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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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

07:55:20 am , 2222 words, 2271 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 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?


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.


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


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