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, March 21, 2007

01:01:36 am , 1688 words, 5170 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Topcraft

I remember enjoying The Last Unicorn when I was younger, so I rewatched it a while back to see how it would compare with memory. I must have been quite partial to it because I remembered many of the details quite clearly. This time around what fascinated me was the animation, which was a very strange beast. Usually it's easy to tell with one glance whether a piece of animation is from the west or Japan, but here it's like your senses are confused by conflicting information. Some elements scream western, while other elements scream Japan. Stylistically and in terms of the storytelling and visuals and pacing it's very western, but something about the animation strikes an odd note that doesn't seem to jive with that information. It's got a sort sheen to the drawings and approach to timing that doesn't seem western. It's clearly presco rather than afureco, i.e. the music & voices are recorded first and the animation follows, rather than after as is usual in Japan, but it doesn't feel natural somehow.

Clearly a lot of work is being put into interpreting the voices and coming up with movement, but there's something fundamentally different about it from everything else that was being made in Japan at the time. It's like a small pocket of animators developed completely isolated from the history of the development of animation in Japan, doing things their own way. Rather than focusing on using few drawings, well timed, to achieve good effect, they use lots of detailed drawings to try to create fuller animation than what came to be typical of the rest of Japanese animation. The downside is that the animation doesn't have that good 'feeling' that developed out of that need to focus on the timing to make up for the lack of drawings. The animation is full, yet the movement isn't particularly appealing. It's lacking a feeling of weight and zip, the movements seem added for the sake of moving rather than for any real purpose.

The contrast is thrown into sharp relief by the film they did soon afterwards - Nausicaa. Here a person who had seen all of those developments and advances in the approach to commercial feature animation in Japan since its inception was brought in to a studio that had a completely different approach - western, yet not quite western. It seems like an odd choice, because I couldn't imagine a studio producing animation more different from Miyazaki's, but presumably they must have chosen this studio because Topcraft was one of the few studios in Japan at the time equipped with all of the material to create a final product, i.e. they could do the animation as well as the photography and final editing.

The Topcraft animators who had worked on Unicorn and Hobbit and everything else worked on the film, although many other outside figures like Takashi Nakamura and Yoshinori Kanada were brought in from elsewhere, so that it's not really a purely Topcraft production. Topcraft animator Kazuyuki Kobayashi did the scene where Nausicaa meets Teto, but apparently the scene went through a considerable amount of reworking and touching up, so we're not seeing his work in the raw. Tadakatsu Yoshida did the Ohmu running towards the screen near the end. The keys are incredibly detailed and precise, and the work seems to better represent what the studio's animators would have been better at - much denser and heavily worked drawings. That's the feeling I get from their other films, that the drawings are very detailed and the images are very rich and painterly. There's more of an emphasis on traditional drafting skills than in other domestic productions, but on the other hand, the animation works better as drawings than as animation, as movement. The drawings have a bit of a cold and impersonal feeling to them. The contrast is sharpest with folks like Kanada, whose drawings are very loose and free, but create an incredible feeling of exhilaration in motion. Yoshida points out that he was impressed by the great feeling of the timing of the explosions in Kanada's work. It must have been a real eye-opener to the studio's animators to work on that film with figures whose approach was much more individualistic and focused on creating movement that felt good.

Topcraft was a unique studio in Japan and they left behind films with a different approach from the other domestic studios, so it's intriguing to look back on how their work differs from the rest of the industry. Telecom was a near analogue of about a decade later, a Japanese studio focused on foreign co-productions for overseas viewers. But if Telecom was Toei Doga based, grounded in the fundamentals of movement and teaching its animators realistic weight and careful timing, keeping the drawings spare and simple, then in that sense Topcraft had a decidedly Tatsunoko tinge to it very different from Telecom, with a more photorealistic, 'western' look, detailed and liberal use of drawings, without that grounding in the fundamentals of movement and realistic timing. There's a surface of flashy poses and carefully rendered drawings, but underneath there's a feeling of spinning the wheels, so to speak.

Most of the work they did wound up not being seen by their own countrymen, but they clearly put a lot of effort into their films, and had pride in what they were doing. There must have been the feeling at the studio that they were among the few studios in Japan making real animation. Telecom later had that similar image of being the place where you have to go first if you want to learn how to create real movement. They were apparently free from the constraint of having to work in excessively tight schedules, giving them the time to pack in as much movement and detail as they wanted. Commercial animation in Japan in the 70s had a cheap image, so like Telecom in later years, people must have been attracted to the studio for the opportunity it offered to create a different kind of animation, more labored, with fuller movement. A notable case is Hidekazu Ohara, who drew the opening sequence of Nausicaa. One of the main things that attracted Ohara to the studio was the intricate, realistic, finely drafted look of the studio's characters, the work of Tsuguyuki Kubo.

