Monday, November 14, 2016

Mou Hitotsu no Barusu: Untold behind the scene story of Laputa

Another Barusu 

On November 12, 2016, San Francisco Kinokuniya Bookstore held talk & authograph event for Hirokatsu Kihara: a Japanese horror author, talk radio personality, and former Studio Ghibli production coordinator. 

I heard about his visit to San Francisco through email from Kinokuiya and purchased his nonfiction book, "Another Barusu" / 「もう一つのバルス」, one week prior to his visit and started to read his book. For people who don't know what his book is about, "Another Barusu" is about Kihara's experience in Studio Ghibli when he was involved in production of "My Neighbor Totoro", "Kiki's Delivery Service", and "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" as production management and Miyazaki's confidant. For people who don't know what "Barusu/Balse/バルス" is, it's the last incantation spoken by Laputa's main characters Pazu and Sheeta at the climatic scene of the movie. And it's also a record breaking tweeted pop culture word in Japan.

At little past 4:00 PM, Hirokatsu Kihara is showed up with outgoing presence (in Pixar hoodie) and spoke with easy-to-understand Japanese with a translator helping him. Most notably, he brought never-seen-before sketches, cels, background paintings, promotional arts, concept arts, animation drawings. Since audience are not allowed to photograph artworks due to possible lawsuit, I'll leave the rest to your imagination as he described each artworks he brought.

First, Kihara brought out sketches of key visuals/promotional posters used in Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa

A. On Kiki's Delivery Service

Miyazaki is very detail-oriented to the single line. Even a single line in the animation drawing doesn't meet his satisfaction, he makes correction.

On Kiki's Delivery Service promotional art sketches: Fans know that Japanese poster of Kiki's Delivery Service pretty much looks like this:

However, Miyazaki drew the initial sketch which Kiki is sitting on toilet. It was not a joke as I witnessed the initial sketch when Kihara displayed it. Black cat Jiji is more cartoony on initial sketch, but Miyazaki decided to make it more realistic on final version. Also Miyazaki made her ribbon much bigger for final version as Kihara showed before-and-after sketches. Anyway initial sketch of promotional picture got ire from both Kihara and female animators, so Miyazaki revised to what we see it today.

Kihara brought cels and BG of the above cut and showed that clouds are in 2 layers of cel, foreground grass is another cel. Although it's not noticeable, BG artists even painted 
tiny waves for the lake.

On this cut, one cel for river and another cels for tree, and another cel for shrubbery. 

Each layer of breads are painted in cel. 
And of course they drew the jar on the right corner as "Storo" instead of "Straw" berry. 

Kihara also brought key animation, cels and BG paint of above cut. According to Kihara, male animators couldn't quite get how female skirt should move which Miyazaki wanted, so it was the female animators who drew Kiki twirling her skirt. 

Kihara repeatedly said that Miyazaki is meticulous, but the process takes too much time. 

Kihara showed several background and concept paintings used in Kiki. On contrary to popular assumption, he explained that BG artists used ordinary art suppliesy that they could get from any stationary/art store in Japan while displaying BG for Cut 203B. BG paint brand used was called "Turner".

On Cut 203B, which was painted by art director Hiroshi Ono, Kihara emphasized the level of details considered by art director. He pointed out that even small reflections on windows are painted without being overlooked. 

Surpirsingly, Kiki wasn't a major success due to fact that the main production concluded 10 days before the premier and they couldn't print enough films on time to make nationwide premiers.
Kiki used 525,000 sheets total which include Miyazaki's key animation corrections, animation director corrections, key animations, inbetween cleanups, and cels. It was finished 10 days before film print date.

B. On Laputa:Castle in the Sky 

Kihara brought out cels and background used in Laputa as he tells what happened:

One of the cels is from this scene which castle floats in the sky (sorry, picture quality is from the web). According to Kihara, weeks are spent by doing cut and paste with knife and tape the layers of castle parts and Ink & Paint department painted tiny subtle details around the contour of the castle. Of course, the cut only lasted 3 seconds despite weeks of hard work. He commented that it's lot easier to do it with digital tools on such method. 

