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Interview: The Staff of Napping Princess

by Kevin Cirugeda & Rose Bridges,

At this year's AnimeFest in Dallas, one of the top-billed events was a screening of Napping Princess, the latest film by celebrated director Kenji Kamiyama. Kamiyama is best known for sci fi thrillers for adult audiences like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden of the East, so Napping Princess marks a serious departure as his first family film. Anime News Network got to sit down with the crew for Napping Princess, including not just Kamiyama, but also animation director Motonobu Hori, lead storyboard and concept artist Christophe Ferreira, mechanical designer Shigeto Koyama, and producer Yoshiki Sakurai, to discuss this film's creation.

Mr. Kamiyama is known for complex works like Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex, Moribito - Guardian of the Spirit, Eden of the East, and 009 Re:Cyborg. However, Napping Princess apparently started with the idea that this movie could be shown to one's daughter. Was it hard to make something family-friendly while retaining your style?

KAMIYAMA: It was definitely difficult to make and to begin the process, but I found it very fun and enjoyable to participate in, and I want to make more like it in the future.

In the film, the line between technology and magic blurs, and fantasy allegories are used to represent actual advancements. Since animation can represent anything, do you feel like it's the best medium for works like this?

KAMIYAMA: Fantasy and animation go very well together, so I think that's a good combination. But linking the real scenes and the dream scenes together was very difficult, even within that fantasy framework.

Technological advancement also affected the movie's production. Rather than using paper, you storyboarded the film using Toon Boom's Storyboard Pro software, like Makoto Shinkai did for your name. Was this the first time you drew storyboards digitally? Is there much of a difference for you?

KAMIYAMA: This was my first time using so many digital tools. I've always used paper in the past, so we're completely used to that method. That's great, but when it comes to using digital, it's very much trial-and-error where we're learning as we go. We have to have a new image of what we want from the drawings. Now we can use footage we took ourselves on our smartphones and put that into our work, and it ultimately all comes out in a good result.

Mr. Hori worked as unit director and even animation director, so he had to supervise a lot of this digital animation process. In what ways did this digital approach affect the movie the most?

HORI: The biggest plus in using digital is that sequence checks went very smoothly as unit director. As it was my first time using these kinds of tools, it was quite a struggle to get used to them. Everybody's used to using pencils and papers, so for example, oftentimes when we would draw a face in Toon Boom, it's very big, so the facial features would end up being drawn too small out of habit, that sort of thing. As an animation director, checking animation was definitely easier with digital, so that was a huge plus.

Another noteworthy thing about this movie is how famous industry veterans like Mitsuo Iso, Toshiyuki Inoue, and director Kamiyama worked hand in hand with promising young artists. Do you feel like everyone learned a bit from each other?

HORI: It wasn't just the new animators, but also my first time working with those veterans, and it made me very happy. To see their ingenious key animation was a very precious experience for me. Of course, the beginners also learn from veterans, but that's how it goes. I was personally happier for the beginners in that tradeoff, I suppose.

Something else that stands out about Napping Princess is the presence of international artists doing important work, like Cédric Hérole and Mr. Ferreira, and also a bunch of key animators linked to studios like Yapiko Animation. Did you talk amongst yourselves a lot during production?

FERREIRA: The animators at Yapiko Animation were all based in France, so I didn't have a chance to talk to them except during the meeting, when we explained what they would have to do. But as for Cédric Hérole, we were sitting next to each other, so I talked to him a lot every day. For him and me, we've been living in Japan for ten years, so we didn't say anything special. The production was like any other except for the digital part. From time to time, we had to explain the Japanese way of doing animation to the French animators based in France, because they are not used to it.

In the last few years, there's been a bit of a boom for non-Japanese animators who become popular through their work online and get a chance to work in the anime industry. Mr. Ferreira's case is different though, since he's been working there for over a decade. As far as you can tell, is it easier for them to get into the industry and adapt to it nowadays?

