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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Saturday, August 5, 2006

11:33:09 pm , 470 words, 1743 views     Categories: Animation, Animator, TV

Miyazawa in xxxHolic

One of the reasons I like Tsutomu Mizushima is that he's a director who knows a good animator when he sees one, and he can be relied upon to make an effort to mold whatever work he is doing around the animators he has available in order to get the best possible work out of them. For example, he actually went back and added a few more shots to the storyboard of the transformation in the parlor in the xxxHolic movie after he learned that Shinji Hashimoto was going to be animating it, just so he could get a few more shots out of Hashimoto. For the ending of the xxxHolic TV series he managed to drag some nice animation out of Kise Kazuchika, who seems so reluctant to do animation these days. In Hare Nochi Guu he got the guys responsible for the tastiest animation at Shinei - Masami Otsuka and Yuichiro Sueyoshi - to do another fantastic ending. In the latest ep of xxxHolic, #18, we can see a lot of wonderful work from Yasunori Miyazawa, along with his old Shinei mainstay Futoshi Higashide. Here we see not the manic movement of the opening scene of the movie, but more Miyazawa's genius for creating amazing otherworldly forms, and his very unique approach to color. He uses only a few simple patches of color overlaid sparingly over a few organically pulsating shapes to create a mezmerizing, almost psychedelic texture on the screen. It almost reminds me of Faith Hubley. The effects and colors in the shot where the larva explodes at the end of Dead Leaves were similar in feeling to his work here. There is also a section with various monsters that reveals a side of his genius I haven't seen before. We pan across a fascinating procession of inventive and appealing monster designs emerging out of the beautiful tangle of Miyazawa's characteristic line splayed masterfully across the screen. Miyazawa isn't just a good mover; he clearly has a wild imagination just waiting to be tapped. I'm delighted that Miyazawa is getting the chance to lay down a lot of work in a TV series instead of having to hold out for the occasional scene in a movie. His style seems well suited to TV work, allowing him to experiment and evolve by trying out a lot of new and interesting ideas rather than spending a lot of time to hone a small bit of animation. He also did a short but very sharp shot in 12 that was more in the vein of what he was doing in the opening of the movie, pushing it to new heights even, as if to test the limits of the concept of character, to see how far it is possible to push an outline and still remain that character.


Related: Yasunori Miyazawa

Friday, August 4, 2006

09:51:49 pm , 425 words, 1377 views     Categories: Animation

TM

Koichi Arai:
3x3 Eyes #4, 1991
FLCL #4, 2000
 
Yoshinori Kanada:
Tottemo! Lucky Man op, 1994
Yu Yu Hakusho movie, 1994

I've been thinking about trademarks that can serve to identify animators. First and foremost, of course, is the movement. In many cases, as with more style-heavy animators like Shinya Ohira or Shinji Hashimoto, you can simply tell from the movement that it is a certain animator's work, even if the drawings have been corrected, as witness Ohira's section in Howl (Howl's airborne transformation) or Hashimoto's scene in Perfect Blue (Murano's murder). However, in other cases, particularly when an animator's drawings go uncorrected, as happens more often in TV work, and in rare shows like FLCL that are more tolerant of open displays of animator idiosyncrasy, you can even tell just from the drawings. Norio Matsumoto's animation is easily identifiable from the movement, but even during still scenes, his work can often be identified by a single drawing. For example, take the ears and hands: He tends to draw big round ears in one elegant arc, and has a knack for flawlessly drawing beautiful hands, something that is not very common among animators. Tokura Norimoto is also identifiable from his beautiful, bilbous hands. In shows as disparate in time and style as 3x3 Eyes and FLCL you can identify a trademark of Koichi Arai in a shot here and there - his way of drawing the mouth. Nobutake Ito can often be identified by his teeth, which are amongst the most meticulously rendered I'd ever seen. Other animators might tend to favor certain poses in their animation. A trademark of Yoshinori Kanada's is the pose seen at right, which you can see fairly often throughout his work.

