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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Category: Interview

Monday, July 16, 2012

09:47:00 am , 6028 words, 16942 views     Categories: Animation, Interview

Interview with Bahi JD

Today I have the privilege of bringing you an interview with our very own homegrown pro animator, Bahi JD, who in a matter of a few years has gone from drawing gifs on the forum for fun to animating in high-profile anime productions like Kids on the Slope. Bahi's achievement is unique. Foreigners have infiltrated the ranks for a while now, but Bahi is a telecommuting animator in Austria who, with no formal training, managed to find a place for himself in the industry essentially through the infectious force of his enthusiasm for animation. I think part of the reason for Bahi's success is that he's inspired by the fundamental power of movement that pulses through the veins of all of the master animators of Japan, not a slavish copier of surface anime features. He's an inspiration showing that it can be done if you have the talent and just sit down and animate and show that you can do it.


Ben: How did you first become interested in animation?

Bahi: Hehe, this question pulls me back into my first childhood memories. XD I don't have any clear memories from that time, but I'm sure this process started before my school time. At the time I enjoyed lots of Japanese cartoons like Nippon Animation's "World Masterpiece Theater" shows as example and all the other cartoons from the west and east that many kids were watching.

But the key for me to understanding and getting interested in animation even more came when my parents gave me a flipbook with a car on it. By flipping it over and over and watching all the pictures make that car move, I started to kind of think about the process behind cartoons and I really enjoyed making this car move, so I became interested in making my own flipbook and making my own characters move and tell a story. I was already drawing a lot at that time and it was very exciting for me to make my drawings move, they would feel more alive.

I did my first flipbook on the side of my maths book during boring school lessons. It was a simple animation with a character on the bottom and a 10 ton heavy Weight above his head bound on a string, and you know how this was going to end up. But while the string was detaching, the character was trying to eat a fly like a frog. The book had over 200 pages, so I had a lot of fun with it and each year they added 50 more pages to the new books.

Ben: So we have your parents to thank for getting you interested in animation. Tell me a little bit about how you went from drawing your first flipbook to creating your first gif animation, the famous Shithead Action. Were you creating flipbooks the whole time up until you created Shithead Action?

Bahi: Ah! No, actually after the flipbooks in my school books, nothing was really happening. I was just drawing around and creating some crappy animations on paper. But I had discovered animation like Akira, Jin-Roh, Ghost in the Shell and Mononoke Hime so I was still highly interested in animation, only problem was that I knew nothing about anything. The real revolution and progress began in 2007 for me when I was 16. At that time I discovered this video on Youtube about an animator named Shinya Ohira.

After that, my whole view about animation changed into someting way bigger. I still consider Ohira one of the greatest animators in the history of commercial animation. After I discovered "sakuga MADs" through Ohira's video, it was like a huge explosion full of awesome animators. Mitsuo Iso, Toshiyuki Inoue, Yutaka Nakamura... etc etc (the list goes on) And right after I discovered sakuga, I discovered Anipages, where I finally find out about these genius people behind all the wonderful animations. haha it's kind of crazy and funny how we are doing this interview exactly on the place where everything began for me with the gifs XD.

The gif-animations and Shithead Action began with an article you wrote called Looking for gif animators (where you also mentioned Ryo-Chimo) and on this thread opened by Huw Millar.

You can just scroll down through the pages and see how Shithead Action was born, (; ^0^) lol. After I was introduced to easy toon through Huw M's thread, I couldn't stop animating with this software! Inspired by many great animators, we started creating lots of fun and experimental animations on Anipages. Then I started working on Shithead Action without any plans. I just drew frame by frame and I had so much fun that I couldn't stop working on this gif.

Suddenly it became over 2 minutes long and the software couldn't handle it anymore XD, so I had to end the story. Shithead Action gif-animation opened lots of doors for me, animators all around the world were inspired by the animation & enjoyed it a lot, I was really happy about it. At that time, I also met many young Japanese animators through the web who are still very close friends of mine, and I worked with some of them recently on Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku".

Ben: Considering it was one of your first attempts at animation, and your first gif animation, Shithead Action blew us away with all of the good FX animation, complex camerawork and nascent storytelling... Not to mention how ass-kickingly fun it was. Who/what were your influences with Shithead Action, and in general? And how did you animate it? Straight-through, right? Were you studying your favorite animators?

Bahi: Thanks Ben, I really appreciate it to hear that from you. Talking about the influences, I can't really count them.....every sakuga clip that I had seen was floating around in my mind. From FLCL animators to Mitsuo Iso's End of Evangelion scenes to Yoshihiko Umakoshi and Imaishi's scenes in Mamoru Hosoda's One Piece movie to Shinji Hashimoto and Ohira's dynamic camera angles and any other exciting animation work that was produced until that time. The amount of Japanese sakuga influence in this gif animation was really high.

But I didn't want to copy their work, nor to look at them while I was working, although I'm sure I had a lot of these scenes in my mind and I was mixing them all with my own imagination to create something new and exciting. Watching a sakuga mad before starting to work on Shithead Action was like an energy drink for me. Not to mention that I was listening a lot to The Pillows' "Advice (instrumental)" track during work. It was really crazy and I did what I really enjoyed the most and I had lots of time for it. It was summer, I was a teenager with no big responsibilities and nothing was disturbing me in my environment.

Most of it was done straight through. I just jumped into the action, especially on the FX scenes. On some more complex cuts, I had to add or remove drawings. Easytoon was too simple for any complex process. It's just a tool to practice animation. If I thought that the timing wasn't right, I removed or added a drawing. At that time, key animation wasn't bothering me, and I wasn't confronted with issues like full frame, 2s or 3s either. I hadn't read or heard anything about animation and all the definitions, techniques and the process behind it. I hadn't even heard about Richard Williams' "Animator's Survival Kit" at that time... all my knowledge about animating was based on sakuga mads when I worked on Shithead Action. I didn't even know what timing and spacing was, there was only this software and lots of animation material that I watched frame by frame and tried to understand how the movements would work for the viewer.

Ben: It wasn't long after this that you went pro. Was Skullgirls your first professional job? It's a fascinating project - a western fighting game inspired by anime, built of incredibly rich sprite animation. What was it like working on that? Also, what did you animate/how many shots?

Bahi: Yes, Skullgirls was my first professional job that I started in 2011. The team was looking for animators and I contacted them without any big expectations. I knew nothing about the project at that time and when I started, I got really fascinated by the talents being involved in this project. The creative director & designer of Skullgirls, Alex Ahad, had a great response to my email when I applied for the job, because he had already seen Shithead Action, so we were both really happy to get started. But before starting with the work, I did an animation test, which everyone did when they applied for the job. It was a small animation move based on the Character "Filia".

I had a great time working with the Skullgirls team and the team was sharing their ideas altogether. Sometimes we even had Oekaki Chats where we drew concepts for the characters together. Alex Ahad himself is a huge fan of Imaishi and Gainax, so I introduced him more to the individual Japanese animators and Yoshinori Kanada's amazing FX designs.

Game sprite animation is different in many aspects from animating for an animation film, so at the beginning I had to do some research because I'm not a pro in fighting games. There are no cuts, but moves, and each move has a fixed amount of frames/drawings that are split into "Start Up"/"Active"/"End frames". For example, the start up has, let's say, 3 drawings where the character is preparing to punch, active is when the punch hits the opponent, and end frames are the recovery or basically the frames that go back into the idle standard character pose (or just the pulling back of the punch). And sprite animation is usually very quick and fast. There is usually no time to animate reality based Hiroyuki Okiura moves for fighting games, but rather something like Yutaka Nakamura & Kanada or even quicker than that. Fighting games are fast, the characters are mainly fast and so is the animation.

When I started working on Skullgirls, Alex was looking for cool FX animation and he thought I could handle that because he liked the FX on Shithead Action so he gave me the complete responsibility for all the FX animation. I did much FX animation of sparks, dust, smoke and that kind of thing, and the team later worked on them and even did new FX based on my work. When I finished all the FX work, Alex and Mike Z (the programmer and game designer of Skullgirls) decided to give me total freedom on the character Double, a transforming monster with lots of liquid and crazy movements. So I was assigned to animate all of Double's moves, but due to schedule, we split the moves among other animators. The amount of freedom of creativity I had on this character was really huge. Alex gave me 4~5 drawings of Double and some notes about the moves I was assigned to, but everything else was up to me. I really had tremendous fun animating this shape-shifting crazy character. I'm also very glad that they gave me the permission to upload my work, so you can check out my Skullgirls sprites at this link.

Ben: After this I think your next job was Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", right? This is a very surprising project - a cute but quirky anime-style music video directed by an indie PV director and animated by the young generation of sakuga stars. How on earth did this strange thing come about? How did you get involved, what did you animate, and what was it like working on this project?

Bahi: Oh, haha, how I got involved.... Long story. I was friends with Rapparu, Yotube (aka Naoki Yoshibe, aka Luckgaki) and some of the others, I found Takuya Hosogane-san's motion reel on Vimeo and I was really impressed by his work and reblogged it on my Tumblr. So somehow Hosogane found out about my Tumblr and somehow we came in contact. He also worked on the Tatami Galaxy ED, you've probably seen it. And surprisingly, Hosogane was also a good friend of Rapparu XD, we live in a small world! And that's how I met the director of "R".

Some months later, Hosogane and the producer of "R" Yuya Yamaguchi (who's also a nice motion graphics artist) contacted me and asked me if I was interested in working on an animated music video they were planning to do, and that Rapparu, Yotube and Hidessu were also involved. What could be better than working on a project with friends?

Hidessu was the animation supervisor of the project. He's also a very talented young artist. Some might have seen his short film recently on Youtube. So I got involved and there was again a big surprise: Ryo-Chimo and Shingo Yamashita were also participating in the project. So we worked on this music video which was based on the IA Vocaloid character, designed by Ryunosuke-san's Maxilla Team, and composer Jin was working on a new Album, and the team was planning to put the music video as a bonus on the album disk. The song is now Top 10 in some Japanese charts. The character design was originally done by Aka Akasaka but illustrator Name created another new version of the character. It's cool and it fits in my opinion.

Yama-san was our executive advisor the whole time, but he also did key-animation and really gave lots of advice during production. I think Rapparu was in contact with Yama-san, so that's how everyone got involved in this project. Friends asked other friends to participate and it happened. Some other people I knew from earlier that I didn't even know were animators were also involved in the project, as well as many other very great young talents that I had heard about. So it was a great collaboration of the new generation of web-animators. I think some people were still missing haha. There are a lot more people in this circle of animators. Some might also think of Kenichi Kutsuna. Hosogane was inspired by MAD clips on this project, so the more animators, the more fun.

Now let's talk about the real work, I was the only animator outside Japan, but that made no difficulties during work thanks to the power of the internet. My Japanese is still terrible but Yuya and Hosogane speak good English, and Ryunosuke from Maxilla speaks great too, so we had no communication problems. We worked through Skype and Dropbox every day, and everything worked great. We had all our stuff on the web, and we also shared an online time-sheet, which was amazing, because sometimes I could see who was writing his time-sheet on the document live.

The fact that we shared everything together helped me understand the animation process much more, and I really learned a lot during the production, because this was the first animation project I worked on with a professional team. Well, some were rookies, including me, but Yama's knowledge helped me make a lot of improvement. Yama-san had made a layout sheet file in Flash, which almost everyone was doing the key animation on. We mostly did everything digitally in Flash. Sugimoto was one of the few that worked analog. The last cut was done by him, for example. He also made a beautiful short recently, check it out.

For more details about the animators, there is a making of version of the music video which also includes the animator list. And here are the rough versions of my cuts and everything else I did for the music video.

As you can see, there are also some layouts. As usual, the animators also drew the layout/background and final composition for their scenes. I was also in charge of two other layouts that I didn't animate. Hosogane asked me to do them, and it was my pleasure. Zajirogh, the background designer of the project, also did great work. He changed some elements in some of my layouts, and I like his version better.

I animated 4 cuts and each one brings back some fun memories. Especially the grilled sea shell "Hamaguri" (ハマグリ) cut. I was in charge of animating this hamaguri thing, and I really knew nothing about seafood. Seriously, I don't get the chance to eat seafood, and I had never ever eaten or seen hamaguri before. So I was talking with the team and they told me that Hamaguri pops up by itself when it's ready to eat, and I was like "Are they alive while they get grilled?!" and I still don't know the answer. So basically, I went totally retarded when it was about this hamaguri cut, and I just had no idea how to animate it so that it would look believable to the Japanese audience. I went to get some of these and grill them to understand the animation (grill for the sake of animation LOL), but didn't find any that day XD so I wound up animating this hamaguri from my fantasy, and I hope it didn't end up too unreal. XD

But yeah, the Hamaguri scene still gets mentioned in my friends circle XD and Hosogane also talked about it in interviews haha. I just call it the "yoyo fantasy hamaguri". So yup, for me, it was a great pleasure and an honor to work with these great talents and we had lots of fun working on "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", because everyone was just cool and yoyo, we shared all our ideas together and created this music video with Hosogane-san's vision & passion for sakuga mad/amv and I hope that the audience also had fun watching the music video.

Ben: That brings us to your recent and much-talked-about official TV anime debut: Shinichiro Watanabe's Kids on the Slope for MAPPA. You've come a long way in just two years. A prestigious debut by any measure, made all the more remarkable by the fact that you have never inbetweened, and are not even located in Japan. How did you get involved, what shots did you animate, and what was it like working on an actual anime project for the first time?

Bahi: Hmmm, actually the fact that I didn't start as an inbetweener felt at the beginning like a disadvantage for me because, as a key animator, you are cooperating with the inbetween (doga) artist. They have to understand your work to be able to work on it later, so you have to understand them too. But later on, I realized that in my situation it was not a big problem that I had no experience as an inbetweener.

I informed myself about the whole doga process even though I wound up drawing both key animation and inbetweens for Apollon. I just wanted to make sure I knew who was responsible for the inbetween, cleanup and tracing processes, in what kind of environment, and in which studio, because it's always an advantage to know about that before you start with your work. There is a lot to say about the doga process, but let's get started with the main questions haha.

So how did I get involved? Some people say that sometimes things just happen suddenly, but I think nothing happens suddenly. Everything has a long process, and needs some time to happen. This again brings me back to 2009. If I hadn't contacted Cindy Yamauchi-san in 2009, I'm not sure I would be where I am right now. Somehow in 2009 I came across her blog where she talked about very interesting issues about working in the anime industry. I thought that nothing could be better than to get advice about my future career plan as a freelance key animator from an experienced senior animator like her, so I wrote to her and asked basic stuff like, "Is it possible to get a job as a freelancer even if you live in another country?" She replied to me very kindly, and it was the greatest advice that anyone ever gave me, that the simple answer was: "no".

At that time, I was a high school student who was lacking both the social and professional skills needed to survive in such a risky environment. So yup, I needed a lot of experience for this and I went for it. Honestly, I didn't really have high hopes of getting a job the way I have now. I thought it would take much longer than it did. But I still went for it. I just knew someday it would happen if I would continue.

So in 2011 after I was done with my work on Konami's Skullgirls, I was like, "OK, what do I do now?" I was also working on my own animated short film at that time but I needed and wanted a new job to gain more experience among a team of professional artists. So I contacted Yamauchi-san again (I hadn't talked to her since 2009) and she was very happy with my progress during the intervening years. So she decided to give me a chance, and showed my portfolio to producer Masao Morosawa-san, who was also impressed. I was just so happy and excited that it had finally happened.

