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Jasper Sharp talks to the director of Ghost in the Shell

It is difficult to remember an era prior to Toy Story (1995) in which animation was generally assumed to mean something created completely by hand. Of course, even then this wasn’t entirely the case, but it was this Disney-Pixar trailblazer that ushered in a new age in which Hollywood animators would completely reject the flat aesthetic of hand-drawn cel animation in favour of 3DCG.

That very same year in Japan saw the release of another title that made groundbreaking use of computer technology, but took a markedly different approach: almost completely invisible.

Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii at Production I.G, consolidated the trend in a certain school of anime for a hybrid aesthetic that seamlessly combined flat, richly-detailed, hand-drawn background and character designs with digitally-created 3D elements.

“I had already used computer-generated images in my previous film, Patlabor 2: The Movie,” the director confesses. “But at that time it was limited to simple data appearing in monitors and things like that. When I started working on Ghost in the Shell, I had the feeling that the time was right to push this technique a little further, and I took the challenge to introduce computer-generated 3D objects in my movie. Everything was quite experimental.”

It is true that 3DCG had appeared quite some time before in anime, with Golgo 13: The Professional (1983) featuring a memorably crude sequence in which helicopters wove between 3DCG tower blocks in an otherwise completely hand-drawn film. There was also a less conspicuous usage in Otomo’s Akira (1988). However, in GITS Oshii pushed the use of a more expressive direction, in keeping with the film’s philosophical ideas.

“The application of 3DCG in an animated movie dealing with cyberpunk themes was, in many aspects, a natural result derived from a logical necessity if you consider the technique (i.e. animation), and the genre. 3D naturally fitted with the movie, and it was somehow obvious that 3DCG would start in animation. I think that digital techniques reached their maturity the very instant they started to be applied to ‘mainstream’ live-action movies.”

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The new digital technologies not only had an impact on what could be depicted, but also in the actual process of creating Ghost in the Shell’s onscreen world. As well as using Prism software for the 3D objects, it was also the first feature Oshii worked on with Production I.G to use the Avid editing suite.

“At that time, every element used for animation physically existed and was tangible, whether drawn on paper or on a cel. But in Ghost in the Shell, for the first time in my career I was dealing with something that existed only as data within a machine. There was no trace of the 3D parts in the rushes I was checking. In a way, I felt shocked, but at the same time I understood that it was the prelude of what my job as a filmmaker was going to be. It was a revolution in the creation of motion pictures. Movies could be created without having to rely on a physical support, before of after the production process, even if I used real people as actors. And I could foresee that this way of making movies would eventually become prevalent.”

One of the hallmarks of Japanese animation that has distinguished it from its American counterpart is a completely different approach to the subject of realistic representation. Ghost in the Shell and even more so its sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), provide perfect examples of a film in which hand-drawn animation is used to achieve a photorealistic effect, as if to provide a direct comment upon the issues involved in representing reality.

“I started focusing on photorealism in Patlabor: The Movie, released in 1989. For that movie, we used several optical tricks, such as blurring pictures or modifying exposure rate, in order to obtain a more realistic feel. This approach underwent a natural evolution with Patlabor 2: The Movie, where we achieved a high degree of photorealism. But movies like that are in a minority, though perhaps a noticeable one. The mass of Japanese animation is still relying on codified symbols and flat images that are a direct inheritance from the ukiyo-e graphic style.”

While Hollywood commercial 3DCG animation tends to treat its anthropomorphic protagonists as digitally-rendered marionettes in virtual worlds, one of the most fascinating aspects of the photorealistic approach of Oshii’s anime is that while the characters are far richer in actual detail, they are still drawn and animated by traditional techniques. On the issue of realism and characterization, Oshii claims:

“If you want to pursue realism with 3D, you’ll soon bump against a wall. 3D may be suitable for puppet-like characters like Shrek, but if you try to render realistic characters with 3D, you inevitably step into an eerie territory, because the more the characters become real, the more they end up looking like corpses. No matter how many details you add, the final result will appear to you as a moving corpse, and nobody has so far succeeded in creating realistic 3D characters and getting rid of that peculiar, creepy feeling. It’s not a technical problem, it’s merely psychological. It could be a matter of personal aesthetics or cultural training, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t fancy the idea of converting characters into 3D, as long as 2D animation is clearly handier on an expressive level.”

Ghost in the Shell will be appearing at selected Picture House cinemas later this month, and will be available on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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