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Friday, May 20, 2005

08:43:00 am , 5077 words, 10476 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Toshiyuki Inoue interview

Here's my translation of an interview with the "perfect animator" Toshiyuki Inoue. Inoue feels like a contemporary version of Yasuo Otsuka in terms of his ability to effortlessly articulate the problems faced by his generation of animators in the most elegant, easy to follow and insightful fashion. The interview was done on March 14 by Kenji Horikawa, head of animation studio P.A. Works.

PA WORKS: I'd like to start by talking about what the traditional animator needs to do to survive.

Toshiyuki Inoue: That's a tough one. Actually, no, it's not.

PA WORKS: First of all, develop the physical endurance to make it in the long run.

Inoue: Yes. Physical endurance in the sense of the basic skills of an animator, not the cardio-vascular kind.

PA WORKS: There's a tendency these days for young people to go freelance before building up these skills.

Inoue: True. It's rarer these days for people to stay on at one company for ten years like before.

PA WORKS: Once you're freelance, you can pick your work, so your animation tends to develop in only one direction.

Inoue: In my case, when I started out at Studio Junio, I was lucky enough to get to pick the sort of work I wanted to do pretty early on. I went outside of the studio to work on Akira when I was around 26 or 27. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was pretty lucky compared to the other people around me who had to do whatever the company assigned them. But even apart from that it was all worth it. There was always something to learn from whatever I did. Maybe there were some things I'd rather not have done, but it's not like I knew anybody in the ideal situation of being able to choose only whatever they wanted to do. So it's not like I felt like I was being held back. I think having done lots of things that in retrospect were the diametric opposite of what I want to be doing now was a good experience in terms of building up patience and endurance. But maybe I was just more patient than kids today. (laughs)

Nowadays it feels like animators are still young at 30. Maybe it's just because I've gotten older. What age was Tetsuya Nishio when he did Jin-Roh?

PA WORKS: He turned 30 during production, so...

Inoue: Definitely young. He'd just come unto his own. I'm hardly one to talk, but it feels like people become adults much later these days, in the true sense of an adult. The same applies to animators.

When I was younger you could start to tell if a guy might be going places around 23 or 24 when suddenly you'd feel this sense of assurance and zeal in his work, but it seems rarer to see kids bloom that fast these days.

It's not like kids are any worse today than they used to be, so there has to be a reason for that. I think the reason is simply that there's so much more to learn these days than when I started out that people are too busy trying to assimilate it all, and they don't have the time to actually master anything. But the quality at the top has definitely gone up. Actually, if you look back at the situation at Toei Doga during its best years and compare it with the situation today, you'll see that things haven't really improved that much. Twenty years ago you could fall back on the knowhow of the day to express most of what you wanted to express without having to come up with anything new. But today there are so many more forms out there than there were in the old days. Now you can get films like Jin-Roh that make use of expressive means that would have been impossible to achieve using the knowhow that was available just 20 years ago. And then there's the fact that the range of material has expanded. So maybe it's just that, confronted with all these new sophisticated forms of expression, people want to learn this and that, and that makes it hard for them to find a focus. Beginners today have a lot of work to do just to learn the basics. There seems to be a general feeling of not having enough hands to get around to learning everything.

For one, back then there weren't people trying to create totally realistic depictions of the movement of the surface of water or flames or whatever. Effects animation has developed in all sorts of different directions. Twenty years ago you just had to master the basic pattern and you were set for most situations. If you'd have asked me to draw the complex, twirling style of smoke you see nowadays when I started out twenty years ago, I might have had a seriously hard time figuring out how to do it. First I learned the simple pattern, and then, feeling constricted by that, I started learning from the methods that people like Hideaki Anno and Mitsuo Iso had invented. That's why I managed to do it. Throwing new people in the deep end and asking them to learn sophisiticated forms like that right at first may well be asking a little much of them. So that may be why people are slower to reach maturity as animators today, though I have no way of knowing for sure if that's the right interpretation.