On cel version of this cut, blurry flapping of wings are actually done with quick paint brush strokes. 

Kihara also added that Laputa BG Art is based from England countryside.

Of course, Kihara showed cel and BG of this famous climatic scene that got over 100K tweets per minute in Japan. Really, that black flash is really painted in black paint.

Most cool thing about Laputa was that Kihara has original Miyazaki's E-Konte/Storyboard scene never used in the movie. It was unused scene of Laputa prologue which govenrment officials are having dinner in an airship. One of the change was that they're having roasted turkey/chicken instead of roast beef which was showed in the movie. Also Miyazaki literally cut out storyboard scene if he's not satisfied.

C. On My Neighbor Totoro:

Kihara showed several sketches, cels, and BG paintings from Totoro. One of the fun fact is that Cat Bus's aexpression is based from Kihara.  

Of course, he brought cel and BG paint of this famous scene:

And he brought concept sketch of this Totoro promotional art

On the concept sketch version, Totro never smiles. However, just like a Kiki promo art, the obvious change was made.

To everyone's surprise, Kihara showed the audience trashed character model sketches of Totoro. It is one of those rejects that never got stamp of approval from Ghibli and he's been holding it for 27 years. 

Lastly, he showed unused concept sketches of Nausicaa disposed by Miyazaki.

Kihara stressed that it's easier to just watch anime than making one. When he was in Studio Ghibli, he worked very, very, very hard. He also stressed that when creating something, artist has to put heart and soul into it. 

After the talk event, people lined up for his autograph and photo shoot. At final autograph, a female fan, who did some serious research, gave Kihara LP record set of Hobbit the animation which was coproduced with Topcraft studio. When Kihara started out in anime industry, his first studio was Topcraft studio which did a lot of coproduction with Rankin/Bass Studio. Kihara was very delighted by the gift.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Texture of Kabaneri

Texture of Kabaneri: Redefining the coloring techniques as demonstrated in "Kabaneri of Iron Fortress"

Coloring in Anime has come long way since Ink & Paint Department a.k.a. Finishing (仕上げ/Shiage) painted each cellophane sheet (cel for short) with a special paint and then those cels are photographed with a special camera stand. With adoption of digital coloring and compositing techniques, color scheme used in anime has gotten more brighter and gained richer texture. To many fans, one of the most notable example of such technique is rosy cheeks and florid skin of female anime characters which have been shown in past ten years. This time, "Kabaneri of Iron Fortress" pushed the envelope to next level which moving images look more like paintings.

Again, I found another fascinating interview from the same Animage magazine which features the coloring technique and a new job title.

Animage June 2016 issue
Feature: Drawing of the Soul

Painting of the Soul

Chief Make-Up Animator: Sachiko Matsumoto (松本幸子)

It's no doubt that heavily detailed visual is one the factors that keeps the "Kabaneri of Iron Fortress" exciting. Among those, it's the thickly textured cuts comprised of critical scenes, such as character close-up, that draw eyes to the show. They are the cuts made by artists with unique job title of "Make-Up Animator" of the show. These artists made an epoch as if these characters are painted like an illustration all while moving. They play important role in symbolizing the show's visual quality and bringing life to its drama.

---What kind of work does "Makeup Animator" do?

Matsumoto: Job title of "Makeup Animator" came up only recently. Director (Tetsuro) Araki and Design Setting Overseer (Junpei) Kasaoka came up with that title. From the start, it was about finding new expressions from digital 2D animation while utilizing it in production. We've set goal of expressing texture and feel of Haruhiko Mikimoto's illustration on actual screen .

---Therefore, isn't the work close to "compositing"?

