Sword Art Online: Alicization Director of Photography Kentaro Waki

by Kim Morrissy & Callum May,

When discussing the visual appeal of an anime, it isn't often that we take a deep dive into the element of compositing and the effect that has over the final image. We might talk about how exciting the animation is or how detailed the backgrounds are, but the process of how those are all brought together isn't a common topic at all among anime fans.

For that reason, I reached out to Kentaro Waki, Director of Photography (sometimes referred to as a compositing director) on God Eater, Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale and the currently airing Sword Art Online: Alicization to talk about the process of compositing anime as well as some production details on his recent work.

What made you want to learn compositing? How did you first get involved in compositing for anime?

When I was young, my mother was chair of a theater company. Because of her influence, I was involved in theater since childhood, and I got a taste of the fun involved in theater and being an actor on stage. Because of that, I wanted to be a stage actor or a scriptwriter/director when I grew up.

However, when I was in my second year of high school, I found out about the “Yoshinori Kanada” school of animation, which made me more interested in the visual side of anime. I'd watched a lot of animation without thinking much about it, but this was the first time I could sense the people behind on the other side of the screen.

Instead of joining the theater company after finishing high school, I went to a vocational school where I could learn to make animation. I wanted to know everything about the process behind animation, but at the time I felt that I couldn't grasp specialized topics such as compositing and CG unless someone taught me, so I entered the compositing course with the thought of learning about that subject first.

I don't remember my first job well, but I started with simple tasks such as entering time sheets for the various projects the studio was working on and doing camera work. Joining a studio gave me the chance to interact with all kinds of projects. I think that it was in TIGER & BUNNY episode 8 that I was credited in the ED for the first time.

When you first entered the industry, was there anyone in particular that you looked up to?

There is no particular "person I look up to,” but there are many people who influenced me. I mentioned Yoshinori Kanada before, but I was also influenced by Masahito Yamashita, Kazuhiro Ochi, Shinsaku Kozuma, Shin Matsuo, Hideki Tamura, Kouji Ito, Tsutomu Oshiro... etc. I especially love the "Sakuga Style" of the 70s and 80s; they can pull off tricky character movements and effects in a way that looks good. I feel that their work is the foundation of the anime that I work on now as a compositing director.

©2016 REKI KAWAHARA/PUBLISHED BY KADOKAWA CORPORATION ASCII MEDIA WORKS/SAO MOVIE Project

For those unfamiliar with compositing in anime, what would you say are the important aspects of your job?

Compositing comes quite near the end of the anime production process. It involves creating the final footage that you'll see on TV or in the cinemas. The sounds are added after the compositing, and after that comes the editing stage, where the footage is edited into a single video. Basically, the work involves combining the “paint data” from the “finishing” process and the backgrounds drawn by the art team, as well as following instructions from the directors and the “time sheet,” which indicate the timing of the movements on-screen. In some cases, we integrate the 3DCG elements that the CG section have made.

What would you say constitutes good compositing in an anime?

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Everything I say here is just my personal opinion.

Although "good compositing" will differ to suit the needs of each project, I think that there's a common denominator when it comes to what should be done in animation. Namely: "Do not overproduce it.”

It has been over 10 years since anime went digital, and in that time there have been huge change in the compositing section of animation. Personally, I feel that the biggest change is that it's now possible to do as many retakes as you like. Digital work has become a major part of anime, and the roles of the compositing, CG, and VFX fields have expanded. Thus, I feel that the era in which it is said that "it is difficult to express on the screen the images you see in your head" is nearing its end.

Using digital technology, you can reproduce the visuals that people created through trial and error in the analog era with very little hassle. Even more complicated effects can be done as long as time permits. Any creator if they are so inclined can express whatever image they come up with on the screen.

In the analog era, the evidence of the creators' experiments would be left in the footage itself. You can see “gaps” in the production where the creators have tried to grapple with a problem or an innovation that didn't quite work out. I feel that these “gaps” leave room for the imagination for the viewer, allowing them to project into the world of the anime.

But with digital work where you can do as many retakes as you like to produce the visuals you imagine, the footage is now more polished. However, that also means that it's possible for the final product to leave no room for the viewers to enter. When the footage is too complete, then everything about the story and visuals can be explained at the time of broadcast. The “space where the viewer's feelings can enter” is gradually lost.

©2016 REKI KAWAHARA/PUBLISHED BY KADOKAWA CORPORATION ASCII MEDIA WORKS/SAO MOVIE Project

In other words, you can only appreciate the beauty of the work purely on a technical level. And the goal of making videos will become nothing more than mindless entertainment.