It's similar to the way scientists in the past were able to study a number of fields, but today it's hard for any one scientist to keep up with all of the developments in all of the different fields. First they learn the basics, then if they want to go on to the next level, they have to limit themselves to one field.
Right.

PA WORKS: Is the animator forced to aim for that sort of specialization if he wants to reach the top of his field?

Inoue: I'm not sure how far the science parallel will go... It's hard to say.

PA WORKS: My thinking is, if you learn the basics while you're young, then even if you go freelance, you'll be able to pick from a broader range of work, which would keep you from becoming too narrowly focused on any one type of work.

Inoue: The problem is, animation isn't like science, where you have the basics over here and the advanced applications over there. It's all on the same playing field. It's hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

Take the traditional way of animating walking - three inbetweens to get the basic movements, then add some body motion to give it a more realistic feeling. Is the best way of doing it really to learn the simple pattern first, and then to learn the more realistic version? I'm not so sure. It might be better to try to figure out what walking is on your own right from the start. That was our dilemma. First they pounded these ridiculously simplistic, mechanical patterns into our heads, and only afterwards did we start to notice something was wrong and start actually thinking about what walking is. Well, instead of having to re-learn everything from scratch like that, why not study how it's actually done right from the beginning? It might make the hurdle seem higher at the start, but if anything, in the end it'll probably wind up saving you a lot of time.

I think we took the long way around. If somebody had just been there by our side to ask the simple question, "Is this right?", we might very well have been able to reach a higher level a lot sooner than we did. I almost feel like we wasted ten years. The absolute essentials haven't changed that much in the twenty years since we learned them. I just wonder if we might not be taking the long way around again by forcing basics on them. It's hard to say which is right.

I get the feeling the essence of Japanese animation is under question right now. "Japanimation", as they call it over there - actually, I hear they don't really call it that - is becoming more and more popular overseas. But it feels like what people are reacting to is just the eccentric, outré side of Japanese animation. If we want to really target the world, we have to bring it back to something more universal.

To make an analogy, in the 19th century, Japanese ukiyo-e were taken out of the country and became popular in the art world in Europe, creating a fad for what was known as "Japonisme". What I think was happening there was that the Europeans, suddenly confronted with this strange and inexplicable but deeply refined art form from a faraway island nation - an art form that didn't fit into any of their notions of art -, were simply surprised by its alienness. Here they were confronted with something like Hokusai's wave, this totally unlikely and unrealistic but at the same time appealing and dynamic picture that you would never have gotten just from observed reality. That cultural dislocation is what they were reacting to. What if, instead of that kind of exoticism, the Japanese pictures had been judged the same way other arts of the time were - what if the ukiyo-e had to compete on the same playing field as western art? It would have been a total massacre.

What's happening with the popularity of Japanese animation is probably something similar. You have this highly refined form of animation specially made for this small group of animation fans on this faraway island nation, which a small handful of fans on the other side of the planet in turn take up and lionize precisely for that decadent refinement - even while there's always this part of them that's still not completely sure what to make of it. How would that sort of thing fly if we started trying for a worldwide audience? The younger generation has to start looking at animation more as animation, and come up with an approach more closely based on the fundamental idea of movement. In many ways we're probably in a transitional period right now. But this is starting to get a little beyond the scope of your question. (laughs)

PA WORKS: You're talking about raising the overall skill level. Let's bring it back to how young animators today might go about building up the endurance needed to make a living as an animator.

Inoue: I think it's largely a matter of practice.

PA WORKS: Yesterday I had you respond to a lot of dry statistical questions about animation, and basically what I got from that was the importance of learning to draw a lot to build up horsepower and self-discipline. I've heard that when you're animating a scene, you always draw a rough layout for the entire scene and only then do you draw the finished layout.

Inoue: That's because you have to look at the entire scene to keep the proportions and placement of the characters right. That's something you should drive home to students. It's worth emphasizing.

PA WORKS: And what's your reason for drawing each shot in order, no matter what?