Matsumoto: That's right. Except, in case of animation compositing, it has been augmented into a still image; however this time, we've been putting into a moving character images which is different from how things are done: how will it look when texture is added to moving characters.
We conducted multiple tests as we made it. Processing method changes depending on character; beautiful and cute for girls; keep the harsh line quality intact while adding texture to metallic parts, leather belt, glasses and etc for Ikoma. For example, in ink & paint stage, an "eye" is painted in separate solid colors, but we added highlights and depth to iris and pupil. Even eyebrows only had little touch up at first, but now we made it look fuzzy with blurring and added the process into the workflow. Then there is the hair. To express glossy and translucent feel of hair depicted in Mikimoto's illustration, we touched up the hair strands one by one with Brush tool. Also there is the goal of maintaining nuance of the line quality drawn by Chief Animation Director (Yasuyuki) Ebara, so we adjusted the line thickness and opacity while extracting pencil line strokes from inbetween drawings. So the work is about adding such process one (cel) frame at a time which also flows with character's movement. It's difficult because it's not just simply cleaning up the image, it's about not clashing with flow of the movement.

---In other words, you don't process it automatically like CG, but "paint" it one frame at a time.

Something like that (laughs). So at any rate, we can work with from few cuts to dozens of cuts for each episode. For example, we handled a total of 11 cuts for episode #1. As for staffs including myself, a person for inbetween, person who handles compositing and textures, and others, a total of 5 people have been working on the process.

---What are the fun aspect and difficult aspect while you're working?

I think it would be great if we can express that character is "alive" in that world. Again, there is that Director Araki's "wanting to make girls look cute" request so we pay special attention to them. Due to fact that cuts which we're handling are acting as face of the story, there is a heavy burden of doing the absolute best; but still it's really rewarding. They're really luxurious cuts, so we would be happy if everyone could enjoy with "oh wow" feeling.

Last scene in the episode #1: An impressive cut where Mumei removes her ribbon.
Top one is before the processing, Bottom one is after the processing which shows a hint of sexiness added to hair and skin texture. Also a feeling of richness in her expression as well.  In case of this cut, the same processing was done on 30 frames one frame at a time.

Likewise, Ayame from Episode #1. Lower right is before the processing. Upper left is after the processing. Rosy cheek is derived from blurred flat red color. When comparing before and after processing on eyebrows, they actually look like women's makeup. Limited only to female characters, slight red hue is added on eyelids to express florid complexion

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Creative Process behind "Bungo Stray Dogs" ED

Portrait of Stray Dogs

  Creative Process behind "Bungo Stray Dogs" Ending Sequence

Source: Animage magazine June 2016/Vol. 456 

Among anime fans in the West, Yasuomi Umetsu (梅津 泰臣) is well known for his animations, "Kite" and "Mezzo". Other than his prolific directorial works, he has been very active with opening and ending animations for various TV anime titles for past several years.

As a hardcore anime fan who regularly dig through Animage magazine (月刊アニメージュ) for interviews and features, I really want to share this kind of behind the scene interview and commentary which Japanese fans have been enjoyed for decades. I hope my amateur translation bring some insight on how Japanese animators bring their work to life.

(Disclaimer: This is just a fan translation of existing magazine feature. I'm not responsible for views expressed in the feature.)  

(Update: I've corrections on names and titles. Also I have made changes on wording)

Portrait of Stray Dogs: (Relationship) Triangle of Atsushi, Dazai, and Akutagawa 
 Storyboard, Direction, Animation Direction: Yasuomi Umetsu 
Ending song "Namae wo Yobuyo"


Yasuomi Umetsu, the animator, director, and screenwriter well known with oversea fans, has been famous for directing numerous (TV anime) opening and endings sequences. This time, he has handled storyboard, direction, and animation direction for ending sequence for "Bungo Stray Dogs". 

"I wanted to express what Dazai and Akutagawa are meant to Atsushi at deeper level.", said Umetsu. Thus he made the sequence featuring the relationship among Atsushi, Dazai, and Akutagawa as basis.

With triangular relationship looping around Akutagawa to Dazai; Atsushi to Dazai; Dazai to Akutagawa, he made the sequence by visualizing their relationship portrayed in the first cour of the show. From details of their perspective to hand gestures, there is intricate drama weaved in them. We want to present how scenes in this beautiful "Bungo Stray Dogs" ending sequence leaves deep impression on us by Umetsu's abundant imagination. 

Interview #1: Yasuomi Umetsu

(Direction, Storyboard, Animation Direction)

--What kind of impression did you get after reading the manga?