FERREIRA: I think the internet changed everything. Nowadays, a young animator abroad can contact anybody they want to with Twitter and stuff like that. They can talk to famous animators like that, and I think those first steps are a little bit more easy. But after that, it's the same thing, like if you don't speak Japanese, you can't be accepted for some productions. I'm talking about productions like this one, but for example in 3D animation, if you speak English, it's more easy to get into 3D. But in 2D, they usually don't speak English, so you have to adapt. And if you learn the Disney way of doing animation, you have to start from scratch, because it's totally different. So I think it's more easy at the beginning now, but at the end it's the same thing. There's a wall, and you have to speak Japanese to get over it and adapt your animation style to the Japanese way.

Besides animation itself, you also did creature design work for Napping Princess. Does working as an active comics author help you out with tasks like that?

FERREIRA: Well, it's the other way around, I think. I started doing comic books something like five years ago. But doing animation in Japan helped me increase my skills. In Japan, you have to draw the character and the background in the frame, the movements, the effects, all the characters, so everything that's in place to tell the story. That helped me to do my comic books, because you have to do everything in the frame for comic books also. So it's the other way around. Like when I was a student in France, they didn't teach us how to do a background—well, a little bit, just a bit of perspective work for backgrounds—but we were centered on animating a character, with a focus on acting and stuff like that, in order to go to Disney or DreamWorks. So I had to learn all the other stuff after that when I came to Japan. So it's definitely the other way around.

While Mr. Koyama works with many creators, lately he had been focusing a lot on Studio Trigger projects and Imaishi's work in particular. How did you get involved with this project? Was it due to your work with Kamiyama many years ago?

KOYAMA: What triggered me to get involved with Napping Princess was that I got contacted personally by Kamiyama. To begin with, I had past work with Kamiyama on Standalone Complex, Moribito, and Solid State Society. So I was invited by him personally and accepted.

Before checking the staff, I knew it had to be you when I saw that robot that was just like Big Hero 6's Baymax as a bike! Is that unique roundness you give to your mechanical designs something you intentionally pursue, or does it come out naturally?

KOYAMA: At first glance, you might think "yeah that's Baymax's roundness," but in my mind it's actually the opposite in design. Baymax's arms get bigger and plumper at the end, but this robot's limbs get thinner as they extend. Making the chest larger makes it look bigger and more macho like a superhero, while making it round makes it more cute like a stuffed animal. So in making this character, the root concept was meant to be completely different.

Do you feel that roundness has a positive effect when they're produced as 3DCG rather than hand drawn, like in this case?

KOYAMA: In terms of difficulty in achieving that look in drawing, I think it varies from person to person. But in terms of delivering what the director wants, CG is more efficient. My designs were more conceptual in nature, so they had to be polished up and converted to CGI by the 3D team, which I was not a part myself. I think that design team took my concepts and came up with something that was most suitable for CGI. The character's heart really comes out in 3D, because of the little detail changes they made for his design to make sense in CG.

Mr. Sakurai has worked with Kamiyama as a scriptwriter and even as a producer now. Has his particular style influenced you as a creator?

SAKURAI: Yes, very deeply. His style of producing anime, either as a series or a film, is very unique. He spends an enormous amount of time focused on storytelling and screenwriting. Meetings can sometimes run up to 12 or 13 hours, and that's weekly for a year or two on a series. He spends a lot of time developing the core philosophy of a work. I've worked with many directors, but that's something that makes him so different from all other directors. At the same time, he's very open to letting the other creators have their freedom to a certain extent. So long as his concept or philosophy is not disturbed, he lets them have their little freedoms in what they want to do. That influenced me greatly.

At which point was it decided to link this film with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics?

SAKURAI: As we went along in the story, Mr. Kamiyama thought that we needed to have a ticking clock, that we needed to solve a certain question, issue, or problem by this certain time. Otherwise, the story is just a failure. So to have this kind of race against time, he came up with the idea of making the starting point of the story three days before the Tokyo Olympics, and it would also drive this notion that while the story is just a little in the future, it's still something that could happen in our country, that we would be involved in. So the point in time was relatively fixed already, but then he came up with the idea to make it specific through this.

Thanks to AnimeFest for this opportunity.

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