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: July 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

08:46:11 am , 169 words, 3526 views     Categories: Animation

Lei Lei @ TED

Chinese indie animation powerhouse Lei Lei (AKA Ray) has been busy the last few years since he made The Face, as witness the various videos he's uploaded on his Vimeo account.

One of those is a brief TED talk he gave in Shanghai a few months back. An inspiring statement of firm sense of purpose from one of China's most prominent and creative indie animators at the moment. Looking forward to seeing more strong voices like his emerging from the country, something with a perspective neither western nor anime-influenced, but personal and informed of the history of a different culture with a different baggage of history and outlook.

The animator as a one-man studio, animation as a form of personal expression to sort out ideas that float around in your head, not as a product, inspired by travels around the world and meeting people, sharing the experience of living life, and the vitality to modestly limit oneself to "at most 3 films a year". Brief statements of purpose worth sharing.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

01:57:56 pm , 1775 words, 9293 views     Categories: Animation

Wakfu bonus ep

One of the things people have been bringing up in my last post on what you want to see in anime is the idea of cross-pollination of animation cultures - the idea of exposing the talented animators in Japan to the style of working of, say, Disney, or France, or wherever there is a strong method of doing things that is completely different but that could help to expand the palette of the Japanese style of doing things. The Japanese approach can produce magnificent results that can't be produced elsewhere, but methods anywhere are at risk of stultification without constant renewal. While there are artists doing a kind of work in the Japanese industry that could never be done in any other industry, I also get the feeling of a lack of progress being made in the last few years, especially in comparison with the leaps and bounds in expression that I see coming from other countries lately, most notably France.

This is why I'm completely in agreement with the idea of exposing animators trained in one tradition to another tradition that was brought up in the comments of the last post. And it cuts both ways; it doesn't just apply to Japanese animators. We live in a unique time when it's easier than ever to create new hybrids and discover new approaches to animation through collaboration, and it would be a waste not to take advantage of those opportunities. Animators from whichever western tradition could certainly stand to expand their range by studying the very different but equally valid approach used in Japan.

A project recently completed by Ankama Japan, the Japanese offshoot of French studio Ankama, seems salient to this discussion. It's a one-off episode to their hit series Wakfu that looks completely different from the rest of the series. The series was done by the home French team in Flash, with blatantly anime-influenced character designs, situations and atmosphere. The extra episode is animated traditionally, and is actually produced by a Japanese team, but looks nothing like the stereotypical image of what anime supposedly looks and feels like. (kind of ironic)

This episode is very much of a must-see. It's a beautiful episode viewed as a stand-alone, and it represents an ambitious new style of co-production, featuring as it does the main staff behind Kemonozume and Kaiba working at a French studio with French staff, creating a never-before-seen kind of hybrid. Here's the main credits:

Noximilien the Clockmaker

Storyboard and director: Eunyoung Choi
Character design: Masaaki Yuasa
Animation director: Michio Mihara
Color design: Kunio Tsujita

Michio Mihara, Christophe Ferreira
Masahiko Kubo, Miki Wasada
Hiromi Hata, Eriko Kubokawa
Antoine Antin, Yoshiya Fujisaki
Alex Ulmann, Yann Legall

I've seen the film, and visually it feels very much like an extension of Kemonozume and Kaiba in terms of the directing, animation and layout sensibility. The designs of the kid characters feel very Kaiba-ish. The fact that it's a hybrid production comes through I'd say mostly in the animation and the story, which was written by the French side. (And the voice acting, which was a little overdone at times for my taste.) Overall it feels like it's got a more character-animation-centric feeling to the presentation, and much of the animation has a particular kind of nuanced acting that you don't find in anime. Unlike most co-productions I've seen, this one really feels like it works as a film, and that's obviously because it had an awesomely talented team heading it, and they were given full creative control.

Some of the animation feels distinctly French and some feels distinctly Japanese. I would have liked to feel that the animation was more of a blend of the two overall, rather than distinct sections by different groups - more active learning from one another, striving to incorporate something from the other's approach. For example, the sections animated by Michio Mihara and Masahiko Kubo are very obvious, as each is done in their unmistakable style (Kubo in the wobbly style he used in the Minotaur scene at the end of Tekkonkinkreet), while for example the far more supple, weighty and nuanced character animation during the first sequence seems clearly to have been the work of one of the French animators.

But I don't want to overstate that gripe. This episode does a great job of blending two cultures' very different concept of good hand-drawn animation in a harmonic way in the same film, creating a film that shows how beautiful 'classical' or 'hand-drawn' animation (whatever you want to call it) can be, in its various guises, which was Choi Eunyoung's stated goal with this film. It shows that the twain can meet and produce beautiful offspring. This film feels fresh and warm and has a richness of animation that's unusual even for a Yuasa production, and in that sense it shows a new approach to creating an animated film, though of course Yuasa has expanded the range of character acting in anime in many of his TV episodes.

