timing of actions seemed realistic like nobody else's animation. The characters were highly stylized and cartoonish, consisting only of a few simple lines and colors, but they came across as very real and alive, moreso even than more realistically drawn characters might have. If at some fundamental level the film feels different, I think it's because of Tanabe's great innate sense for slow-burn realistic timing and his imagination for nuanced and richly elaborated realistic movement.

Things didn't start with Yamadas for Tanabe, of course. Tanabe's interest in realism in animation goes back many years. Tanabe has been a close associate of the two most important figures behind the realistic approach in Japan throughout the decade that preceded Yamadas - Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. Tracing his history also traces theirs, as they worked together on many of their most important and memorable projects, all the way from Akira in 1988 down to Yamadas in 1999 and Space Station No. 9 in 2005. Each has gone on to develop in his own very different direction, but their work together during this period defines their approach, and today more than ever the spirit of their work sets them apart from other animators.

Although Tanabe's name doesn't turn up in the credits of Akira, Hiroyuki Morita says it's working as an inbetweener on Akira where he met and became friends with Tanabe. In 1988 Tanabe also drew inbetweens for Grave of the Fireflies, so it would make sense that Tanabe had worked on the film, despite his name not being listed in the credits. After all, Hiroyuki Morita isn't listed either. Ohira and Hashimoto, of course, worked on the same film, and the three would go on to work together very quickly afterwards, so they must have met either while working on Akira or very soon afterwards.

Tanabe's debut comes the next year, in 1989, working on the TV show that featured many of the staff who had just come from from working on Akira - Nippon Animation's Peter Pan. He animated a bit in ep 21. Hard to guess what he might have drawn at such an early stage, but the scene at the table strikes me as a possible candidate judging by Wendy's characterful acting. In any case, it would be his focus on just this kind of nuanced acting animation that would set Tanabe apart as an animator in the projects in which he was involved over the next few years.

In Like the Wind, Like a Cloud, he animated the memorable walk through the tunnel, where the old lady pinches the girl and they're flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. What makes this little bit of animation so fun and memorable is that it is underpinned by a feeling of reality in the timing, so that it really looks like two people are flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. It's comical yet believable. The very feminine way she grabs the lapel of her kimono right after this seems typical of Tanabe's delicacy. Tanabe animated several memorable scenes over the years involving delicate feminine acting starting with this.

Another piece by Tanabe from the same year came in the classic ep 1 of the Hakkenden OVA series by Shinya Ohira & Shinji Hashimoto. Tanabe animated the bit where Princess Fuse and the dog are hiding out at the cave near the end. The dog here moves more realistically and convincingly than he does anywhere else in the episode, but more importantly the animation of Fuse stands out for its more delicate approach to realism. Here the action is very low-key, played out at a distance, with what movement there is subtle and without any sort of exaggeration, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the animation in the episode. It's clear that Tanabe was thinking about the idea of realism in animation just as deeply as were Hashimoto and Ohira, but coming to his own conclusion. The particularly fine bit where Fuse covers her mouth by the river in particular shows off Tanabe's skill for getting into the mind of a female character and coming up with convincingly feminine behavior.

The culmination of Tanabe's early work comes in 1993 with Junkers Come Here. Working under Shinya Ohira alongside Shinji Hashimoto, Tanabe helped to animate the 3-minute pilot that Ohira spent six months on. Tanabe animated the three shots where the girl and the dog run past and the girl stops to rest on the bench. Each shot of this pilot is full of tremendous nuance, and takes a more realistic approach to timing that seems to build on the realism of Omohide Poroporo, on which both Ohira and Tanabe had worked right before, and seems to take it in a new direction, one where the movement is rawer and even more closely based on reality. Tanabe's section seems to best represent what the pilot could have become had it been developed into a film. As it stands, a different animation director was brought in, and the animation of the film itself did not wind up living up to the exciting pioneering spirit of the pilot. However, Tanabe's section in the film carries on the nuanced feminine acting we saw him do in Hakkenden. He animated the scene at the dinner table early on after Hiromi finishes talking to her mom on the phone. The way she walks from the phone to the table swinging her arms brings alive the feelings of the young girl quite nicely. Rather than the sort of dense flow of realistically observed motion of Shinji Hashimoto, who animated the scene before where Hiromi and Keisuke are studying together, Tanabe's is a more lilting and lyrical kind of realism where each tiny movement is very carefully thought out and calculated for effect.