Inoue: A lot of people think I'm just being obstinate about that. (laughs) I think if you're really stuck, it's OK to skip ahead. I'm just pig-headed, which sometimes works against me, though usually it works out for the best. There was this scene I did in Gegege no Kitaro, for example, that I had to put on hold because I didn't have enough information to know how to do it. There have been cases like that where I've skipped ahead because I didn't have enough to go by, but never once have I skipped ahead just because I had a block. I've never once left a scene undone after starting it. I always finish a scene I've started. When I'm doing work for a TV show, I make it a rule never to spend more than one day on one shot, no matter how hard the shot. I managed to uphold that rule for a long time, until just recently for an episode of Paranoia Agent and an episode of GITS: SAC. Putting aside extreme examples like were you're asked to animate a "bank" (the term used to describe a special stock scene used in each episode), it's rare to encounter a shot that you wouldn't be able to finish in a day no matter how hard you tried. With the possible exception of a TV show like GITS: SAC, where you might be asked to provide a level of quality slightly higher than normal for a corresponding price, then provided there's nothing wrong with the storyboard, it's usually a case of the animator simply not trying hard enough - I'd even say of not knowing how to adapt to the situation.

PA WORKS: Is speed something you can gain just from practicing the basics?

Inoue: I can't say what's missing without looking at the specific situation, but I think it's feasible even at the normal level. People will say I'm a special case, which would be the end of that, but I can tell you honestly that I was neither the fastest guy of my generation, nor the most technically skilled. Which is why it's so strange to find that now people tell me I'm "Nippon Ichi". What happened to all the people who were at the same level as me when I was 23, 24? Suddenly I'm 40 and I find that there's a lot fewer animators at the same level as me. I know for a fact that there were people just as good as me back then, and there still are. For whatever reason - they go married, they had children - they found that animation alone didn't put enough food on the table, so I've lost a lot of my rivals, and I find that pretty lonely, even sad. It shouldn't be that way.

PA WORKS: So rivalry is essential to building up stamina?

Inoue: Absolutely. It's essential. You can look up to someone really good who's older than you, but that's a different thing from having a rival your own age who you feel you can actually compete with. That feeling of rivalry is the most important thing.

PA WORKS: And having someone to look up to?

Inoue: It's important to have someone you feel you'd like to be able to draw like. I asked one of your animators yesterday to give me some names, and he was drawing a blank. That's baffling to me! I suppose that nowadays there are so many animators in films that it's hard to figure out who did whatever shots you like, even after looking at the credits, so people have a hard time figuring out who they like and want to aspire to. I noticed a lack of that sort of knowledge after a series of lectures I did at IG. I really wish people would find someone really good who they like and follow their work. In my case it was people like Koji Morimoto and Takashi Nakamura who I admired, even though their style of animation was totally different from mine. Back then Morimoto was just a great animator who drew lots of really outstading scenes I liked. I'm not talking about the much more original work he's doing now, but just his work as a lone animator. I think it's a good idea to have people like that to admire - people who have a similar mindset to you but are technically more advanced, as well as people who draw interesting things you'd never have come up with yourself. In other words, if you only go after what comes most easily to you, you'll never try to get what you don't have, so you might become good at what you do, but you won't be an 'almighty' animator who can do it all.

PA WORKS: I think it's important to have someone on the workfloor to provide an example. Someone who can show a new person the paces - how to do this in what order.

Inoue: That's also important.

PA WORKS: It's important to see how it's done close-up. The first time I hired an inbetweener, I had the monthly target at 500 drawings, but the guy didn't believe me and said, "If there's someone who can draw 500 in a month, I'd like to meet him."

Inoue: That's the way it is. He hasn't seen it, so how do you expect him to believe it?

PA WORKS: It also makes a big difference whether or not there's a key animator there to show the way. Though it's the end of the story if they say their talent lies elsewhere.

