Anime Expo 2005
Anime Expo - Akihiko Yamashita Focus Panel

by Penguino,
In Howl's Moving Castle, in the way the castle moves, how did you come up with that? It's really unique.
Rather than starting from a 3D design and modeling it, they actually drew it by hand and added on the various effects and movement.

Can you give a background of how you got into the animation industry?
I've always really liked animation since I was a child. Pretty much everyone that age, as a child- I liked the same anime as everyone. There's actually a variety of works that inspired me. One of those was America's Tom and Jerry. The others were various Miyazaki works. Pretty much the first thing I did as a professional animator was Giant Robo. The thing that makes Giant Robo special to me was that I wasn't just an animator there- I did storyboards, character design, and really had a hand in everything. I first joined Studio Ghibli for Spirited Away. I think my timing was really good because I started Studio Ghibli as they were starting Spirited Away and it was something I had a lot of interest in, something I really wanted to do. Miyazaki's work is actually pretty complicated. I was really pleased because Miyazaki let me handle some important scenes. There were also other things from within Studio Ghibli that I did as well, working with other directors.

How did he get into Studio Ghibli? Did he know people or apply?
I had a friend in the company who wanted me to work there for a while, but I was busy with my own things. Finally once Spirited Away came around, my timing worked just right to join.

I've heard Miyazaki doesn't like computer animation and wanted to be the last hold-out for traditional animation. Was there any CG used?
Definitely. The reason Miyazaki doesn't like to use primarily CG effects is that he thinks the pictures drawn by hand have more feeling, they're warmer. There's actually a few things in animation where CG effects are helpful, especially in 3D modeling where it does help out. He really prefers doing animation by hand, and he wants to do as much as possible. He doesn't hate 3D graphics but even in the present day, we need to have 3D animation as well. He would prefer if we didn't. Of course, in order to support the current hand-drawn animation, he has no problems using 3D animation.

What sequences did you animate in Howl's?
He was the animation director- his main role was to check everything.

One of the things that fascinates people about Howl's Moving Castle was that the castle moves as if it were a living thing. How did you decide the best way to turn that thing into a living character with a soul and a life?
There are of course people who think its better to animate the castle in 3D and leave it there. Basically what we did was come up with the original design by drawing rough drafts of the castle, the way we wanted it. Then we left it basically up to CG artists to make it move. For instance, when the castle walks it moves up and down and side to side. The feet for the castle, the way it walks, is from the original rough drafts. So basically what I did was because I was the key animation director with control over how the castle moved. I felt it needed CG art to make it how we wanted it done. There's actually a special way to make the castle move.

In the Cat Returns, what was the difference between the anime and manga?
I wasn't involved til the very end and couldn't tell you anything.

What did he like about working on the project?
Because I spent almost a year on that animation I wasn't there for the entire time. I wasn't there when most of the original preparation work was being done. Usually what happens is the directors get together and lay out pretty much the whole thing at the beginning. Because I wasn't there at that point, I don't want to give my opinion on how it was made.

Then was your role more of overseeing cleanup?
The only part I was in charge of was the main character falling from the sky at the end, that was the scene I was in charge of. My favorite part after we filmed that scene was the way the wind blows and the way it hits things is the part I am most proud of. The other part that I'm most proud of, isn't from Cat Returns actually, it's from Spirited Away. The part I was in charge of was towards the very end, when you actually get to see the transformation into the dragon, and the fall into the sea, that's the part I really like. I like the fact in both of them, especially Spirited Away, I could borrow the feeling and work with the same type of scene all over again. Except in Spirited Away I was more in charge of everything.

What was it about the Miyazaki movie that made you want to be a part of Ghibli and were you nervous about approaching them?
When I joined, it was when he was in his 30s. Most of the people there were younger than him. It did influence the feeling – he wasn't nervous at all. It felt like he was coming in as an animation director, that everyone knew him already, not like coming in at the bottom rung. I think that the part I like most is the original feeling you get from a certain anime. That is the most important thing I tried and worked hard for.