Tanabe then participated in Ohira's parting slap to the face of the industry, Hamaji's Resurrection, although I'm not certain what section he animated. The scene on the porch has always been a favorite of mine, and it seems like one of the few sequences in the episode endowed with the kind of nuanced feminine acting I would expect of him, but who knows. In the meantime, he participated in yet another Takahata film, Ponpoko, as well as overseeing the layout for Nippon Animation's movie remake of their first World Masterpiece Theater show, A Dog of Flanders. Tanabe's deftness with realistic layout is another element that makes his work stand out, so I can see why he was picked for the job. Finally in 1998 he did a bit of animation for Golden Boy 3 that stands out as perhaps his best in the nuanced feminine acting vein, where the girl tells Kintaro that she's planning on marrying the other guy. The shots where she waves her hand and where she pulls her pigtail back while talking capture her girlish nature and her feelings of uncertainty in the situation particularly well. Tanabe is good at coming up with little gestures like this that make a movement feel not just real but good and succinctly bring alive a character. Just before doing this he did a little segment for Masaaki Yuasa's Cat Soup, the part where the S&M Mickey Mouse cosplayer gets cut up and thrown into the eponymous soup. He also helped out Shinji Hashimoto on the opening to Kacho O~ji. I'd be surprised if he hadn't also helped out on Shinya Ohira's opening to Sci-Fi Harry the next year.

Finally we come to Yamadas. Momose had already helmed a Takahata feature before, drawing the storyboard for Only Yesterday in 1991. He was called in again, and time was joined by Tanabe, who had presumably by that time gained Takahata's trust after having worked on all of his most recent films. Afterwards, Takahata would turn to Tanabe to animate the short segment Takahata directed for the omnibus Winter Days in 2003. The film turned out to be a turning point in his career. Over the next few years he worked almost exclusively on ads and other shorts derived from the look of Yamada-kun, with the spare background, pastel colors, wobbly line, and highly pared down, cartoonish characters moving incongruously realistically.

At the beginning he carried forward a more realistic inflection, in the two Umacha ads of 2001, while in 2002 in Yoshiyuki Momose's Ghiblies 2 he created a look that seemed to cleave with everything he'd done before, as if he was striking out in a new direction. He animated the strange bit at the end with the people all drawn like bugs of different sorts. After this, he returned briefly to a more spare and realistic vein with the Takahata segment of Winter Days in 2003 and Shinji Hashimoto's Kid's Story segment in Animatrix, where my guess is that he animated the section where Kid climbs to the top of the water drain. In 2004 he animated the first of another set of ads, this time for the Yomiuri newspaper. The first features a crowd from the Edo period shuffling densely by in a realistic style slightly different from the Umacha ads but with the same evocative, washed out, pastel look of all of his work of the period, while the second features the company's mascot character Doredore, and is animated in a much simpler style, with a very pared down hand-drawn aesthetic featuring a few simple lines moving over a pure white background. In his latest creation from 2005 he went back to the odd creatures of Ghiblies 2 and created a wonderful music video, Doredore no Uta, that pushes forward the idea of the previous piece in a way that makes the concept much more satisfying. If the previous piece seemed like an experiment where he wasn't quite sure what he was doing with it yet, here the elements all feel like they fit in place. The characters move just as realistically as the characters in Yamadas, but they're all bugs. It's an interesting new tack for the realistic school. Making the characters pure symbols like this has the uncanny effect of emphasizing the realism of the movement even more than when the characters are styled as humans. The film acts as a nice little allegory about human society, full of warmth and sly humor and keen observation.

Finally we come to Tanabe's latest piece. There is much nice work in the Bokurano opening, but there was one shot that emitted a kind of aura that set it apart from the rest, the shot of the character running. The shot consists of nothing more than a loop of 13 drawings of one of the most common of animated actions, a side follow of a person running, yet it eloquently and hair-raisingly conveys the urgency of the character's situation, without you even needing to know what that situation is. Tanabe is an animator who has devoted his entire career to making motion the vehicle of communication, and this shot of his is a perfect example of the power of animation - that a few well chosen drawings can create a movement that speaks more than a thousand words. Apparently Tanabe recently founded his own studio called Studio 4, and this shot was done there. The unique style he invented for himself in the Ghibli shorts stands out as an unexpected and interesting revivifying new direction for the realistic school of thought, so I'll be interested to see what Osamu Tanabe's next move will be - whether he continues to build on this or again decides to go in an utterly new direction.

