Chicks On Anime
Animators Turned Directors

by B. Dong, S. Pocock, Nov 12th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Last week, we posted the first half of a fascinating conversation with Benjamin Ettinger, the owner of AniPages, a valuable resource for fans about many of the most renowned animators and animators-turned-directors in the Japanese industry. For those who want to read more about the topic, he also posted a very excellent article on his website titled, "What makes animation interesting?", which also delves more into the topic of what sets animators apart. It's a great read, and I highly encourage everyone to take a look at their earliest convenience.

This week, the conversation turns to a few very well-respected directors who got their start as animators. Once again, I've included some links to some of their works, as well as certain scenes. I definitely learned a lot from our time with Benjamin, and I hope that's shared with our valuable readers.

Next week, we'll be going back to more conventional fan topic, but hopefully everyone's enjoyed these past two columns. Thanks for reading! And thanks so much to our wonderful guest, who opened my eyes to this medium that we all love so much.


Sara: Oftentimes, an influential and respected animator will go on to become an influential and respected director. Miyazaki was mentioned in passing, and Mitsuo Iso, who animated the Golden Boy clip, directed a remarkable series last year called Dennō Coil. But the most important name, in this aspect, is Masaaki Yuasa. For this discussion, at least, in my opinion.
Bamboo: How does a key animator become a director? At what point in his career is he allowed to take on that responsibility? Is it his decision, or the studio's?
Benjamin: It's absolutely the studios' decision. I think people accede to directing much quicker today than they used to. It took Miyazaki some 20 years to direct his first film. It took Masaaki Yuasa more than 10 years to direct his first film. It took Imaishi much less than 10.
Sara: Ben, you're somewhat of an expert on Yuasa's history; would you like to give a brief summary?
Benjamin: Yuasa started out as an animator at a studio called Ajia-do, working on ordinary TV productions. I assume his style was not in evidence immediately. I don't know what it was that led to him developing a unique style—partly it was the animation he loved to study, and partly his personality—but he started to create interesting animation after a few years that really stood out as unlike anything else out there. Many years before becoming a director, Yuasa stood out as a unique creator. Yuasa started out creation very free and very colorful animation full of transformations.
Bamboo: What do you think was his first work that really captured his future potential?
Benjamin: An early piece that shows him to be a unique voice is the musical segments he did for the Chibi Maruko-chan film in 1990. That is really quite early in his career to be displaying such a unique voice. But Yuasa wasn't content to just do this kind of material. He also handled very realistic material, working with Shinya Ohira on an episode of Hakkenden that stands out for its outstanding realistic rendering of faces and movement. Yuasa has many different faces, which I think is true of any great creator.

Eventually Yuasa began working as a director on Crayon Shin-chan. I think it begins that way for every animator. They give storyboarding a try, find they like it, and that leads to them eventually directing.

Bamboo: Do you think animators bring something different to the directing table?
Benjamin: Yes. Very much so. I think Yuasa is an outstanding example of just how different a perspective someone with the background of an animator can have. At the most basic level, I think Yuasa is focused on creating work that is exploits the inherent possibilities of animation. That, you might say, is what many animators-turned-directors bring to the table that others might not. They think like animators. Miyazaki is a classic case of this.
Bamboo: I think it's interesting that you mentioned how his animation is full of transformations. That instantly reminded me of that scene in Mind Gamethe love-making scene—when the couple is constantly, literally transforming. It's almost like his animation aesthetic came alive, if that makes sense.
Sara: Yes, I was about to mention that the first piece of I work I saw by Yuasa was his work in Noiseman Sound Insect, and I got a similar sense.
Benjamin: Yes, Yuasa uses every means available to him as an animator to create a rich visual experience, which is what makes scenes like that love-making scene have so much more power than if they had been done in a conventional way.
Sara: I think Yuasa's aesthetic as an animator definitely comes across in the way he directs. In Mind Game, especially, he "exploits the inherent possibilities of animation" as a director by using as many styles as possible in one film, it seems like. Mind Game really is a groundbreaking piece of work.
Benjamin: What attracted me to Yuasa, personally, was that I felt he showed me what we're missing, what isn't being done, but could be done. I'm the kind of person who likes to see different things tried in animation, and animation is uniquely suited to coming up with new ways of telling stories that make for exciting viewing.
Sara: In Mind Game, all kinds of things are going on. We have what, traditional 2D anime-style animation, pastel, 3D, a whole mesh of aesthetics that manages to be cohesive through superb direction. And Yuasa's approach, as mentioned earlier, gives a new generation of animators to push boundaries that may normally not be available to them on other projects.
Benjamin: What makes Mind Game great is that, while trying all of these different things, while going all over the place, it nonetheless conveys a simple human story and creates characters we can believe in. It's easy enough to mix things up and be experimental, but to combine experimentation with cohesive storytelling the way he has was what made Mind Game so striking.
Bamboo: Do you think that animators-turned-directors tend to seek out more unique and individualistic key animators than directors?
Benjamin: Yes, I think that as animators, they are out to create a film that will be rich in terms of the animation, because, like I said, they think as animators would—they know that, to bring a shot alive, you have to move the character in such a way to make it communicate.
Sara: Hm, that maybe depend on an individual basis. Satoshi Kon was never an animator, for instance, but he frequently uses what Japanese fans refer to as "sakuga" animators to animate his films.
Benjamin: So naturally, they seek out animators who will be able to meet their demands to create animation that fills out and brings alive their storyboard.
Sara: But having an animation background makes a difference.
Benjamin: Yes. Our background colors our approach. Of course, you also have directors like Mamoru Oshii and Isao Takahata who can't draw a lick and were never animators, yet create films that are consistently rich in the animation department. But I think there is a difference in the sort of storyboards they draw and the sort of stories they choose to tell.
Sara: Going back, for a moment, to how an animator's approach to animation influences their direction, it struck me how Iso's debut work, Denno Coil, really seemed to reflect him. His animation has always been a bit more controlled and realistic, and his series reflected that.
Benjamin: Miyazaki's films couldn't be more different from Takahata's.
Sara: Yuasa's Kemonozume, on the other hand, seemed to showcase a whole different aesthetic every week, because I think that appeals to Yuasa.
Bamboo: Do directors tend to work with the same key animators? Or do they vary their staff, based on what kind of style they want?
Benjamin: It depends on the director. Some directors like Satoshi Kon, whose work doesn't vary as dramatically as Yuasa's does from one project to the next, tend to use the same pool of talent from one film to the next, with various degrees of difference, although this is a generalization. It also has to do with availability.

