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All the Announcements from Anime Expo 2024
The Art of Clouds: Yoichi Nishikawa's Journey + GoH Q&A

by Bamboo Dong,

ANN's coverage of Anime Expo 2024 sponsored by Yen Press and Ize Press!


One of the anime industry's most sought-after background artists, Yoichi Nishikawa, graced Anime Expo with a stroll down memory lane as he regaled the audience with stories about some of his most notable works. Known by many of his peers as "The Painter of Clouds," Nishikawa has done background art for several Studio Ghibli movies, including The Wind Rises, Tales from Earthsea, When Marnie Was There, How's Moving Castle, and more; as well as several Studio Chizu productions like The Boy and The Beast and Wolf Children.

Asked how he came to be known for his paintings of clouds, Nishikawa said that he earned this reputation from The Wind Rises. At the time, famed director Hayao Miyazaki said that because the movie was about planes, they also needed good clouds. “Everyone drew pictures of skies and hung them up on the wall. Miyazaki came to look at all of them, and he really liked the ones I'd done. Mine was just a rough drawing, but it was selected for the final cut. That's why I get asked to do clouds.”

Half-jokingly, he was asked what Miyazaki would say when he liked something. Nishikawa solemnly nodded, and intoned, “Hmm… it's good.” He chuckled and added, “When it's bad, he says the worst things. Like, 'Are you a complete idiot?' and 'Won't you work for real?' But when he likes something, he's really sweet.”

Nishikawa said that one of the most important aspects of being a good artist, especially for animation, is understanding the details, like truly understanding the intricacies of asphalt or tree bark. He went on to describe his art process, starting with base painting, where he moistens the material he's drawing on. “Because of this, the moist material allows the paint to dissipate across the surface. What this means is that just in this first process, 70% of the painting is already done. At this point, you can already tell if it's going to be good or not. When you have a painting of fluffy clouds with a lot of colors that are bleeding into each other, the picture can become very complex. That's why I use this process.”

He went into more detail, saying that he always starts with whatever is the furthest back in the visual plane, then moves forward layer by layer. “If you mess up in the back, the front will be messed up too.” He added, “It looks like I just put some different colors on there, but I put a lot of thought into it. Light, season, humidity—all of that is part of the process.”

When asked his thoughts about hand painting versus digital art, Nishikawa said that there are still a large number of companies like Studio Ghibli that prefer to start with something that is hand drawn and serves as the base. He laughed and said, “Because Miyazaki is someone who really values the process of struggling with hand-drawn stuff, the rest of the company has to do it too.” He revealed that Miyazaki is less versed in the digital art process, joking that when it comes time for the animation staff to do digital checks, “sometimes he just… evaporates.”

One interesting tidbit he mentioned was that working with non-Japanese companies is very different compared to working with Japanese companies. Chief among them is how studios approach the contracting process. “When I work for non-Japanese companies, they immediately talk about the schedule and how much I'll be paid. That's very unusual. In Japan, we don't talk about money until the very, very end. It's difficult.”

The rest of the panel was spent going through some of the projects he's worked on, starting with his debut, Howl's Moving Castle. At that time, Nishikawa had only been at the studio for two weeks, and his relative inexperience meant that it took him a long time to finish his assignment. “I didn't quite understand what the cliff was supposed to look like, so it was actually really difficult to do. It took me three days to understand that [the cliff] had a lot of freshly uncovered rocks, so there'd be a lot of stones at the bottom of the cliff. I studied and drew, had it checked, and drew some more. That process took me almost three days. When I needed to draw a tree, I needed to know what the tree would look like. What does the bark look like? That took two days. So just one tiny drawing took me a whole week. Now that I'm later in my career, if it takes me more than half a day, I get yelled at,” he chuckled.

The next was a drawing from Tales of Earthsea. “It was the first time I drew the art boards. This took a long time as well,” he said, referring to a tall, dark painting with soaring columns. “This took me one week… This was the first time I'd been entrusted with a whole sequence. I'd only been at Ghibli for three years at that point. When you're in a place like Ghibli for only three years, your ability to produce quickly is still limited. Normally, you're not entrusted with something like this.”