Osamu Tanabe filmography

1988  Grave of the Fireflies [inbetweener]
          Akira [inbetweener]
1989  Peter Pan 21 [KA]
          Gosenzosama Banbanzai! 4, 6 [KA]
1990  Like the Wind, Like a Cloud [KA]
          Hakkenden OVA 1 [KA]
1991  Omohide Poroporo [KA]
1993  Junkers Come Here Pilot [KA]
          Junkers Come Here [KA]
1994  Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko [KA]
          Hakkenden OVA 10, 13 [KA]
1996  A Dog of Flanders [Layout Check]
1998  Golden Boy 3 [KA]
1999  My Neighbors the Yamadas [D & S of second half]
2000  Nekojiru-So [KA]
          Kacho O~ji OP [KA]
2001  Umacha TV ad [2 x 15 seconds]
          Lawson/Spirited Away TV ad [1 x 15 seconds, 3 versions]
2002  Rakugaki Oukoku game [director of animated segments]
          Ghiblies 2 [KA]
2003  Winter Days Takahata segment [1 minute; animation]
          Animatrix: Kid's Story [KA]
2004  First Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
          Portable Airport [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
2005  Second Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
          Space Station No. 9 [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
          Doredore no Uta [3 minutes; S/D]
2007  Bokurano OP [KA]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

11:37:28 pm , 4101 words, 18104 views     Categories: Animation, Interview, Director

Michael Arias interview

Studio 4°C's latest feature, Tekkon Kinkreet, which screened in theaters in Japan last winter, will be receiving its North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just one week from today. Screenings are also planned for the near future in Los Angeles and Hawaii. Details are provided at the bottom of this post for anyone who wishes to attend. The opportunity to see this film on the big screen, where it deserves to be seen, is something that may not roll around again for quite some time, so fans of animation of all stripes, don't miss this opportunity. I haven't seen the film, but I have no doubt that it will be an unforgettable experience.

Like the studio's previous film, this film is also based on a cult manga with a fiercely devoted following. I imagine there must have been considerable pressure to make a film that lived up to the original. All press and viewer reviews I've read for the film suggest that Tekkon Kinkreet is a triumph that does just that, and then some, and is nothing less than what one would expect from the studio that produced Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game. The film has generated a bit of press about the fact that its director, Michael Arias, is the first westerner to direct a Japanese animated feature. Michael was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email, so I'm proud to be able to present a short interview with the director on the occasion of the North American premiere of his film.

What was it that attracted you to Taiyo Matsumoto's manga Tekkon Kinkreet in the first place and compelled you to want to make it into a film?

I was in Tokyo to take care of a friend whose wife had recently died. My work wasn't busy and he was unable to work, so we spent most of our time sitting in his flat - an apartment on the eighth floor of an old building - on the balcony, smoking cigarettes, and watching the traffic below. It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum's sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon and said "You have to read this. It's going to make you cry." And that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city - it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days. And of course, I cried many times reading it, also a new experience for me to be moved to tears by a manga.

What was it like directing your first feature-length animated film? Had you aspired to becoming a director prior to directing Tekkon?

Never wanted to direct before. I'd been doing special effects and CG animation and software development for several years before encountering Tekkon, and I was pretty happy just focusing on details. I'd seen several directors go through painful experiences getting their movies made and really didn't think that was for me.

Tekkon really began as an extra-curricular thing for me. I was writing some software for integrating CG and traditional animation - the Softimage Toon Shaders. Studio Ghibli and Dreamworks Animation were both using it on feature films (Princess Mononoke and Prince of Egypt, respectively), and I needed a test bed for my work, something to help me test and demonstrate the software's features. So I modeled a scene from Tekkon, nothing too great to look at actually. But a producer friend of mine looked at it and offered to show it to Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkon's author. Taiyo liked what he saw enough to encourage me to do something more with it. And that was the beginning of the Tekkon pilot project. This was originally seen as a demo for a planned Tekkon feature, with me supervising the production and directing the CG and Koji Morimoto, my mentor in traditional animation, storyboarding and directing. I'm really proud of the 4-minute CG pilot we did, but our sponsorship fell through after we finished, Morimoto went back to his home base, Studio 4°C, and I found myself without any way to pursue Tekkon.

Then Animatrix came along. The producer of the Tekkon pilot and I, with Eiko Tanaka, president of 4°C, produced that project together. But I was still thinking about Tekkon, all the time. My best friend from college, Anthony, who was doing some writing for me on Animatrix, responded very strongly to the Tekkon manga and offered to write a screenplay on spec. That really got my juices flowing. But when Animatrix wrapped it was clear that Morimoto had lost interest in directing Tekkon. And by this point Morimoto, Anthony, and others around were encouraging me to direct, perhaps just to shut me up because I was really obsessing! And then I showed the script to Eiko (she had read the original) and she and I decided that she would produce Tekkon and I would direct, all at 4°C. That was really the start of the movie we have now.

The script was originally written in English based on the French and English translation of the original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, and was translated back to Japanese on the occasion of starting production on the film. Aside from the language difficulties inherent in doing this, which you've talked about elsewhere, how did the film evolve at this point in terms of content?