I think Yuasa would have liked to have more talented animators than he did for his TV series, but scheduling circumstances prevented that to some extent. The situation on the production floor is different for a TV series than it is for a movie. But Yuasa, at least at his current stage of creative evolution, likes to vary things, as evidenced by the intra-episode variation in Kemonozume, and by the dramatic shift in style to Kaiba. So he will be more willing to seek out different animators depending on the project. Some directors like to work with the same staff because they aren't particularly interested in varying the visuals to as great an extent as Yuasa is from one project to the next. Mamoru Oshii regularly returns to a core team focused on Tetsuya Nishio and Hiroyuki Okiura, for example.

Bamboo: Yuasa seems to me, based on what I've seen of his works, someone who is much more willing to explore wildly different styles—and, as Sara said, sometimes within the same work. What jumps out to me is that when he combines animation styles, it's not awkward. And that's important to me, because often times, when you see directors combine 2D and 3D animation, for example, you get a jarring disconnect from the viewing experience. I don't feel that disconnect with his works. His different styles melt together in a way that works, possibly because he's able to use the animation to connect with itself, not just as a tool to make figures move.
Benjamin: I think that goes back to his background. It's not just that he started out as an animator—he started out as a fan of animators. He started out in animation because he loved good animation. Inevitably, that will color his later work, and give him more of a focus on the drawing side of things. I think being trained as an animator, he acquired a sense of what 'works' for a screen, what creates a pleasurable or harmonic image, so to speak.
Sara: What's interesting is that a lot of creative decisions like this are attributed to studios, as generalizations by the mass public. I know when I first saw Mind Game, I thought "Wow! Studio 4c is amazing!" before I learned to appreciate the animators themselves. Gainax is another studio that people think of as having a particular "look" when it is, in fact, a group of animators who animate a certain way, such as the Kanada-style.
Benjamin: Sara's point about individuals being behind what makes a movie good, rather than necessarily the studio, is very true, but it can hard for people to find out about these things without going to considerable lengths. In fact, that's a large part of the reason why I began writing my blog, to fill in that gap.
Sara: I hope this discussion will help others approach animation from a new perspective as well. I feel that animators deserve a great deal of credit.
Bamboo: I think this may be a natural place to start wrapping up the conversation, as well.
Benjamin: I think animation is often a factor in why we love a show or a movie, whether we realize it or not. That was the case for me before I started learning about this kind of thing. Only when I learned that Ichiro Itano was the guy who drew those amazing dogfights in Macross did I begin to have an inkling about these behind-the-scenes interconnections.
Sara: Yes, I agree. The Macross Plus concert scene was probably my launching point. In terms of wanting to know who was directly responsible for what I was seeing on the screen. And not just who was in charge overall.
Benjamin: Once you learn that a certain individual was behind this scene, and that scene, you can begin to appreciate the work you're seeing in a different light, and you can seek out more of what you like. At a basic level, that's why it's useful to know about the animators behind the work. It's not always necessarily the director who is the reason you like a particular scene that you find exciting or moving. Sometimes it's the work of the animator that gives it that special something.
Sara: Hear hear.
Bamboo: That's a perspective I hadn't realized until very recently, and it makes a lot of sense. Anyway, Ben, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I think our readers will be very pleased, and I know I certainly learned a lot.
Sara: Any last closing thoughts? I just want to urge readers to visit http://www.pelleas.net/aniTOP/ to learn more. It's a fantastic resource.
Benjamin: Thanks for having me! It was a real pleasure talking with all of you.

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