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Anime Film Directors Discuss Background Artistry at TIFF

posted on by Kim Morrissy

Tokyo International Film Festival hosted a roundtable discussion among anime directors Kyōhei Ishiguro (Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop), Kotaro Tamura (Josee, The Tiger and the Fish), Yūta Murano (Seven Days War), and Junichi Sato (Looking for Magical DoReMi) on Saturday. The talk, which was moderated by animation critic Ryota Fujitsu, focused on the use of background art within animation.

To begin the talk, Fujitsu explained the history of anime background art. Originally, it was drawn on paper with painting brushes. Towards the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, there was a shift to digital coloring and compositing. The techniques were also affected by the greater exposure of digital cameras and Photoshop in Japanese households, allowing background artists to more precisely capture real-life landscapes. This in turn influenced anime fans to visit the real-life locales, causing the anime pilgrimage boom. Fujitsu highlighted Makoto Shinkai's works, from Voices of a Distant Star to your name., as tremendously influential in shaping background art techniques due to his strong familiarity with digital processes.

On the other hand, Fujitsu also noted some conflicting ideas about background art from artists he spoke to throughout the years. In 2004, an artist told him of their concerns that digitization would make the textures look too similar to other works, but by 2013, he was hearing that artists were being instructed to make their backgrounds look more photo-like, indicating a shift in artistic tastes and sensibilities. On the other hand, as time has gone on, backgrounds that have a hand-drawn feel to them are becoming more appreciated, perhaps because of their increasing rarity. Now, in the present day, there is a great deal of flexibility in terms of what style can be pursued.

Each film director represented at the talk chose a different form of expression for the background art, which inspired Fujitsu to bring them together for a talk about their approaches.

Sato was the first director to share his experiences in creating backgrounds for the Doremi series. He started by talking about how the backgrounds were decided for the original TV series. Although it was the expectation to use light and cute backgrounds for a show aimed at young children, the art directors presented a heavier tone. He felt that adding this kind of mature taste to the anime would bring more depth to the world. The Looking for Magical DoReMi film keeps a similar tone of not being too dark or light, even as it aims for an adult demographic.

One of the key differences between the film and original television series is that the film isn't set in exactly the same world. Although the team always sought to keep a balance between picturesque backgrounds and realism, the film hews a bit more closely towards realism to establish a difference between its real-world setting and the fictional setting of Doremi.

Next, Murano was asked about the background art of Seven Days War. The original novel and the live-action film are set in an abandoned factory, and Murano wanted to keep this setting for the anime. Because they knew from the beginning where the story was set, they wanted to use realistic backgrounds, but too much realism would have lessened its appeal as an animated work. Another thing they grappled with was the perspective of the high school-aged characters. Even the dark and dusty interior of the factory, which is where most of the action of the film actually takes place, could seem beautiful to them depending on their perspective at certain parts of the story. Despite having very detailed photos and a map of the location, Murano asked to remove details from the anime backgrounds if the scenery looked too busy or would distract the audience's attention from the characters.

Discussing Josee, The Tiger and the Fish, Tamura said that he used the original novel as a firm base for the film adaptation. The novels tends to depict very realistic locations, so Tamura also went with that style for the film. Another thing that Tamura considered after consultation with the art director is how people tend to look inward when they are in falling in love, so the cityscape backdrops become more picturesque with a hand-drawn feel. There is a kind of fuzzy and undefined feeling about the background art which reflects this, even though the backgrounds are based on real locations in Osaka.

Finally, Ishiguro was asked about the unique backgrounds depicted in Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop. Ishiguro said that whenever he creates animation, he always puts a heavy focus on creating distinctive silhouettes rather than details. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is inspired by 1980s Japanese pop art, which had a focus on minimalism, so he instructed the art director to use the works of prominent vinyl jacket artists of the era as reference.

The directors also discussed the importance of location scouting as a part of the process of creating anime. Tamura said that going to the locations was important for conceptualizing the kind of vibe or atmosphere he wanted to depict, while Murano said that on a purely pragmatic level, taking a lot of photos helps when it comes to creating layouts for all different kinds of angles. On the other hand, Sato mentioned that he tries not to get too attached to an area that he goes location scouting in, because otherwise he would get tempted to replicate every single detail when it isn't actually necessary for the anime. This was a feeling that the other directors could relate to very well, and they agreed that drawing backgrounds that are too close to photographs can get in the way of the animation.

Next, the directors discussed some of their influences when it comes to background artwork. Sato said that he was a fan of Isamu Tsuchida, art director of Tongari Bōshi no Memoru. Murano was very inspired by Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame when it comes to expressing characterization through background art. Tamura said he was impressed by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, who would draw characters against backgrounds in a way that makes the two complement each other. Ishiguro said that in the last five years, he became very inspired by the Taisho-era Japanese artist Hiroshi Yoshida, describing his artwork as "very anime-like" but also noting his distinctive usage of silhouettes in his woodblock prints.

Finally, the directors expressed their hopes and worries for background artwork for the future. Tamura spoke of how people in animation tend to use similar tools, such as Photoshop, which tends to result in their work looking similar to others. He hoped for greater variety in this department, as well as for more flexible production schedules that can allow for more experimentation in art styles. Ishiguro hoped that individualistic art styles can be accepted by the public alongside the more photorealistic backgrounds, and this sentiment was shared by the Murano and Sato as well.

The full talk, including a Q&A with the audience, was streamed live on the festival's YouTube account, and can be watched with English live interpretation.

Source: Tokyo International Film Festival livestream

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