Sometimes it's not as specific as a certain way of drawing hands or the mouth, but rather simply a certain style of line. Hisashi Mori tends to draw with a wobbly, spontaneous line, whereas Satoru Utsunomiya favors a cleaner line. Hisashi Mori liberally uses lots of effects and lines throughout the screen. Animators across the board from Norio Matsumoto to Toshiyuki Inoue use speed effects, ie, little jagged teeth extending from a line, to express speed, some less frequently than others, each in their own personal way. Then there are shapes. Hisashi Mori tends to favor blocky, geometric shapes, whereas Shinya Ohira's shapes seem more abstract and flowing. In the end, of course, the movement is the most important thing, but drawings are the building block of movement, so both the movement and the drawings can be used to identify an animator's style.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

09:35:04 am , 268 words, 2086 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Mihara strikes again

As if there weren't enough to look forward to in Masaaki Yuasa's Kemonozume, which begins airing on Wowow this Saturday, here's something else.

I've been a fan of Michio Mihara's work since he (almost) singlehandedly animated ep 4 of Paranoia Agent and contributed some nice work to ep 12. Besides just being a fan of folks who make the valiant effort to animate an entire episode singlehandedly in this day and age when the demands of quality have risen so much higher than they were decades ago when this sort of thing was more common, I just loved his style. Well, I'm delighted to learn that he's up to it again. And I'm even more happy to learn that it's on Yuasa's Kemonozume. According to his latest column on Anime Style, he's doing episode 12. What better present could there be than a cross between two of my favorite animators?

I've also been curious how long it takes someone to do this feat in this day and age, and he mentions that he has four months, and there are a total of 280 shots for the episode, so his calculation is that he has to manage 70 shots per month... I'll be rooting for him. Even Norio Matsumoto was only able to manage the feat on one or two occasions. The other times, like for ep 39 of You're Under Arrest, he only got about 3/4 of the way through, and the man was so stoic about his defeat that he refused to even be credited on the episode because he had failed in his goal. But Matsumoto is special that way.

Related: Michio Mihara

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Tuesday, August 1, 2006

09:19:50 am , 344 words, 1215 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Misc animation tidbits

I learned through Koji Yamamura's blog that it's possible to see four of the extraordinary films of Igor Kovalyov right here. If you want to see them in the international order in which they were made over the span of the 90s, it would be Hen and his Wife (1989) and Andrei Svislotski (1991) in Russia and then Bird in the Window (1996) and Flying Nansen (2000) in the US after his emigration to Hollywood. There's a discernible difference in the style of the animation, which seems to have a little less of the wonderful improbable deformational Parnishness of the early stuff in Russia. But it's still great. I just had the pleasure myself. He's a guy who can tell incredible stories that mean a lot without saying a word or making any sense. He just finished Milch which is thankfully available on DVD. I'm going to hen hop for it.

Koji Yamamura's blog has in fact turned into a set of DVDs collecting the eponymous Unknown Animations that he's been hilighting there over the last year since the founding of the blog. The two volumes cover ten films including Christopher Hinton's Flux and Janno Poldma's On the Possibility of Love.

I'd been wanting to see Flux for some time, and it's currently available for viewing on the NFB site along with a number of other classics from the vaults. (via Progressive Animation Review)

I'm glad to see that a DVD of Oskar Fischinger's films has finally been released. (via antville) Although I wish they would have put more than ten films on there. Maybe they don't qualify as visual music, but it would have been nice to be able to see his amazing marching cigarettes & other commercials in pristine quality. Basically, I want to see it ALL. Presumably there must be more. But I'm very happy indeed to see that the results of his revolutionary deli-slicer wax-ball animation technique have been included on the disk, as I was very curious to see those after reading about them in the late William Moritz's great biography Optical Poetry.