It was just awesome when I later found out that the project I would be working was being directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, because I'm a huge fan of Samurai Champloo and Animatrix: Kid's Story, they are just one of my all time favorites. It was not the typical Watanabe-san project, but it showed that he really is talented and capable of handling and coming up with great results in any genre. And he has great taste in music. I listen to the Samurai Champloo soundtrack all the time when I'm working. Nujabe's music especially is very relaxing.

I was signed up for episode 7, which featured Yamauchi-san as animation supervisor. I had two options for which cuts to work on: There was one with less action, and less work, and there was a challenging crowd scene. I asked them if it was possible to give me as much action as possible. I chose to work on the crowd scene that was part of the climax of the episode, interspersed with Sentaro and Kaoru's jazz session. It was the most interesting part to me and I thought I would get more experience out of it because I had never done anything like that.

So Nobutaka Ito and I (he animated Sentaro on the drums) were involved in the climactic scene. It was great to see Ito-san's work between my own. This might sound awkward, but I was really proud and honored, because he is such a great artist. Sadly I'm not sure who worked on Kaoru's piano. You can see the whole scene and find some more info about it here. I animated 3 shots, and drew the layout for all 9 of the crowd shots where the students are running and telling each other to come check out the jam session. I will upload the rough animation work and layouts later on my Tumblr blog when I get permission.

I gained so much experience from my first time working on an anime project. It was amazing. You have to be really fast, especially me because I was doing both genga & doga - the full animation - and I was the only animator working digitally. But it didn't make any difference in the end. Everything worked out great through the internet with my line-producer and coordinator Tanaka-san. Tanaka-san and Yamauchi-san gave me lots of freedom on my shots.

But actually, when I finished my first shot, it was too Shinji Hashimoto/Shinya Ohira'ish, i.e. loose and too much myself and off-model. I did it on purpose, to be honest, because I wanted the shots to stand out, but I now realize that this kind of behavior can sometimes be very selfish and very risky for a project. The whole project could take a hit because of this kind off stuff. I got that shot back and fixed it as quickly as possible. Otherwise the animation supervisor would have fixed and changed it. It all depends on the project whether you can go crazy and stylish with the animation. You can do stuff like that on projects like FLCL or Mind Game, for example, but not on most the TV shows.

But that didn't stop me from putting my creative energy into the shots. I could still animate the characters the way I wanted. If there is a limit that you'd better not go beyond because doing so would be playing with the other team members' time and livelihoods, you have to find a way to move forward and not just stand there and complain that you can't do this or that. You have to try something else that could open new doors. So there was still another way to make the shots stand out. I drew the characters clean and followed the rules and totally focused on the movement.

Something that stood out to some Japanese viewers who emailed me was the way the students called the other students. The way they move their hand to call the students is totally not Japanese. Someone who saw the episode emailed me and told me that she was really surprised by the calling gesture and enjoyed it, but thought it looked very European/western, so since I was the only one in the credits with a non-Japanese name, she was sure it was me who did those cuts LOL. I didn't do this on purpose; the problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture. We would have fixed it if there was more time to make the gesture more Japanese, but it's not such a huge disaster actually since it's an anime focused on the music and friendship, so I think people will be OK about those shots haha. But I animated the gestures the way they looked to me in the storyboard.

What I learned from this was to always discuss even the tiniest details in the storyboard with the director, and send a few rough sketches of the movements before starting, or just put a few more character drawings into the layout. Also, another thing I struggled with at the beginning was the material of the school uniforms. The uniforms are apparently much thicker than I initially thought they were. This was while I was working on the first shot. In later shots I animated them thicker. Also, I tried to animate the skirts better than I usually do, so I hope the viewers like the way the skirts of the running girls move. But yes, generally, I wanted the cuts to feel both light and realistic, and I hope the audience enjoyed them.

The 3 cuts I animated can also be viewed on my website as small gifs, but I will try to get permission to upload the rough genga soon.

Ben: Did you design the characters in your shots in Kids on the Slope?

Bahi: Partly. Nobuteru Yuuki-san already had drawn some samples for the random students, so while I was drawing them, I used the settei as a guide. Some of the haircuts are based on them. But yes, I just drew them the way I wanted mainly. It was just important to make them look casual and similar to the settei.

Ben: You mentioned that you were the only animator animating digitally on Kids on the Slope. Is animation in the anime industry drawn mostly digitally or still on paper? Also, how does the animation process differ between the two methods?

Bahi: Hmmm, I would say that digital animation is growing but the majority still works analog. I know many young digital animators but also many that animate on paper. It really doesn't make any difference for the production company. They can handle both digital and analog work. They will print your digital work on paper when they hand it over to the sakuga kantoku. So, the process doesn't change. The sakuga kantoku will fix some little details (usually analog) to make it fit to the main design and then your work gets traced (digitally) no matter what, it makes the lines look more solid. It depends on the production but that's the usual process. I can imagine that animators like Hisashi Mori get more involved in the further production to keep their line style in the final rendering.

Ben: What programs do you use to animate?

Bahi: Currently, Flash, to be more specific, Adobe Flash CS5. Shingo Yamashita, Ryo-Chimo and many other also use Flash. Some people think that you can't really draw in Flash, and at the beginning it's true, but you get used to it after some practice and get to the point where you can draw any line you want like you can in Photoshop. Of course, Photoshop's lines are way more accurate, but Flash is a better tool for animation.

Ben: Don't you use a special custom layout file?

Bahi: Actually, maybe I overreacted about this file, but for me it is really great. I asked Yama-san for permission before I started to continue using the file for other projects of course. It looks like a normal layout sheet, with pegbar holes and stuff but the good thing is that it has a simple script that shows the timer in both frames and seconds, which is set to 24fps. It's really good when you want to quickly synch the time on the storyboard or the time-sheet with your key-animation work. Flash itself also shows the current frame number, but this layout file is more specific and looks like this. Looks simple, and it is simple, but for me it's huge.

Ben: You drew layouts in Apollon, but some of the shots had CG backgrounds, so how were the layouts for these shots handled?

Bahi: Unfortunately, I can only guess on this part because I wasn't put in charge of scenes with CG Backgrounds. But it's nothing complex, they just treat them like normal layouts. The only advantage is that you don't have to spend much time drawing them. It's a nice method to save time. For example, a classroom is very useful when it's done in CG, because it's the same classroom in each episode. So why draw it over and over again if you can build it once and use it for reference for all the shots? It's a good time saver in my opinion and also useful when you want to do complex camera movements; they first animate the background animation with the CG BG, then the animator fits his animation to that. The 3D CG backgrounds that have movement get treated like finished BG animation by the animator. A very nice example would be Norio Matsumoto's CG BG cut from BLOOD movie. They rendered the shot in wireframes for him because it's easier to synch the character like that.

Ben: Some people wondered whether your shots in Apollon were rotoscoped (though some said they weren't rotoscoped enough, go figure). What do you think about rotoscoping?

Bahi: Well, first of all, my shots were not rotoscope. I view this kind of audience reaction in both a positive and negative way. Positive because I'm glad it looked that realistic for them that they call it roto XD. But also kind of sad of course when they don't see/appreciate the "animation". But an artist should not get offended when people don't understand his work. People have different opinions & thoughts and I can't just explain it to all of them. My goal was to achieve my own realism in this work. Satoru Utsunomiya and Mitsuo Iso are a nice example, their animation is believable in their own way. I personally don't like to rotoscope, but there are some animators in the industry that do it often and some that mix it with animation, and some people just roto because there is not enough time and etc. I have no problem with all these but it's not my thing. I personally want my mind to do the movement and not the video-material. Our world is full of beautiful and dynamic movements, but they are only my reference, inspiration and motivation.

Ben: What do you think about the current state of the anime industry?

Bahi: The current state is something medium. It's ok, looking good. It's not really the most glorious years of anime currently, but it's not the dark ages either. There have been many ups and downs lately, but I think things will be finding their balance again soon. The payment situation could stand improvement compared to other industries, but few complain about it seriously, so nothing is likely to change soon. It could all collapse if they were to change something or increase payment. It's a very difficult issue. We just continue because we love animation. Some friends gave up their animation career because they couldn't work for a living as animators in Japan. But some friends are also growing bigger and bigger as gengaman. The anime industry is a very tough place, and I respect the people who survive in it and keep the animation spirit alive in these difficult working conditions.

Ben: Do you sketch?

Bahi: I sketch a lot, it's fun to just doodle around some stuff I have in my imagination. Random doodling wherever and whenever I can since childhood. XD It's always good to sketch around to stay on the road. And sometimes, the sketches are worth something more maybe to continue work on or use as concept/inspiration.

Ben: Any advice to young (or not so young) prospective animators thinking of getting into animation generally or the anime industry specifically?

Bahi: The portfolio is very important. But it's not only about your animation skills, what the companies want to see are your layout skills too if you want to work as key animator. So practice as much as possible, both animation and layout/characters and generally everything! Your portfolio should be able to present that you are capable to do anything. Get in touch with the people in the industry, like producers/managers. You need to build a good connection and network with the people in the industry. Be friendly, patient and nice to people, lol this is like some general advice that everyone knows ( ^ 0^)b Make gif animations or short-films and put them on web. The people have to know you and trust you and your work. If people are already familar with you and your work, you might have better chances. But the most important thing is the communication. If there is a communication barrier, nothing is going to work out. If you can afford it, fly to Japan and live there for a while (I haven't done this yet but it's a great advantage!) My advice is to be careful with your decision first of all when you want to seriously enter the industry. First give it a try and see if you can continue in those conditions you are faced with. An animators life can be very hard in Japan, you have to sacrifice a lot to survive in the industry, especially at the beginning. But if you really want to do this and love working on anime more than anything else, nothing can stop you, seriously. Passion, hard work and pursuit will bring you forward. Sometimes it can be really hard, but nevermind, just continue if it's your dream. Just go for it, have fun and break the limits. I have no idea if all these are helpful but I hope someone finds it useful as an advice somehow XD. The best and simplest advice is, do animation with fun! ( ^0^)/

Ben: Last, but not least: Yoyoyo.

Bahi: YoYoYO!! It was a great pleasure and honor for me to do this interview Ben! And I hope people enjoyed it and hopefully it wasn't too long and boring and somehow useful XD

ANIMATION POWER!!! (*≧▽≦)b

Saturday, April 24, 2010

01:13:24 pm , 2421 words, 4728 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview, Indie

Keita Kurosaka's Midori-ko this year?

There's an enigmatic figure in Japanese independent animation. One who's always lurking there in the background, ready to pounce, or so it seems. It's Keita Kurosaka. Since the beginning of time, if time is measured according to when I started writing this blog, I've been wondering about the full-length feature that Kurosaka has been reported to be working on entitled Midori-ko. I mentioned it in the blog five years ago. I apparently thought its release was imminent back then! Well, five years later, and no word.

But I have hope that we'll be seeing what purports to be the major statement by one of Japan's most important indie animators - and heck, really the only major thing he's made in the last ten years - either this year or next. I found on the web page of young audiovisual artist Ayumi Kawamura mention that she is working as an assistant on Keita Kurosaka's Midori-ko, and that it is due for release in 2010. April already and I haven't seen word anywhere. Same deal?

Keita Kurosaka teaches at the Musashino Art University, and on his home page for the university, it states that Midori-ko was in the final production stages as of March 2009 and due for completion within the year. Whether it was finished last year or is still in the finishing stage, that at least leaves no doubt that it is imminent. We even know that the production company is Mistral Japan, the company that released a 3-VHS set of his work, and the producer is Akira Mizuyoshi, who is an audiovisual artist himself. (filmography on his blog)

You can see compelling stills from Keita Kurosaka's films on his Musashino page. At the top of the page the images are from his 2005 film My Face, and below it you can see images from Agitated Screams of Maggots and Midori-ko. You can see Agitated Screams of Maggots, an awesome little music video for the alt metal band Dir en Grey, in full, and it being his most recent film, I think it gives a sense of what to expect, stylistically, from Midori-ko. It's very painterly and grotesque and surreal, but utterly engrossing despite being, well, gross. It also features little people-like creatures, which Midori-ko is purported to feature, so maybe it seems to be an esquisse of the larger work. Imagine 60 minutes like Agitated Screams of Maggots. (What a lovely title. Just makes you want to repeat it. Agitated Screams of Maggots.) Midori-ko is going to kick ass. Keita Kurosaka is like Bill Plympton via Jan Svankmajer via Francisco Goya via Francis Bacon. I think this film has the potential to be a new landmark in Japanese indie animation, beyond the mere fact of its length and laborious 10-year production mostly by a single man.

It's time for his work to be better known over here, though inevitably it'll probably be too experimental for the animation crowd and too animated for the experimental crowd. Hopefully this film will get him better known and maybe see a release of his work in the west. I've been struggling to obtain copies of those three tapes for years but never been able to.

Below that are some image sketches, which are really neat and showcase his very peculiar style that is like nothing else out there - classical in their painterly aesthetic, but warped and disturbing. I like that Kurosaka is unlike most animators in Japan, even the indie kind. He's closer in spirit to someone like Florence Milhaile. Below those sketches you can see images from some live animation events Kurosaka did in 2008. Animation for him, like Milhaile, is just an extension in time of his painting work, as you will discover reading the interview with him dating from 2006 that I've just translated below, very roughly and quickly.

Why animation?

I'm asked that a lot, but it's a tough question to answer. For one, I don't really think of myself as an 'animation artist'. I originally got my start in the contemporary art world. I was always trying to come up with a way of injecting the dimension of time into my work. Once I embedded an actual motor into a painting to try to add some motion. It took me a while to realize that a form more suited to achieving my artistic goals would be video. But even then, the thought of doing animation never crossed my mind.

My biggest problem as an artist was finding a form of artistic expression that would have the same effect as music, but in the realm of painting - the impact of sharing the same time space and physical space among a large number of people. That just happened to turn out to be video, and in terms of specific technique within that framework, animation, but for me animation has never been anything but an extension of my painting work. My films started out abstract, but after a few films they began to evolve in a more concrete direction, until eventually there were even what you'd call dialogue and stories starting to appear in the films, and eventually even characters. So on the surface, my films began to look more and more like what you'd typically call 'animation films', but it feels really off and wrong when I hear people call me an animation artist.

I don't see myself as inhabiting any particular genre, and I don't even have any particular stance on my work - like I'm an indie versus an industry animator. What drives me a artist is an amorphous motivation, or inspiration, and my biggest problem is finding a vessel for that inspiration to inhabit that will best bring it to life.

Kurosaka Keita and the notion of the grotesque

What exactly qualifies as 'grotesque'? Generally not hard things or dry things, right? Usually when people think of something grotesque, they think of things that are soft and wet and gooey. And to be perfectly honest, that's the sort of thing that interests me most. It's a matter of personal preference. It's like a kid who enjoys playing in mud - I enjoy playing with the philosophical notion of the moist and squishy.

The way I see it, there are two basic meanings behind the notion of the grotesque. One is the common notion of something fleshy and tactile. The other harbors political nuances. The fleshy aspect would be spilled guts and blood stains, the stuff you see in a splatter film. But you find another kind of grotesque in European films, grotesque with a sociopolitical undertone - for example, showing an actual dog getting killed, or someone breaking the neck of a chicken.