One gripe I have in general is with the idea of an 'anime style'. I don't think there's any such thing as an anime style; there are only conventions rehashed by people without the talent to come up with something of their own. This applies to any animation industry. You can find plenty of people working in anime who do not espouse an obviously anime style - you wouldn't call Yuasa's or Choi's or Mihara's style typical anime style. They have come up with their own approach.

I like this Nox project because it shows an understanding that what makes anime great is not the lowest common denominator, but the talented artists. Co-productions like this are only fruitful when they are genuine, heartfelt collaborations between talented artists from different traditions attempting to learn from one another for their mutual growth. It's not just about randomly combining Japanese and French or other production methods, or using a Japanese studio to animate something because it's the cool thing to do. It should be about a meeting of great minds. I admire this project because the producers of Ankama clearly have a creator-centric approach to their projects - obviously, if they were willing to greenlight this episode that clashes aesthetically with the rest of the series.

I think this was a laudable project for many reasons, most notably because the spirit of this project was mutual exchange of animation knowhow - not just farming out the animation to Japan and letting them do their thing. The people heading the project at Ankama were genuinely interested in learning from their counterparts while also communicating something about their own approach in the process. It's more projects like this we need to see, though I doubt there are many studios with not just the money but the willingness to go to such lengths to create a site for the meeting of two animation cultures that would also be used to produce some commercially viable films. This extra episode is a great first step in that direction, because it does work as a film, and it has a particular visual style that in some senses neither side could have been able to create by themselves.

There's a good documentary on the making here that I recommend checking out to learn about how this project came about, though it's in French with no subs. (If you don't understand French, you can always skip to the 14-minute mark, where Choi herself speaks in English.)

The way this mysterious project came about is that Anthony Roux, Ankama's founder, was in Japan when he met Choi Eunyoung, and invited her to come visit Ankama France. She herself then invited Masaaki Yuasa and Michio Mihara to come along, and all of them went there for a visit in January 2009. After that, 25 French animators went to Ankama Japan, where they were charged with directing two episodes in 3 months using Japanese methods. I think it's after this that Choi was appointed to direct the extra episode. She presumably asked Yuasa to provide the designs. Choi Eunyoung says that she had worked with Eddie Mehong, the studio's artistic director, on projects before, which is perhaps how she got appointed to direct the extra episode. Choi is a preternaturally talented lady, as shown by the great work she did right from her first job animating on Kemonozume and her first job directing on Kaiba, but I think her multi-cultural experience and training helped a lot. Exposure to different cultures and modes of thought is something that everyone should be blessed with, whether they're working in animation or otherwise. Even if a project like this doesn't produce that interesting results, it can still be a very valuable experience to the people involved and eventually maybe bear fruit.

There was apparently some exchange of technique between them and Michio Mihara on one of the Flash episodes of Wakfu (#22?), with Mihara drawing genga and his genga being scanned and transferred to Flash to be animated. Eddie Mehong comments how it was hard finding Japanese animators willing to work in Flash. You can see Miki Wasada interviewed about her experiences working in Flash, saying how it's faster and easier to stay on model but it loses the looseness and freedom of hand-drawn. She also makes an interesting observation about the difference in directing styles - she was surprised how she was assigned to do a section from 'here to here', and was pretty much on her own from there on out for everything within that section, because the Japanese method would entail a lot more back-and-forth with the director and other staff about what do do and how. It was clearly a learning experience for everyone involved, which can only be a good thing.

Quick note about the animators, since the Japanese names are all familiar names who have been working with Yuasa for years now, but the French animators might be less familiar: Christophe aka lebuta we of course know as the Frenchman who worked at Telecom on Soul Eater among other things. Several of the others have also worked on productions in Japan - Yann Legall worked in Japan at Satelight in 2008 (his blog) and Alexandre Ulmann worked on Casshern Sins (one of his student films). Antoine Antin co-directed Papillon (2002), a nice little Japan-inspired short.

There was a lot of wonderful work throughout this film, but I really loved the opening scene in particular for its combination of richly nuanced animation in the French style with the Japanese style designs, staging and directing. Otherwise there was some gorgeous art, especially of the bizarrely morphing mad studio at the end.

Monday, July 12, 2010

08:13:45 pm , 347 words, 10703 views     Categories: Animation

What do you want to see in anime?