Friday, July 28, 2006

06:14:50 pm , 590 words, 2866 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Ko Yoshinari

Since Mitsuo Iso began handling the digital processing of his animation around 2000 in Blood, one of the only people I've been able to find taking up Iso's challenge has been Ko Yoshinari 吉成鋼. Where some animators have gone the route of producing their own short features independently, Ko Yoshinari has taken the concept of the one-man production and adapted it to commercial animation by personally handling the animation, processing and photography of the shots he has been assigned in commercial productions, establishing his own personal paradigm in a way.

Yoshinari seems to have latched onto the idea of doing this around 2004, two years after RahXephon aired, taking a warm-up dive with the animation and compositing for the two shots where Ed jumps over the waterfall in the fourth opening of Full Metal Alchemist (:59 to 1:02). In October of 2004 he did a big chunk of animation in ep 1 of Lyrical Nanoha that stole the show for its detailed drawings and minute, realistic character movement. (:41 to 1:48) As happens often with the tight schedules of TV shows, the only reason we saw Yoshinari's section unmodified was that they did not have time to correct it, which for once was a good thing. Next Yoshinari handled a short section of Yutaka Nakamura's fight with the big monster in the Full Metal Alchemist movie (1:33 to :38). In a first, Yoshinari was credited not just with key animation, but also with inbetweening, finishing and photography. The latest piece of Yoshinari came in the second-to-last ep of Eureka 7, #49, where he handled about six or seven very dense shots. (:17 to :33) The zoom on the ship in particular was quite stunning, and we could see his fetish for studying explosions clearly in the superbly rendered explosion that caps his sequence. (the shots preceding his were by Yasushi Muraki, who animated similar laser/missile "air circuses" throughout the show)

Yoshinari's sections usually move in full ones, even when the section he is doing is for a limited TV program, and he clearly puts an inordinate amount of effort into making the entire screen work as a whole for his section. This is presumably the reason he found it necessary to go to the extreme length of handling the digital processing and photography of his animation in the first place - that he has an image in his head of what he wants to achieve. Already that sets him into a class of his own. In that sense he is very close to Iso, although in terms of the style of movement and other aspects they're very different animators. But it would be interesting to hear what prompted Yoshinari to go in this direction, and how he manages to make it a feasible way of putting bread on the table, considering how long it must take him to create a few seconds of animation with this method. The results are stunning, and it's an interesting new tack, one diametrically opposed to the approach of Toshiyuki Inoue.

Yoshinari was born in 1969, and debuted as a key animator around 1990. Since then he's been involved in the Hakkenden OVA series, the Ninku TV series and numerous other shows. Other samples of his work include a shot in Final Fantasy Unlimited (2001) (2:09 to 2:13) and a sequence in Hiroyuki Imaishi's ep 3 of Abenobashi Maho Shotengai (2002) (here). Since his work on the impressive Ghost in the Shell game op in 1997 (alongside Koichi Arai, Hisashi Ezura, Yasushi Muraki, Yo Yoshinari, Toshiyuki Inoue and Mitsuo Iso), he has also been heavily involved in work on games, both as a designer and op animator.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

02:14:37 pm , 98 words, 1826 views     Categories: Animation

TOKIKAKE "BEST" —Asahi Shimbun

Today's Asahi Shimbun had a column in which they called in notable film and anime critics to evaluate the summer's three new anime features. Mamoru Hosoda's film Toki wo Kakeru Shojo (The Girl who Could Travel Time) came out the clear winner. Gonzo's Brave Story had a "good script" and "nice visuals", Ghibli's Gedo Senki was "faithful" but "lacking in explanation", and Mamoru Hosoda's Toki wo Kakeru Shojo "glowed with youth" and was simply "the best". Anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa, host of the TV program Anime Maestro, calls Hosoda's film an "instant classic".