So you can divide the concept of the grotesque into two sub-concepts, roughly speaking - the brutal, and the revolting. Personally I'm not a big fan of brutality - I wouldn't hurt a fly, literally. Some movies show animals being killed, for example, but personally I can't take that, I can't watch a movie that does that. My work exists purely on the conceptual level, it has to be pure fiction, and that's something that's never changed.

When I depict something grotesque, I take pains to ensure that it isn't disgusting. The more revolting the image, the more beautifully I render it. It has to be aesthetically refined. I think when people see my work they have a hard time seeing beyond the grotesque images on the surface below to that aesthetic beauty, because I think there's an ingrained bias amongst general viewers against any depiction of things grotesque. There are many films out there that are far more grotesque on a fundamental level, without even having grotesque visuals like in my films. Apart from the purely visual aspect, my films really aren't that grotesque at all. To borrow the words of a mangaka who reviewed my works once, "Keita Kurosaka approaches the act of creating visuals like a kid playing with a box of toys spilled over the floor. The word grotesque is leveled at him by adults disturbed by a display of pure playfulness that they can no longer hope to relive." I thought he captured it really well.

Are you dissatisfied about how people view your work?

Not so much dissatisfied as disappointed at the thought that this is all my work is capable of. In other words, I wonder if there's even any point in me working in a genre in which there are people far more talented than me who are specialized in that genre. It's an interesting position to be in in many ways, but I suspect that what I have to say isn't enough for viewers, that they want to see other worlds.

To put it another way, there are some things that are meant for the broad daylight, and some things that are better appreciated by being glimpsed under the moonlight rather than seen fully, face on. Not to put too self-deprecating a spin on it, but I feel like my work falls more into the latter category. It's not necessarily a negative thing. Like two sides of the same coin, or the wheels on a car, you have to have both. Without the dark side, the world would be out of balance.

I'll leave the bright side to the folks who specialize in that sort of thing. I see myself as one of the last remaining guardians of the dark side of the coin, you might say. I'm kind of an unsung hero, actually. (laughs)

Surrealism is at the core of your and Svankmajer's work. What is surrealism?

Again, the way I see it, there are two types of surrealism. One is surrealism as a means of conveying a sort of parody of the world that goes beyond the real word and brings life to things that lurk just beneath the surface. This type of surrealism can be used as a means to convey political meaning by way of metaphor. In Svankmajer's case, that was part of it - there are times when an artist is unable to produce certain films due to political pressure. Surrealism was once used as a cover of sorts in times like this when you could get hung for saying certain things directly, like a tool in the arsenal of the resistance, but you didn't want to compromise by merely saying things indirectly. You speak by way of images that could be interpreted differently depending on how you look at them. I think that historically this was one of the major components of classical surrealism.

I grew up in the first nonpolitical generation in Japan, so for us, rather than using surrealism to talk about the outside world, surrealism was aimed inwards. In other words, we use surrealism to talk about the self. Underpinning this approach to surrealism are often basic aspects of identity such as our dreams and our formative experiences as children. I've got an interesting story related to this subject. The first time Svankmajer visited Japan, someone from a museum set up a meeting between Svankmajer and I, so that he could critique my work. Both the museum person and I were convinced that Svankmajer would be happy to find someone in Japan who was aiming for something similar, so we were both surprised when, instead, Svankmajer said that as artists he and I were aiming for something completely different at a fundamental level beyond the question of technique, so he was unable to critique my work. I think that experience underscores the decisive difference between the two types of surrealism.

Svankmajer is probably the single artist I most respect, and I view him as my 'master' deep down, but there's one thing I dislike about his work. It's the fact that you can categorically pin down what it is that he's trying to say. I think this becomes particularly noticeable in his later work. In other words, his work is like a translation of his political or philosophical ideals about how things should be. Of course, some people think that's precisely what makes his work good, so in the end it's a question of personal preference, but whenever I encounter something like that in his work, I find it to be a real turn-off. What really excites me is when he creates something that has no obvious interpretation, something completely insane and unhinged, when he goes crazy and creates a world that can't be explained, that's filled with contractions and refuses easy translation. I can't stand it when some meaning you're trying to express is clearly visible when you shine a light on it from the back. We humans aren't built in such a tidy package. But I suspect most viewers don't enjoy things that are excessively ambiguous, because they are legitimately difficult to assess. That's probably the reason why nobody's heard of my favorite films. (laughs)

When a film isn't completely rooted in the individual, it allows viewers to be more objective, which I think is what makes such films easier for most viewers to appreciate. I suspect that the reason Svankmajer is able to go on creating films with images that are so astounding on the surface and still reach a large audience is because, underneath, they convey a meaning that is clearly understood. I find that he tends to hide what's deep inside him and create work aimed towards the outside world. This is only bolstered by his intensely private gaze and his very exacting approach as an artist.

The sun and the moon

In other words, what I was trying to get across with the metaphor about the wheels on a car is that, insofar as you live in today's world, it's impossible to remain completely aloof from the world. Whether you view the outside world according to secondary sources like the newspapers and television, or you come up with your own interpretation of the world from the perspective of a lone member of that society, that society remains the same.

For example, child abuse is a major problem today in Japan. If you wanted to tackle that issue, you could adopt two different approaches. On the one hand, you could take inspiration from the way the issue is reported in the media. On the other, you could take a more individual perspective and look at it from the perspective of the parent or the child. I this this applies not only to surrealism but to any creative activity.

November 15, 2006 at Keita Kurosaka's office
Interviewer: Hiroki Kawai

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

09:59:00 pm , 2081 words, 4675 views     Categories: Animation, Interview, Indie, Animator

Erick Oh's Symphony

I just watched Erick Oh's latest film, Symphony (2008, 5 mins), and I was happy to find that despite the difference in subject matter, it's just as wonderful a film as Erick's previous film, Way Home (2008, 8 mins), which so captured me a few months back when I saw it at a screening in Beijing. Erick has again created a short that feels like a perfectly honed combination of stylistic elegance, richly worked hand-drawn animation and theme simultaneously cosmic in scale and microscopic in character.

The transition from his previous film to this one felt like a kind of test. Namely, a test as to whether what made Way Home an enjoyable film was just its 'cute' (?) characters. I had no doubt that that was not the case, but this film confirms it. The characters in Symphony are not the cute bug characters of Way Home, but rather impersonal, shape-shifting blobs as far removed as one could imagine from the characters of the former film. And yet, the film remains just as compelling, and just as immediately identifiable as an Erick Oh film, revealing that Erick's skills were indeed the real star.

In Symphony we find ourselves plunged into a strange microscopic world, a sort of amniotic ether where protozoan-like blobs dash about the rocky crags in an elemental struggle to eat or be eaten. Suddenly, one of the anonymous blobs seems to awaken from its precambrian slumber, dashing off on a danger-fraught journey that has presumably never ended.

In terms of the animation, there is just as much nuance in the 'acting' of the blob as it dashes across the screen as there was in the acting of the dung beetle in Way Home, which is quite impressive, as it has no eyes or hands to emote with. A great feeling of three-dimensionality is created in the ether through simple layering of pure black lines and shapes. There are no shades or color in the film, just a gorgeously organic mesh of black and white spaces and forms. Just like in Way Home, Erick makes remarkably effective use of such spare means, resulting in a film of great visual clarity. The animation is tied closely to the movement of Vivaldi's Seasons that provides the background music, creating a symbiotic unity of music and animation.

In terms of the theme, the film comes across as thematically related to Way Home. Although Way Home did feature conventionally identifiable characters and a clear narrative, the film didn't strike me as being about those things as about a much more cosmic theme. Rather than being about characters, or a story, or even a message, both Way Home and Erick's latest film strike me as compelling explorations of a very basic concept that permeates every aspect of our lives and of the universe we inhabit: the macroscopic versus the microscopic. The films strike me as humbling reminders that we are not the center of the universe, that we are but part of a continuum that reaches far above us and far below us. It's just clearer in Symphony than it was in Way Home.

What fascinates me about Erick's work is that a film like Symphony, which is otherwise rather ephemeral in terms of narrative and characterization, somehow manages to get across a very clear narrative, and the audience can follow what the 'character' is feeling at every moment of the film, entirely through the nuances of the very active and emotive animation - such as when the blob recoils in fear, stretches out tentatively in curiosity, or soars through the ether joyously exploring its new-found freedom. The same could be said of the dung beetle in Way Home. I love Erick's films because he creates films that are not only beautifully animated and have a compelling and intelligent theme, but the animation is the voice in which his mute characters speak to the audience.

Way Home was made in Korea, where Erick obtained his BFA, while Symphony was made at UCLA, where Erick is now completing his MFA in animation. Since making Way Home, Erick has also made a very nice short film entitled Welcome to Vokle for a new social networking site entitled Vokle, which just opened its doors to the public last month. Welcome to Vokle is compelling both technically and thematically, continuing as it does to explore grand themes, this time examining no less than the history of humankind in one and a half minutes. Welcome to Vokle can be seen in its entirety on Erick's web site here. Clips from Symphony and all of his other films can also be viewed on his web site, erickoh.com.

Erick was kind enough to answer a few of my questions by email, so I'm happy to be able to present a short interview with this great young animator.


What made you choose animation?

As an artist who has a background in fine art with experience in other mediums like painting, illustration, etc, I consider animation to be one of the greatest art forms to convey my thoughts and feelings to others. It allows me to express whatever I want with the message as well as the style, ranging from narrative to abstract, traditional to experimental. One of the best things about animation is that the tool itself inspires me to blur all the boundaries between all the mediums. It mixes up all the great art forms like music, images and the narrative. The more experience I gain in animation, the more respect I find I have for the art.

What was it that made you turn to hand-drawn animation in this day and age, instead of CGI?

I just like hand-drawn images because usually I can feel the artist's ideas and feelings sincere. However, I also admire CG-based animation and video art and would love to apply some CG effects to my projects in the future if it's necessary. It's all a matter of how effectively I use these tools. I'd like to be someone who uses these tools to create his own world, rather someone who just follows the tools.

Your films are wonderfully animated, with great technique, and a very unique style. How do you do it?

I made my first animated film in my senior year for the graduate exhibition. Since I was in a painting-based fine art program, I had to self-teach using all the references and video I could get online and offline. It was extremely difficult to learn all the techniques by myself but I think that experience helped me a lot with establishing a foundation in animation strongly and firmly in my own unique style.

What's your stance towards animation in your work?

Animation is a device that connects me to the world. I think my 'ego' projected onto the final product in the form of animation is the most sincere reflection of myself.

Any animators or filmmakers who influenced or inspired you?

Everything I see and hear inspires me. To specifically talk about one of the directors who directly influenced me with 'Way Home', I'd like to mention Michael Dudok De-wit, the director of 'Father and Daughter'. I was very impressed by how amazing a film he made using the contrast between light and shadow and the beauty of blank space with his charcoal. Understanding how he made this beautiful film, I'd like to create a whole new world of my own with the oriental calligraphic brush. Leaving the ground in white color, I showed the passing of a day with just the change in the color of the sky and the tone of the shadow.

Can you tell me about the production process for Way Home and Symphony?

Pretty much every animation I did is traditionally hand-drawn animated. I usually use 30 frames per second to make the animation more fluid. For the camera and composition, I don't really use any particular technique. After Effects and Premiere are basically all I use. There is some stuff I did in Flash or Maya though.

How did your approach change between Way Home and Symphony?

First of all, the message or the story I'd like to tell is always about my thoughts and outlook on 'life'. As for the style and the approach, the project I just finished always influences the next project I plan. After finishing 'The Bag', my very first animation, I wanted to make a cinematographic film because the world described in 'The Bag' is totally surreal. The land becomes the sky, the food chain goes backward and everything is awkward in this animation. That was the start point with the style in 'Way Home'. As you can see, the way I set the camera, the transitions from shot to shot, etc, all come from studying film. After 2 years working on 'Way Home', I was exhausted from dealing with all the cinematography. I decided to make a film that breaks the rules and blurs all the boundaries between everything. Because the interaction with the viewers is the most important thing I consider while making films, it was extremely hard to achieve both goals. After lots of experimenting, finally 'Symphony' came out as a film that is somewhere in the middle between abstract experimental and narrative character animation. 'One' is another experimental work I collaborated with media artists on as a sequel to 'Symphony'. It's more like installation art, but I think it's meaningless to categorize things. These two works have received attention not only from theaters and film festivals but also art galleries. 'Welcome to Vokle' or 'Gunther Sausage' are pretty commercial and entertaining compared to other films. But I believe that the viewer will still be able to find my style and philosophy in these films as well.

Why did you leave Korea to study at UCLA? How does animation education in Korea compare to animation education in the US? And on a related note, how is the situation in the Korean animation industry? We don't get to hear much about that industry over here.

I can't deny the fact that there is more opportunity in the US. It's not about the education, it's about the environment. Especially this city of Los Angeles is where all the studios and industries are all gathered around. I can't really compare animation education between Korea and US since I studied fine art in Korea. But in my opinion, the faculty in Korea are not that experienced in animation because the history of Korean animation is quite short, compared to Japan or the US. Everything including the animation industry, education and culture grew up so quickly overall in Korea that it feels like we didn't have enough time to put the right instructors in the right place. For example, most of the faculty in college animation programs are designers, cartoonist, filmmakers, critics and so on. They can still teach students, but the education can't have depth. It is slowly changing and getting better and better. The facilities in Korean schools are really good though.

As for the industry, Korean animation studios have been doing other people's work for the past 20 years. As far as I know, all the Disney movies and other Hollywood animations are actually produced and animated in Korea. That made Korea have really good technique and skills in animation but no creativity in it. We are definitely at a turning point right now. Various Korean's own productions are coming out going over all the trials and failures. But we need this process to grow up.

What are your current projects, if you can say? And what do you plan to do once you get your MFA?

I'm working on this film as another story in my 'Life' series following after 'The Bag', 'Way Home' and 'Symphony'. It'll be traditional character animation just like 'Way Home'. My grandfather passed away last April in 2008. While experiencing all this sadness and missing him, I came up with lots of fragments of ideas. I developed a story out of them. The title is 'Tree' but it might change. I just started animating so I'm not sure when this journey will end.

After graduation, hopefully I'll stay in the states working on this and that. My ultimate goal is to be left as an artist, not an animator or filmmaker. Of course the animation would be the main medium I use, but I'd like to always be flexible to borrow from other art forms or try different things blurring the boundaries of art.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

02:37:41 pm , 7352 words, 5612 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview, Indie

Yuri Norstein interview

About a month ago one of my readers, Mihai Luchian, pointed out an interesting interview in Russian with Yuri Norstein about the making of his short segment for the Basho-inspired omnibus of short animated films Winter Days. Mihai kindly translated the interview for me, which I touched up a bit, so I'm pleased to be able to offer up this insightful piece about how one of the true visionaries of animation works. There's a palpable similarity between the way Norstein talks and the language of his films - sometimes opaque, but always with the lucid clarity of good poetry. His explanations occasionally seem to turn into pure poetry as his excitement in describing the process of creation crescendos to a fever pitch, but it is always fascinating to peek into the thought process of a great mind. The interview helped me look at the short but masterful piece in a new light, with a better understanding.


powerful verses or the sound of pine trees on a sumi-e


Who came up with the idea to make an animated film out of Bashō’s haiku?