Did your work on Giant Robo help the mecha aspect of Howl's Moving Castle? Make it difficult?
When you're making really large things move, like Gundam or the Castle, it's more the fact that they're really large, not the actual shape itself. The part that I like the most, and the part that is most important I believe, is when you have a large heavy thing move, its making it look really large and heavy on the screen. Especially this one scene towards the beginning of the movie where the castle is walking and moving towards the main character; he feels that's a scene where you really feel what the castle is like. In that scene, the way the feet move, pressed into the ground and looked heavy while doing it, that actually came from his work with Giant Robo. One of the important things when you're modeling as well is making the castle looking really heavy like there's people inside it and it has mass is really important and one of the things he took from the Giant Robo.

Which do you prefer, character design or animation director? Is there one of the jobs that you'd really like to go back to?
He's done a lot of different things within the animation itself. What it comes down to is that he likes to draw. What it really comes down to is his favorite thing is that he likes to do the originals. What he really likes about the storyboards is that it gives him an opportunity to from the beginning figure out how the feature progresses and how the characters express themselves and that's really what he likes the most.

What are some future projects you can talk to us about?
There's a few things I'm actually working on at Studio Ghibli that will probably be announced soon. There's not a lot of detail but there might be some people who know however. The director is definitely a notable and famous person as well. So for that story as well, I'm doing the storyboard and animation direction on. Look forward to it.

Who comes up with the stories?
Mostly Miyazaki himself comes up with the entire story. He gives it to the entire directing staff. The directing staff from there meets, goes over the story, figures out what goes on from there, and figures out how can we take this story and turn it into a film. Same way with our next project. Something I've been working on for a while. Do you know Sunrise? Pretty much a company that specializes in giant robot movies. This year I've been doing character design- we're planning on airing that next year.

Have you thought about designing physical actual robots for companies?
No not really, nothing I want to do.

What's the trick to making something come alive on screen from a few scribbles on a piece of paper?
In the case of Disney and stuff like that, there's a few live action things. The people who are behind the characters are real people themselves, they're actually bringing characters to life. What we do is we try and springboard off that as much as possible. We try to make the characters look alive on the screen. One of the things I really like about animation is trying to make something animated on the screen really look real. For instance, making something not physically large on the screen look really big. Or make a meal on the screen look really tasty. The important part to me is to give the feeling of the thing on the big screen that it's not just an animation, it's got a life of its own to the people who are watching. If we can do that I'm proud of it. So as I said making the characters look alive but at the same time not overdoing it so that they don't look like they're produced, to make them look like there are real characters there.. there's a balance there. We can attain that balance.

What do you do to relax? Favorite food? What music do you like?
When you work as an animator, it influences everything that you do. Even right now as I entered this room, I looked around and saw what people are here, sort of unconsciously. So who knows maybe there's a character based on you. Wherever I go, even in my free time, I think, “how can I express what's going on in animation.. what area is this? What people are here?” So really I don't have free time. The best example is when I'm watching movies. I'm looking at what parts are interesting- I really can't enjoy it. If I see an interesting part in a movie, my first thought is, how can I.. not copy...but how can I use that? Even when I'm looking at the glass on the table, I'm thinking how can I express that?

When you worked at Ghibli, was the hot curry part true? Are the characters based on people at Ghibli?
There are all sorts of people in that movie. There's all sorts of people who the characters are based on from the TV company and more. The main character is definitely someone I know from Studio Ghibli. I'm not going to say who it is you can think it out yourself.

What's it like to change styles, from robots to shojo?
I'm not all that good with end of the world thing. One thing I'm not good at with the shojo anime is the drawing things to be soft and warm feeling. It's not exactly a question of what type I want to make, it's just what sort of character or type of personality I want to do. It's more a question of whether I want to do more Gundam type shows or Princess Nine type shows, its in individual types of characters.

Which does he enjoy more?
I really can't say, it depends on the actual product itself not the genre.

Favorite food or drink?
Beer. Ramen. Ramen from where I'm from is my favorite.

Where is that?
South part of Tokyo.

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