I'm going to try to finish blogging Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei soon, but in the meantime this question popped into my head a few days ago, and got me thinking. I'm pretty much dissatisfied with most anime that's made, and I'll occasionally see something (animated or otherwise) and think, "THIS is what I'd like to see in anime."

One thing I'd like to see is more stuff like Cat Soup - lavishly produced shorts spearheaded a unique artist, filled head to toe with inventive animation and designs, adopting narrative structures that have never been explored in anime, exploring interesting themes without relying on industry tropes and cliches.

In a longer format, I'd like to see more believable down-to-earth drama like Haibane Renmei exploring a serious subject of relevance to us human beings, but with more realistic designs. I'd like to see something without an audience-pandering gimmick - be it anime-style designs or sci-fi trappings - something completely real life.

I'd like to see international collaborations where the Japanese side directs and does everything else, but foreign animators do the animation - not outsourced, but working in Japan. I'd like to see more Japanese animators spend a year in some foreign country learning a non-Japanese approach to expand their palette.

And so on. I pretty much know the reason WHY stuff like this isn't made more often - that's not the question. I just want to plumb the depths and figure out what it is I REALLY want to see, not what I compromise and watch because it was produced and is decent. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels this way. We all have a director in our heads who has ideas about what would be interesting, what it is that truly interests YOU but that you've never seen addressed in anime. I want to hear some dreams of alternate realities. For once, don't compromise.

So, open question to all the people out there who, like me, AREN'T satisfied with what they see in anime:

What is it you really want to see in anime?

Monday, July 5, 2010

01:13:51 am , 1537 words, 7768 views     Categories: Animation

Naruto Shippuuden #167

I've always considered fighting anime the low road to success as a studio, and Pierrot the king of that road, but at the same time can't deny that these long-running hit shounen shows have been a good training ground for directors and animators. Action and FX animation is one of the few indisputable strengths of anime, and every once in a while on these shows an episode with genuinely interesting animation crops up (it'd be way beyond the means available to do such quality anything but sporadically over such a long-running show).

The most recent episode in Pierrot's Naruto franchise has one of the mainstays of the shounen fighting anime, Atsushi Wakabayashi, who cut his chops on Pierrot's first hit show in the genre, Yu Yu Hakusho (1992-1995), returning to prime form with another action-packed episode that moves something crazy from almost start to finish.

It's nice to have Wakabayashi back in the director's seat on the show. It's been 5 years since his last episode. Love him or hate him, he's one of the most unique and unmistakable voices in the genre. I never expected to see him back. There has been the occasional action extravaganza episode, in which after a span of a few dozen episodes we finally get some animation, but none of them have had the impact of the legendary Naruto episode #133 by Atsushi Wakabayashi. This one is every bit the equal of Wakabayashi's previous episodes. However, due to the different staff involved, it doesn't feel quite as polished. What it lacks in polish it makes for in an exciting, densely packed onslaught of kinetic action animation.

It wouldn't be an Atsushi Wakabayashi episode without Norio Matsumoto, and indeed he again leads the animators. For once, though, Norio Matsumoto is not the only talented action animator involved. He is joined by Shingo Yamashita and Kenichi Kutsuna, two young ex-gif animators who have been associated with Norio Matsumoto and Satoru Utsunomiya since they started working. Yamashita in particular has been doing some very impressive action lately. They in turn are joined by an army of seconds, which complicates making a straight breakdown of scenes, although I felt pretty sure about Norio Matsumoto's sections. In a strange coincidence, many of the seconds here were involved in the Shingo Natsume episode of Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei that just aired.

The shots with the explosions were quite beautiful, and there was a lot of action choreography on water that felt similar to #133, which I suspect to have been the work of Norio Matsumoto. Overall I'd say this episode hasn't overtaken #133 in my heart, because #133 felt better balanced overall, and had a larger proportion of Matsumoto animation. Though I was impressed by most of the animation in the episode when I watched it for the first time, on rewatching this episode, I find myself less and less convinced by much of the animation, with the notable exception of the sections obviously by Norio Matsumoto.

For a while now one of my favorite shots by Shingo Yamashita - or what I've assumed to be so - has been the one of Naruto transforming into a beast in the previous Naruto Shippuuden opening, so it's interesting to see him here animating that very material. Maybe they were already working on this episode at the time that opening was done, and they did that as kind of an easter egg. Although I don't have a total grasp of Yamashita's style, he seems to manage a decent level of draftsmanship, unlike some of the ex gif animators I've seen. One problem I have with these ex-gif animators is that they overuse wobbly body movement, as if making the character wobble around were sufficient to make a movement look realistic. I find it surprising that they haven't learned from Matsumoto how to use drawings more efficiently.