Umetsu: At first glance by the title alone, I wondered if this was like "I Vitelloni" (1953 Italian film directed by Federico Fellini) with novelists as main subject. When I read it, it has exceptionally strong impression of battle genre, but I felt triangular relationship among Atsushi, Dazai, and Akutagawa.

---So there are only three characters appear in the ending sequence.

Umetsu: When I make opening and ending, I always consult with director, producer, and video makers first, but this time I received an order from Director Takuya Igarashi to feature these three characters. With those characters on hand, I thought I could bring out other characters as I was handling the storyboard, but I realized it's better to focus on those three main characters as I was processing the visual concept. 

---Did you and Director Igarashi had more specific discussion?

Umetsu: More like listening to his thought on the works than specific order. It is necessary to find commonality between his thought and my thought, but this time we had the same impression. I brought my draft with expectation of "perhaps mine is like this" to Igarashi and he felt that "this direction is fine" and so there was no hesitation. Except physical work took so much time and I barely made to the last minute (bitter smile)   

---What kind of impression did you had for (ending) theme song, "I'll call out a name/Namae wo Yobuyo"?

Umetsu: It's really a great song! My quite often make decision by tune of the song. If melody, tempo, rhythm, and etc don't coordinate, then overall doesn't synchronize well with visuals. On contrary, if a song is good, it blends well with the worldview and it widens overall imagery. Because I especially liked this song, the work went smoothly. When I read the Luck Life's lyric, I had impression that their goal and my direction weren't so different.     

--Luck Life (Artists for the ending theme song) said they expanded their imagery from Atsushi's line of "you can't go on living without telling someone that 'it's good to be alive'".

Umetsu: Absolutely! That's the heart of the matter. It seems like Atsushi and others are living off from such feeling.

---Do you jump onto storyboard right after expanding your ideas?

Umetsu: No, I draw concept sketches at least once before drawing storyboard. It's like drawing dozens of sketches and pick from there. This time I drew around 40 sketches, I think? I think there are some people who jump right into storyboarding, but for me it's no good for not having concept images side-by-side. On the top of that, I'm the type who thinks about (small) things like "how should I set up cut #1..."  

---From the start you're making it while not thinking about continuity, but just putting them all together.

Umetsu: That's right. I build it with list of images first and once I lay them out, the whole thing would tell the story in a mysterious way!  

---Which cut was the first thing that came into your mind?
Umetsu: Image of Atsushi sinking in water came into my mind first. Actually, I was inspired by a scene from a movie. It's like I kept it alive in my heart for 15 years so that I could use it someday. 

---This time, you were able to pull it off after the long-wait.

Umetsu: As I love films, yet I can't remember which film it was! (laughs). In addition, cover illustrations for both Opening CD and Ending CD are featuring Atsushi and Dazai sinking into water and that was total coincidence. I was really surprised by them.   

Opening Song CD
Ending Song CD

---It seems like you went to Yokohama for inspiration

Umetsu: I felt something was lacking as I was drawing the storyboard. So I hurriedly went to Yokohama for reference. My concept idea has gotten broader as I took photos of the actual locale. When I thought about 'how to move things to where", there is still a limit to just sitting behind the desk and working on the storyboard. I reaffirmed importance of overall atmosphere through the actual visit (to the locale). As for first scene where each character is holding a book and I thought, "I want to position them here" after seeing the actual Yokohama's scenery.

---What is the most rewarding part to you for making the opening and ending sequence?

Umetsu: It's not about copying from original manga material to video form as it is; it's about adding atmosphere and weight into it. Since opening sequence is the face of the show so I can't venture off too far, but because I think the ending sequence has slightly loose grip (on creative aspect), I threw in some curve balls from time to time (laughs). With this ending sequence, it was really fun putting together (animation) staff's design and my concept. Now that my thoughts on this title is condensed into a video form, I hope that people would enjoy this ending and the show repeatedly.

Scene-by-scene Commentary

(Translator's note: I have modified the original magazine feature to fit blog format) 

1. Works of Literary Figures

Animage June 2016 / Vol.456
Atsushi holding (his own) book. Text of the actual novel is pasted on pages: "Sangetsuki" by Atsushi Nakajima; "No Longer Human" by Osamu Dazai; "Rashomon" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. "I had other idea by attaching staff credit on the pages, but I used this way to make connection with the story" (Umetsu). In addition, cover illustration of the (Animage) magazine features the same book.