Tsuguyuki Kubo was the main figure behind the character design side of Topcraft's work. He had started out at Tatsunoko in 1965, where he famously animated the opening of Speed Racer, before leaving to form his own studio, Studio Bees, where he did subcontracting for Toei and Tatsunoko, working notably on the likes of Rainbow Sentai Robin, finally arriving at Topcraft in 1972. Topcraft had been founded that year by Toru Hara, a Toei Doga expatriate who after Nausicaa would become Ghibli's early executive producer. Before the company was founded officially they had done a promotional video for Rankin/Bass, which presumably is how Topcraft came to focus almost exclusively on foreign subcontracting for them. Kubo was the character designer of the first of these, the TV series Kid Power, and he would go on to do much of the studio's character designing, giving the studio's work its unique look. Perhaps because of his past experience at Tatsunoko, he was also involved in the handful of the studio's domestic projects, most of which were for Tatsunoko. He also animated a number of TV advertisements for the studio starting 1973. The work for which he is probably best known was for the handful of feature films that occupied the studio in the second half of its decade-some lifespan. Kubo was animation director/co-storyboarder of The Hobbit in 1977; co-animation director/co-layout man/supervisor of Return of the King in 1980; co-character designer/co-storyboarder/supervisor of The Last Unicorn in 1981; and co-character designer/co-animation director of Flight of the Dragon in 1982. After leaving the studio, Kubo went on to work at a studio first called Masaki and then PAC (Pacific Animation Corporation), where he worked as animation supervisor on Wind in the Willows among other things, finally settling down at Studio Pierrot, where he remains quite active still today, 40-some years after he first began working as an animator, his most recent work being on Emma.

If Kubo was the face behind the drawings, Katsuhisa Yamada was the layout man and line director for many of the studio's productions. The main animators were the two mentioned before - Kazuyuki Kobayashi and Tadakatsu Yoshida - along with a few others like Hidemi Kubo. But I'll stop there, as there's already an excellent page outlining the history of Topcraft.

I've been going through Telecom's 2002 series Secret of Cerulean Sand lately. The big find was a nice bit of animation by Hiroyuki Aoyama in episode 7. Apart from that he also drew a bit in 2 and 25 and storyboard for 3, 17, 19, 23. Ep 3 had a more measured and dramatic atmosphere that stood apart from the others, so I look forward to the rest of his eps. As seems typical with latter-day Telecom, the story is unfortunately the weak link in the chain, and things aren't helped by the fact that just about every other episode is a nearly unwatchable outsourced catastrophe that looks like a different show. Fortunately Tomonaga Kazuhide and Atsuko Tanaka are involved later on, so there should be some nice work near the end. (Tanaka is first in 12 and storyboard + first in 22 and 26, and also did a bit in 13 & 25) Aoyama's part was quite something. Aoyama's work is what I associate with the Telecom at its best - incredibly nuanced, exciting, fun, lively movement with a brilliant sense of timing. Shojiro Nishimi also seemed identifiable in 7 with slightly more limited but still nicely timed movement that had a nice feeling to it, not quite to the extent of Aoyama, but still nice. His Yuasa-influenced forms were also identifiable and well suited to the simple Telecom look. It's also impressive to see that Yoshinobu Michihata is still creating the same incredibly fun and free movement he has been since at least Sherlock Hound. His animation is a joy to watch.

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10 comments

Muffin
Muffin [Visitor]

Hello again. Thanks for a bunch of great posts these past weeks. Nice to hear you were a fan of The Last Unicorn. It really does possess an interesting melancholy fairy tale sensibility.

I’m pretty much with you on the style of animation and how well it works. I do wonder though: Do you think the film would necessarily have come off better if it was done purely with an either western or japanese approach?
Of course this would all be speculation as there could have been a hundred different approaches to the film.
But as it is, I was pretty fond in particular of the charachter-designs which struck me as being a very appealing hybrid of the subtle, iconic japanese sensibility and a more idiosyncratic western design sense.

Another thing I’ve been curious about is, if you don’t mind me asking a pretty off-topic question: To what degree do you take an interest(or not) in the filmmaking of Ridley Scott?

Despite his sometimes self-indulgent visual frippery as well as mediocre(or just peculiar) choice of subject matter, I pretty much still consider him one of the most intriguing visual film directors.
His early work is certainly quite remarkable: The Duellists, Alien and in particular Blade Runner. More recently I was extremely impressed by his (pretty unpopular)Silence of the Lambs sequel “Hannibal". A work I consider to be among the most remarkable visual films I’ve seen. Scott perfectly plays the story as a darkly comic, hallucinatory fairy tale/musical composition. Under the guise of a comtemporary thriller. Seemingly having struck the ideal material for his uniquely dense and brooding visual sense.

What I like about his direction is how much it reminds me of the best animation, or anime. His instinctive use of lighting, environments and movement. Not simply in a single shot, but through the way he moves from shot to shot, and scene to scene. Telling the story by continually adding visual information. Like adding lines to paper, or brush strokes to a canvas.