Related: Spotlight on Mamoru Hosoda

Monday, July 24, 2006

11:12:52 pm , 819 words, 2708 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Flag

I had a look at the reviews for Mamoru Hosoda's new film, just to see how they compared to the reviews for Goro's, and the contrast was very revealing. Page upon page one one-star reviews for the latter, and page upon page of five-star reviews for Tokikake. The reviews are usually well thought out for both films, outlining convincingly why each film deserved its extreme rating. One anecdote sticks in the mind for Hosoda's film. Several reviewers state that not a single person stood up until the end of the credits for Tokikake. Not just most people, but nobody. I think that says a lot. Reading the reviews has made me even more excited about the film. It's that kind of film again - the kind that gets you excited just reading people's enthusiastic reviews. I was hoping Hosoda had made his best film yet, and it sounds like he has. The irony is that it's going to be seen by very few people, while the other will be seen by many.

I watched the first episode of Ryosuke Takahashi's Flag. I was tremendously impressed by the visuals and the tone of the piece. It was just what I wanted from Takahashi. A piece of animation completely grounded in today's specific realities, namely the realities of conflict zones, without naive melodrama, and not adhering to dramatic formula, but flowing somewhat randomly, like a documentary. The gimmick of every shot being seen through a camera is used effectively and does not get annoying, as we regularly switch perspectives between different lenses and characters, and the story is interspersed with 'photographs' throughout. The piece acts as a sort of homage to the art and the power of photography, and as an amateur photographer I really appreciated that aspect. The story is centered around the myth of the holy grail of photographs - the photograph that is able to change the world for the better. I would have liked them to dig deeper into this concept, and really give a meditation on the utility of photography in this day and age, focusing on the feelings of the photographer protagonist as she makes the transition to the conflict zone, and also for them to use the basic situation as an opportunity to do some geopolitical commentary, but I think that may be asking a bit too much, as the story appears likely to go in a more adventure-based direction. It's probably the closest we're going to get, so I'm going to follow it. My major disappointment was why the hell they had to have a damn bipedal robot to wreck the whole atmosphere. Come on, we're not in the 80s anymore Ryo.

I was also intrigued by the animation. The way they went out of their way to use frames to express stretch and squash, and the whole atmosphere of the movement screamed non-Japanese animation, but it didn't make sense, because there was no way they would have outsourced to America or something. Seeing the credits made it all fall into place. Kazuyoshi Takeuchi. He's probably the only animator I'm a fan of even though I've only seen one scene of his work. He animated that great German Shepherd scene in Akira, in the traffic jam. It's an interesting sequence, because it's full of incredible exaggerated but fluid and dynamic poses and movement of a kind that you don't see in the other sequences of the film. I remember reading that the other animators thought it was going to look ridiculous when they saw his drawings as he was in the process of animating the scene, but they were completely surprised and impressed by how it looked in motion. It's an interesting example of that wondrous aspect of animation - that you can't tell how a sequence is going to work in motion just looking at a single drawing. Put it all together, and suddenly it comes alive. Well, the reason for him having this completely different approach from the rest of the animators is that he was trained working on co-productions like Wuzzles and Duck Tales of all things. I'd long wanted to see more of his work, because I'm interested in animators like this who straddle these two worlds, as Tomonaga does with Telecom's co-productions, but he's quite elusive and this is the first time I've seen his name since Akira. The acting is very western in style, but kind of toned down a bit, so I think it strikes a nice balance. It's fascinating to compare how much his entire philosophy towards movement differs from that of his compatriots. I'd be curious to know how he came to go in such a direction. This would have been in the mid-80s, in the heydey of Telecom, and immediately after the closing of Sanrio Films, the two Japanese studios of the day that sort of straddled the Pacific, so to speak.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

03:11:13 pm , 1217 words, 7813 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

Friday, July 21, 2006

10:26:40 pm , 462 words, 1007 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Welcome to the NHK

Gonzo is a reliable animation studio in a sense. You can rely on them to make a tremendously interesting first episode, and then let the rest of the series go down the toilet. I was prepared to enroll in the Speed Grapher fan club after the first episode, but was traumatized by the rest. It makes sense that Hisashi Mori didn't want to be too involved in it. Similarly, I can understand very clearly why Masashi Ishihama, character designer of NHK, didn't want to be involved in the actual series, and went so far as to use a pen name for his character designer credit. Who would want his name forever besmirched by association with a series in which his designs were guaranteed to be raped at leisure over the length of 13 or 26 episodes?