A script, insofar as it expresses the mood, timbre, and tempo of the film to be made, is the foundation on which all else is constructed. And I felt very strongly that Anthony's script described the movie I wanted to make. In a way, the structure of Anthony's script was more important to me than the fine details - and, structurally, it is a pretty big departure from the original. He really got it right - the story of Treasure Town, the sense of doom, the action in Kiddie Kastle all fit together very seamlessly. That was the stuff that I wanted to get in the movie that wasn't obvious from reading the original.

But I had amazing collaborators: to begin with, Shinji Kimura (art director) and Shojiro Nishimi (animation supervisor). And they both had some very definite ideas about how to execute. On "set" I really tried to remain as flexible as possible. I didn't come to work with every frame finished in my head (though I know other directors who are able to do that). We all agreed that we needed to make Tekkon as dense and immersive an experience as possible, and we could see that there was a great deal of whitespace to be filled in in order to get there. So nearly everything after we began working together at 4°C was additive. We weren't replacing sequences from the script with those of our devising (as many have imagined), so much as adding layers: visual details, actions, etc. So there is certainly a great deal of material in the film that emerged from my collaboration with Kimura and Nishimi (and the rest of the staff for that matter) but anyone can read our script and see that it was our blueprint.

What was producer Eiko Tanaka's role? She was involved in creative aspects of the film, namely working on the script, which was not the case for the studio's previous feature, Mind Game. Why the change in policy?

After Anthony, Nishimi, and Kimura, Eiko was the next person I'd go to for an opinion. And in the early days, when I was still getting a feel for the dynamics of the job, she was often the first person I'd want to talk things over with. Her sense of what's right and wrong for a project and her ability to brainstorm with artists is what makes her a great producer.

And she certainly was very involved in Mind Game's creative process as well. That has always been her role (perhaps Tekkon is the first time she's got screen credit for it). To my knowledge she's worked that way on everything after Spriggan, starting with Princess Arete.

There certainly are producers who are content to focus just on budget and schedule but that's not her style. Not mine either. On Animatrix, both Eiko and I were very involved in the creative side of the film, much to the project's benefit.

Many of the staff members are faces that are somewhat new to Studio 4°C, unless I'm mistaken. Who brought the team together? How were they chosen? I've heard many of the staff came on because they were fans of the original manga. Do you think that energy benefited the film?

I did want to get as many on my staff who were familiar with, if not fans, of the manga. So much of my work was about explaining the movie we were making, and I thought, insofar as I was trying to remain faithful to the manga, having people who knew where I was coming from would be a good first step.

Nishimi was at 4°C when I started Tekkon - his high-school buddy Yuasa had invited him on for Mind Game and he'd stuck around to direct a couple of shorts. I found a stack of his drawings lying around and was intrigued enough to stay late and snoop around his desk. An amazing talent like that hidden away inside Telecom for 20 years. Who'd have thought? Kimura was at the studio to return some equipment he'd taken with him when Steam Boy moved to Sunrise, when Eiko asked him to meet with me. We got along from the beginning. I recognized Kubo and Uratani when Eiko suggested them for Tekkon - they'd worked as animators on Animatrix and were both 4°C perennials in a sense.

Eiko and her assistants brought a great many animators on to the show, Tatsuya Tomaru (Steam Boy animation supervisor) and Masashi Ando (Paprika animation supervisor), among them. Many animators came on because of Nishimi's or Kimura's involvement, or because they were fans of the manga. It's a pretty small community, with everyone working on everyone else's films, so word gets out pretty quickly. I think the first animators who came on the show might have been a bit circumspect but, once we had finished shots to show off, getting talented animators was not a problem.

Later, I cast the movie and also brought Plaid on to compose and Mitch Osias on for sound design.

What is your impression of Studio 4°C?

Eiko's place! A great place to work. A tough business but I wouldn't want to do this kind of thing anywhere else.

How does final film compare to your original vision?

Visually, it's much more complex than I'd imagined. Just the level of detail is far beyond what I thought we could pull off with painted backgrounds. But, by and large, it's what I wanted. The music and the voice performances and sound design are also elements I'm very proud of. Plaid's soundtrack is their best work so far I think.

We did much more "creative" work in the final stages of production than you might normally see done on an animated feature. Not just editing but storyboarding and animation as well (the whole Minotaur sequence was very last-minute). In that sense, we didn't really know what we had until it was finished.

Could you talk about the background art, and of art director Shinji Kimura's contribution? From the shots I've seen, the imaginary Asian city of Takaramachi appears to be one of the most vivid and imaginative depictions of a city I've ever seen in an animated feature. What were the influences that informed the visual conception of the city?