Actually, the idea to make a film based on a cycle of Basho’s poetry, called “renku” or “linked verse”, was proposed by the Japanese. The "renku" cycle comprises 36 strophes, so the concept of the project was to give each strophe to a different director. Each director was to do a small piece without any limits on style, script or form, meaning completely in accord with his individuality. After that, the small pieces would be strung together.

The Japanese decided that it was to be an international project, so they had invited different directors from China, Canada, Belgium, England, Russia and so on, a total of 35. Each director had to make a 30-second piece. Later, the artistic director, Kihachiro Kawamoto, would string together the different pieces, bridging them each by a narrator reading the verses.

I was assigned the first three verses that open the cycle “Winter Days”. Immediately I thought out a winter plot: A boy is cooking a meal on a brazier. He throws on some coal. The shoji screen is open, and through it you can see the mountains in the distance. It’s snowing, overwhelming the rust-colored hills. The boy turns away from the brazier, intensely admiring the view. The food is burning a little. The father (or some other grown-up) enters the room. He senses that the food is burning. Swearing, he grabs a teapot and pours water over the brazier, giving the boy a slight kick to the head. The boy is scared. Still swearing, the father lifts his head and freezes, watching the snow slowly covering the hills. The water continues to pour from the teapot.

At this point, the producer waved his hand - “What are you thinking? The movie must start with autumn. Winter comes along later.” So I had to think out a new plot. I gave it a lot of thought. Later, as little details brought the animation to life during production, the plot began to take on a life of its own.

What does “linked verse” mean exactly? What is renku?

The poets sit around in a circle, and the verses travel from one poet to the next. The 1st one writes the first three verses (called the “hokku”), then the 2nd poet adds his two verses, and so on down through the 3rd, 4th , 7th, 32nd, etc, each poet in turn borrowing the previous poet’s last verse and adding 2 verses to it to construct a new poem.

That is where the expression “linked verse” comes from. You could say that the basic poetic idea wanders around the circle of the poets and in the end locks onto somebody, maybe even the first poet. Each one has 2-3 verses. Basho composes the first 3. He’s the teacher, the respected master. The first three verses provide the later ones with energy. The system for writing the hokku, like the haiku, is fairly well known: 3 verses, each one with a specific number of mora or Japanese syllables: 5-7-5. The couplet that follows is 7-7.

A translation can’t have the same effect as the original, because the number of mora will be different, thus changing the rhythm. Russian and Japanese have a completely different structure. A literal translation would be just as meaningless, though it might sometimes produce interesting coincidences. Vera Markova, who translated Basho, is a great albeit underappreciated poet. It’s laughable to say that someone can translate Japanese poetry without being a poet. Same with film - transferring haiku to the screen is equally hopeless. Especially when you only have 30 seconds!

Seriously, it’s naive to think that such a short piece can even compare to Basho’s poetry. Only when the power of a verse lies in its conciseness can 30 seconds of film hope to come close to the verse. But in this case we were in a rather restrictive situation, proposed by a different creator. Nolens volens [willing or not], you swim in this channel of verses and you can’t run away. Everything that you create is bathed in the glow of the energy of the verses. I’m a slow-witted person, so I wasn’t able to capture the essence of the verse in 30 seconds, or even 3 times 30 seconds – even though a single couplet would have been enough to make a whole short film. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used exposition, plot, and instead just gone with one scene. But it’s too late now.

It’s hard to imagine that such a thing could be possible, but the work on this film was actually harder than the work on “The Overcoat”. I didn’t use such detailed backgrounds when creating “The Overcoat”. Compared to how long it took me to do the short for Winter Days, the work on “The Overcoat” seems like the speed of light compared to the speed of light. 2 minutes of tube time took me 9 months of work, actually more. And the result? I feel like everything I did is beyond hope... though the producer liked it. I feel that I didn’t achieve the intonation that was needed. I’m not talking about technical mastery or the visuals. I’m talking about the intonation of those 3 verses, through which I was hoping to achieve tranquility. Mastery is when one needed path replaces a whole bunch of unneeded paths. You come to the truth only when you achieve mastery.

Could you recite Basho’s verses in your own words?

     “Mad verse”
     In the withering gusts,
     a wanderer ...
     How much like Chikusai I have become!

Basho precedes these lines with the words: “I have suddenly remembered the master of the wild verse, Chikusai, wandering in the old days on these paths.”

Who exactly is Chikusai?

An imaginary character of popular lore. He exists in the imagination of the Japanese in such a high level of reality that they settled him in some small town. He even owns a pharmaceutical store. But he doesn’t treat anybody. He’s a charlatan and everybody understands that he can’t treat. At the same time he is a joker, a holy fool and idler, like our little fool Ivanushka [a character from the traditional Russian fables]. He is a blessed little fool, not an idiot or a simpleton, but a very sharp and clever thinker who plays the game of stupidity, thereby freeing himself from some of the conventions imposed by life itself. However, Basil the Blessed [holy fool during the time of Ivan the Terrible and Russian Orthodox saint] also didn’t care about the church or the rich.

The Japanese were very surprised when they saw the script. They would never have imagined that Chikusai and Basho could meet. In my case, they met thanks to my ignorance. It didn’t even occur to me that there is no way the two could have met. My plot wound up a kind of circus side-show – the antics of a clown in white and a clown in red. Basho/Pierrot, the clown in white, and Chikusai/Harlequin, the clown in white, the one who might, or more likely will pinch you or steal your hat.

A journalist once told me about a meeting she had with the poet Marietta Shaginyan not long before her death. She was an old but very lively lady – already almost 100 years old, or at the very least 90. Imagine the scene: There she was, seated near Blok’s grave. [Alexander Blok, one of the greatest Russian poets after Pushkin] It’s moments like these that bring history closer to home. Shagiyan, withered and bent, sprang out from behind the table, ran to the journalist, grabbed her by the hair, pulled the hair and asked: “Are these natural?” After that she pinched her cheek, sat down and only then began to answer questions. For Shaginyan it was totally natural behavior. She wasn’t a dying old lady who behaved the way people around her expected an old lady to behave. When she was asked where her vitality came from, she answered using the words of Stravinsky: “I want to live the time I received, not to die it.”

preliminary sketches for Chikusai

In your movie, Chikusai goes around listening to the trees with his medical horn in the same way a doctor might listen to a patient’s lungs with a stethoscope. That’s all - you don’t have to say anything more, or explain his buffoonery in some artistic way.

There are different kinds of sounds – a woodpecker, a magpie’s flight, a worm gnawing a tree. This 'crescendo' section of the film lasts until the wind starts to blow. Chikusai must be introduced with the help of the underground rumble - the way with an earthquake you first feel the earth take a deep breath, and this is followed by a slight shudder. I think this short segment could provide the plot for a whole film. You could make a film about how old trees breathe, how they creak, how they suffocate (the action takes place in autumn), how the branches tremble from the cold and the trees freeze, engaging in their winter slumber... although the winter in Japan in not our hard frost and blinding snow.

However, the paths on which Basho walked rhyme in a way with our Russian paths. As a poet, he is an eternal wanderer. His way of life is to always wander. The road returns him to himself. Try for a second to imagine Basho’s way of life, what it’s like – Basho’s never-ending journey. It’s not like driving car or hitch-hiking. Imagine the darkness. Not even a small fire or even a living soul near you. The only light is your torch. If the torch burns out, the darkness will devour you. Also, there are robbers, who don’t care if you’re a great person or not. They just see a poor wanderer who might have something precious. Maybe there’s something in his bag. The great Polish sculptor Wit Stwosz created a famed altar-piece in Krakow and died on his way to Hamburg. Where are his bones? Maybe in somebody’s pit for beggars and cripples. And what about Mozart or Rembrandt?

Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who owned nothing and lived in the wilderness, where he stood on a rock for 1000 days and nights and ate only grass, was beaten almost to death by some robbers.

He didn’t even fight back while they were beating him.

When Seraphim was attacked, he had with him an axe that he used to cut trees. But he didn’t use it. He didn’t fight, even though he was very strong. The Diveevsk Monastery still retains the extra-large rags he wore, and his heavy hoe. After he was beaten and they hit his head, he became even more hunched. When the robbers were found, he forgave them and asked for their freedom.

Now that is a feat. Or maybe not a feat, just a way of life. He didn’t think about it as a feat. It was the natural course of action for a holy man. Basho couldn’t be lured by money or good conditions or with the words: “Why are you walking in your rags when it’s raining and snowing?” His words roamed the paths. His verses were his messengers. He used to walk barefoot. Nobody had the power to make him settle down, find a home, enjoy a nice fire and write poetry. He kept walking and walking on his roads and paths. Sometimes a helper would assist him, help him with the load, but most of the time he was alone. The burdens of the road weighed heavily on his swollen feet. His hands were freezing. After all, you are the only one who can feel the burdens of your own life. You can’t feel the pleasure of a walk if you send someone instead of you to do it. It has nothing to do with money. You have to overcome these burdens with your own power, and no one can take your pain away. But too often modern man relies on his possessions, which in the end separate him from the essence of life and devour him, so that he loses even the tiniest amount of knowledge about life and feelings for other humans.

I recently saw a documentary about a new living complex in Moscow called “Scarlet Sails”. I don’t think the people who chose this name [after the story by Alexander Grin] realize the price Grin paid for the book! “A high-comfort community”, announced the presenter excitedly, as if in an attempt to convince us that comfort can be bought by cutting down trees, cementing rivers, creating isolated communities, and the like. A kind of a capitalist bunker with a high level of comfort. As they said, the region has everything a man could need. I really wanted to ask if it had a cemetery. But then this complex is itself a cemetery because it isolates man from creation itself. A dead place for poets. Only computer faces with a high level of comfort. A piece of river just for the district. Maybe the sky will also be divided into pieces, proportionally to a person’s bankroll. What do you think? Will the people of this district want to understand Basho’s life and his verses? This unnatural way of life leads to dependency and impossible expectations. The result – lack of social consciousness. The poets will cease to exist, nobody will hear the trees. In essence, today, the trees are seen as units by which to measure the forests. The forests were privatized, and soon you will be able to see them only by special admission.

preliminary sketches for Chikusai

But there will always be a need for poets like Basho!

Yes, there will always be this need. I remember Natasha Guttmann’s story about Richter [Sviatoslav Richter, the pianist], who used to walk 45 kilometers a day. He was so powerful. When he walked towards his grand piano, the crowd before him would split in two, like the water before a ship. Like Basho, he was a wanderer who didn’t gather money, didn’t try to gain anything. He didn’t even need fame. He surpassed it. He had more subtle and great things in his life. He surpassed his mastery and life wasn’t about playing the piano anymore. He didn’t want to play in his last 2 years. Only, from time to time his eyes would light up. His destiny was somewhat similar to Michelangelo’s. To me, these two giants are united in their understanding of life. And that bitterness they felt about the absurdity of their lifelong struggle for perfection, once they had attained the heights of the humanly possible in their later years. I think for Michelangelo it was death. He craved it, he'd screamed about it since the age of 16. Basically, Richter discovered the same thing. “I don’t like myself” – this is how he speaks about himself in the documentary “Richter – The Enigma” directed by Bruno Monsaingeon. There he sits in a cowboy shirt, sharp elbows on the table, before him a writing-book, his expression overwhelmed by an unspeakable melancholy: “I don’t like myself”.

Such masters as Basho and Richter are united through their philosophy: constant motion. Never allow oneself to remain the same - like a river, always renewing itself. I’m always wondering about the paths that would lead animation to the real dramatic art. Mastery is simply a question of mechanics. Mastery is nothing in comparison with the subtler things, the things that you can’t even imagine or postulate. You feel it in your breath, like a kind of fine matter, when something that looks rough and awkward possesses an ineffable hidden compassion and tenderness. It’s an interesting idea: the physics of fine matter, intangible matter. Matter that can only be apprehended by means of photographic plates and careful experimentation. The physics of intangible matter is beyond imagining, but you can at least get a sense of the form of this unthinkable, holy substance. To paraphrase Lev Landau’s wonderful words: “Physics has allowed us to calculate the unimaginable.” Niels Bohr described the quality of a discovery with the words: “An idea not crazy enough to be something true”. In other words, the physicist is one who calculates the unthinkable. Mathematics becomes more and more abstract, and logic ceases to be pure logic. These concepts merge when it comes to the act of creation. Basho would translate everything he had seen and felt into his verses. Essentially, he would grasp the world with his poetry, and the world would become substantial in order to convey something invisible to the eye.

When you compose a frame, you inevitably think about these things. But I was still unable to achieve the intonation I wanted. That’s why, despite the fact that the Japanese accepted the film, I began to make a different version of the main episode, the meeting of Chikusai and Basho. I doubt the producer would agree to remaking the whole piece, as doing so would take money and time, and I’m not even sure that the new version would be what I wanted this time either. The eternal problem in art (including animation) is taking the risk of following your instinct in seeking the right intonation, and not caring about money (which is of no value compared to your answers). To be exhausted with suffering and apprehension that the final result is on film and no editing knob can save it. You cling to false hope, pleasant self-deception. (Can you admire a ragged wound when you bandage it?) Wave after wave of anxiety washes over you. You begin to see the true value of your work only upon examining it as a whole.

You must feel the wind that rustles the rusted leaves, that travels through space rearranging the fallen leaves. Every leaf harbors the energy of the wind. With a creation it’s like with a stove: you’ll get burned if you don’t hold onto the viewers strong enough. With a stove there’s clearly an energy present; but what about when two people meet? Their communication attaches itself to your life. They become your every step. They inhabit your thoughts. They are the continuation of your suffering. The energy of discovery happens here, during the filming, during the endgame and not during the writing of the script. In poetry your creation is the product of hours of madness and a drop of ink. It’s the same in film, but only with more money. A writer takes a pen and writes a line. If it’s bad, he crosses it out and writes a new one. But in cinematography, to make a line you need lights, cameras, time, film, and so on and so on.

You say that you couldn’t find the right intonation in the main episode. Could you be a little more specific about what went wrong?

Maybe I should retell the episode first. Chikusai is having a walk, listening to the trees, and kicking about the fallen leaves when suddenly he sees a stranger doing something important to him. Chikusai approaches the stranger. What’s it to him if it’s Basho or not? You can even presume that he doesn’t know who Basho is. Normally the two wouldn’t be able to meet, for one because one is a fictional character, but also because these two lived in different periods. I already mentioned how the Japanese were surprised to see them meet. They said that nobody had thought about such a simple situation. Clearly I happened upon this idea thanks to my ignorance and freedom from the burden of historical facts. I just knew that Basho mentioned Chikusai in his verses. That’s why Basho and the holy fool Chikusai exist on the same level for me.

Of course, they are also formally united through their poverty – both of them have holes in their kimonos, which they present to each other. But in reality the interchange between them happens on a different level. By no means is their meeting limited to the physical. Yes, they wear rags, but this shabbiness must be funny and should not evoke feelings of sorrow and compassion in the viewer. The essence lies in this ordinary exchange between two ordinary human beings who have a taste for life and the aspiration towards harmony. And despite the fact that Basho is a master poet, he preserves his sense of humor towards his clothes and confrere.

He doesn’t have the pride that often accompanies with such talent.

Does the person who wrote these lines have pride?

     "Perhaps the wind
     will whiten your bones,"
     breathed the cold into my soul.

Does this verse reveal room for pride? There is no place in his heart that would let in pride, not even for a moment.