He pointed at the dark, almost black art piece. “Ghibli doesn't use pure black or pure white. The scenes where it's dark are very challenging, but if you look closely, you can always determine what other colors are present in addition to the black. There are two reasons for this—Miyazaki tells us that in the natural world, there's no such thing as pure white or pure black. Everything always has color. That, and he's not a fan of black and white. That's the other reason.” Nishikawa referred back to his painting process, saying that before he even starts, he needs to understand what order of colors he'll use.

Incidentally, around the time Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea was in production, Nishikawa was training at another studio. His mentor at Ghibli, Yōji Takeshige, was heavily influenced by Hiromasa Ogura, whom he worked with on Ghost in the Shell, where Ogura was the art director. Because of that connection, Nishikawa had the opportunity to learn from Ogura, who he said liked to use a lot of all-white and all-black. “That was very different,” Nishikawa said, adding that the art he painted for Ponyo when he returned was “the complete opposite.”

Nishikawa was then shown artwork from The Secret World of Arriety, and he surprised the audience by saying, “In my career, this is my worst.” He explained what he meant, saying, “This is what I was talking about earlier with details of asphalt or trees.” He gestured at the leaf behind the characters: “Here, the characters are maybe only eight centimeters tall. There's this really detailed leaf behind them. I didn't have a sense of what kind of detail should be behind them. It took me a whole month to work on this. Now it looks nice. Why does it look nice? It's because my mentor Takeshige came in and helped correct it for me,” he said humbly.

He offered insight into some of his other projects, revealing that he had been called in to work on Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars because its tight production schedule meant that Takeshige, who was the art director, needed extra hands. “Takeshige was getting really exhausted so he just said, 'Can you come over and help?' There were so many scenes that weren't complete yet, so they'd asked me to help work on them.”

From Up On Poppy Hill had a tight production schedule, as well. “There weren't enough hands to go around,” Nishikawa said, offering a glimpse into the chaos behind the scenes. “Anyone who had finished their work was assigned to work on one of the unfinished scenes.”

The topic of conversation eventually circled back to The Wind Rises, which Nishikawa had mentioned earlier was how he'd become known for his clouds. “Miyazaki really loved that final scene, the one where it says 'The End.' This is the image that he saw on the art board. Never in my life did I imagine it would be used because it was a rough drawing. I was already working on another project (When Marnie Was There), so I didn't even know they were going to use that image. I only found out about it at the press screening. It seems the art director and project manager wanted to deliberately shock me, so they refrained from mentioning it until the press screening.”

Speaking of When Marnie Was There, Nishikawa was involved with the planning process from the beginning. Because of that, every shot had some element where he was involved. His last task was painting the silo. “The silo was really gigantic. I was really exhausted at that point. When the job of drawing came to me, I remember drawing it while I was half asleep.”

The panel cycled through some of his other works, including Land of the Lustrous, which Nishikawa said was done when he hadn't yet had much experience working outside of Studio Ghibli. He was recruited for the project by the line producer for The Boy and The Beast, which he'd worked on prior. Regarding that, he said that he worked with two other background artists, one of whom was good at city scenes, while the other was good at interior, domestic scenes. It's then that he pointed to an art piece where you can see a shot of Shibuya. “My mentor forced me to draw this,” he said wryly.

The last project he talked about was The Boy and the Heron, which was released last July. “I can only claim credit for the clouds and the stones,” he said, but then went on to say that Takeshige was very confident in him by then and allowed his work to be checked directly by Miyazaki. He drew attention to a large vertical painting of the inside of a tower—“It's dark so you can't really tell, but it's incredibly detailed. It took a whole month and a half. It took me so long that Miyazaki said, 'Actually, why don't you make this part of an individual exhibition?' While I was drawing it, I was thinking about showing it to visitors who'd come to see it.” Despite the humbleness that pervaded the panel, Nishikawa said he was given carte blanche by Miyazaki to do whatever he wanted for several of the scenes. “The only thing Miyazaki suggested was, 'We've had a lot of clouds at Ghibli, but we haven't had many dense clouds. So maybe we can have dense, thick clouds.'”

Yoichi Nishikawa currently has an art book available from Gallery Nucleus. It's currently out of stock on their website, but you can sign up on their website to be notified when it's restocked.

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