The first discussion I had with Kimura was about making the city the star of the movie. What I meant by that was that I wanted us to be as involved in the life of Treasure Town (Takaramachi) as we would be in any of the characters. The city has its own cycle of evolution that we follow - the early images of the movie are designed to make us feel intrigued, comfortable, and nostalgic. And when the city grows into something darker, more modern, we should feel pain at the loss of the dear old town, some apprehension about the city changing. That is the big "arc" of the movie. The characters' dramas are smaller arcs drawn within Treasure Town, rather than in the "foreground". Kimura and I wanted to make the city as solid and three-dimensional as possible (while still looking hand-crafted) and that influenced every decision we made about its design.

I wanted the city to evoke some nostalgic associations with a previous, less hurried, more peaceful age, so Kimura and our colorist Miyuki Ito and I looked at printing from 50s and 60s Japan (also a bit of India and China) - children's books, matchboxes, billboard advertising. The film shows a great deal of that graphic sensibility in our choice of color. I liked something very evocative Taiyo said about Treasure Town was that he imagined it like a box of toys spilled out on the floor.

One more purely selfish explanation for our background design: Kimura had just finished 10 years as art director of Otomo's Steam Boy and he definitely wasn't content to do more shades of gray! He really wanted to use color freely and I couldn't deny him that impulse.

Could you talk about the use of CGI in the film? I've heard you were particularly adamant about simulated handheld camera shots.

Japanese animation - limited animation - evolved a certain way because of various practical concerns and economic limitations. But, to a large extent, I think those are no longer relevant. We don't ink and paint cels the old way, and we don't use a down-shooter anymore. I remember those days very well - in college I had a night-shift job operating an Oxberry at a small animation house in New York. Blecch. But having digital tools at one's disposal really opens up a great deal of untried territory for hand-drawn animation.

I love hand-held camera work (for certain subject matter). City of God and some other recent movies really affected me with their mixture of hand-held camera and dolly work. Those techniques have always been considered off-limits for traditional animation. They're tough to storyboard meaningfully, let alone animate. But I had some ideas for executing these kinds of shots; not just hand-held, but also dolly, aerial, time-lapse, and underwater shots (just to mention some of the techniques we've played with on Tekkon).

I guess there's different ways of looking at animation. The purist approach would be a locked-off camera on a static painted background with characters moving around in the frame. Great for some material but not what I wanted for Tekkon: immediate, frenetic, and off-the-cuff.

There was some resistance at first. Hard to tell Kimura that you're going to blur one of his paintings after he's spent a couple days on it! There's part of me that says, "yes, motion blur and depth-of-field effects are gimmicks". But then who's to say they're not valid in the hand-drawn world? That's the thing, it's all hand-crafted in the end. The computer doesn't actually do anything for you, just makes it easier to fix mistakes (I exaggerate). Everything's changed since we started using computers to composite or paint cels. Very few, if any, even draw on cels (acetate) anymore, for that matter. The borders of "traditional" filmcraft are being redrawn every day here.

The storyboard wound up being drawn by four people. According to Tekkon's official site, the rough breakdown is as follows. Shojiro Nishimi handled the scenes involving Kuro and the action scenes; Chie Uratani handled the scenes involving Shiro; Masahiko Kubo handled the scenes involving Hebi and the yakuza; and Hiroaki Ando handled the "image scene". Why was the storyboard split up this way? Do you feel splitting up the storyboard added richness to the film?

I did two sets of boards for the whole film, one before the project had officially started, and another during pre-production, while Nishimi was doing his character designs and Kimura was designing sets and doing concept art. These were both rough things, thumbnails really, but they were very useful in explaining the project to my main staff. I'm a terrible draftsman so they were not so useful from a production standpoint, but they were a step forward from the script. As soon as you start thinking visually you begin to look at a project in very practical terms - how many shots, what has to be drawn, alternate approaches to staging. But I knew these boards would have to be done "properly" before we started our layouts.

There were a couple of reasons for splitting up the production boards.

First, we had spent more time designing than expected - everything about the project, from the color scheme, to the planned use of CG for backgrounds, vehicles, and crowds, had to be tested thoroughly before bringing more people on. And splitting the storyboard workload seemed a natural time-saving move.

Next, I wanted to emphasize the contrast between White (Shiro) and Black (Kuro), and I thought asking Nishimi and Uratani to work in parallel on those two sides of the story would naturally give us something akin to having two camera operators shooting different sequences. Even though I discussed everything in great detail with each of them before beginning a particular sequence, their opposing sensibilities would show in their their framing, etc. Nishimi really has a great feel for action and big set pieces, but Uratani has the most delicate touch of all when it comes to character drama, dialog, the subtle and quiet (she really is incredible).

