Chicks on Anime

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, R. Sevakis, Sep 16th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.
Robin is an illustrator, and also the creator of Anime News Nina.

This week, we talked with a guest who was happy to share with readers his experiences as an animator—both as an independent filmmaker, and also as a 3D modeler for Disney feature films.


Bamboo: We have a special guest with us here today—Ke Jiang, a recent animation graduate who now works at Disney. Ke, can you give us a quick update on what it is you do now?
Ke: I do 2D and 3D animation. I studied 2D animation at my undergraduate school, MCAD, and gradually moved into 3D before I finished school. I got big into games after that and made an interactive gaming environment as my undergraduate thesis. After working one year in the commercial industry, at a Minneapolis-based company called Gasket, I gathered a lot of efficient knowledge for 3D animation and then started my MFA at CalArts. For more information, you can check out my website, jkart.net.

This summer, I've been working at Disney feature animation as 3D modeler. There, I learned about how the pipeline for a feature animation works. I realized that most of the people at Disney have very strong skills in a specific task, like animation or modeling, but don't have an overall skill set. I feel lucky to have the knowledge to be able to make a film from beginning to finish and also learn how to develop each specific task with the Disney mentors. It's like being in a rock band, but playing the guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, and singing all at once.

Bamboo: Quick question—what exactly do you do as a 3D modeler?
Ke: Just what it sounds like. I model 3D objects and characters in Maya. Disney uses Maya, but other studios have their own programs. The models I create are then passed on to the riggers, who build bones and structure, and make sure the character moves properly. Then they are passed on to shading artists, who add the lighting and textures. Only after all of this is completed are they passed on to the animators, who give them life. There are other departments, too, like compositing, color correction, sound, post-production, editing, etc. Just like feature films.
Sara: I imagine that in order to develop an artistic skill to the level to meet Disney standards, as it's very tough to earn a position there. An artist's tendency would be to hone in on one specific skill and make sure they're the best of the best.
Ke: Even though Disney is so big, I feel like the reason a lot of their films feel so artistically restricted is because there is so much overhead and so many people involved. The stories become watered down clichés. My personal ideal is to keep overhead low and artistic freedom high.
Casey: Even apart from the number of people involved, aren't overhead and artistic freedom inversely correlated, by dint of the fact that lots of money from the big studios gives them lots of de facto leverage over you?
Ke: Oh, of course. Unless people give you money and trust you to do whatever the hell you want. That would be the luckiest job. It depends on the boss you're working with. Some bosses are picky and others trust your artistic vision. Generally, the more money and people involved, the more you have to go through to get your ideas green-lit. And a higher rejection rate.

Of course, the overhead has the audience in mind too. They're the ones spending their money, and they want to make it back. The more expensive the movie costs to make, the more people it ideally has to appeal to in order to make a profit.

Sara: This seems to be the general rule as I know it, as well. It's part of the reason that you tend to find much more originality and daringness at outlets like film festivals, where the films and animations are created, in general, on smaller budgets and tiny groups of people. They care more about getting their ideas made and presented to the world than they do about return profits. Very few independent animators make any kind of significant profit on their personal films—their income is derived primarily from commercials. Bill Plympton is an exception, and so is Don Hertzfeld, and they both have the freedom of full control over their work as well.
Robin: Having so many different skills, is it frustrating, or does it feel limiting to work at a larger studio, where you are forced to specialize in one task?
Ke: It really depends where the artist considers their skills. Generally speaking, at Disney, people see it as more of a job than making art. But I see it as an opportunity. As a modeler, I see it as the least artistic task in the production pipeline. But for me, it doesn't feel limiting. If I work in the food industry, Disney might make super spicy food, but me as a cook, I want to make the spiciest food in the world. That's my challenge.
Casey: Let's talk about this mass appeal in a global context.
Ke: It's like Studio 4˚C versus Ghibli. Ghibli is a much bigger studio and their films have high budgets. It's important their films have mass appeal. Studio 4˚C does more little commercials and independent artsy pieces.
Casey: But I was wondering about the global context of mass appeal specifically. I've heard that studios now are interested in international blockbusters—how does this influence the sorts of stories that get made? For example, I've heard that apocalyptic, city-destroying stories all get set in New York City these days because it is the only American city with an internationally-recognizable skyline.
Ke: Since the 80s, animation has been an international operation. Not only in terms of audience, but in participation. We have co-productions with Japan and Korea. It's like everything else. Globalization is inevitable.
Bamboo: Well, Disney does have a department that does more independent, experimental stuff, doesn't it? At least back in the day, they did. I remember seeing a short film they animated in collaboration with Salvador Dali called Destino—and that's the kind of stuff I'd love to see Disney do more of.
Ke: I think John Lasseter will bring hope back to that department. I can't talk too much about the projects going on at Disney right now, since I'm under contract, but I can tell you there is definitely hope.

I heard a lot of stories about Walt Disney as a very, very innovative person. He constantly moved on to different subjects. Think of everything he did with his empire. After his box office success, he didn't just make more films. He made a freaking theme park. And CalArts. Education. He's a real innovator both in his art projects and the business. A lot of that innovation died with him.