Well, it's deja vu time. I was enraptured by the first episode of Welcome to the NHK. Maybe it's far from perfect, and they seem to have compromised a lot in the adaptation, but I haven't read the original, so that wasn't a big concern to me. It was just great to finally see a show bringing the issue of hikikomori out into the bright light of day in an intelligent, non-pandering, believable fashion. I could relate to the main character in a way I haven't been able to relate to any analagous character in this sort of show in years. The humor was for the most part dead-on and not overdone. The sequence of Sato's triumphal march into the outside world to apply for a part-time job in a desperate attempt to break out of his three-year stint as a shut-in (going on four) was hilarious and tremendously poignant at the same time. I thought they really nailed the pathetic irony of the whole situation, with that great driving guitar ballad in the background. The music and sound design were great throughout. The animation was passable. The op by Ishihama was the animation hilight, with art by the Easter Gumi, who did the art for Cossette and a number of other nice ops in recent years.

In comes episode two. This is when I finally remembered that I have a short memory. Surprise surprise, it's ep 2 of Speed Grapher all over again. The dazed confusion. The disbelief. I was actually so appalled by the animation that I could not fully immerse myself in the story for a single moment. The story is interesting enough that I'll still follow it, but it's still disappointing. It is possible for a show to be worth watching for reasons other than the animation. But only barely.

On an unrelated note, the reviews have been pouring in for Goro Senki, and I've never seen so many one-star reviews of a Ghibli film.

Monday, July 17, 2006

09:43:10 pm , 434 words, 3439 views     Categories: Animation, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada, TV

Kanada revisits Gaiking

from Gaiking #21Yoshinori Kanada is back on TV again for the first time since ep 6 of the new Popolo Crois, which I wrote about long ago. This time he's Saburo Togakushi instead of Isuke Togakushi, and he's animated a bit at the end of the new op for Toei's Gaiking, a remake of one of their own classic giant robot show of the same name of 1976. It's not by chance. Kanada spent the 70s cutting his teeth on giant robot TV shows, and in fact he did a lot of animation throughout the original Gaiking that remains among his most well regarded work of his early period. Many of the animators who are now working on the new Gaiking count Kanada as one of their major influences, so it's full of meaning to have him here doing animation in this op now, exactly thirty years later.

Keisuke Watabe of Studio Hercules did some decidedly Kanada-esque animation recently in ep 28, and indeed the entire 'studio' was present in the ep. Ken Otsuka has been a major force behind the show as one of the mecha ADs, as he was on Bones' Eureka 7. He also storyboarded both 13 and 28.

Among the animators working on the show whom I wouldn't normally have associated with Kanada is Takaaki Yamashita, the man behind the animation side of most of Mamoru Hosoda's early work. After doing the book scene in 13, I noticed he was also in 21 and 28. 21 featured two minutes of excellent work at the end, and in 28 the main female enemy seems to have been animated by the same person throughout, judging by the style, and I have to wonder if Yamashita wasn't the one behind these sections. Or perhaps his protege, Tatsuzo Nishita. I've never associated Yamashita with such vigorous movement, so I can't be sure, but the level of minute detail put into the movement where first Gaiking's hand and then body breaks through the wall of stone, pictured above, was thrilling and the work of a great animator trained in the sort of through-conceived movement I associate with Yamashita and with none of the other animators listed here. Also, the loose, slightly wobbly lines are something I associate with Yamashita. The whole section was quite nice. The last half of 28 was also quite nice overall. It was like the Hercules version of ep 13.

Mitsuru Obunai was among the members credited under Studio Hercules, though I'm a bit confused as to his present location, since he's currently acting as the main animator on UFO Table's new show Coyote Ragtime Show, where he's done some good through brief work so far.

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