Interview: Range Murata

by Jonathan Mays,
Range Murata, character designer for Gonzo's Blue Submarine and Last Exile, sat down with ANN's Jonathan Mays to talk about his work on Last Exile. In addition to his character design work for Gonzo, Murata has also published a series of books (rule, futurhythm, and Like a Balance Life) that collect his artwork. Murata also designs clothings and accessories, which can be seen in his "fa collection" and at the Gallery of Fantastic Art (GoFa) gallery and website. They may be purchased online through GoFa. Additionally, Digital Manga is releasing the first volume of ROBOT, a Murata-edited collection of illustrations and short manga stories, this July.

You're credited for “character conceptual design.” That's not too specific.
Basically it's character design. The staff creates the original idea of a character, and as they discuss, the idea evolves. It was my job to put everything together.

Did you get to create designs from scratch or did you work more with others' outlines?
There are several different ways it's done. Sometimes the director will specifically ask me to create a certain character, while other times I'll come up with the idea for a character by myself. Often the screenwriting would have some sort of character, but it wouldn't be 100% formulated at that point. It's just a discussion between myself and the screenwriting people, a back-and-forth of sharing ideas.

Tell us about Last Exile's historical setting.
It's not based on Earth, but if you were to think of a historical time, it would probably be in the very early 20th century, maybe the 1920s. If you were to take Europe at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of mass production, you have two things going on: the Industrial Revolution where things are starting to get mechanized an also the remnants of old aristocracy and tradition. To me it's a very interesting time in history.

It's sort of an “ugly” world you created—rusting bolts, lots of blues and grays.
Initially it was a space setting, and the producer wanted opposing parties fighting each other. But they didn't want characters dressed in sterile spacesuits. Honestly, it's not something we'd thought about beforehand; I feel it was a natural evolution, taking the course the story had laid out.

Why don't the vehicles, the Vanships, have wings?
The staff originally thought about putting wings on them, but then we felt it would just be like a typical airplane. Personally, I don't like airplanes too much; I prefer cars. I tried to incorporate the design of the automobile, which is a more common everyday sight than an airplane. I didn't want to be constrained by the plane model. Anything was an option, as long as it maintained that liberating feel of flying.

Another reason is that Last Exile's world is a colony with specific gravity. The vehicles move because of the gravitational force, rather than air like the traditional winged airplane. So wings didn't really pertain to that kind of colony.

Why do you like cars so much? Do you collect them?
I really like old formula cars, the cigar-shaped ones, vintage cars. And I do collect many of them. I'm very interested in the aerodynamic design of cars and the beautiful shape.

This was your second time working with Gonzo's blend of traditional and computer animation (after 1998's Blue Submarine #6). What did you do differently for Last Exile?
There's this technique called “Toon Rendering” that's good for combining 2D and 3D. We didn't use it with Blue Sub 6, so there was a bit of conflict between the two styles. They didn't always mesh well. For Last Exile, the technology had, of course, improved over the years, so that and the Toon Rendering helped a lot.

It still wasn't perfect, though. I wanted one of the Vanships to be silver, and it turns out the tone is very difficult to create in a 2D world.

Was there a character whose final appearance didn't satisfy you?
Sometimes my original idea turned out better in the end, but other times it wasn't as good. In my original design for Alex Rowe, everything—the shirt, the pants, the cape—was black. But that's very difficult to animate. To be honest, some animators are better than others. It's not a regret, but something I learned was that sometimes I expect things to be of a certain standard, when in reality the animators may have a hard time trying to meet it, so that probably caused some difficulty with my designs.

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