Inoue: I've heard that so many times. I want to believe they're not serious when they say that. That maybe they say "Oh, you're special" or "I'm good at other things" at work, but they don't really believe it, and when they get home it bothers them so much that they kick over the desk and tear their hear out wishing they could draw that much. Otherwise your animation will never get better - either in quality or quantity.

PA WORKS: Fifteen years ago the ideal was to be able to draw 80 shots a month.

Inoue: To my generation it was half an episode a month (about 150 shots). For a long time I was told "You're too slow!" because I could only manage about 100 shots a month - and that was TV anime 20 years ago. But of course the people who were saying that were drawing really simple key animation. Deep down I knew that I could probably draw half an episode a month if I drew like them, but I wouldn't have been satisfied to do that because what I was interested in was making the movement as active and interesting as I could. I was hoping to catch up to them in terms of the numbers and outdo them in terms of the quality at the same time, but that turned out to be too hard and I never quite made it.

The current trend seems to be to not worry that much about the volume and only focus on quality. That really worries me. It's not a fair match if you can't achieve the same level of quality with the same amount. It should be like in sports, where you have all the contenders lined by their body class. You should line up with the same amount, and see who can produce the best quality within that limit. Nowadays it's nothing but quality at the expense of quantity. Of course, if you've got the talent of a Mitsuo Iso, there's ample value in the work even if the quantity is very small, but that's a very rare thing.

People see the latest developments and want to live up to those, so they run to quality and their numbers plummet. That's not a good thing.

PA WORKS: You don't go from quality to quantity as an animator. You can learn to draw a lot first and then pursue quality, but I've never heard of anybody doing it the other way around.

Inoue: That's how it was with a lot of people of my generation. They managed to reach a point where they had some good volume going, but then they started to go after the quality, so their numbers dropped.

Once you realize that you can't draw the way you've been drawing if you want to improve the quality, that makes it hard to do things fast, so you focus on the details and your numbers drop.
You can resign yourself to it, but if you try hard enough to keep the volume up, it's possible to keep your numbers from going below a certain point. If you go for quality, your numbers will drop. If you don't try to keep the numbers up, they'll drop even more. You'll eventually get to the point where all you can do is one shot in a movie. That's the way it is in this line of work. You have to constantly have a goal in mind in terms of volume or you'll run out of work. Your biggest motivator has to be the desire to draw as many good shots as possible.

PA WORKS: I want my animators to become the best there is. I've been throwing around ideas for how to create an environment that would be most conducive to education. Have you run across any great ideas in your visits to various studio over the years? You were at Junio for the longest, as I recall.

Inoue: Hmm... Environment... Junio was certainly less spartan than other studios I've seen. Not sure. Well, I think first of all the number of people is one issue to consider. Between 20 and 30 is probably ideal. From my own experience, too many only leads to problems. The number of people increases, you have to split the studio into different floors, then different buildings, and people lose a sense of the studio they're working at. They become less productive. When you're working at a big company, it's hard to believe that just because your work is bad it'll have any effect on the company. But if your studio is just two people working in an apartment splitting the rent, then you've got a better sense of the reality of the situation, because if you do bad work your studio will go under in no time. With 100 or 200 people in a company, you've got no real feeling that your work is connected to keeping that company running, when in fact everybody's work is supposed to be equally important to the company. The companies keep getting bigger and bigger, and I don't see the sense in it at all. They're probably attracted to the bigger turnover, but if you look at it in terms of individual productivity, there's tremendous waste going on compared to slimmer companies. It's the whole "Who cares if my work isn't great? It's a big company" mindset. I just don't see the point.

From a management standpoint, my feeling is basically that I'm afraid of finding myself in the position where everything comes screeching to a halt just because one person hasn't finished his shots. I don't want to have to be a prick about it, but it comes with the territory in a way. That's what an animation studio is. The only thing that keeps us in business is selling however many shots. If you want to get away from that and find another way of earning profit, you have to make a name for your studio, and to do that you need to reach a certain scale.
I don't know much about management, so...

PA WORKS: I'm just surprised to find someone else who feels the same way about it as I do.