Kubo came on, like Uratani, as an assistant animation supervisor, and it seemed like a waste of his talent just to have him doing vehicle and mecha design while the others were storyboarding. He's kind of a hardboiled stoic character himself, so giving him the yakuza and Snake sequences was perfect. Those sequences do, in fact, comprise their own subplot.

Ando's storyboarding, unfortunately, didn't really get much play. I had initially asked him to storyboard the first of White's underwater sequences and a couple of other odds and ends. But the underwater sequence he did ended up being cut together from the other underwater sequence (Uratani storyboards), and most of his other scenes dropped from the film. Only the scene of the yakuza meeting up with the police in Tekkon's first reel is based on his boards. He's a powerhouse though. I initially asked him to come on as CG supervisor when his wife, our original CG super, found out she was pregnant. But I think he was a bit fried from Steam Boy's CG duties and wanted to concentrate on the animation side of the project. He did so much work in so many different departments I asked that he be credited as co-director. He's extremely talented, and a great fellow. And our eventual CG supervisor, Sakamoto, worked out wonderfully as well.

I boarded a few scenes myself - some special-effects-heavy shots and then, of course, the Minotaur "hell" sequence, though that wasn't my original intention. I had first asked Morimoto to come in as a special guest and direct that entire sequence. But we waited a year and got only a few pieces of concept art. And the clock was ticking - very much down to the wire at this point and still no ending for the movie! In the end, he was just too busy on other projects and, I suspect, didn't feel like working on someone else's film. But to his credit, I used all of the art he did as jumping-off points for my boards. He really does have a unique vision and an amazing imagination.

I guess storyboarding like this violates everyone's expectations of a director of animation. Miyazaki, Kon, Otomo, and Morimoto, among others, work all the problems out before stepping into the studio. At least people imagine they do (the reality being more complex). But I wanted to do something differently here, something that would take advantage of these talents, rather than confining them to animation supervisor work - a crucial element in making a film like this but also, as it happens, a very tedious job (correcting others' mistakes, redrawing characters one keyframe at a time). Uratani went as far as to say that the storyboarding was her favorite part of the job. And I asked Kubo to animate the Minotaur sequence in part because he seemed so frustrated doing his supervisor job.

I wanted to do things differently. And, because it was my first time, but also because I had such willing co-conspirators, it was easy for me to break rules (with storyboards but certainly also with our camera work). You have that freedom, that challenge, on a feature film (television has very different constraints of course). Otomo once said to me and Nishimi, "if you're not doing things differently you shouldn't even bother". He was a great inspiration to us in a very practical sense: every time Nishimi and I were feeling down we'd go have a drink with him, and he was never short of pearls like that.

Incidentally, Uratani, Nishimi, and Kubo, all did quite a bit of key animation on top of their work as supervisors. Kubo animated the final Minotaur "hell" sequence as well as the fight in the yakuza office. And Uratani, in the end, was our most prolific animator.

Tekkon was seen by a lot of people in Japan. How did you feel about this, and how did Japanese audiences react to the film?

It's great. The movie was a great success here and I'm sure the DVD will do well also. Very gratifying.

Do you think you could have gotten Tekkon made into a feature-length animated feature anywhere else?

No. Believe me, I thought about it. Certainly from a technical standpoint, Japan is the only place to make a movie like this. But I think Japanese audiences are particularly receptive to this kind of film. People here, even "average" movie audiences, are really very sophisticated in their appreciation of animated cinema. At one point I shopped the project around Hollywood and, though everyone liked the pilot, I got some very strange suggestions: change White to a girl, make the characters older and make the story a romance, etc.

What do you want audiences to get from the film?

Tekkon has an important (and obvious) message about the power of creation and imagination over destruction. That message is both eternal and particularly relevant in the times we live in. Like Black, so many young people today are looking for something solid to hold on to, something to believe in. But if we can each find meaning in our love for another, even someone like White, then I think there's hope for the world.

It's been 12 years since you first read Tekkon Kinkreet. What are your future plans now that your long odyssey with Tekkon Kinkreet is winding down?

Hard to say what I'll be doing next. If the powers that be see fit, I'd like to make a live-action film and try out some of things I did with Tekkon that way. The time and money at stake when one's doing animation make experimentation a challenge. But then, if that goes well, I think another animated feature. But that's thinking way ahead and I've never been good at foreseeing where I'll be and what I'll be doing years down the line.