You can see this in the rapid development of Youtube these days. A video uploaded today can go viral, but tomorrow it becomes “a thing of the past.” The relationship between the viewer and the video is instant but also very cold. To me, it seems very far removed from the way animation communicated with people in the analog days.

Having said that, it's also true that that people are fine with the current state of affairs. We made it that way. We let it happen. Because we've lost the gap that people can project themselves into, everyone has stopped doing that. As the relationship between the creators and viewers of animation goes in that direction, the creator side will make high-quality yet disposable entertainment, while the viewers will seek things they can consume mindlessly. I feel that this has resulted in the current state of the animation industry.

With that in mind, if you ask me what sort of “good compositing” I strive for, then it would be "to make footage that leaves room for the viewer's imagination.” In other words, it's my desire as a manipulator of technology not to overproduce. When the series director or the episode director tells me that they want a cut to be seen in a particular way, I have to express that clearly through the visuals. However, I think it is equally important for the viewers to look at it and to be able to perceive it a different way.

As a creator, there is of course a desire to increase the polish the visuals and challenge new things. However, slick and overproduced videos exert their power only temporarily, and they will struggle speaking to future generations. If it's asked of me, I can control the visuals to make people see them the way I see them. But if I can spark the viewer's imagination and get them to come into the world of the anime, then that world can expand hundreds of times further than a 16:9 screen. I want to make people who have forgotten or given up on putting themselves into the world of animation think, “I could exist inside this anime.” I think that something with a rich sense of imagination will remain in the minds of every individual person who sees it, even in future generations.

I want to make that sort of animation. However, there are surprisingly few works that I can apply that philosophy to. It's necessary in society to have the skills to satisfy the demands that are made of you, and that's also true of my work.

You worked as a director of photography on the God Eater anime with Ufotable. Was there any pressure in trying to match up to Yuichi Terao's work on other Ufotable anime?

When I was in charge of GODEATER, I shared the role of photography director with Seiji Matsuda of ufotable. I didn't really have much interaction with Mr. Terao, but as I worked on the anime I remember thinking, “I won't lose!”

Anyway, the schedule was tight. Asahi Production, the studio I work for, split the compositing work with ufotable after episode 3. I mainly handled the cuts that required a heavy amount of compositing work, while Terao handled the cuts that were full 3DCG. The work was rough going, but the anime itself was very exciting and enjoyable.

I of course knew about Mr. Terao's compositing style even before I entered this world. Even today, he's one of the compositing directors whom I respect. I'm amazed that he built such a unique approach to visuals within a single generation. If I ever get the chance, I'd love to take on another project with him as a comrade-in-arms.

©Sotsu・Sunrise

What were the challenges in working as a director of photography on Gundam Thunderbolt? What did you aim to achieve?

At this point of time, I was conscious of the idea of things “existing within the screen” as I was working on this anime.

For example, if there's a cut of a hand-drawn Gundam shooting a beam rifle, just pasting the beam into the picture and compositing it like that would not make it look like the Gundam was actually shooting the rifle. When shooting a beam, the Gundam's body will reflect the light, and the exposure on the screen may change depending on where the shot lands. By carefully depicting each and every one of these phenomena on the screen, I was trying to get people to feel that this Gundam really was shooting a beam, and that it really exists within the world of the anime.

Another part of my compositing method that I'm particular about lately is doing my utmost to avoid using a DF (Diffusion) filter. This was something that the director of GODEATER Takayuki Hirao was concerned about. He was saying, “Modern anime uses nothing but DF in every cut. There's no meaning behind it, and it just makes the picture look blurred,” and I agreed with him. It got me thinking: “What does meaningful DF actually look like?” I came to the conclusion that when people put DF into anime with only a vague idea that it'll improve the atmosphere, they're applying a solution without identifying the problem.

©Sotsu・Sunrise

Ko Matsuo, the director of Thunderbolt, agreed on this matter. He once said, "I want to make the picture look sharper and more defined." This project was no different in that regard. I decided to add DF in a limited scope, and only for scenes and cuts where there is an artistic reason for having it. Each director has their own preferences, and by eliminating DF I make the work a lot harder for myself in a way because I can't “hide” any mistakes with filters. But I'm still partial to this style.

I worked with Mr. Matsuo on Valvrave the Liberator, where I was in charge of developing the compositing style used in the anime. Thanks to that past history and the fact that I understood if not everything than at least most of Mr. Matsuo's concerns in regards to the visuals, there wasn't anything about the Thunderbolt's compositing that I felt was more difficult than usual.

Mr. Matsuo is very clear about what he wants to do and convey through his work. He doesn't change the direction halfway through the project because he saw something that influenced him. Whenever he asks for a retake, there's always a foundation that he's working from. I think that he is a very reliable person when it comes to making animation. It's a pleasure to work together towards a final goal without losing sight of it.