When he is able to find that right balance, I have a hard time finding any other filmmaker that does what he does with quite the same level of cinematic density and flow.(acknowledging at the same time that he’s always walking a fine line between being overdesigned)

I should probably add btw, that I found his much lauded “Gladiator” to be a very dull and ineffective film. Bogged down by a dreary script as well as by oddly misguided and heavy-handed stylization. Go figure…

He did a much better film of this kind with his ambitious extended cut of “Kingdom of Heaven". A critically mauled film that I(at least in its longer form) actually consider to be one of the finer “epics” made in this day and age. In my mind it certainly beats Peter Jackson’s pompous and pandering Lord of the Rings films(perhaps a controversial statement…)

03/22/07 @ 03:44
Ben [Member]  

Thanks for the as-always thoughtful and stimulating comment. That’s a tough question, though an interesting one to ponder. I didn’t mean to imply that Last Unicorn might have worked better one way or the other. It is what it is, and maybe it wouldn’t have stayed imprinted in my memory if it had been done purely one way or the other. Straddling those two poles is what made it such an interesting hybrid. I could picture it losing the sharp edge of the studio’s drawings in western hands, and losing its richness of movement at any other Japanese studio. That nice meandering pace and cinematic flow and staging would have been out the window in the west. Western-style overaction would have destroyed something of the film’s subtlety, though I do wish the faces were a little more expressive. In the end I think it’s fine the way it is. It’s not perfect, but it works as a film, and it’s one of the better examples of this kind of overseas co-production I’ve seen. It has a great western script and soundtrack combined with beautiful and elegant Japanese designs and animation and restrained but lush imagery.

I’m not that familiar with Ridley Scott, though Alien has always been a favorite. I will have to check out more of his work. Your mention of Hannibal reminded me of another film I saw recently that left a strong impression on me. I’m not usually a fan of serial killer films, but Perfume also struck me as a film that had nothing to do with the genre but stood in a class of its own. I loved how it successfully managed the seemingly impossible task of conveying the notion of the sense of smell into visual images. The texture of the screen was fantastic, the structure of the film felt perfect, the ending was a fantastic surrealistic allegory about the nature of human artistic endeavor (as I interpret it). I was surprised how much I liked it, but I found it to be one of the better films I’d seen in a long time.

03/23/07 @ 02:00
Nico M
Nico M [Visitor]

There’s an excellent Topcraft history at http://xoomer.alice.it/fedgrame/english.htm

03/23/07 @ 02:07
Ben [Member]  

Yes, I know. I said exactly that and linked that page in my post. :)

03/23/07 @ 09:34
Nico M
Nico M [Visitor]

Whoops - grovels - apologies. Will do better.

03/23/07 @ 11:21
Ben [Member]  

Don’t sweat it. :)

03/24/07 @ 13:48
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

Once again Ben, you’ve taken observations about a curious part of animation history that I have boserved with my own eyes, and formed opinions about with my own brain - but put names and dates to them in a way that I probably never could. Thank you for contextualising my random observations and confirming their validity.

I assume then, that we can also credit Ksuguyuki Kubo as co-character designer of Thundercats? As, based purely on observation, I have always assumed the animated interpretation of those characters to share character designer with the other Rankin Bass fantasy movies of that period?

Also, I think if you rewatch Flight of Dragons, it will help you contextualise the idiosynchratic animation in The Last Unicorn and it won’t seem quite so strange. FoD is, ostensibly, visualy similar to TLU - but is just that bit more expensive, more refined, and the relationship to Nausicaa is easier to detect.
Indeed, if you watch the first ten minutes or so of the Thundercats pilot (before the out-sourcing kicks in) then what you are essentialy watching is Rankin Bass/Topcraft visuals applied to familiar superhero type designs and animated in a more conventional scifi-anime way. Or maybe it’s conventional scifi-anime animated in a Rankin Bass/Topcraft way. In either case it bridges the gap, and you will begin to see that the animation in The Last Unicorn, in this context, is not as un-anime as all that.

03/27/07 @ 02:32
Muffin
Muffin [Visitor]

Funny you should mention Perfume btw, as Scott was actually attached to direct it at one point. I liked the film as well, though I probably need to view it again, as I think I spent too much time pondering how Scott might have done it differently. It was certainly exactly the sort of thing he should do more of: Films were the human charachters feel trapped or submerged in their environments, whether it be the actual sets or the texture of the images or the filmmaking itself.

In Tykwer’s film I did particulary like the early parts with the very cramped atmosphere in the bustling city scenes.

04/19/07 @ 15:23
DRMECHA
DRMECHA [Visitor]  

After Nausicaa much Topcraft animators passes to recent founded St. Ghible meanwhile others founds Pacific animation corporation (PAC) the studio animator of Thundercats, Silverhawks and Comic Strip. and wwo continues the topcraft’s tradition of working for Rankin-Bass.
(view the details of Thundercats characters ej. Snarf, and comparate whit the Hobbit character’s details. view the similitudes)

02/09/09 @ 01:27
Myself
Myself [Visitor]

I believe Mr. Tsuguyuki Kubo was also involved with Thundercats and Silverhawks, though he didn’t do the initial designing of the characters (done in the states by someone else) he drew the model-sheets in his characteristic style.

03/02/13 @ 20:32