But returning to the subject. Chikusai sees this strange fellow we call Basho and observes how the stranger is seriously engaged in his louse hunting. Chikusai is fascinated, like a small baby. He sits down and helps Basho in this serious matter. Then when Basho finds holes in his clothes, Chikusai also finds some in his. In the end, they start showing off the holes in their clothing – who has the biggest one? Chikusai acts like he is also a traveler, and brags like one. Then, having exchanged hats, they separate. Chikusai sees that Basho’s hat is completely useless and his is better, so he gives his hat to Basho, taking Basho’s hat and putting it on. The wind starts to blow, steals the hat and bowls it along the road. Chikusai runs after it trying to catch it. Finally he catches it with his stick, sees that the hole has gotten bigger and throws it towards the sky. A gale force wind blows his hat around for a while. Meanwhile Basho has gone in the opposite direction and he’s attacked by a powerful gust of wind and leaves that messes up his clothes. But he goes on.

Anyway, that’s the story. When I spoke about the intonation of the film, what I meant was that I think I didn’t achieve the needed subtlety in their buffoonery, which was intended to have the effect of intensifying the feeling of fate – the fate of the creator, the fate of a simple traveler, of a simple man who embraces nature and can die at any given moment in its embrace. I wanted to create the effect of going from a naive, comic situation to a tragedy. I even used sound to achieve this effect. When this powerful wind arises and practically rips apart their clothing, you hear a monastery bell. At first I wanted it to ring just in the background, but in the end I put it in the foreground. The bell strikes with full power, like the blow of fate.

storyboard of the meeting between Basho and Chikusai

Why the tragedy? Isn’t it enough that the two met, despite it being impossible? Why does everything have to be given tragic proportions?

But at the same time the two are at the mercy of the elements. “Kings are powerless in God’s element.” What about poets then? They are higher than kings, but all are equal in the embrace of the elements. Basho’s last verses are all tragic. He would write that death was near and he was free and captive at the same time. He can only laugh at his rags, but there is something more – something that is connected to memory and death or to what we call “a poor soul”. You can’t say it more precisely. The phrase “Blessed are the poor souls” is true.

In the first centuries of Christianity, two monks lived on Mt. Sinai in a small monastery. One was always praying and crying for his sins. The other enjoyed life and thanked God for his mercy. When both died, both having lived a righteous life, the other monks didn’t know what to think. Which of the two was right? Then the father superior had a revelation: All the paths that lead man to God are right. It’s well known that Saint Seraphim of Sarov greeted everyone with the words “My joy”. Constant grief for your sins doesn’t imply a constant low spirit. Those humble “poor souls” have the same attitude toward life as they do towards death. A tragic point of view is something a simple man might have, whereas Basho was a monk, an ascetic.

I agree but nevertheless, not long before his death, his verses became truly tragic.

     To grieve hearing a monkey’s scream!
     But do you know a baby’s cry
     thrown on the autumn wind?

Or here’s another one: [this is Basho's death poem, his last]

     Sick on a journey,
     only my dreams will wander
     these desolate moors.

You get a feeling of both grief and dignity in his portraits...

Absolutely. I read an interesting anecdote once. One day an Aztec ruler was being burned alive by the Spanish. Sitting near him was his servant, who was screaming his lungs out. The ruler asked his servant: “Why are you screaming? You can see for yourself that I’m not in a pleasant situation myself.” It’s natural that I would want to represent this hidden dignity in my film with humor. Chikusai understands that his presence amuses Basho. And when they are changing their hats, Chikusai roars with laughter, while Basho is just slightly smiling. But I just couldn’t find the right pose.

Maybe instead of a Japanese pose, Basho should have gotten on his knees like a Christian monk praying? After all, ascetics are always praying, even when they are sleeping or talking.

But I don’t know how to do it. I wouldn’t want such an obvious emphasis on the pose. I tried to draw it, but I would always find something wrong. There was always something wrong or unnatural or fake.

In that sense, is there any parallel between Basho and the traveler in “The Tale of Tales”?

He is in a different light, a different space. He’s different. The traveler isn’t necessarily a tragic figure. He doesn’t expect some robbers or other dangers, he just travels. He is free of convention and as free as a human can get whilst walking on a warm autumn road and being sure that nothing can harm him. Basho’s way involves some kind of intense and dramatic effort. Basho’s image is probably closer to a Russian ascetic who has voluntarily thrown himself into a different life. Basho is a poet and at the same time a monk.

What exactly is the different between the poet-monk Basho and the Poet from “The Tale of Tales”, who sits at the table in front of the shining paper?

First of all, the two find themselves in different ‘elements’. Basho is in the element of restriction and self-restriction, while the Poet, like the Traveler, is a stoic and a hedonist. He loves life in all its manifestations.

A stoic and a hedonist in one person?

Yes, because a stoic can suppress his desires and at the same time live in reality. John Galsworthy has a story called “The Stoic”, where an old feeble man orders a dinner of good wine and the finest meats. He truly enjoys the meal, because it’s the last thing he possesses. A man who lived an austere life, deliberately refraining from worldly pleasure, organizes a wonderful feast at the end of his life. In this way he creates a bridge between the pleasures of the world and its madness. The Poet is the same. And like all poets, he can restrict himself at the same time. Like Brodsky, who knew that he had a bad heart, but still smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. [Joseph Brodsky, “Russian poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987)” – Wikipedia] He just couldn’t stop even if it would prolong his life for a few more months. This act was a part of his poetic system. Or for example, he would enter a restaurant and order everything prohibited to him. For him, this represented the pleasures of life, its zest.

Basho was different. He restricted himself completely. He was a poet and had a large circle of friends, admirers and students who would happily have supported him so he could lead a peaceful life. But it’s hard to imagine that his talent would have blossomed under such circumstances. As I understand it, he cut himself off from everything that would have harmed him as a poet. There’s this one painting where the students are seeing off Basho in a boat. They throng on the shore while he sits there with a pouch and a staff in his hand, a proud expression on his face, looking exalted - just like Jesus. Even the way the edges of his sleeves hang down bring to mind a Russian icon. Here he is the epitome of a great man.

Basho has a very subtle sense of humor.

     The cold penetrates my bones.
     Maybe I should ask the scarecrow
     for a pair of sleeves!

     Hear me merchant!
     Want to buy a hat?
     The one in the snow.

     On the way!
     I will show you how the cherry blossoms in distant Yoshino,
     you old hat of mine.

While I was preparing for the film, I was taken to a town where Basho would often stay at one of his friend’s places to sleep. They rebuilt the shack where he used to sleep. They showed me one of Basho’s drawings: a drawing of reed or cane. Just a few strokes of the brush and the paper comes alive, as if the characters had seeped into in the paper’s structure. All of the Japanese are painters because drawing Chinese characters trains the hand. The essence of drawing these characters is such that every time they show me something or draw a scheme I’m in awe of the pencil’s movement. In Basho’s case there is also his poetic thinking. It’s obvious that, on a subconscious level, the sense of sound is fused with the sense of the physical in the great poets (Pushkin also possessed these abilities). I was also shown a drawing where Basho graphically represented the snoring of a man. It was so funny! This kind of graphical representation of the abstract is somewhat similar to what the painters of the 20th century did, but they did it seriously, whereas here you have a sense of humor, without the tragic element. You could write a whole article about this drawing, about the concept of poetic vision. Mayakovsky once wrote: “Burlyuk came madly climbing from his screaming, torn eyes.” So visually expressive!

But you weren’t hired to make a Japanese film!

No, I wasn’t. From the very beginning I said: “Franya, let’s use the least amount of detail possible for the costumes. Aim for a vague image. The point isn’t to accurately portray the sleeve of a Japanese kimono. We’ll fail if we insist on ethnographic or local accuracy. Detail must be blurred to the point that only the stain remains, like Kandinsky, where the color is more important than the details. But at the same time, the color must not dominate.” I remember how we would sit with Francesca and make the colors. The colors weren’t working, weren’t fusing with the models.

And then bang. Everything fit. A short deep-brown shirt, a long, gold-ish kimono for Basho and a dirty, bluish one for Chikusai. Then I said: “Franya, we used a classic color scheme, just like Rublev’s Trinity.” It had the same blue, gold and deep-brown. We came up with many variants, but why did we choose this combination? The situation wasn’t similar – there was no castle, or castle rock supporting the cup. And then suddenly everything sparked and a fire ignited – just like when a strong wind blows a conflagration, expelling a stream of air that speeds up the fire in a self-perpetuating cycle. When this happens in film, instead the fire begins to produce more and more details. The color stains begin to expel a frantic energy. Rough, dirty, offhand images gain purity and lucidity. I’m not talking about color anymore, but about something stronger than color.

All the fuss over the image evaporated the moment this harmony materialized. The next phase of the work was the animation, that’s why the movement of the color masses is important. But here, you have again a double task: You must develop the movement of the characters, and support it with color movements. The balance between these two elements is important. The challenge is that the action must not lose itself in a kind of plastic illusiveness. It shouldn’t be empty. It shouldn’t be distracting. The balance between these two elements mustn’t weigh upon the characters. The color mustn’t shout like a street market vendor, “You there! Get over here with the rest of these colors! There isn’t enough for everybody!” The challenge lies in the fact that every action, every gesture, must be absent unnecessary accents, shouldn’t overwhelm the viewer or distract attention to the screen. It’s a real challenge to construct the mise-en-scene of two characters in such a way that their every movement plays out over a sort of unseen grid. The result of this is what creates the ‘intonation’ of the film.

working table - Basho

You didn’t use any specifically Japanese elements in the film. Only the woods, the sky and the fallen leaves. You once said that when working on “The Overcoat” you deliberately avoided using historical elements or topographical signs like street signs so the viewer wouldn’t be able to identify the location. In the film about Basho, you not only avoided showing elements depicting the Japanese way of life, you even refused to adopt the basic Japanese drawing style, the way rocks and water and so on are drawn.

We refused to use the obvious stylistic elements, but nevertheless there is a Japanese feeling to the ‘drawing masses’ in the film. Kandinsky wrote that even belonging to a certain nationality can be represented at an abstract level. Every developed culture has its own color scheme. For example, Greece’s colors are white, black and brown. Russia’s are red, blue, gold and white. When you see Japanese landscapes, the color masses are very clearly delineated. The whole effect of the drawing makes you think: “Maybe time did all this. Maybe time dipped this piece of paper into the wind and streams and rain, spilled a little fog here and there, a little mud.” Even though we talked about the French, about Corot’s landscapes and how he drew the wind, we had this general feeling about the surrounding scenery. Corot has a famous drawing of the wind. When we finished filming, I suddenly realized that the film is really similar to that particular drawing. How could this be? Why? Well, it’s only natural! At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the French themselves were fans of Japanese art. Émile Zola introduced French artists to Japanese prints. As a result, the impressionists began to see things differently. The impressionists weren’t the only ones influenced. Van Gogh also saw them. The blooming apple-trees – that’s Japan. I believe Cézanne was also influenced, and Lautrec, and many, many others.

You see, to me this kind of (often unconscious) cultural interchange is more important than trying to understand the specifics of a certain culture.

So you weren’t out to express a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist view of the world?

No, I wasn’t. At least, these idea didn’t influence my creative process. The character’s behavior must express what I didn’t formulate. I mean, what kind of idiot would go and listen to the trees? A French doctor would visit his patient only with a practical goal. He collects the urine in the test tube, checks the patient’s pupils and tongue, feels the pulse, writes out a prescription with an intelligent look on his face, and then proceeds to fleece the money off his patient - all without any hint of emotion, except maybe for the money part. The Japanese doctor, on the other hand, would speak at length about chrysanthemums, about the snow, about how many moons have passed since he first met the patient. He recalls how the drops of dew trembled in the rays of the sun. In this way the doctor tears the fantasy from the passing body. The disease, distraught by the lack of attention, loses its memory and fades away.

So in reality, your movie is in fact somewhat Japanese.

I believe so. In any case, the Japanese said that if they hadn’t known that a European had made the film, they wouldn’t have believed it.

And what about their ecstatic, even religious, contemplation of the tracks on the first snow, of the frozen waterfall in the fog, the blooming tree bathed in the sunshine? These serve something the same role as our icons. Were these things also important to you?

No. It would have been disingenuous of me to pretend that I naturally felt these Japanese expressive symbols. For me, what was more important was to be in a state of mind were I could readily answer why I like Japanese poetry, art and philosophy. But at the same time, I will never be able to create an ikebana. Well, maybe, if nobody is around I could do it, but in public I would get scared and probably do something awful. With this film it’s same – if I’d have attempted to show off by flaunting some kind of touristy Japanese chinoiserie, I would have been laughed at by the Japanese themselves. I once brought to Japan some drawings made by a painter for a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. My friend, Saitani-san, was indignant: “What is this? This is all China!” That’s why I would never have succeeded if I had tried to work with explicitly Japanese motifs.

When Francesca was drawing the trees, I didn’t bother with whether they were European or Japanese. I just knew that the wind must be here, and the stream there. Even when we were filming the scene with the hat, I didn’t make any attempt to study Japanese prints closely, in spite of the fact that I had a lot of reference material at my disposal. I intentionally refrained from doing something Japanese, but nevertheless I understood the fact that it must have a Japanese coloring, a Japanese wind. Francesca and I were trying to distance ourselves from the obvious symbols and come up with something more subtle.

But the characters themselves had to be recognizable...

Yes, that’s why it took a long time to work out their faces. It was especially hard in Basho’s case, because many variations of him exist. There are no detailed portraits, but it is known that, say, one painting is probably more accurate than another, and these two are so different as to practically look like two different people. But this had the effect of freeing me from a lot of background work. The face concealed by time can be reconstructed through the creator’s work. We can visualize Rublev’s face through his paintings. In this case, we weren’t striving for an accurate representation. A film about Pushkin would be harder to make because we know what he looked like. It’s even harder in Gogol’s case, because we have photographs of him. Rublev’s appearance is lost in the fog, and his own drawings of himself are the only way to reconstruct his image. But not every painter is able to draw a poet. We can paint his exterior, but not all painters can evoke the small details that cannot be seen by a normal eye. It was extremely challenging to find Basho’s image.

In your film he has a big, heavy head, like Socrates.

You see, he has to feel physically present to the audience. It’s like when you see the neck of a boy covered in a ragged shirt thrown over his gaunt shoulders. On looking at him, you feel a powerful wave of pity. But suddenly you see his face, filled with dignity and hidden humor, and understand that his poverty is precisely what gives his face those traits. It’s enough to uncover just a little of Basho’s shoulder and you suddenly realize that he could have been a slave in Greece, a convict in Russia. He could have been a prisoner in a concentration camp, or equally well a fool at some royal court who was allowed to speak freely and remained free, like Socrates or Diogenes. It’s this situation when a man becomes invincible not because he isn’t afraid of death, but because he is so in touch with reality that nothing can move him; he has become one with reality.

I was filming the scene where Chikusai is sitting next to Basho, and was silently horrified. When we finished the scene, I just couldn’t watch it. It’s always like this. At first I just can’t watch it. Then after a while I get used to it. Not because it’s good or bad. I just get used to it and can’t evaluate its merits. The results don’t match the concept. When we finished the scene, which we shot in a silent delirium, I could barely sit still. As I watched the scene, I could see it physically, but I felt nothing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

04:08:01 pm , 2664 words, 1356 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Keiichi Hara interview 2

This interview done on June 25 comes from here, where you can see a shot of the director and stills from the film.