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
Roy and Nita Titus Theaters 1 & 2
Wed 4/25 (T1), Thurs 4/26 (T2), Fri 4/27 (T2) - 8:30 pm
Sat 4/28 (T2), Sun 4/29 (T2) - 2:00 pm
Mon 4/30 (T2) - 8:30 pm

Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Laemmle’s Sunset 5
Sun 5/6 - 5:00 pm

Hawaii International Film Festival
Dole Cannery
Thurs 4/26 2007 - 8:45 pm

› Tekkon Kinkreet Official Website
› PingMag Interview with Eiko Tanaka (22 Nov 2006)
› Animation Insider article

TEKKONKINKREET © Aniplex, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Shogakukan, Beyond C., Dentsu, Tokyo MX

Monday, April 16, 2007

05:53:00 pm , 1152 words, 3287 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, OVA, post-Akira

Green Legend Ran etc

Last night I had a chance to watch a selection of the Academy Award nominees (and winner) for animated shorts. The only one that left any real impression on me was the one that deservedly won the award, The Danish Poet, a witty, wistful, wise little handmade film that leaves you very satisfied. Almost all of the other films were ultra-polished CGI studio films, none of which had anything new to say, so it's all the more sweet a victory for Torill Kove. Bill Plympton's Guide Dog was fun, but it felt like a step down from Guard Dog, without the wonderful, savage satirical bite of the original. Of the CG films, the Hungarian film Maestro was surprisingly the most satisfying one. Usually CG animation seems to always be patterned after US theatrical productions, but this one was different, a formally simple film with a simple punchline, which is precisely why it was satisfying. Other films like One Rat Short were undoubtedly very well made, but I guess I tend to favor films that do much with little.

The animation of the first ep of Tsutomu Mizushima's new baseball series was typically highly worked, but what really caught my eye was all of the bits involving actual baseball playing. There was a separate post for "action animation director", so clearly they must have someone in there as the specialist working on just those scenes, studying actual baseball movement and applying that knowledge to the animation. It's nice to see that they're obviously taking the baseball animation seriously. Seeing this reminds me that I'd like to be able to see more of Samurai Giants to compare, as this was one of the more memorable takes on baseball animation of a few decades ago. I loved the animation in the op/ed by Otsuka. I'd be curious if Samurai Giants was some kind of an influence or distant memory.

I also recently had a chance to re-watch yet another old favorite of mine, Green Legend Ran, which I remember buying from Pioneer on LD back in the days they were among the first companies to put out good bilingual LDs in the west. I'm not sure how the staff that made this 3-OVA series got together, but it's an excellent group all around, spearheaded of course of Tatsuyuki Tanaka, who gave the world its foundation with his image boards. Animators include Shinji Hashimoto, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, Nobutoshi Ogura, Hisashi Ezura, Atsushi Wakabayashi. Apart from an underwhelming ending, it was a strong effort overall. The directing is great, the story is compelling and well told, and the animation is excellent and still exciting to watch. Watching it make me wonder how it came about that ten years later seemingly nobody wants to draw this style of animation anymore, with these simple characters and a focus on creating fun, exciting movement. It's one of the few attempts I've seen at creating an original sci-fi fantasy on a grand scale in the vein of Conan that actually worked. Telecom was obviously attempting just such a thing with Secret of Cerulean Sand, and watching Ran threw into relief why Secret of Cerulean Sand didn't work.

The animation is satisfying in each ep, though it's interesting to note how it differs from ep to ep. Ep 1 is by far the richest, with lots of nuanced work throughout. It's the one where you feel the strongest that this is a film produced by some of the young staff that just got finished working on Akira. It inherits that film's spirit of movement. This is perhaps the episode that stands up best to viewing after all these years precisely because the it's full of a kind of realistic-tinged, full, highly worked movement that was a product of that era and seems to have mostly disappeared these days. The one scene in the series that stayed imprinted in my memory over the years was the last one in ep 1, among the ruins. I wonder who did it. Perhaps Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, as I remember he did similarly nuanced full movement in Akira just before. Ran gesticulating with those huge hands seems like something he might have done. The highlight of the much more restrained and still second ep is the mecha animation. I suspected Shuichi Kaneko might have been involved, but it seems it was due to Hisashi Ezura, who was mecha AD of the ep. Makes sense. I notice he was listed top in ep 3 of Guren, so I'm looking forward to seeing that. The ep doesn't come across as being parsimonious in the animation department despite not nearly as much movement going on because the story is well told. A good positive example that you don't have to be jam-packed with great animation to leave a good impression. Good directing sprinkled with good bits of animation achieves a satisfying balance. The torture sequence was rather surprising for its time and left a strong impression on me. Ep 3 was more movemented, but differently from the first, more restrained and focused, without that flowing movement and very liberal use of drawings of the first ep. Takeshi Honda and Nobutoshi Ogura were co-ADs.