How did you get involved in working on Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale? Did you change your technique with the action scenes?

I got the role of photography director because Kazuhiro Yamada, who works at the same studio I do, recommended me for it. He's the director of photography for Attack on Titan and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and because I respect him very much I was eager to dive into Sword Art Online. I'm very grateful to Mr. Yamada for giving me this opportunity.

Regarding the compositing method, I kept the idea of “existing within the screen” in mind as I did with Gundam Thunderbolt. However, I think that SAO had more CG effects than Thunderbolt did. The most common effect was smoke. Smoke mainly comes about when the effects drawn by the animator meets the backgrounds drawn by the art team. This is very important when you're evoking a sense of “existence within the screen.” Because smoke appears during the moment two different layers of artwork interact, I think it's the element that's most tied to reality.

©2016 REKI KAWAHARA/PUBLISHED BY KADOKAWA CORPORATION ASCII MEDIA WORKS/SAO MOVIE Project

For example, if there was a sword swinging, causing the smoke to disperse, then you'd have to make CG elements to match the movements of the smoke animation. You can add movements that are consistent with physics on top of the individual movements drawn by the animator. This will increase both the “jaggedness” of the animation and make it look like something that could convincingly exist within the world onscreen.

In conventional anime, there's a tendency to put everything through post-processing and make the outlines of things blurry, but the animation this time was extravagant as a whole, and thus we decided to keep the shape of the smoke as drawn by the animator.

Normally, when the animation is as good as it was in Ordinal Scale, then the amount of compositing required tends to be moderate, but I thought that this would make my work no different from what you'll see in any other anime. I couldn't afford to rest on my laurels when the animators were pouring in so much effort. If I challenged myself to do everything that I could, I wondered if I could create visuals that nobody had seen before. That's what was going through my mind as I grappled with this project.

What steps did you take to differentiate the AR world from the real world in the film?

Taken as a whole, the AR space might be more real than the real world - I worked with that feeling. However, I did adjust the colors in the final product when it came to the AR game inside Ordinal Scale. I wanted to give the visuals a more cinematic feel, unlike anything seen in the anime before. I talked with the color designer Ken Kashimoto and the art director Takayuki Nagashima a few times before we adjusted the final look.

©2017 REKI KAWAHARA/KADOKAWA CORPORATION AMW/SAO-A Project

How did you feel when you were asked to be the director of photography for the Sword Art Online: Alicization series?

Producer Mr. Atsushi Kaneko gave the offer to me directly. I remember how ecstatic I was, like it was yesterday. I'm very pleased to work on the current TV anime.

I can see your work just from the trailers of the series. What should viewers look out for this time?

As I work on this project, I think to myself: “What kind of processing techniques should I use to bring out the best in these simple, no-frills designs?” Normally, I prefer to give the impression that the drawings are all made by hand, but this time I felt that the “jaggedness” wouldn't fit the aesthetic too well. I wanted to keep the compositing simple and not too prominent, but as I've gone along I've been working out how to create money shots and bring out contrasts on the screen. In that sense, I've been trying to evoke a feeling of “calmness” throughout the compositing as a whole while keeping the quality high.

How would you compare working on a TV series like Sword Art Online: Alicization compared to the film, Ordinal Scale?

Well... Because the story is on the extension of Ordinal Scale, I generally wanted to retain the atmosphere of the movie. The big difference this time is that the director Manabu Ono told me to adjust all the colors on the final image. He wanted me to look at how the characters and backgrounds fit together in the compositing and tweak them all to look as best they could. This was even harder work than what I did for the AR space in the movie, but I think of it like this: there are more things that I can challenge with my compositing now, so I've been going at it proactively.

©2017 REKI KAWAHARA/KADOKAWA CORPORATION AMW/SAO-A Project

What message do you have for Sword Art Online fans overseas?

I am deeply moved, knowing that there are so many fans of SAO, not just in Japan but overseas, who have been excited about this season. I want to do everything I can in my capacity as Director of Photography to bring good visuals to all of you. I will also be working as Director of Photography on Mobile Suit Gundam NT at Sunrise at the same time. If you happen to be in Japan while it's screening, please do take the time to see it. Please look forward to both!

Profile: Kentaro Waki (Twitter @HiconManiacs)

Born in 1989. Belongs to Asahi Production. Director of Photography / Compositing director.

His representative works are God Eater, Gundam Thunderbolt, Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale, etc. He also directed the OP movie in episode 18 of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn RE:0096 (TV) and the "Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Special Movie" for Odaiba, Tokyo. He is currently working as the director of photography on Sword Art Online: Alicization and Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative.


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