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Interview: Yuichi Terao, Chief of Ufotable's Digital Team

by Callum May & Kim Morrissy,

If you ask “What makes ufotable anime so unique?”, any anime fan or creator will likely point towards their digital compositing. ufotable productions blend 3D backgrounds, elaborate VFX and 2D animation to create exciting scenes that impress far more than just the sum of their parts. This is the result of the standout ufotable Digital Team and its department chief, Yuichi Terao.

Terao works as the Director of Photography (also known as “compositing director”) for all of ufotable's anime works today. This, of course, includes the recently released film, Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel I. presage flower, the most visually impressive production by both Yuichi Terao and ufotable as a studio. To learn more about his involvement on ufotable anime and his compositing process, we reached out to him for an interview to learn more about what goes into a film like Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel.

ufotable Digital Team's reel from 2013

How would you describe your job to someone who is not familiar with compositing in anime?

A director of photography (“compositing”) in animation is essentially the same as a live-action director of photography in the sense that they have the final say over the lighting and compositing.

Today's “photography” is done with computers. It involves bringing together a lot of different elements like the characters and backgrounds into a single picture. Part of the blending process involves adding color corrections or special effects like fog and fireworks. Many directors of photography have quirks that can be recognized.

In practice, we collaborate a lot with other teams, like the editing team or the unit directors, so it's hard to see who did what when you look at the final product. But for me, at least, it's really stimulating work, especially when I'm talking with the director about how to tell the story through the visuals and atmosphere.

At what stages of production are you involved in? Do you ever give instructions to animators or storyboard artists?

At ufotable, there's very little divide between the sections. The photography staff doesn't just do compositing. All the people in various sections work together to make the final footage. It's hard to explain.

To answer your second question, yes, I have given instructions to people who work on other stages of production. I'll do whatever I can to improve the overall quality of the anime. That's been true of every anime I've been involved with thus far.

Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel I. presage flower featured a lot more 3D backgrounds than usual. What were the difficulties in making them feel natural?

I always put a lot of care into blending the backgrounds and CG, so that part isn't hard. But I did a lot more fine-tuning than usual to make the images look even cooler, and that was very taxing.

I think that if you do the lighting correctly, the characters will blend into the backgrounds no matter what style they're drawn in. But Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel I. presage flower in particular had a lot of 3D backgrounds. With all the time it takes to model the 3D backgrounds and apply the right lighting, it was more time-consuming to get Heaven's Feel's backgrounds right than for any other project we've done.

Caption: © TYPE-MOON, ufotable, FSNPC

Heaven's Feel feels more like a horror story than previous iterations. What did you do to convey its creepier tone?

First of all, the script, storyboards, character animation, backgrounds, and the music all played a huge role. On the compositing side, I put a lot of care into establishing a complex array of gradients in the shadows, so that you can feel another space in the depth of the darkness.

Also, whenever a scene was set in a bright room or a place where the entire area was filled with light, I would make sure that there was corner of the scene where the light wouldn't reach… Somehow, you'd be able to sense the darkness even then. Looking back, there were a lot of cuts with some kind of element of darkness somewhere in the shot.

What has been your favourite scene to work on during your time at ufotable and what is your favourite scene in Heaven's Feel I. presage flower?

I have strong memories about everything I've worked on at this studio, so I can't possibly rank any one thing over the other. Every project means a lot to me.

The scene in Fate/stay night [Heaven's Feel] where Saber battles in the snow in front of the Ryuudou Temple and the fight scene between True Assassin and Lancer both make a strong impression. In particular, the chase scene on the highway represented a big step for ufotable's CG photography team.

Caption: © BNEI / TOZ-X

How do you balance realistic effects and anime aesthetics?

The more you strive for realism, the more contrived it appears. Anime is supposed to be unrealistic. They say that if you try to make it too realistic, it ends up looking off-putting as an anime, so how can you get a sense of reality through anime?

I think that you can make an anime look good by exaggerating the beauty within the scenery and within individual shots. As a director of photography, I think it is important to ensure that the aesthetic matches with the overall feel of the anime.

You're often regarded as a major part of ufotable's image. What do you think about this?

How do you convey the director's vision or the feeling of the original work through the visuals of an anime?

It's true that a director of photography has a lot of say about an anime's color choices and aesthetic. Anime is a collaborative art, though, so I've never thought about my own importance in the scheme of things. I just focus on bringing out the best in an anime.

The Anime Guild timeslot opening video, directed by Yuichi Terao

How did you come to work at ufotable?

I was at a university in Osaka until 2003. It was around then that an older student recommended I take up work at ufotable. I thought ufotable seemed cool because they had lots of original furniture and mysterious-looking tables.

I wanted to be a production assistant, but I'd had experience in the visual side before, so I was told to work in compositing. (laughs) It all turned out for the best, I think.

What is it like to work at ufotable? How much do the teams collaborate?

It's hard work and a strain on the body, but very rewarding. Also, there are a lot of people walking around the studio doing all kinds of jobs, so you get to chatting with all kinds of people. You never know what topics will randomly come up in conversation, so it's very stimulating.

For example, the company president's workspace is in the same space as the production studio, and the director will often pass through the photography area. They'll have all kinds of conversations with the staff. It depends on the person, but when you have so many little conversations, you end up building the kind of rapport that can allow you to solve many problems together.

Sorry, that was kind of hard to explain. Since it's so hard to put in words, I'll just say that it feels very “bustling” to me. But I think that's a good thing.

Click to expand image

Have you ever considered directing an anime at ufotable yourself?

I have. But I don't think the title of director is that important. Looking back, I think what's most important is for people to watch our anime to be surprised and delighted by it. Since anime is a collaborative art, there's no single person responsible for that feeling. The director is only one role in that, and while it is an extremely important position, the background art and animation are just as important.

As long as the anime comes out great, it doesn't matter what role I play.  Having said that, I do think that the day will come when a member of the ufotable Digital Team becomes a director. Please look forward to it.

Thank you for the interview Terao-san, and we look forward to your next project!

It was my pleasure. Thank you for reaching out to me.

You can find more of ufotable Digital Team's work on their website at http://www.ufotable.info/

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