John Lasseter is another innovator in that he brought 3D animation to international popularity, but he only makes films. That's his limit. He can make the greatest film in the world, but it's just a film. If Walt Disney was alive today, Disney may be working on cyberspace virtual reality communication. Or maybe something even crazier we haven't even thought about. Maybe we wouldn't be using 35mm in so many theaters still.

Bamboo: How do you feel Disney competes on a global scale? It used to be that they were the envy and inspiration of so many studios, but with so many well-known Japanese and French studios, it almost feels like they're starting to take a back seat.
Ke: In terms of animation, the studio is 80% business and 20% art. I mean, in terms of fundamentals, people still look up to Disney. All animation students are taught the Disney technique.
Casey: In your opinion, what would be the “Disneyest” of Disney animation in the world to you?
Ke: In my opinion, it would be the 40s-50s films. I would say Lady and the Tramp. It's so polished and Disney-flavored. Fantasia is its dark cousin.
Casey: I meant my previous question to refer to the future. Based on what you said earlier, perhaps the “Disneyest” of Disney animation in the world would be something so unexpected that those familiar with the Disney "brand" today wouldn't even recognize it as a Disney product.
Ke: Yes, if Disney was still alive, the essence of Disney today would be total innovation. Walt actually wanted to close down the animation studio after opening the first theme park and move on to other ideas.
Bamboo: What makes something "Disney-flavored?" And is that flavor something that we see being repeated around the world?
Sara: I think that "Disney-flavored," as we know it today, is not necessarily what Walt fully had in mind for his company image. I mean, he only kept making princess movies to make money. Stuff like Fantasia and Bambi were the types of projects he was most interested in. The branding comes from profit-seeking.
Ke: Right now, Disney is kind of making remakes. Lots of kid-friendly stuff, lots of princesses. That's today's Disney flavor. Think about when movie sequels come out. Think of The Matrix. Disney right now is making The Matrix Part 3. The original Matrix, in Disney terms, was the 1940s.
Casey: But wasn't Disney very much the savvy businessman as well?
Ke: I'm not entirely sure, but I think Disney surrounded himself with a bunch of business-savvy people. Walt himself was the innovator.
Bamboo: Ke, you watch some anime, if I recall. How do you think American animation compares to Japanese animation? Are the techniques the same?
Ke: I would say there are a lot of differences. Disney animation is more about the animation itself. It's about the movement. It's about what happens between the frames. Japanese anime has its own set of rules that has been developed. It's like a mixture of live-action film language with comic strips. The animation movement is not the emphasis. They figured out a lot of ways to cheat. It's about pretty drawings, not movement.
Casey: Limited animation, correct? But that was not unique to Japanese animation. Do you know of any limited animation techniques in particular that a Japanese studio pioneered?
Sara: Casey has a point. UPA actually pioneered a lot of limited animation techniques that were originally quite innovative. They were later seized and abused by companies like Hanna Barbera.
Casey: Who is UPA?
Sara: Here's a link to the Wikipedia page for them. They were an old 40s studio that deliberately produced animation that was the antithesis of Disney. Originally limited animation was not only a budget-saving choice, but a stylistic one as well. Projects like Gerald McBoingBoing and what-not created a whole new look and feel to animation that really hadn't been explored before.
Ke: I'd like to start with a disclaimer: Studio 4˚C and early Gainax and similar styles are not included in what I'm about to say. They focus on animation and are very innovative and expand storytelling language. I'm going to talk about traditional anime. In almost every anime, there's almost always a scene in which there are a bunch of guys or girls sitting in a room. They're sitting around, or standing, and talking. Talking about what they're going to do, usually explaining the plot. This is all told with a middle shot, with a slow camera pan. Always. Imagine you, as a comic reader, sloooowly turning your head while reading a manga. Slowly panning the panel. That's anime.

That's just one example out of many, many rants I have. It's great if they have a great story. But the anime visuals, as an art form, rarely add to the quality of the plot.

Bamboo: It's interesting that you bring that up. In one of my film classes, they talked about the innovation of anime, and how it was able to create such a long story with such limited animation. Like Astro Boy, which relied heavily on pans.
Ke: I know. I see that as a production business innovation, but as an artist it breaks my heart a little. I'm glad you bring up Astro Boy, since 80% of Japanese anime technique was pioneered by Tezuka. It's kind of like Disney. An industry based on the innovation of one person, and being repeated for decades. Tezuka was a genius comic creator, though.
Robin: Do you think there are good points of Japanese animation that American animators could, or have, taken queues from before? Also, what do you think of American animators that try to mimic anime styles such as Teen Titans and Avatar?
Ke: Definitely. For example, the Japanese are very conscious of camera usage. It's much more cinematic. They have much more knowledge and self-awareness about cinema, as opposed to the Disney animator who's like, “Hey, look at how well I can animate this curtain!” One thing I also want to mention—there are additional limits to Disney animation. Each film is 70-80 minutes long and the pacing is boringly consistent. And there's always, always music. It's like watching a music video.