There were a number of shots that stood out in a bad way, unfortunately. I think it's great that there is a generation of younger animators who got into the industry because they want to make things move, but I've been of mixed feelings about the sort of work they've been doing over the last few years, notably on certain episodes of Birdy. Rather than developing into a certain style, the way Norio Matsumoto did, I feel that they're striving to mimic a certain feeling in the movement that they've seen in the work of the great mover animators like Norio Matsumoto, without having the patience to do what's necessary to acquire the knowhow underpinning that talent over many years of hard work. It feels like they're putting the cart before the horse.

Thus we have scenes of action that are actually quite ambitious in their choreography, but are rendered nearly unwatchable due to their poor draftsmanship. Simply put, I think this generation is missing training in fundamentals. That, and I find there to be a slight unproffesionalism in their work. It's like they're just playing around making gif loops as usual, without the cognizance that they are in a group effort situation that demands at least some level of adaptation to the circumstance. I feel very torn to say this, because up until these guys appeared, unhinged exuberance of this kind is something I always used to welcome unconditionally in anime episodes, even if it didn't really work, and even if it worked against the episode that contained it. With these guys, for once, for some reason, I feel it crosses a line. It's simply not good or interesting enough to pull it off.

Wakabayashi's episodes have have been criticized for having poor drawings in the past. Mostly the criticisms have been laughably ignorant of the nature of animation - picking a split-second inbetween from a very fast motion that the eye doesn't even register discretely unless you pause it. Matsumoto's drawings in 133 were deformed a certain way to achieve an effect in motion, and the effect when viewed as intended is flawless. Take any of those drawings out and the animation would lose its intended impact.

This case is different. Some of the shots in here attempt to convey the feeling of a character doing an intense action by using excessively deformed drawings, but the animator doesn't have the skill to pull it off, and it just looks sloppy. That sketchy shot in particular was very hard to watch. And the shot of the guy getting punched in the face seemed like a pale attempt to imitate the very well executed and memorable face-punch in episode 71 of the original Naruto series. It's unfortunate that this time I can't deny that some of those drawings are misfires that probably shouldn't have made it into the final product, and not all of the movements are flawless Norio Matsumoto creations. There were a lot of seconds, so I wonder how the work is broken down.

One thing that I find amusing and does not bother me in the slightest is how little effort was apparently put into some of the still shots that are interspersed between the action scenes - it looks like Wakabayashi spent exactly three seconds on them (three seconds that he would have preferred devoting to the action scenes). Those drawings are about the only moments this episode resembled the usual Naruto. Sure, Wakabayashi has an odd drawing style, but I find it's not Wakabayashi's drawings that are criticized in his episodes so much as the drawings taken out of context in a movement. If it weren't for the legitimately bad drawings in this episode in particular, I'd say it wasn't the drawings so much as the fact that there is a lot more animation than usual that strikes the regular viewers as being incongruous in Wakabayashi's episodes. Though of course he does change the material a bit and isn't as concerned with mimicking the style of the manga. Production studio Pierrot is obviously proud of the work Wakabayashi does for their show if they keep inviting him to do episodes again.

I'd like to see an episode like this from Wakabayashi not in Naruto for once - something with an interesting universe, creative designs and a self-contained story. Here the action just sort of trails off due to the necessity to process the material he's been provided from his alloted section of the manga. And I don't really feel that Wakabayashi's very idiosyncratic drawings are best suited to mimicing someone else's drawings. I'd like to see his exaggerated style of drawing allowed to come through more. In Naruto he has to suppress the unique flavor of his drawings way too much, which is a complete waste.

Here's a list of some of the more notable Naruto action episodes over the years:

Naruto #30 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2003)
Naruto #48 (dir. Toshiyuki Tsuru, 2003)
Naruto #71 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2004)
Naruto #133 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2005)
Naruto Shippuuden #85 (dir. Toshiyuki Tsuru, 2008)
Naruto Shippuuden #123 (dir. Toshiyuki Tsuru, 2009)
Naruto Shippuuden #131 (dir. Akitoshi Yokoyama, 2009)
Naruto Shippuuden #143 (dir. Atsushi Nigorikawa, 2010)
Naruto Shippuuden #167 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2010)

Staff for Naruto Shippuuden #167

Storyboard, Director and Animation Director: Atsushi Wakabayashi

Key animators:
Norio Matsumoto, Shingo Yamashita, Kenichi Kutsuna, Atsushi Wakabayashi

Second key animators:
Tomoyuki Niho, Kenichi Fujisawa, Shintaro Douge, Yasuyuki Kai
Takeo Oda, Shingo Natsume, Miyako Matsumoto, Atsuko Yamazaki
Kasumi Wada
Go Hands