2. Flying pages

Pages are flying off to the sky one by one. "This book is Atsushi's heart and body". The pages are a part of (his) life. As those pages fly, they mingle with Dazai's and Akutagawa's and affecting one another" (Umetsu). Although Atsushi appears mainly passive by people around him in the beginning, in reality he affects people around him like flying pages. 

3. Atsushi and Dazai lying down

Background is modeled from a dock in Yokohama. Dazai is lying next Atsushi, but their hands still don't touch."Atsushi's pinky finger is moving just a little because it's the most heart pounding moment whether it is going touch or not" (Umetsu). It's definitely a delicate balance between their relationship.

4. Contrasting shots of moon-lit night

Atsushi lost in thought by window and Akutagawa walking on a night street. Each goes on with one's fate with full moon set as background. "On color selection discussion with Igarashi, I've set Atsushi's theme color as bluish-white, Dazai's as white, and Akutagawa's as red for motif. To bring out those three colors, I've set aside usual background and cel color scheme. And those three colors came out forward much more" (Umetsu).

5. Objects and Mental Imagery



Sudden flash of four images in subliminal way. These elephant and penguin objects are all actually in Yokohama. According to Umetsu, he "brought out the city's atmosphere first then depicted characters' mental scenery". Objects and Atsushi and Dazai are flashed in alternate sequence. On two cuts where Atsushi's shirt is off and blood is spilling from Dazai's mouth, Umetsu added as "a prediction of cruel future which is likely to happen".

6. Atsushi's shadow turns into tiger's shape


Shadow on the wall slowly becomes the tiger's shape. Reason for drawing it as shadow? "Because epitome of transformation scene has to be shown in the episode, so there is no reason draw it in the ending. Even though opening and ending are not about depicting specific story elements, it's important to express the symbolic matters of the show" (Umetsu). Such is his persistence.

7. Pages that stopped moving

Pages of the book on ground are flipped by blowing wind, but they stopped when wind stopped. And then, text in pages disappear and become meaningless. "Those are Atsushi's heart, body, and a part of his life" (Umetsu). What sort of meaning is hidden in the disappearing text?   

8. Atsushi/Dazai and Akutagawa

Atsushi and Dazaiwhile Akutagawa who is farther apart from them (top picture). Atsushi and Dazai are facing front while Akutagawa is facing other direction (bottom picture).  These three characters' relationship is expressed frankly by these two shots. As for reason why above cuts are in red and white, "I wanted show comparison between Dazai and Akutagawa. By putting Atsushi with Dazai, it brought out strong feeling oAtsushi and Dazai as a pair." Umetsu explains.

9. Dazai petting Atsushi's head

Dazai's reaches out and gently pets Atsushi who is lost in thought. And Atsushi smiles faintly. "Tweaking that smile was very difficult" as Umetsu points out. As the time flows peacefully, what will become of Atsushi and Dazai? Even flying pages don't have answer for that.      

10. Dazai doesn't reach out to Akutagawa

Akutagawa looks down with sadness in front of red brick warehouse. His shadow turns into white and Dazai's hand reaches out, but his hand fades away. 
"Probably to Akutagawa, Dazai's existence is like nothing like anything else. I definitely think only Dazai can save Akutagawa" (Umetsu). However, when is that salvation? Thus Dazai's hand fades out like an illusion.

11. Sinking Atsushi 

Atsushi drops into a sea. Also Yokohama scenery is shown in the background. "Atsushi has both naivety and a part of irrationality mixed together. Instead of changing, he still doesn't know how to deal with himself " Umetsu said. That is why his facial expression wants to say something while sinking. "It's his unique face expression mixed with various thoughts" Umetsu added.


12. Dazai's hand in water

Again Dazai's hand touches Atsushi's head. Reason for doing it second time: "It's like Atsushi will stumble and fall many times in his life. However, Dazai will reach out again and again" Umetsu explains. It's Dazai's expression of 'even iyou fail and being forsaken, you keep true to yourself'. Then Atsushi's surrounding turns into Dazai's theme color of white.

