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, 24

Saturday, July 24, 2010

01:57:56 pm , 1775 words, 9258 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

Animators:
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.