Inoue: Even if you do manage to run your company that way, I think what you'll need is to educate people about that fact. To let them know that their work is what's keeping the business running. Like I said, from my experience 20 to 30 people is about the ideal size for a studio, if you want to keep a feeling of life. Things feel like they're going really well at all the studios I've seen of that size.

PA WORKS: About 30 key animators?

Inoue: Key animators and inbetweeners combined. At Junio we were split into teams of around 3 key animators and 3 inbetweeners.

PA WORKS: You were split into teams as well?

Inoue: That's right. The inbetweeners even attended the saku uchi (short for sakuga uchiawase or animation meetings, normally held only between key animators and the director). Back then it was typical for a studio to take on an entire episode rather than scattered shots, and the director would call in all the key animators to brief them on what he wanted from the episode. The inbetweeners were called along too, and they'd sit by the side and listen in, that way they could learn what sort of things went on at the meetings. I think that's why they were called in - as an education tool. The inbetweeners were even given a copy of the storyboard to share among themselves, so that they knew exactly where in the episode they were working on as they worked. That was a good way of doing it, including the inbetweeners in the team, but I think it would be hard to bring that back in this day and age.

And one more thing, all the studios I visit these days are so noisy. So much chatter going on. Obviously that's not necessarily a bad thing. Just the opposite, it's great to see people exchanging all this gritty information about their work, which I've been worried was disappearing lately. It's a good thing, but still, it's really noisy. Junio was totally quiet. There was a feeling like you weren't supposed to talk during work. A friend of mine at the time, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, came by the studio one day for a visit, and he was by my desk at one point showing me some of his key animation.

I remember him telling me, "This place freaks me out. Is it always this quiet here? Is something special going on today?" So I told him, "No, it's always this quiet here," and he said, "I can't take it anymore. I'm getting out of here." (laughs)

PA WORKS: One thing I think is important for an animator to do if you want to grow and get better is to actively and constantly keep track of your strengths and your weaknesses - what you'd like to improve - and to sort of keep your antenna up on the lookout for interesting ideas in the work of the people around you, so that if this guy has something you think might help you out with your weaknesses, you might be able to steal a bit of it.

Inoue: Absolutely right. That's very important.

PA WORKS: One of the things I'd like to do with my company is to create an environment where the animators would naturally feel the need to have a "task" like that to be working on.

Inoue: Hmm...

PA WORKS: A workplace where you'd feel out of place if you're not constantly thinking.

Inoue: That should come naturally, in each person, rather than from the outside.

PA WORKS: It's just that I've kind of given up on waiting for it to happen on its own.

Inoue: I remember Satoshi Kon saying something similar: "If you have to wait for someone to tell you what the problem is, then you'll never get better." He talked about how that sort of self-questioning has to be just that - it has to come from within. It's impossible to force another person into soul-searching.

PA WORKS: The only other option is to do nothing, and then the good get better while everyone else stays the same.

Inoue: That's the dilemma.

PA WORKS: I don't see the point in sitting around waiting for another genius to turn up.

Inoue: Let's get this straight, I'm not a genius. I'm not even special. There used to plenty of people just like me.

PA WORKS: Okay, but in that case, where have they all gone?

Inoue: That I can't tell you. (laughs)

PA WORKS: It's because studios have stopped being educating environments.

Inoue: I'm not so sure... Even back then it didn't feel like studios were educating environments.

PA WORKS: But say you had a lot of talented people come together in one place. Wouldn't it naturally result in some productive technical debate?

Inoue: Perhaps... All I can say for sure is that I have no way of knowing for sure.

PA WORKS: If just by making suggestions about what to watch, for example, or leaving out books and suggesting they read them - if just by doing that you could create an environment that would facilitate animators discovering tasks for themselves, then I think it would be worth doing. The environment you're in makes a big difference in terms of absorption of information. At the very least, the company can create that kind of environment. The rest - coming up with tasks - is up to them.