Speaking of Secret of Cerulean Sand, I just got finished watching it, and one ep stood out as noteworthy in the sense that I can't help wishing the rest of the series had been up to its level - #19, one of Hiroyuki Aoyama's episodes. I felt it showed off Aoyama's genius well, because it showed him deliberately emulating that awesome vibe of the old Telecom stuff, and doing it better than the people working alongside him who were the ones who made the best of the old Telecom stuff, like one who had learned from the master and surpassed him. I only knew him to be a great animator before this, but this seems a good example that the best animators like him often have it in them to become the best directors. Mitsuo Iso will soon add his name to those ranks. I could see Aoyama making a great film. He creates a perfect flow of action seemingly effortlessly. He feels like a natural. The framing and the timing of each shot is never haphazard, it always feels very thought out without being preoccupied with stylistics. It's a good example of directing overcoming the limitations of the material. Kazuhide Tomonaga's eps (10 15 18 25) had an exceptional feeling of flow, sprinkled with lots of moments of extremely well thought out and clever action typical of him, and Yoshinobu Michihata backed him up perfectly in each ep in bringing the action scenes to life in very free and fun animation, but in the end even the work of this golden Telecom duo doesn't quite have the impact of Aoyama's episodes. Aoyama's work oozes drama and control at every moment.

I must say I'm saddened to hear of Kurt Vonnegut's death. His books meant a lot to me.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

02:33:14 am , 129 words, 1704 views     Categories: Animation

Mori in Guren 2

Been playing catch-up with the 20+ some new shows, but not terribly impressed by anything so far, with a few minor exceptions - Takahiro Yoshimatsu's Oh Edo, which had a nice subdued gag sense and enjoyable designs, and Tensai Okamura's Darker Than Black. I find his restrained, assured pacing fairly watchable. Mori turned up more quickly than expected in Guren, in ep 2. The explosion was fantastic. Felt like the first time in a long time, at least since Iso's explosion in Blood, that I'd felt someone coming up with a new and exciting take on the explosion. His other big shot was typical Mori with all of the strange shapes and flat colors and odd timing. My vote for best Engrish title of season goes to Kiss Dum Engage Planet.

Monday, April 2, 2007

04:01:25 pm , 634 words, 1367 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie, TV

Misc viewing

Hisashi Mori took a stab at designing in two shows in recent years, so I've been curious to have a look at his work as designer to see how it might compare to his work as an animator. In Samurai 7 it seems like he must have designed some of those bizarrely shaped villagers, as it's rare to see such strange shapes in characters in anime. In Speed Grapher he animated a bit with a crazy dentist who had a very strange design that looked Mori from the hilt, so I assumed he must have designed him as well, and that was indeed the case. Mori also designed two other "euphoria" forms, the rubber guy in ep 1 and the diamond lady in ep 6, though he didn't animate them like the dentist so in the final product they retain none of the flavor of his lines. Mori's got a very unique line, and given the look of the rest of the series it's not really a suprise, but it still strikes me as a bit of a waste. Ebihara designed the vehicles and Okuno the props.

I watched the GITS SAC movie after reading that Masayuki Yoshihara had been involved. I'm always curious to see what the results will be when someone who I know to be a great animator applies his animation-based talent to a rather different type of creation. In the best cases they can turn into truly great directors. There's something about that grounding in animation that seems to make a big difference in the level of dedication brought to the task, the knowledge of how to manipulate the various details of the screen to achieve the best effect, and how to make the animation the vehicle of the story. Watching the film, the one section that stood out as feeling quite nice with great timing, textures, framing and pacing was the section around the sniping, which, no surprise, turned out to be the section directed by Yoshihara. It stood out quite starkly and made me wish I could see a whole film done in that tone.

The first ep of Gainax's new show Guren Lagann was just as hopped up and impressive as I'd expected, the animation throughout fun and full of nice typically Gainax jumpy movement, the textures and colors and effects on the screen highly worked in typical late Gainax fashion, and of course the ep full of the crazy cutting and directing of Imaishi. I'd expect nothing less of Imaishi. It was tremendously fun and well done, though on the other hand there wasn't much that surprised there either. They're clearly adhering to a time-tested formula, like the recent remake of Gaiking, though with more of a wink and a nudge. The real surprise was to see animation by Hisashi Mori in the opening. Does this mean we can hope to see some animation from him in the show itself? He animated the transformation in the middle, which seems to kind of suggest that if they let him do that, they might have him do some of the robot action in the show itself. Or so I'm hoping. It would make sense, because of course Mori started out as a mecha guy. The action here reminded a bit of the action he drew in Big O ep 15. He's made amazing progress in the last few years, so it would be great to see how he'd handle a big chunk of mecha action now. It would definitely blow away the mecha stuff he'd done before judging by the bit in the op. I'm impressed that they had the guts to call in Mori. I don't know why, but he isn't credited, though there isn't a doubt in my mind that it's him. And so the barrage of spring shows begins.