I'd like to start by asking you about the original book. At the symposium before the screening the other day, you talked about how you'd liked the book for a long time because you thought you could do a lot of things with it. What made you choose this book?

When I read the book, it felt like a story that would let me say the things I wanted to say. I don't mean it felt like I could use the story to my own ends. It was just a very stimulating story when I first read it, and that feeling never went away, ever over all those years. It's been more than 20 years since I first read the book. The main thing is that, over all that time, this strong desire to adapt this story to animation didn't change.

What was it that interested you about it, exactly? Kenichi's friendship with Coo? Kenichi's troubled adolescence?

All of those things. To me, it's not just a story about a kappa. I tried to talk about a lot of things in the film - kids, family, society. I liked the story because I thought it would let me do that.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it's rather long for an animated film. Is the reason it's so long because you had to fit in all those themes?

A lot of people have been saying that it's long. The thing is, I didn't write a script. I just dived right into the work. In other words, first I came up with the basic outline, and then I moved right onto the storyboard. I didn't have a lot of restrictions on this film, so I decided to go right through the storyboard first and see how long it turned out. Afterwards, if need be, I thought I could go through and cut whatever scenes needed to be cut. So I drew the storyboard that way, and it turned out to be 3 hours long. I knew that was too long, so I sort of resigned myself to cutting it at that point. It took a hell of a lot of work to bring it down from that length to the current length. It feels like I spend most of my time as a director resigning myself to this sort of thing.

I know 2 hours and 20 minutes is long for an animated film, but I cut away all I could. That was the best I could do.

Does the film have a message? Was conveying a message an important factor to you?

No. I tried to make sure the film didn't come across as having a strong message.

The other day there was a screening on Earth Day. It was preceded by symposium. But the movie didn't strike me as an environmental film. It seemed to be a lot more subtle than that. It just shows Japan as it is today - an environment that kappas can no longer inhabit.

I think that's the best way to look at it. I wanted to get across a number of things, about the environment and so on, but without being too overt about it.

The film takes place today, but with a few touches of fantasy. What was your approach to balancing realism and fantasy?

Most of my effort in this film went to getting that balance right. I didn't want to just make a purely realistic film. Fantasy is an important element of this film. But I didn't want it to be an alternate reality either. I want it to be a subtle touch of fantasy that takes place in a reality that we can all relate to. That's just the kind of thing I personally like.

Watching the film, I couldn't help but thinking in real life there would have been more commotion if a kappa turned up one day.

I know. I realize that this isn't quite how things would have turned out in reality. I wasn't able to do any better than that. The fact is that I already had a lot of other things I needed to do for the film, so I couldn't just spend all my energy to focus on that aspect.

The setting is Higashi Kurume, which is interesting because it's a place that's not quite urban, and not quite rural. It's kind of inbetween. What made you choose that location?

The writer of the book, Masao Kogure, he lived there. The first time I visited Masao Kogure, I had some time on my hands, so I went for a walk, and I really liked the rivers I saw there. That's why I chose it. It seemed like a good setting. It's not that I didn't have other candidates, but it had meaning to me because Masao Kogure lived there.

How many years ago was that?

About 10 years ago.

You were busy with Shin-chan at that time I think. What kind of a film did you have in mind at the time?

A certain game company was looking for anime projects at the time, and someone asked me to submit an idea. I submitted this as my idea, and the producer gave it the go ahead. I went to meet Masao Kogure for the first time to get his permission. We hadn't yet decided that we were going to be making the film.

The town of Tono turns up in the film. Did you do any location hunting?

I'd been wanting to do the film for a long time, so I'd had chances to visit Tono before any number of times, just looking for ideas. Later I also went together with the staff.

Okinawa also turns up in the film. Does Okinawa have any special significance to you?

It does, actually. I kind of re-discovered Okinawa in the process of making the film. Twenty years ago I didn't know anything about Okinawa other than the fact that it was in the news because of the US military base and that there were tourist resorts there, but finding out about their traditional ideas about spiritual things kind of opened my eyes and got me really interested in their culture. That's when I discovered the Okinawan yokai called Kijimuna.

People are starting to pay more attention to Okinawa now - not just to the beauty of the ocean there, but to Okinawan culture. Personally I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I don't think it's good for Okinawa to take on this fantasy island, southern paradise type image.

The background art in the film was particularly beautiful. Was that something you asked the staff to focus on?

Yes and no. Some of the art that came to me was beautiful, and some of it I asked to be redone a number of times to get it right. We had a lot more time than we would for a TV series, so the background artists also put a lot more effort in.

It's been 5 years since you directed your last film. Did it benefit your new film to spend that long working on it?

In the end, yes. But really I wasn't working on it for all of those five years. It took a long time for me to finally get to the point that I could start working on it. When I finally started, I was the only one working on the film for a good while. Though this film took a lot longer to make than the Shin-chan films, it was still done in a relatively short time. The animators probably wanted to spend more time on their part. But it's hard to do that in this day and age. Good staff, and particularly animators, are hard to come by. Everyone talks about Japan as this country of anime, but the fact is that a lot of the burden of that work is shouldered by a small handful of talented animators. That's one of my biggest worries - whether I'll be able to find the staff to make the film.

Over the many years that it took you to finally get to work on the film, did your goals change any from what you had originally wanted to do?

No. They stayed the same. A lot of it is exactly as I originally set out to do at the very beginning, while there are also things I came up with along the way.

What are some of the things that didn't change?

I had come up with the climactic sequence at the very beginning. And I had wanted to focus on the growing-up aspect since the very beginning. There was nothing about that in the book.

Am I correct in assuming that you intended this as a children's film?

Absolutely not. That's not what I intended at all.

I see, then I was mistaken. I thought you had intended it as a children's film that adults could enjoy as well. So you set out to make a film that anyone could watch?

No, that's not what I set out to do either. I wanted to go beyond that sort of genre-based thinking. It's something that I learned while working on the Shin-chan films all those years ago. Movies made with that sort of mentality are no good.

With genre films, you have the people with the money on this side. They know exactly what kind of film they want to make - they want to make a film that they think this group of people over here will want to see. So they know exactly how to make it, how much to spend, and so on. Lots of movies are made with that approach, including animated movies.

Many movies these days do seem made for a predetermined audience.

Well, it occurred to me at one point that that's the problem. Or rather, my audience made me realize that - the people who came to see Adult Empire. When I made that film, I didn't think anyone would want to watch it. But I was absolutely honest in that film, really true to myself, so personally I was very satisfied with the film. I accepted that probably not everyone would like it. Some people might even hate it. Why? Because it wasn't a genre movie anymore. But much to my surprise, it became popular by word of mouth. So I didn't discover that on my own. It's people's reaction that made me realize it.

It's at that point that I realized that it was silly to make a film in a specific genre or with a specific audience in mind. I realized that, if you make a film honestly, then the film will get the recognition it deserves. Since then, that's been my basic approach.

How did it feel when you first began moving away from genre movies with Adult Empire?

It was a real struggle. I'd already done a few of the films by that time, but come time to start on the next one, I didn't have any ideas, so I actually didn't approach it very seriously. I had kind of a 'whatever' attitude. But when I started working on it, I started feeling kind of lost, on auto-pilot, so I felt like I had to do something or I'd lose my grip. That's when I started becoming more serious. It was a big change for me. Usually I would just throw together some formulaic plan, but I was sick to death of that sort of thing. All of a sudden I started taking the work deadly seriously.

Was it constricting to have to work with a situation like that where the characters are already fixed within a set framework?

Yes and no. Sometimes it was a real burden, but other times it was a real life-saver. Working on the same characters for so long makes it easier to figure out how a character would react or speak in different situations. For example, obviously Shin-chan would drop his pants and do the butt dance in this situation. So it's actually kind of helpful to deal with characters whose limits you know. Not always, but often.

The characters in this film seem to have been created very freely. How was it different working with these characters?

With this film I didn't have that intimacy with the characters, which made it considerably more difficult than I'd expected. I had to work out each of the characters' personalities right as I was drawing the storyboard, which was a real challenge. What would this character do here? What would he say here?

A moment ago you were talking about avoiding genres. Why animation then? Animation is more in thrall to preconceived notions than many genres.

Because that's all I can do. Because I've been doing it for 20 years and that's all I know. Based on my own knowledge and experience, the choice was obvious. There was no hesitation there.

What surprised me about this film was how realistic the characters were. The characters in your previous films often had very simple forms. Why did you choose more realistic forms for this film?

With this film for the first time I had the chance to create everything myself. Having worked with simply stylized characters for a long time, this time I wanted to get away from that and do something I'd wanted to do for a long time but never had the chance to do. I also wanted to place some limitations on myself by making the characters more realistic. In other words, Shin-chan could do these giant leaps, and you wouldn't think twice about it. The unrealistic design makes the audience accept it. I didn't want to be able to hide behind that sort of thing this time.

The opening sequence is a little scary. Weren't you worried about the what the children in the audience might feel?

I've been told that before. When I set out, I made a decision not to get hung up on that sort of thing for once. That scene was absolutely necessary to the film because it summarizes the relations between kappas and humans. That scene was also one of my very early ideas. I'm sorry if children find the scene difficult to watch, but I had absolutely no intention of modifying things simply to make the film kid friendly, so no, it never occurred to me.

Studio Ghibli is one of the more well known animation studios in Japan in terms of being seen by a large audience. How do you see yourself in relation to them?

I'm not under the illusion of being remotely qualified to consider them rivals or anything. I don't think it's helpful to be oversensitive about other creators like that. For a long time I've known that I could never reach their level of dedication to the act of creating animation, so I've resigned myself to going in a different direction of my own.

Many people think very highly of your work in the industry. How do you feel about that?

Not much. It's not that I don't appreciate it or anything. It's just that I'm actually a real slacker, so it doesn't ring true to me. Just ask any of the staff. (laughs) If anything, thank the staff for all the hard work they put into make these films what they are.

So your style is all about teamwork?

The thing that impresses me about Takahata and Miyazaki is how they deal with their staff. They place incredible demands on their staff. I just can't do that. I tend to prefer to let the staff do things their own way. If people like the results, then so much the better.

Do you have any new plans?

I do, but I can't talk about them yet... because I haven't done anything yet. (laughs)

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

03:57:30 pm , 987 words, 1188 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Keiichi Hara interview

Ran across an interview with Keiichi Hara, so I thought I'd translate it, just to see if I could get a feel for his voice, though there isn't much of anything by way of new information in the interview. Original interview from here.

I hear you've been warming this project for years.

I first ran into the original story about 20 years ago, back when I was working as chief director of the TV show Esper Mami. Few projects at the time were original, instead always focusing on adapting popular comics. I didn't think it was a good thing for the industry to keep going in that direction, so I took it upon myself to buy a few books on my own tab every week and read through them to look for a potential interesting project. Kappa Uproar by Masao Kogure was the one that I found at the time that seemed to have the most potential as animation. A baby kappa born in the Edo period comes back to life and experiences life in our own times. I thought the situation had a lot of possibility. Unfortunately it took me 20 years to finally get to the point where I could actually do the project. The author, Masao Kogure, passed away earlier this year. When I'd met him before, I had mentioned that I wanted to change the story a bit to make it into a film. Instead of asking me how I was going to change it, he just said, "I'm just happy that the book will be coming back to life, so I'll leave it up to you." The film was completed at the end of last year, but sadly Masao Kogure passed away before I had a chance to show it to him. I still tremendously regret that I didn't have a chance to show it to him.

There's a gap of 5 years between this film and your last film, the Warring States Shin-Chan film.

I didn't actually do much during that time. I wrote a script someone asked me to write and gave some ideas for an SFX movie, but none of those things came to fruition. I was glad that people were asking me to do these things, but at the time I was still employed at Shinei, so I wasn't exactly free to just do as I pleased. Coo had been on my mind constantly ever since I started working on Shin-chan. Every time one of the films ended, I thought, "Now is my chance to get started on Coo." But then I'd be forced to start working on the next film - over and over again. So in the end after Warring States I just decided to put my foot down and shift to working on Coo. People who'd seen my Shin-chan work asked me if there was anything else I'd like to do, which made it a lot easier to set to work on it. In way, it's thanks to Shin-chan that I was able to do Coo.

The film touches on some environmental issues.

I look at the yokai (traditional Japanese monsters) more as minorities than monsters. Many ethnic groups have been persecuted and marginalized throughout history, but nobody has ever even seen a kappa, so thinking of kappa in terms of a minority helped me come to grips with how a kappa might have felt in Coo's situation. So in a sense there is a bit of overlap with Native Americans. People move into the area inhabited by the kappas, use the land to their own ends, and drive out the kappas. In that sense it's a parallel with what happened to the Native Americans.

The scene with the family on the Tokyo Tower is kind of similar to the scene you did in the Adult Empire Strikes Back movie.

Actually, it's the other way around. I already had the idea to use that scene in Coo when I started making Adult Empire, and I just borrowed the idea in the Adult Empire film. Then I came to Coo and was in a bit of a fix since I'd already used the scene in that film. But I decided to go ahead with it anyway. I just accepted that the Tokyo Tower would be this recurring theme in my work.

Who do you want to see this film?

20 years ago when I first came up with the idea for the film I was thinking it would be for kids, but after years of working on the Shin-chan films I changed and wanted to make films that not only kids would want to watch but also adults. So I'd like kids to watch it, but I'd also like people of my generation to watch it. I'm satisfied enough with the results to be able to say that. It's been about one full generation since the original story was written, so I'll be happy if moms and dads who read the story back then come to the film with their kids and it brings back some memories.

What's your next project?

Right now I'm feeling really empty after having finished this project I'd been working on for 20 years. I don't know what to say whenever somebody asks me what I'm doing next, because it'll take me some time to get over that feeling. It's not like I've got a spare project I can just pull out of the drawer. Coo was everything. I'm freelance now, so I'd like to try my hand at various things if people want me. I'm also interested in live action. But I'm well aware that it takes more than enthusiasm to get a project done. In any case, in the coming days I'd like to focus on creating dense drama, so I'd like to continue to direct feature films.

(Actually, I found a few more interviews, so I'll probably be translating them as well soon.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

11:37:28 pm , 4101 words, 10294 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

Related:
› 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

Sunday, July 23, 2006

03:11:13 pm , 1217 words, 4219 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, Translation, Interview

Mitsuo Iso interview

It's been a while since I've translated an interview, and I recently found an interview that fairly made my eyes bug out, so I thought I would translate it. It's an interview with Mitsuo Iso, and the only one I've ever seen at that. I'm not sure what magazine it was published in, but it must presumably have been published around 2003, because the interview is all about episode 15 of RahXephon, what might be considered Iso's "debut" of sorts, at least in terms of directing and storyboarding.

Iso had up until that point been known mainly as an animator, with the only non-animation work to his credit prior to RahXephon being prop design and weapon design in Magnetic Rose and Ghost in the Shell in 1995 and co-writer of episode 13 of Evangelion in 1996. Iso's involvement on RahXephon was at the very least a major turning point for him, an experience that must have wrought major changes in his approach to animation.

More accurately, his approach in this series - he handled 2D digital effects combined with traditional animation - was simply the culmination of his work over the previous six years. After his involvement designing and writing in 1995 and 1996, you can sense changes overcoming his animation style, making it become more comprehensive, more cinematic and honed down to the minutest detail. This is what leads to his taking his work to the logical next step with 2D digital processing of his animation in Blood and so on. This then leads directly to RahXephon, in which he handled various manners of digital processing throughout the series. This is the only instance I can remember of a TV anime having a separate post for digital FX.

