Interview: BEASTARS Director Shinichi Matsumi

by Kim Morrissy & Callum May,

BEASTARS took the anime world by storm when it released on Netflix worldwide in March. The high-quality 3D animation and compelling relationship drama have particularly stood out to the viewers. Anime News Network sat down with the anime's director Shinichi Matsumi to discuss the techniques behind the anime's success.

When did you first get interested in 3DCG and compositing?

SHINICHI MATSUMI: I've always had an interest in cameras and the processes behind compositing. As for CG, I discovered digital animation and 3D through Steamboy. It's how I personally gained an impression for different forms of expression and became interested in using software. It was really expensive, though, even for the industry. Just the software would cost 5 million or 6 million yen, and a usable computer would cost around 6 million yen. So it was an era when I couldn't personally buy such things. But when I was young, I did have an interest in assembling things that seemed usable and tinkering with them, and from there I developed an interest in CG.

What did your role as technical director on Steamboy involve?

The pitch for Steamboy was made in 1998. That was around the time when digital animation was only just starting to reach the level that it could be used in film. I was familiar with computers and had experience with production, so I could focus on both. The idea for the project was to make an entire film with digital animation, and that was what prompted me to join the production. So at the beginning, there weren't really any software that could make something on the scale of a film.

My job was to search for a way to do the Japanese style of animation digitally. In those days, people didn't even know how to use a mouse - that's the level computer animation was on. The internet hadn't caught on yet; there weren't many people who used emails to communicate. These days, things have changed a lot, but it was a different era back then. My work at the time was to manage the workflow when using digital tools.

What was your first impression of the BEASTARS manga?

I thought it would be a story about the escapades of animals, but I realized it's a human drama at heart. The part of it that's definitely not ‘human’ is the relationships between carnivores and herbivores. That aspect isn't part of human courtship. (laughs) Even if a herbivore professes love for a carnivore, they can never become a carnivore. If this were a shonen manga, the division between the two types of animal would be an enemy that is to be challenged, but in this manga, the wall feels insurmountable. It's something that's existed since birth. It's not a matter of breaking down the Wall of Jericho. So I was really interested in seeing how this story plays out.

The Disney film Zootopia has some similarities to BEASTARS. Have you had the chance to see it?

Yes, I have. Before I worked on it, I had a minor worry about the similarities. It wouldn't be good if we did the same thing, after all. To some degree, they have similar themes like a carnivore paired with a herbivore rabbit, but the BEASTARS manga evolves in a completely different direction. When I started work on BEASTARS, I didn't worry about it. The look and tone of it is different, and the animation style also has no resemblances. I was sure that those differences would become more evident as the anime progresses. So the resemblances were only something I worried about at the very beginning.

What encouraged you to use split-screens for the anime?

In the original manga, a lot of information and monologues and so on are compressed into a single page. There's a flow to it when you read it in the form of a comic, but with animation, every action has to take a certain amount of time. Each line has to be said in sequence, and so on.

So in order to show that interplay between what characters are saying in their hearts and how others are reacting at the same time, I thought it would be best to show them happening at the same time. That's why I decided to use split-screens to convey that.

How do you emphasize the difference in fur between the animals?

Some animals have long fur, while others have shorter fur. For the characters with shorter fur, like the rabbits, the fur isn't something that we emphasize. For animals like wolves and sheep, we emphasize the length of their fur depending on the cut. We don't have the capacity to show all the textures in every cut, like you'd see in a Pixar film. There's a difference in the culture when it comes to animation, so implementing that style all of a sudden in Japan would be difficult.

What kind of materials did you use?

We have our various 3D software and our rendering software. For the production, although I like to research different forms of artistic expression, there wasn't particularly anything I used as reference or as a model to aspire towards. We did various tests to determine how best to express the appeal of the 2D art, and we did look at animals and different ways of animating them, but there wasn't anything we looked at and decided, “We ought to make it look like this!”

Is that because the characters move like humans?

Fundamentally, it's because we wanted to make the characters look and move differently from how animals have been portrayed in hand-drawn animation until now. There isn't anything quite like BEASTARS. Also, the coloring sense is very different from a Pixar film as well. In Japan, we tend to use darker colors. As for the fur animation, there wasn't really anything to reference because our animation method was different.

Has anything changed about Orange's approach to anime production since Land of the Lustrous?

For the specifics about the CG animation, you'd have to ask Inomoto-san, but BEASTARS has used more motion capture than Land of the Lustrous did. This isn't related to the CG, but another thing that changed was how we went about the voice recording and editing, although those processes are done at different studios. As for any changes at Orange in particular... well, Land of the Lustrous would use 3D for the bodies of the characters, but the eyes and expressions weren't done in 3D - they were hand-drawn. There was no facial capture used at all. But for BEASTARS, everything was in 3D. I suppose that aspect is something that's changed between productions.

If BEASTARS used a lot of facial capture and motion capture, how did you capture the feel of hand-drawn animation?

When it comes to capturing the look of the hand-drawn animation, I don't think that the facial capture and motion capture have much to do with it. During the rendering process, you make it look like 2D with the 3D software.

Although the motion capture doesn't have much to do with it, when it comes to facial expressions, it could become more precise with hand-drawn animation with how you want the mouth and eyes to look. Getting that precision with 3D can be really tough.

With facial capture, a human is doing the expression, so you have to make sure it doesn't come out looking strange. For example, you have to make sure your eyes aren't smiling when you're trying to look angry. Plus, animation is about exaggeration, so you have to consider that as well. By using it, we can't make comical expressions. You can only make expressions that a human would use. On the other hand, you can produce very precise and delicate facial expressions.

Now that you mention it, the expressions in BEASTARS are very realistic. They capture that human drama feel. Was that intentional?

In a certain sense, yes. You see, the expressions in manga don't move. So in order to depict such detailed and realistic expressions in motion, you'd have to be a really skilled animator or else it wouldn't work. It would be almost impossible to assemble a team like that on a TV anime production. So I thought that by using facial capture, we'd be able to make it work.

Anime has steadily been getting more digital. What sort of technologies would you like to see used in anime in the future? Like software, for instance?

Hmm… It would be nice for both 2D and 3D software to coexist. I'm not just talking about the future; it's something I'd like to see applied to the current situation. You can make things to a certain degree in 3D, but for the final touches, you can use 2D software to adjust things and bring it to completion. It doesn't have to end with CG.

Is there anything you'd like to highlight about BEASTARS going forward?

For the story going forward, there will be focus on tracking down and confronting the instigator of the incidents at the start of the series. How this affects Legoshi and the others is something to look forward to. You'll also get to see more of the world outside the school, and lots of new characters will get to shine. I hope the viewers will enjoy it.

Season 1 is currently streaming exclusively on the all-you-can-watch service Netflix. It is also available in Japan through Fuji On Demand.

Season 2 will be broadcast on Fuji TV's +Ultra channel and other channels in 2021.

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