Interview: The BEASTARS Opening Animation Team

by Kim Morrissy & Callum May,

Cyclone Graphics president Michiya Katō never stops exploring new styles and workflows. Whether it's CGI, VFX or stop-motion, he's worked with some of the most creative directors in the industry to realise their vision, including names like Satoshi Kon and Masaaki Yuasa. Last year, Kato teamed up with acclaimed stop-motion creators dwarf studios (Rilakkuma and Kaoru, Domo-kun shorts) to create the unique opening to BEASTARS. We reached out to Kato to find out more about how this opening came about.

You've worked with dwarf studios before. How did you first get in contact with the studio and how did you all get involved in BEASTARS?

MICHIYA KATO: I directed a short animation for the NHK's Hana wa Saku Tōhoku ni Saku project supporting efforts around the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. I directed the stop-motion of Domo (the NHK mascot) in cel animation. From there, we got along in both the public and private spheres.

I think that I was probably asked to do the BEASTARS opening because of my experience with VFX and cel animation, but even when expressing the theme I thought of, the CG and cel animation wouldn't fit neatly together. At the time, a dwarf studios animator by the name of Negishi was working at the UK-based company Mackinnon & Saunders, and I asked her if she could do hair transplants. She responded that she really wanted to do it, so we proposed to Orange to make actual models and make them move in stop-motion at dwarf.

Domo and Charo go on a journey with a mysterious girl “Hana wa Saku Tōhoku ni Saku” ~ Connect to the Future Hana wa Saku:

All of the openings you direct are particularly unique. How would you describe your approach to creating an anime opening?

I'm a big fan of the original comic, so I dug into the theme of the work. As I fretted over it while doing line drawings for a while, I decided on making it around the three themes of “conflict,” “instinct,” and “love.” The story instantly came to me: a simple, fable-like progression where a wolf and rabbit encounter each other on the night of a full moon. The encounter between the hunter and the hunted results in love at first sight, and they dance in joy. Through expressing it in stop-motion, I think you can see the influences of Jiří Trnka's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Yuri Norstein's Hedgehog in the Fog.

What is, in your opinion, the most important thing that an anime opening needs to achieve?

The important thing about an anime opening is that, after getting the audience hyped up, it should naturally ease them into the anime's world. The choices you make in order to express that or show it through the direction are extremely important.

What things do you need to consider when directing for stop-motion in comparison to your other work?

The process of creating the video's theme and concept are the same regardless of the format, but from the storyboarding stage onward, I keep in mind the unique characteristics of the format. When it comes to stop-motion, almost all the time is taken up with creating the models and set, so the filming time demands a lot of concentration and stamina. Retakes threaten to cut into one's vigilance towards the production, so I have to make sure that I thoroughly convey the theme and concept to the staff before the filming. I'm conscious about creating a heart for the project, giving the artists a little more leeway for production time, and making prompt decisions.

The dancing scene is particularly impressive. What reference material did you use to make this scene perfect?

I watched tons of videos of professional dancers. However, none of them quite fitted what I was going for. The dance I wanted Haru and Legoshi to do was not the consummate work of a professional. When I watched a video of two people doing their first dance at a western wedding ceremony, it suddenly clicked. It needed something more amateurish and above all, it needed “love.” I added in the basic steps of a jive to the dance.

You've worked in 2D, 3D, VFX, and stop-motion. Are there any other forms of animation that you'd like to direct for?

There are so many things that I'd like to try if given the chance, but putting aside the question of digital or analog, I place a lot of importance in the freedom to choose the form of expression that fits the video's theme and concept. I'm the same as a chef who wants to bring out the best dish for the customer. AN Entertainment work gives birth to a great pairing between theme and concept, and between the sensibilities of people who create and the people who want to see it.

Right now, my studio's team is making a whole bunch of characters move by using a game engine, so I'm always enjoying a challenge.

We also asked dwarf studios some questions about how they created the models and filmed the opening.