After his work on this series, Iso pretty much disappears from the scene as an animator. Rumors in the intervening years had it that he was working on something big, but only now has it become known that this was true, and so it's an ideal time now to look back on RahXephon, the series in which he experimented, learned, and tested many of the things that will presumaly be built upon in the upcoming Denno Coil.


Bringing RahXephon Alive:
The Digital Artistry of Mitsuo Iso


Episode 15 "Childhood's End" was a sensation in fan and industry circles. Behind the episode lay a single man: Mitsuo Iso, head of digital FX. Writer, storyboarder, director and key animator of the episode, Iso claims the high-quality results on display in the episode are feasible at low cost and within schedule. Let's look into his secret.

How did people in the studio react to your being put in charge of digital processing?

They seem to have interpreted it to mean that I was retiring from animation because animation was becoming too hard for me. (laughs) But to me it was just the opposite - I took the job because I viewed it as a new challenge. There's this conception that digital takes more time and money to do, but I feel it's the reverse. People tend only to think only of 3D when they talk about CG, but I've used almost no 3D whatsoever. I actually view 2D as by far superior.

By 2D, you mean essentially animation in the style of traditional cell animation?

Yes. Coming as I do from a background in traditional animation, I find that it is much easier to manipulate the parameters of the frame in 2D. To me, what makes animation come alive is interesting movement and effective use of the frame, yet I find that these are aspects that have proven difficult to handle sufficiently well in 3D.

When was it that you began to implement digital processing in your work?

The first time I used Aftereffects was in Blood: The Last Vampire. Taking hints from an approach that had been devised by Hisashi Ezura for the film, I devised a way of digitally processing the handling of light. In RahXephon, I built on this approach by coming up with a new way drawing an effect: I drew the component elements of the effect myself, and then manipulated these basic elements through multiplication and pasting to achieve the final effect. What I learned from the experience was the importance of instinct for knowing how best to arrange the material. That instinct - knowing how big to make a certain element, or how to finesse a certain movement - is something that you can only acquire through experience with 2D animation.

What prompted you to decide to singlehandedly bear the burden of all of the critical production roles in episode 15 (writer, director, storyboarder)?

What is the single most time-consuming element of animation production? It is having to mold your work around the ideas of another person. In assembly-line animation production, each person has their specialized task, and your duty is to transform the ideas in the head of another person ahead of you on the conveyer belt into visual form, which is very difficult. I talked with the director and was given permission to handle all of the tasks. This facilitated my work by permitting me to handle everything how I felt it needed to be handled. This made the entire process much more efficient, as I was able to visualize every step of the way from script to animation to photography right as I was formulating each scene. As the director, I was also able to handle the processing, meaning that I could deal with retakes promptly, and I was able to do a drawing on the spot when I saw something was missing. The result was a dramatic savings of time and labor. This episode was on schedule and below average in cost (drawing count), and this additional hidden economic benefit of this method is something I would like to draw attention to.

I'm reminded of Hoshi no Koe.

I was very interested to hear that films like that were being made. Although this method may not necessarily be the most appropriate one for every type of visual or for every type of story, digital offers tremendous potential, so I'm surprised that more people haven't taken it up. Not to rush to a conclusion, but perhaps what's happening here is that this episode came along right at a time when people were beginning to feel that a certain something was missing from the typical style of animation production, and filled in that hole.

Any closing remarks on episode 15?

I want to thank key animators Kazuto Nakazawa and Takeshi Honda and co-animation director Yoshiyuki Ito for their tremendous help in this episode. Pak Romi's performance as Isshiki was magnificent. I'm very grateful. If there's anything wrong with this episode, blame it on me. (laughs)

Simply put, I'm not out to become a director or a screenwriter. I just want to make animation. If I'm doing all of this, it's because I found that it was necessary to do so in order to be able to make animation the way I feel it needs to be made. I'd be happy if people could see the inherent potential in this approach. In closing, I wish more people would see the beauty of hand-drawn digital, and join me in making this kind of animation.


Related: Mitsuo Iso | Mitsuo Iso filmography | Iso Fun Pack | Denno Coil

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

07:55:20 am , 2222 words, 1847 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Marisuke Eguchi interview

It's been a while since I've run across an interesting interview, and I've been eager to see Gisaburo Sugii's On A Stormy Night for a while now, so I thought I would translate the interview from the official web site arayoru.com with the animation director of the film, Marisuke Eguchi, who was also the animation director of Gisaburo's masterpiece, Night on the Galactic Railroad. His enthusiasm for his job was vicariously invigorating as well as refreshing to me personally, tending as I do only to focus on the animators. He has genuine enthusiasm for his art, knows how to transmit that to his animators, and clearly put the commensurate effort and thought into coming up with these characters, which are among the most interesting I've seen in a Japanese animated film in a while (at least judging by the stills I've seen) so I am looking forward to seeing how they look in motion.

I'm especially eager because of Gisaburo's concept for the film. At the opposite end of the streamlined simplicity and minimalism of line of much of the great animation being made now in the country, here Gisaburo the iconoclast comes up with his own original approach to the animation, as usual. Here his goal was to create a dense texture for the characters. This was achieved by stacking several layers of independently moving fur over the basic outline of each character, or as he explains:

"To animate these characters the first thing that occurred to me was that they couldn't be drawn with an ordinary, flat-toned drawing of a wolf and a lamb. They had to be drawn in a way that would emphasize their predator/prey relationship so that the audience would feel the unnaturalness of their friendship. This being the much-touted digital age, I put the challenge to animation supervisor Tsuneo Maeda of coming up with a way of digitally creating a feeling of texture for the fur rather than having usual flat coloring.

What Maeda came up with was to cut up the body into different parts. First there's the outline of the body and the fur. Those are separate. Under those we add a bit of "noise" and then some pieces to add shadows. The result is that unlike in normal anime here the body and fur are different colors.

So for example, most of the time Mei is made up of at least 3, usually 4 or 5 layered drawings, which is more than twice the usual 2. And since Mei and Gabu are different colors, that works out to about 8 drawings when they're on the screen together. So the total count for this film is probably something on the order of 130,000 or 140,000 drawings, though we haven't actually bothered to count. That's about twice as many drawings as your average anime film, which might have on the order of 70,000 drawings."

---

Let's start from the beginning. When were you first approached to adapt the story into film?

Last year... Actually, at the end of the year before that.

What was your first thought for the characters after reading the book?

Well, what usually interests me the most is first to hear what Sugii is thinking.

Sugii's interpretation?

Yes.

So he suggests a general direction and asks you to see what you can come up with?

That's right. My first question was whether we were going to go with a realistic animal form or not. My debut was Night on the Galactic Railroad, where the cats stand like humans. Coming up with characters standing like humans would require a completely different strategy than coming up with characters with a realistic animal form. So that was my first question. His answer was a realistic animal form, and that's when I started thinking about the characters.

Did it take you long to come up with the characters?

It took less time than I expected. As a director, Sugii tends to want to come up with a new way of doing things for each project. Something people have never seen before. His approach this time was to use "matiere" - individual pieces of textured material. So I tried to find a method that would be most conducive to creating a feeling of texture in the final product. Naturally coming up with the actual characters presents its own problems, but the bulk of my time was spent testing different ways of creating a texture that would be unique to each of the characters.

Did the director have any specific requests?

Not this time.

He left it up to you?

Pretty much, yes. The first design idea I drew was actually fairly realistic. Gisaburo's comment on it was, "We could go with that." So it was back to the drawing board.

I don't understand.

Well, when I'm conceptualizing the character, I go through reams of drawings as a way of asking myself the question: "Am I OK with that?" Literally boxfulls of drawings, testing all the different possibilities. Those first designs I showed him were the first ones I drew in the first few days, just testing the waters. His comment was his way of saying: Would you really be satisfied if we had to make the movie with those designs? Maybe you should give it some more thought.

As the director I don't mind, but you might not be satisfied with that, so you might want to give it a bit more thought...

I think that's what he meant. That was really the first design I'd come up with in the first few days, so I had no intention of going with that design. When you're desigining a character, it could go any number of ways - from the super-realistic to the hyper-cartoonish - so that first idea was just my way of testing the waters. Seeing his reaction at the beginning of that designing process.

So the final design was completely different?

Completely different. For my second idea, I thought about the concept of the film - "matiere" - and modified the design appropriately in that direction. At that point my mentor, Tsuneo Maeda, said that he might be able to figure out a way of creating the movement of the hair using digital technology, and I started to get a sense of the direction we were headed.

So that technique was an important factor in deciding on the final design?

Yes. I naturally gave a lot of thought to coming up with a design that would hover midway between the realistic and the cartoonish, but I spent a lot more time thinking about the problem of how to create a feeling of texture in the final product.

From that point on, what gave you the most trouble?

When I started out on Night on the Galactic Railroad I was still a kid, so it felt like I'd given birth to a child when the film was done. Many of the people working on this film were also kids with very little experience, so they were very lucky in a way to be able to work on a film at so early a stage. I wanted those young people to experience that same feeling. I wanted each and every one of them to feel that the film was their child. In the end many of them made tremendous progress, to the point that they could look after their drawings completely on their own, which made me very happy.

So they really got into it?

That's right. Normally in an anime movie you don't have just one animation director. That's not enough in this day and age. Normally you have a chief animation director and three or four veterans working under him - sometimes even another person to check the layout. But here there was only me. I couldn't do it on my own, so the only answer was to raise my "children" to the point that they would be self-sufficient. And luckily it worked. Everybody set to work and really fell in love with the characters, so I was sure that things would work out.

And so a 107-minute film was born. What were your impressions watching the finished film?

All we can do is do our best while working on the film. Afterwards we can wish we'd done things differently, but the important thing is to get as much into the film while we're making it and do our best not to have any regrets.

What's your advice to young people who want to do the kind of work you do?

It's a wonderful job. Just draw as much as you can. Everyone draws when they're a kid, but most people stop after a certain age. Those who don's stop are the odd ones... (laughs)

Did you draw a lot as a kid?

Yeah. I think you've got to if you want to survive in this line of work.

Often when a film is completed, it takes on a life of its own. What do you hope will happen to that child in the future?

I hope people take good care of her. It may be presumptuous of me to say so, but the labor pains were considerable. Gabu the wolf I understood. I could see why he behaves the way he does. But I just couldn't get into the mind of Mei the goat. What do you think attracted Gabu to Mei? (laughs) I couldn't figure it out. If I can't get into the mind of a character, I can't draw him, so that was a big struggle for me.

Gabu is a predator, so he should be Mei's enemy, but he decides to be his friend. I'd say it's almost kind of stoic...

Exactly. Early on we had a lot of discussion about this topic. In the end what provided the key was Marilyn Monroe. Tsuneo Maeda and I would go out drinking and we'd exchange ideas. So once I confessed, "I just don't get Mei." I could draw him, no problem. I'm talking psychologically. I didn't understand his motivation. Well, there's a point in the original book where Mei walks a certain way waving his fanny. Maeda asked me who it reminded me of. Being a Marilyn Monroe fan, I responded: Marilyn Monroe. (laughs) "Then think of her when you draw Mei," he told me. From that point on I felt I could draw Mei with confidence. I felt I wanted to draw him as cute as possible. But I must say, goats aren't the cutest animals...

I know what you mean. Sheep are cuter.

Much.

Did you study goats?

Till I had it up to here with goats. But I really wanted the children watching the film to find the characters cute.

Aren't goat eyes...

Horizontal. Yeah. I tried drawing the eyes that way, but it just didn't feel right. For me, if I can visualize a single scene, the rest tends to follow in a torrent. So Mei walking in front of Gabu is actually Marilyn Monroe swaying her hips in Niagara.

Marilyn Monroe swaying her hips.

Absolutely. It was the goat version of the Monroe walk. Of course, most of the young animators were like, "Marilyn Monroe? Never heard of her." So we borrowed some videos, did some studying, and Marilyn Monroe it was.

Were they as convinced as you?

It probably took a little time to sink in because they had to practice it a few times before they got it right. But once they got it, it was downhill from there. So don't forget: Goat version of the Monroe walk.

So once you'd gotten the hips down, did the ears and eyes and the rest sort of follow naturally?

No, the design itself was already complete by that point. It's just that I wouldn't have enjoyed drawing it if I hadn't found that mental key. Once I discover the key to the character in a single scene, everything else follows, and it changes the character's whole range of expression. Once each of the staff finds their key, they get excited about drawing Mei, or get motivated to draw Mei as cute as possible, and they get that much more into the character. By that time I can tell just by looking at a single drawing that someone has "got it". So what my job as the animation director consists of, really, is motivating the staff to get excited about their work, then adding a dash of my own excitement to get the right balance so that it melds perfectly with what the background and the photography people want to do. It's figuring out how to combine all that energy.

So if someone were to ask you: What is the job of the animation director? You would say...

The director of the drawings. Simple as that. In other words, establish the direction for the drawings among the animation staff - draw Mei as cute as possible, draw Gabu kind of scary but likeable - while at the same time listening to what the staff want to do. That's the job of the animation director. That's why I love this job. (laughs)

Now that this is over, what's next? Any plans yet?

Yes. I have several ideas in the planning stage.

I look forward to it. Thank you.

Related: Gisaburo Sugii vs. Hiroshi Masumura

Thursday, May 26, 2005

05:44:00 pm , 4206 words, 3449 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Toshiyuki Inoue interview - Part 2

PA WORKS: Maybe we could talk a little about the different animation 'tasks' you've gone through over the years.

Inoue: It's hard to remember specifically, but what basically happens is that whenever I'm feeling stuck, I don't have to go looking for a task - the task finds me.

PA WORKS: Kosuke Kawazura here, one of my key animators working on GITS: SAC, once approached me with a certain drawing and said, "I can't draw this." What exactly was it that was giving you trouble?

Inoue: That can be hard to express in words.

KAWAZURA: I figured out what it was - my drawing skills.

Inoue: That can be a pretty painful thing to go through, not being able to improve your drawing skills - not being able to draw things the way you want. But, strange as it may sound, that can actually be the first step to getting better. You've got to feel dissatisfied with your drawings, or you won't improve. Figuring out how to do that can be hard. One thing you can do is to find someone who draws the way you're trying to draw, who draws a certain pose just the way you want to draw it. That can help you to find the way out. Though it's not good to just cheat and use that to learn shortcuts to make your drawing look passable. (laughs)

Another technique is to accept the fact that you can't get that one drawing right for now, and be satisfied with getting the surrounding drawings down. After all, the whole point isn't to draw the hardest-to-draw pose. What should concern you is making sure that you get the overall movement down as you wanted. Being stubborn about it and getting held up by one drawing isn't a good thing. Animation isn't illustration, after all. So long as it moves the way you wanted it to move, then that's all that matters. If you get hung up on drawing it the way so-and-so draws it, from this difficult angle, no matter what, then any lack of drawing skill is going to be painfully obvious in the finished drawing.

Because in animation, there are any number of ways of getting a similar result. You don't necessarily have to draw this complicated split-second slice of an action to achieve the same effect. It's not a contest to see who can draw the most difficult drawing. There are plenty of people who don't necessarily have the best drafting skills, but they can still achieve incredible results with the movement. I for one probably couldn't beat Hiroyuki Okiura in a straight drawing contest, but I don't let that get me down, because what's unique about animation is that, if you figure out a style suited to your skill level, then you can create movement that achieves a comparable effect.