Inoue: If the willingness to actively seek out tasks for yourself is just another aspect of talent, then basically all you can do is wait for that sort of person to appear on their own.

PA WORKS: Maybe so for the most talented people, but I think you can actually teach most people to use that skill to at least the point that they can make a living as an animator. Anything beyond that is innate. Almost everybody has questions. They see something interesting and they wonder how it's done. But usually it ends there. They don't pursue it any further. Well, the other day I was at a meeting with my inbetweeners. They'd been watching each week's episode of FMA and afterwards holding a debate strictly about that week's animation. The series had ended, so they came up with the idea that, once a week, each of them bring in a DVD they want the others to watch, and that they hold a debate afterwards. So I made this suggestion. Don't just have them watch your DVD, but point out specifically what aspect of the animation you want the others to pay attention to. Alone you might be able to get by without being able to verbalize it beyond a simple "That's so cool", but in front of others you'll have to come up with something a bit more convincing. You'll have to think about it first to put your thoughts in order before talking. Take for example Animal Treasure Island. So you liked Miyazaki's scenes. You'll have to wrack your brain to figure out what it was about Miyazaki's scenes that suggested to you that they were done by Miyazaki - what exactly it was that made them look different from the other scenes. Just because you knew beforehand what part he'd done won't cut it. So I had them do that.

Inoue: I've never done that myself, but it's not a bad idea, and I don't see what harm it could do.

To be continued

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6 comments

Random person
Random person [Visitor]

Thanks for the translation. I think it’s a very interesting interview, I’d like to see more of what he has to say.

I agree very much with his idea that too many people in a studio leads to less quality work…

Where did you get this interview from, though? I’m quite interested to see the rest of it.

Also, sorry to be offtopic, but you might like to know Hiroyuki Okuno will be the AD of the next ep (ep 8) of Speed Grapher. Here’s one shot from the preview. http://s05.imagehost.org/1135/speed_grapher8.jpg

05/20/05 @ 21:07
Ben
Ben [Visitor]

The interview comes from the homepage of the studio PA Works at www dot pa-works dot jp. I don’t want to spoil it, but a bit later he talks a bit about a certain someone who’s been on all our lips in the last two weeks or so.

And you just made my dream come true. HISASHI MORI! I’d frankly given up on watching the show after seeing that they’d consigned it to Korea, but I was still holding out hope that there would be at least one episode with Mori in it. Oh my, I’m looking forward to this. Can we hope for another Samurai Seven 7? Maybe a whole episode by him!? At least half, please!

Also Zettai Shonen finally started today, with an op animated by Masaya Fujimori, that animator Yuasa likes.

05/20/05 @ 21:19
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

Still haven’t gotten Zettai Shounen. I was surprised that the character designer was an animator in Mind Game.

Thanks for the links, I checked out some of those things… There’s quite a bit in there. Very interesting stuff. I want to know Norio Matsumoto’s secret too.. I think I’ll understand it better translated, though.

Here’s to hoping Hisashi Mori animates as much as possible. Looking at the OP which shows shots from the current arc (gosh, are they skimping on the budget), and from what other scenes there are in the preview, he’s definitely doing the evil dentist vs. Saiga battle. http://s05.imagehost.org/1136/speed_grapher_8_2.jpg

05/21/05 @ 05:17
Ben
Ben [Visitor]

> I was surprised that the character designer was an animator in Mind Game.

Hiroyuki Sekine. Interesting. Didn’t even know.

05/21/05 @ 07:52
Jericho
Jericho [Visitor]

On a note relating o interviews…
There are two interviews posted on the gainax website, one on Imaishi-san and the other on Masayuki-san. Judging from the opening title, I looks like they are discussing what its like working on genga and sakuga. (Sakuga wo gataru).
http://www.gainax.co.jp/
on the right hand column down

05/23/05 @ 12:05
h_park
h_park [Member]

Great translation, but use of black and grey text is bad. It’s hard to tell who’s interviewer and who’s interviewee.

02/28/07 @ 05:26