I have no comment on the anime-style American things, as I haven't really watched any. But Americans should be borrowing the subtle storytelling techniques from the Japanese, not the drawing style. Good, well-paced animation should have empty, quiet moments that you find in anime, but also have great animation quality. For example, Mind Game. A bad example is Tekkonkinkreet. Too much animation, crammed together. It has an astounding look, but it's sugar overload. Think about sushi. The absence of taste makes it taste good. Tekkonkinkreet is like fatty, sugary sushi.

Bamboo: Have you ever talked to anyone from 4˚C, or any of those studios? What are their takes on American animation?
Ke: I talked to Micheal Arias a little bit at the Platform Animation Festival. He told me, "I'm not saying American people are lazy, but Japanese people are really, really hard-working people."
Casey: Isn't self-awareness, though, an acknowledgment of artificiality? I've always thought of the best American animation as a pursuit of naturalism. “How naturally can I get that curtain to wave?,” as opposed to Japanese self-awareness. It's the ideological divide between modernism and postmodernism in art.
Ke: Your point is correct. At Disney, our goal is tricking you, the audience, into thinking you're in a magical world. At the end of the day it's about escapism.
Sara: In a sense, it's like drama versus comedy. In drama, it's all about lifting up the characters up and sculpting them into superhumans. Comedy is about bringing the characters down to earth and emphasizing their weaknesses. A lot of really great Japanese animation makes fun of itself. One example I'm thinking of is an omake segment of Blue Seed that totally parodies budget-saving techniques in animation.
Bamboo: How does that Arias comment translate, then, when you think about the quality of animation? I guess, also, it's hard to compare "American" animation with "Japanese" animation., because Spongebob Squarepants, for example, is surely no Disney. For every crappy anime show, there's a crappy American show that is comparable. Heck, even some of the made-for-TV Disney shows are pretty awful.
Casey: That's why I clarified that earlier comment with “best.” *laugh*
Ke: I was talking about the good animation, animation more about animation itself. You know, like McDonalds versus French cuisine. They each have their own function. They all have a reason to exist, a different purpose. Mainstream anime and crappy American animation are both fast food. It depends on whether you prefer McDonalds or Yoshinoya.
Sara: From my point of view, I agree with a lot of Jacky's points. I do think there is a lot of innovative work being done in Japan from freelance key animators. People like Toshiyuki Inoue and Mitsuo Iso, and Shinya Ohira and the like. They're true animators who love to observe, love to animate, and push the boundaries of what we think of as traditionally “perfect” animation as defined by Western standards. I loooove watching their animation. And it's good in a very stylized way, very different from the Disney fundamentals.
Ke: I agree, they're pushing boundaries.
Robin: What kind of advice would you give up-and-coming animators, or artists who are inspired by anime to become animators?
Ke: I would tell those kids to keep their eyes toward the sky, but their feet on the ground. Keep your heart true to yourself. And here's the explanation—there's nothing wrong with being obsessed or inspired by Japanese animation. That's your freedom, and your interest and that's fantastic. Copy the art, make fan art, whatever, but take a life-drawing class. Study Michelangelo. Look at Van Gogh. Look at Picasso. Push yourself beyond what you like. Look beyond what you see and look at the origin of it. And practice. That way, once you become an animator in the future, there is more than just another Eva re-make, or Sleeping Beauty re-make, or Simpsons re-make. Keep the art form alive. Make something never made before. Maybe you can mix animation with growing organic food.
Sara: Actually, Arjuna already did that. *laugh*
Robin: *laugh* Great advice, thanks Jacky.

Going back to an earlier bit, one point that Jacky mentioned about American animation not having the subtle, quiet scenes that quality anime has—I really agree that this is missing from American animation. Even when some anime series are brought over and localized for TV, one thing I've seen the editors do many times is replace background music or insert music where there was originally silence. It's like American studios are terrified of showing any silence, or quietness.

Casey: Could that just be a cultural difference? Watching steam rise from a coffee cup for three seconds? “Boring!” says the average American.
Ke: Oh my God, yes. That's a very good point. I think it's a culture-clash. And a little bit of ignorance. Culture preservation.
Sara: I kind of agree. It's like American studios get this product and it's like "Wait a second... This is… different! So strange! We certainly can't have this."
Casey: I know members of my family who can't sit through anything that isn't high-powered, fast-paced action—all the time. The pacing of anime bores them beyond measure. I imagine that, given time, they'd get used to it...but of course they don't feel they have to.

Some of the meditative scenes you see in anime arise from a Zen tradition, I imagine. A meditation on the ordinary that many Japanese learn from childhood. Western tradition isn't generally so big on that.

Ke: I can see an influence, but I think it's more about budget than anything. *laugh*
Casey: Well, of course. But...it wouldn't work as a cost-saving measure if the audience didn't accept it as a meaningful narrative device.
Bamboo: I could see that. Animating steam only takes 3 frames, and you can repeat it for 5 minutes.
Casey: Stereotypical American: “Whatchu wastin' my time with steam for?” Stereotypical Japanese: “Steam rising from a coffee cup is beautiful!” *laugh*
Bamboo: It's so true. Alright, thank you so much, Ke, for taking the time to talk with us! We certainly learned a lot.

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