If you've got to finish the shot by tomorrow, and you're stuck on this one drawing from this hard angle, then that's no time for being stubborn. You've got to settle for passable. Any other time, you can go back to being stubborn. It's important to have that determination to draw a drawing a certain way no matter what. Drawing skill comes as a result of that process. Even if you can't draw it as well as you want, you're definitely getting better by trying. If you're not struggling to draw a drawing right, then you'll never get better. It's important to have that determination to get better no matter what when you're young, because that's how you improve. Of course, it's also important to learn when to give in and move on, as contradictory as that may sound. Both are important.

PA WORKS: Aside from drawing skills, there's also the pursuit of movement. I once heard that Mitsuo Iso went through all of your animation in Gu-Gu Ganmo one frame at a time.

Inoue: I think he's reading too much into my work. He's too smart for his own good.

PA WORKS: The fact that he should have gone so far as to invent his own personal style of animation that he calls "full limited" would seem to suggest that he had a strong conviction that the current way of drawing animation didn't allow him to create the kind of movement that he wanted to create.

Inoue: That's something you're either born with or you're not. Mitsuo Iso's really a special case. Of all the people I've met, he's a genius among geniuses.

PA WORKS: And yet I think even he's not satisfied with his work. Provided you're not someone who's convinced of his own genius, I think most people have an awareness of their problems.

Inoue: Absolutely. And nobody moreso than people who are already considered 'good'. I for one have almost never been completely satisfied with movements I've made. It's precisely the desire to be more satisfied with my work that acts a major motivation to keep working. Some people might think it'd be horrible to never be satisfied with your work, but it's just the opposite - that's what keeps you going. There's nothing more thrilling. Maybe there are some rare cases of a true animation genius who gets so good that he's satisfied with his work and loses that motivation, but hardly anyone is that good. I really think that's a lifelong task - getting better, getting to the point where you're satisfied with your work. I don't mind one bit feeling like something's missing all the time, because it means I can keep working without getting tired of my work. I wouldn't have it any other way.

PA WORKS: Maybe it's just that I've gotten better at judging animation, but I'm almost never really surprised by a piece animation anymore. Many say animation has lost a lot of its power since the old days.

Inoue: I think people nowadays are just afraid. They're afraid of angering the director, so they play it safe. It would probably help if companies would set up situations that would actively encourage people to be freer with the animation, to do more with it. I also think that to a certain extent information has made people a little lazy. They know how it's done, but they don't have the drive to try their hand at actually drawing it. They know smoke twirls, but they don't feel an overpowering need to draw it. People who can draw it draw it, those who can't don't. I think a divide has sort of grown between the two. Lately scenes seem to tend to get assigned based on just what you're good at. You hardly ever see a girl getting assigned a mecha scene, for example. Well I think they should. Give them a scene full of really complicated effects.

PA WORKS: Freelancers won't do it if they don't want to. You can't force them. One told me he didn't want to draw a scene because it had a mechanical pencil in it.

Inoue: (laughs) "But I can't draw mecha. There's a phone in that scene. Phones are mecha too."

PA WORKS: I'd like my key animators to be able to draw anything, regardless of preference. Just because one guy likes drawing crowd scenes doesn't mean that's all I'm going to give him.

Inoue: I used to hate drawing smoke.

PA WORKS: (laughs uncontrollably)

Inoue: I'm serious! Until Akira, for the longest time I couldn't get smoke right no matter how I tried. I actually had an inferiority complex about it. Then around the time I was working on Roujin Z I happened to run across a copy of some smoke animation by Mitsuo Iso, and that gave me the hint I needed.

"If I draw this part like that, it'll have the right form". Up until then smoke used to be a big lump with a bunch of bumps for shadows, which didn't have any feeling of three-dimensionality at all. Without a drawing that feels three-dimensional, how are you going to be able to create movement that feels three-dimensional? I was stuck because I couldn't figure out a way over that. Anno's smoke didn't do the trick for me. His smoke was well drawn, but it was lacking in refinement somehow. Iso drew shadows that had a refined form. The second I saw the way he drew the shadows, I had a eureka moment. "That's it! You draw the outline of the smoke this way, but the shadows you can just draw like this." I figured out that if you draw the shadows as little depressions in the cloud, it gives the overall form a feeling of three-dimensionality, and it makes it easier to animate.

I tested it out in Roujin Z and Hashire Melos, but it took me a while to learn how to do it well. Once I finally got the hang of it I actually started liking animating smoke. If I had gone on avoiding it all this time just because I didn't like drawing it back then, I might still not know how to do it. That's how it works. I knew I had a problem drawing smoke, so I was able to figure out a way over the problem pretty quickly once I saw Iso's work. You've got to really feel cornered, to the extent that you almost don't want to draw it anymore, before you can make progress sometimes. Whenever you're cornered, if you put up your antenna and wait impatiently enough for a hint, you'll usually find something.

PA WORKS: Yesterday you talked about how you try to keep your personality from showing up in your work. "I can't hide my personality completely, but I try to keep it from being distracting." You're one of the few people who thinks that way.

Inoue: Well, in my case it's just that I don't have that much inside that's itching to come out. But there seems to be a feeling these days that if it's not individualistic, then it's no good. Individuality isn't something you force out because there's pressure on you to be individual. That's not the real thing. Individuality is something that comes out whether you like it or not after you've been working for years and years to develop your skills. What I was trying to say is that you shouldn't feel frustrated if you're having a hard time forcing out your individuality. Something about that worries me. You can see that struggle especially clearly in kids who've just graduated from art school, where they've been educated to try to find a personal means of expression. I think it'll only wind up being a burden if they come to animation feeling pressured to come up with some new, personal approach to the drawings or the movement. Because, comparatively speaking, animation is hardly the line of work most conducive to personal expression. Say you start working as an inbetweener - you're going to have pretty much zero opportunity for personal expression while you're doing that. So I was just trying to say "Keep your cool". After ten years as a key animator you'll find that your work will be full of personality without even trying.

PA WORKS: You know how animators prefer certain character designs? It's so hard finding animators these days that before I accept work now I give some thought to how many people the character design might attract.

Inoue: The animator shortage has reached the point that each animator gets a lot of requests, so naturally they're going to choose the designs they prefer. It's interesting because that has even started to influence the kind of designs the production side tends to choose.

PA WORKS: Whenever I look through magazines, honestly I'm struck by the gap between the design-as-product that I'm seeing and the kind of designs that animators go for. My reaction is, "I have to work with that?!"

Inoue: You shouldn't let that concern you. If the customers demand a certain thing, then the production side has no choice but to pass on that demand to the production floor. People know what they're getting into when they enter this line of work, so I think there's no need to worry excessively about it. To a certain extent there's even a kind of pleasure in putting up with certain things to eventually do what you want.

PA WORKS: That may be the ideal, but the fact is that animators today have reached the point of exhaustion from constantly having to force themselves to put up with those things. They may understand the principle, but in the end, constantly having these things forced upon them from the top down only has the effect of wearing down their motivation.

PA WORKS: I think many people enter this line of work simply hoping to earn enough to put food on the table. Nobody becomes an animator to get rich. If you want to improve that situation - so at least people think they might be able to earn enough to buy a house and not just scrape by - I think people have to start thinking of themselves more as workers in this sector of industry, so to speak. Company policy should do something to reinforce that consciousness.

Inoue: But people today are definitely more concerned about the pay than before. In my day I never worried about whether I'd make enough to eat, because I saw that other people were eating, so I assumed I could too. I was just happy to be able to work in animation, so I didn't care if I even made enough to eat - I loved it that much. That might not have been a good thing. I probably should have thought about it more seriously, as a way of earning a living. Anyway, I get the feeling there's already more consciousness of what you're saying than there used to be. People have a stronger consciousness of wanting to work in animation and get a good pay for it. But as to whether they're putting in the commensurate effort, I'm not so sure. There's a feeling of wanting more pay for the same amount of work. It's accepted without question that the unit price is in animation today is too low. It's certainly low, but to a certain extent it feels like they're hiding behind that as an excuse for why they're not earning enough. The unit price is much better than it used to be.

PA WORKS: Meaning it's more a lack of horsepower?

Inoue: Well... There are people even today making a good living doing piecework, so if you do the same you should be able to earn the same. But it's definitely true. The unit price today is extremely low. It's anything but high. But then is the answer to demand that the unit price be raised higher and higher? I think that would only make the situation worse.

Say you raise the unit price. As a result, you don't have to do as much, so you do less and less. But then it starts spreading around that the unit price is too low again, so people start asking for a higher unit price, and the unit price gets even higher. The end result is that productivity only keeps getting lower and lower. It's hard to find the perfect balance.

PA WORKS: Hardly any of the GITS: SAC key animation was turned in any faster despite the higher unit price, at least compared with the regular "low" unit price for TV key animation.

Inoue: To them, that's probably the right price to earn a living at their natural pace. Not higher, just right. Even if they were to draw more just because the unit price was a little higher, they still wouldn't be able to get by. I'm guessing that's what it is - they can't make a living at the normal price, but at the GITS: SAC price they can finally make a living at their own pace.

PA WORKS: But I'm not just talking about the balance between turnover and unit price. What I'm talking about is key animation so bad that it has to be totally redone by the director and the animation director. Some might say that's what the director and animation director are being paid for, but at the very minimum we have to be doing the kind of "amalgamated work" that Isao Takahata talks about, otherwise the situation gets totally out of control. There's a phrase that was invented recently to describe when the animation director is overloaded: killing the animation director. Well, the situation has gotten to the point that we're not just killing the animation director - we're even killing the director. There's a real sense of impending crisis, like it's almost gone beyond our control. Japan has built up a great store of animation knowhow over the last few decades, and we've got to transmit that to the younger generation.

PA WORKS: The production costs are set beforehand, so the only way we can raise the pay is if the show's a hit and we get revenue from that. I'd like the company to give the staff a taste for that, sort of as a way of bringing out a more proffessional attitude. But to do that, we have to become a player, a company that can produce results. It was so nice when I was just another worker and didn't have to think about any of this stuff. (laughs)

Inoue: It's always nice to have a guarantee in place like that. If the series hits a home run, then that bounces back on you in the form of 'success pay'. Of course, I don't think that accounts for even half of people's motivation to do good work. But I don't think it would necessarily be a bad thing if people came in just for that reason. That aspiration to make a hit is something that's been missing lately. If a series does hit it big and that doesn't even slightly bounce back onto the staff, and on top of that the pay is low, it's hard to feel motivated. We'd be getting closer to the ideal situation in commercial animation if a show were popular on video or in the theater and that were to ricochet back onto the staff. We've got to try to figure out what people actually want to see, even if it's a little forced for now. For the longest time it felt like the industry didn't even give the slightest thought to what actually interested people. Say you're doing storyboard on a gag anime. When you're given the script, ask yourself: Is this script funny? Did it make me laugh? If not, what can I do to make people laugh with my storyboard? Of course, it sucks if you make people laugh with your storyboard the pay only comes back to the writer, but we've got to take it one step at a time. At the very least it would be a healthy improvement if the people involved in the production were to become the ones to profit from any popularity of their work.

(turning to animator Kosuke Kawazura) You're not in it to get rich, right? You just want to earn enough to get by respectably well?

KAWAZURA: Actually, a lot of people coming in these days do seem concerned about living a good lifestyle.

Inoue: Right.

KAWAZURA: Personally, I'm just happy to be able to be working in animation.

Inoue: That's how it was with me. I spent years just scraping by doing piecework, though suddenly now I find myself at a fixed salary. It's normal to want to live as well as other people. If anything it's unhealthy seeing all this wealth all around you and not being able to touch any of it.

KAWAZURA: Some people are doing pretty well for themselves.

Inoue: Absolutely. Some people are working their asses off and making a lot of money. So it's not impossible. It's just become polarized. And what's more, back when I was starting out the people making a good living were the ones pumping out low-quality key animation by the bucketfull, but now you've got people like Norio Matsumoto drawing huge amounts and keeping it all extremely high-quality. Don't just shrug and say, "Oh, they're special" and give up trying to figure out how they do it. Ask yourself, "How could I draw that much that good?" That's my own 'task' right now - figuring out Norio Matsumoto's secret. (laughs) He's got to have some kind of secret.

PA WORKS: Drawing by intuition? I know he's really fast.

Inoue: Really fast. It feels like he doesn't do any sort of planning. I go through with a light line first to get down the basic shape, but it feels like he just gets right to the drawing and does it all in one go. Otherwise I don't see how he could draw that much. And yet it always feels like he took his time. Mysterious.

PA WORKS: I know you work on a fixed salary for films, but what surprises me is that someone of your skills still does piecework, with a fixed price per shot. The upshot is that you earn less per key, but still have to draw just as much. You've already done so much to contribute to raising the quality of films and keeping them on schedule, so why don't you focus on salary work, which would allow you to do less volume and focus on raising the quality?

Inoue: Well... the reason is simple. I just want to draw as much as possible. You're right that if I did that, I'd make more per drawing, and then I'd be able to spend my time more as I wanted. But would I use that extra time to focus on improving other areas? No. Because in the end all I'm interested in is drawing as many good shots as possible. I've never even thought about the money. If you do it the right way, the money will follow. That money would have absolutely no effect on the way I do things.

PA WORKS: What's your biggest problem when you're teaching the techniques to younger animators?

Inoue: That's easy. Figuring out how to clearly convey the information in my head. Finding the right wording.

PA WORKS: What about the fact that studios aren't set up for that sort of thing? And attitude, experience, that sort of thing?

Inoue: Naturally those are also issues, since my audience consist largely of young people. But in the end the main problem isn't out there, it's in here. It's never being able to find a clear way of organizing my thoughts. Reading books like The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams and The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, I'm always amazed how they can verbalize the absolute minimum of necessary information about animation in the clearest fashion. Not just amazed, but embarrased at my own inability to do so.

PA WORKS: I understand that you've never been in a position to educate people in a work situation.

Inoue: That's right. I've never even trained inbetweeners. I never did anything like that even when I was at IG.

PA WORKS: IG has people like Takayuki Goto and Kazuchika Kise to do that, and at Junio you were out of the studio most of the time. What if you were to finally be put in charge of a workplace like that, so you were responsible for maintaining the level of animation quality?

Inoue: With me as the animation director? I don't know. I never do animation directing, and I've never even taught new key animators, so I think it might rub some people the wrong way.

PA WORKS: I hope it'll happen someday. I don't mean lecturing. I hope someday you can have a place of your own where you can finally settle down and help train the next generation. But I know there are a lot of films that still need you, and you yourself still have a lot you want to do.

Inoue: And I don't think I'm going to run out of things I want to do until the day I die. So I just can't picture myself ever reaching a point where I'm satisfied enough to give that up to focus on training people. People might say that's selfish of me, but it's my entire reason for living, so it's a little hard to give that up. I wish I could just say, "Hey, just do like I did" and be done with it, but if I say that, it'll be like saying that the people who are already good can get better and everyone else is on their own, which isn't right. That's the reason I've been taking time out recently to take on responsibilities unrelated to work, like lecturing. I want to say that sort of thing isn't my responsibiliy - because in the end all I really care about is leaving behind proof of my existence - but still, it's lonely not having anyone to compete with. That gets to me. There may be some, but they're definitely fewer. So it's a tough call.

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