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Storyboarder Naoyoshi Shiotani on Oblivion Island

Look at a still from Production I.G’s new movie Oblivion Island, and the first thing to strike you – even before ‘It’s an anime!’ – is that it’s computer animation. Of course, it’s hardly the first CGI anime film to hit Britain. While they’re still pretty thin on the ground, we’ve had specimens such as 2001 Nights, two Appleseed films, Vexille, Final Fantasy Advent Children and that naughty Malice@Doll. Anime’s biggest pop-star is computer generated much of the time. Five minutes to curtain, Miss Hatsune!

But when a big anime studio like Production I.G. makes a CGI movie, it’s easy for Westerners to wonder if it’s a sign of a sea-change in Japan, of the kind Hollywood animation had twenty years ago. Five years after Toy Story, non-computer cartoon movies in America were floundering. Ten years after, they were almost extinct. Could CGI eat anime in the same way? Manga UK’s Andrew Osmond put the question to Oblivion Island’s lead animator and storyboarder, Naoyoshi Shiotani.

“A friend of mine visited Pixar,” Shiotani says, “He explained that in Japan we still draw with pencil and paper, and the Pixar people were quite surprised to hear that. I feel that somehow that handcrafted animation fits with the Japanese character. Designing characters with black outlines is something in the cultural visual tradition of Japan, in a way inherited by anime.” The continued success of (largely) traditionally drawn films, including five of the top ten Japanese films last year seems to bear him out. Notably, the film which made Shiotani want to become an animator is a classic of analog anime: Studio Gainax’s The Wings of Honneamise.

“At the same time,” Shiotani adds, “I feel the limits of what can be done with traditional 2D animation. When I made Oblivion Island, I tried to transfer the 2D know-how into 3D. There were things I thought were successfully transferred, and other things that made me think about how this system works… In the end, people want to relate to the characters. It’s not about how they move, it’s about the design and story. The audience itself is not really aware of how these things are made. The techniques are on the production side – if you have good characters and a good story, then it will work.

“At the same time,” concludes Shiotani, “I feel there are fewer skilled 2D animators. I’m not sure whether that’s because we produce more material these days, so we need more animators and don’t find them. Or whether the number of animators is really decreasing because people are keener on working with tablets than with pencils.”

To make Oblivion Island, Production I.G. – an anime powerhouse, with a track-record in ambitious CGI effects going back twenty years – had to pool its talents with several other outfits. The collaborators included Toei Animation, Sunrise and Polygon Pictures. (You can read more about Polygon Pictures, and its ill-fated bid to make the first Japanese CGI feature – with penguins! – here.

“For Japanese productions, we cannot work with multi-million dollar budgets,” Shiotani told the Dubai International Film Festival. “We have to work on limited budgets, compared to the US. So what we bring into the movie is our creativity and our way of making computer animation with limited resources, but bringing our personality into it at the same time. We use a lot of 2D animation in Japan, so we try to develop 3D animation that was blended with our 2D visuals. We did not have motion capture, but the animators have this skill of calculating movements and that’s how we worked.”

The Oblivion Island making-of on the DVD points out that the hair of the lead character, a girl called Haruka, is deliberately kept simple; it’s effectively an outline of the kind you’d find in hand-drawn anime. This is the other end of the scale from the blue monster Sulley in Pixar’s Monsters Inc, whose rippling pelt took years to simulate. Look out for the parts of Oblivion Island that seem to be hybrids of 2D and 3D; perhaps the most obvious is a short early sequence, when Haruka follows a strange creature through woods near a shrine at twilight. The CGI Haruka is set against backgrounds which may be simple paintings, though it’s pretty impossible to tell where the 2D ends and the CG begins.

It may look strange if you’re used to Pixar or Dreamworks; but then Japan is one of the few countries where those studios don’t dominate movie animation. Far from showing that anime is moving closer to computer-dominated Hollywood animation, Oblivion Island shows that anime’s underlying principles and aesthetics – shaped, as always in animation, by economic and practical necessity – are still very different. And Shiotani, like Pixar’s John Lasseter and a host of Hollywood artists, says that CGI is only a tool anyway. “What’s really important in this job is to have a clear image of what you want to do, and have your staff understand it. This is true regardless of the animation technique, 2D or 3D.”

Oblivion Island is out April 1st on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.


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