13. Akutagawa shedding red tear

Akutagawa sinks and his bloody tear floats out from water and flies off as a fireworkIrepresents his sadness and rage and Umetsu himself loves that cut. Also the sea is analyzed as "a sea formed by many shed tears". Even though Dazai's hand reaches to sinking Atsushi, he doesn't reach out to sinking Atakugawa.

14. At a special place by himself

Above cuts are also modeled from Yokohama. Akutagawa is kneeling under the shade and Atsushi stands momentarily at a place under morning sun. Pages of another book scatters around Akutagawa's coat.    

15. Closed Book

The book is in Atsushi's hand againbut the book is closedFlying pages are nowhere to go. This cut is drawn as "an image which no one knows where those pages will lead in the future" (Umetsu).

16. Stylization of the last part with pop art 

Sudden appearance of two fascinating cuts: "I didn't want to end with cut and dry feeling; so I wanted something to save the thought of 'let's watch it next week too'". On half-weretiger cut: "As a character, Atsushi can goof off too, right? It's too complicated for Dazai and Akutagawa though (laughs)" as Umetsu comments on the cut which Atsushi shows "roar" expression with heart-shaped windpipe. On final cut's graphic style image, Umetsu concluded,"I wanted to close the ending in style with (Atsushi's) just-right-before-turning-into-tiger image."


Interview #2: Luck Life (Ending theme song)

Profile: Luck Life is a rock band based from Osaka. The band is composed of LOVE-Ooishi (Drums), PON (Vocal & Guitar), Taku (Bass), and Ikoma (Guitar). Their previous song, "Unchanging Sky変わらない空", is the main theme song for TV anime, "Junjo Romantica 3". They made their major debut with "I'll call out name 名前を呼ぶよ".

---I've heard that Luck Life started when you guys are in high school

PON: As soon as I entered high school, Ooishi said, "Hey you wanna check out light music club?" I wasn't totally interested at first, but as I watched seniors in light music club and I thought, "maybe I could get super popular" (laughs). That's how I met colleagues and started the band with such naive mindset.

---You had a different band name at first, but changed to Luck Life in 2008.

PON: We went for popular rock genre to play the original music that I've written. We used that opportunity to change the name and set the goal to make debut with mainstream.

---"I'll call out a name" is like that, I felt your music is about expressing solid lyric with easy-to-listen vocalization.

PON: As for making music, it's all about wanting everyone listening to our song. We take great care with lyric with "don't lie" as our motto, so I think we're making song for everyone with what I myself really feel.

---What is your impression of "Bungo Stray Dogs"?

PON: Everyone being cool and handsome is the first thing that came up in my mind. As guys, their powers are still weak though, right? (laughs) It's close to what I read as a kid so composing the song was fun.

---We know that "I'll call out a name" is your own songwriting, but can you tell us how did you made it?

PON: Animation production asked the song to be a ballad. At first I couldn't imagine ballad just from reading a lively battle action comic. However, there is that Atsushi's "you can't go on living without telling someone that 'it's good to be alive'" line and I totally understood. So the band started to try out some tunes and there would be some feedback from listeners; so as I continually thought about it and then lyric came out from my gut with a bang.  

---I felt a connection from your song with Atsushi Nakajima's novel, "Sangetsuki". The story is about a poet who turned into tiger and asking his friend to save his name and poem before he loses his humanity.

PON: Oh, really? What a coincidence! I was so busy at that time of writing; and now that I recall, I certainly had a meeting with Director Igarashi when lyric was half-finished. I was, like, happy when he said, "leave as it is. This is fine". So I wrote the remaining lyric straight ahead while riding a bullet train to Osaka.

---Also (ending) sequence fits very well with song's perspective of the world

PON: Most memorable part was Dazai is petting Atsushi's head. They're, like,  really cool. I really love Dazai and Atsushi's master-and-pupil relationship. It makes me happy to think about everyone listening to "I'll call out a name" while immersed themselves in setting sun. If you like us through our single, please check us out at our live concert.