Legoshi and Haru have been manga drawings, CG models, and now stop-motion figures. How did you go about making sure these stop-motion models would be accepted by fans?

Before we made the dolls, we had a Legoshi in 3DCG as the basis, but when we tried putting it through the 3D printer, his jaw and limbs came out looking smaller than the image on screen suggested. We thought that if we kept that as the basis for the doll, it wouldn't be true to the feel of the original work, so we read the manga carefully and incorporated our own unique interpretation of it.

Also, we heard that Paru Itagaki was assisting with the particulars of the limbs during the production stage of the TV anime, so we made the limbs comparatively bigger than they are in the manga and gave them a more solid-looking feel. For Haru, we emphasized her soft and feminine curves.

We have some diehard BEASTARS fans among our staff, so when we were deliberating over the models, we often asked for their opinions.

Legoshi's head during production of the model

The models after completion

How did you make sure that the fur on Legoshi would match the character?

In order to convey the finer details conveyed through the watercolor art that Itagaki-sensei uses for the manga covers and so on, we performed a number of tests. For the type of fur, we tested a whole range of things, from sheep wool to silk and man-made acrylic fibers. Ultimately, we decided to use fur with a starchy and masculine feel, and furthermore we used sturdy hemp. In order to bring out the depth of the colors, we dyed the fur in blue-ish gray and green-ish gray before transplanting it to the model. Since we dyed it by hand, it was inevitable that there would be lightly stained fibers as well as heavily stained fibers, but that also gave depth to the colors of the fur.

What were your biggest difficulties in creating this opening?

Because BEASTARS was already a popular manga and it had already been made into a CG TV anime, we took care not to go against the image of both those things. There weren't any figures, soft toys, or other physical models of the characters, so we looked up fan-made clay prototype models and fan art and looked into what aspects of the characters stood out to fans.

Since we were aiming for the polar opposite of the CG-produced main feature with an analog form of expression, the moon in the backdrop is luminous because of the completely hand-made props that we used to reflect the light. We didn't make the trees running in the background blend together. We created models for each silhouette and took photos of each individual movement. Legoshi's saliva and the water in the fountain are also completely hand-made.

The appearance of the set during filming of the video

What processes were involved in making sure that this animation would fit the beat of the music?

The final music data arrived just before filming, so we inserted the music into a video form of the storyboards and had that playing as we did the filming in order to ensure that none of the cuts went off the beat. Kato, the director, gave us specific directions beforehand to align the movements with the beat of the drums, so it was easy to do. The dance part in particular would have felt off if the movements of the two characters was out of tandem with the music, so we wrote down the timing of the beats on a sheet of paper, and we allotted the timing of when they put their feet on the ground and did turns accordingly.

How were the butterflies in the opening created?

The bodies are made of wood and the wings are made of thick paper. The base of the wings have a single mental joint to control it, called an armature. If you connect it with a metal wire, the constant up and down motions required for animation would promptly break the wings, so we considered the durability and gave it ball joints. Due to the joints, we had to make the sizes of the butterflies bigger than how they appear on screen. We filmed them in front of a green screen, and then shrunk them to fit the backgrounds in each cut.

Could you speak a bit about the lighting in stop-motion? The fountain and Legoshi's saliva are particularly remarkable.

We are conscious not just of the lighting but also its relation to the camera's aperture. We put the fountain outside the focal range of the lens in order to bring out the beauty of the bokeh. For the saliva, we put it right into the focus and ensured that the lighting would make it appear dazzling.

The set for the dancing scene

What do you think the similarities are between Japanese anime and stop-motion production?

We constructed this opening with eight frames per second. Japanese television anime from the old days would also use eight frames per second as a standard, so we think that this opening has a lot in common with the old-school hand-drawn TV anime. TV anime these days, BEASTARS included, has CG, so it's based on 12 frames per second, which makes the movements smooth and not very jerky.

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