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Art Ludique: Studio Ghibli Layout Design

Andrew Osmond rend compte d’une exposition dans un musée à Paris

Spirited Away

If you’re a Ghibli fan in Paris in the next few weeks, then you owe it to yourself to visit the Art Ludique Museum and take in one of the most amazingly comprehensive exhibitions mounted on the studio. Filling the building, the exhibition consists of 1,300 layout drawings from the studio’s three-decade history; from 1984’s Nausicaa through to 2014’s When Marnie was There, plus a section on Ghibli’s prehistory. Add in audio commentaries, technical explanations and video clips of Miyazaki and Takahata discussing their work, and that’s a heck of a lot of content.

Running to 1st March, the exhibition’s name is “Studio Ghibli Layout Design: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata and Miyazaki Animation.” It originated in 2008 at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Ghibli has made five films since then). The exhibition has toured Japan, Seoul and Hong Kong, but this is its debut outside Asia. It’s bilingual in French and English, with written, video and audio material in both languages. I caught a few slips in the English material, such as mistaking the genders of characters, or claiming that Marnie came from a short story (it’s actually a short novel). But these few flubs should be set against acres of information.

Layout drawings are drawings we never see on screen. Rather, they’re guides for artists and animators. They’re the bridge between the initial storyboards and the actual background art and character animation. Especially on the early layout drawings, for Nausicaa and Laputa, you can often see scratches on the drawings where the layouts were traced by other departments (though the scratches are less common as photocopiers come into wide use).

Ashitaka Princess Mononoke

The exhibit explains, “a layout is a piece of paper onto which the relevant information of a scene is written, such as the relative positions of the backgrounds and characters, directions on action, indications of whether or not there will be camera movement, and if so at what speed, and any other camerawork effects.” Actually, at Ghibli a layout corresponds not to a ‘scene’ as we think of it, but rather to a ‘shot,’ the continuous moment between one edit and the next. Just to confuse matters, Ghibli (like all Japanese studios) calls these moments ‘cuts.’ Also, the camera doesn’t really move in animation; rather, the image is manipulated to give an illusion of camera movement.

The exhibition takes you through virtually the entirety of Ghibli history, with most weight on Spirited Away. The room on that film contains an absolutely massive wall display of some 600 layouts, aimed at giving you a sense of just how much labour goes into a Ghibli feature (small wonder that the film is about hard work!). Jean-Jacques Launier, president of the Art Ludique Museum, mentions that the famed Disney animator Glen Keane visited the exhibit and was bowled over. Of course, Disney uses layouts too, but not so many, in such stupendous detail.

All Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films are represented. Sadly most of the layouts for Kiki’s Delivery Service have been lost (at least as of writing – there’s always the chance they’ll turn up in an unmarked box in a dusty corner of Ghibli). But even for Kiki, there’s a huge layout for a fly-by ‘panning’ shot, drawn by Yoshifumi Kondo. Other Ghibli directors are featured, with only three films – Ocean Waves, The Cat Returns and Tales from Earthseaomitted.

A section on pre-Ghibli works by Takahata and Miyazaki adds layouts from Heidi, 3,000 Miles in Search of Mother (aka Marco), Downtown Story (aka Chie the Brat), Future Boy Conan and Sherlock Hound. There are a handful of drawings for Castle of Cagliostro – as with Kiki, few layouts from this film have been found – and for the Miyazaki-directed TV episodes of Lupin the Third.

In Spirited Away, clutters of objects or plates of food are drawn with terrifying detail. The exhibit highlights a particular ‘food’ drawing, with Miyazaki’s written notes on individual dishes: “Whole grilled pigeon, rubbed with plenty of spices, boiled golden brown, shining with oil, looks yummy.” The 1980s layouts seem most concerned with overall composition and backgrounds. Within them, the characters seem more ghostly, sketchily detailed, though the lack of detail can actually bring out their strong poses and dynamic movements.

Studio Ghibli

From the 1990s though, characters like Porco’s Gina and Spirited’s Chihiro burst from the paper, drawn with more detail and solidity, more weight on facial expressions. An intimate pose between Jiro and Naoko in Wind Rises is especially striking; it was by artist Katsuya Kondo, skilled in drawing women. There are also busy crowd scenes, showing exuberant hordes of pirates or tanuki. Even background characters are drawn with care. A bit-part chef in Spirited Away is accompanied by a written instruction from Miyazaki to reproduce the drawing faithfully. “This is an animator’s basic requirement!”

The pictures frequently include directions as to how characters should be animated. One layout shows the very first shot of San in Princess Mononoke, riding on wolf-back across ravaged countryside. Multiple Sans-on-wolves are sketched in. Miyazaki writes that she’s moving at “an elegant unhurried pace, but fast” – and above the picture, there’s a video of the animation to compare. While he may be a tyrant in his studio, Miyazaki bows to his best artists. Another Mononoke layout bears a written apology to background artist Kazuo Oga for a goof in perspective, with Miyazaki bowing guiltily in pig form.

Anyone who mourns the dominance of CGI in animation will find consolation here. Even the ‘effects’ scenes are underpinned by old-fashioned drawings. One of the loveliest Spirited pictues, on four sheets stuck together, shows Chihiro passing through the flower garden. Many viewers may prefer to it to the equivalent image in the film, where the flowers are CGI. The castle in Howl is drawn vividly and forcefully as a character; there’s no sense of relying on the CG technology which animates it in the film.

Howl’s castle also exemplifies Ghibli’s aesthetic of ‘harmony,’ its efforts to make animated elements fit with backgrounds. Of course, backgrounds which don’t move generally have more detail than elements which do. The Ohmu insects in Nausicaa had detailed textures which conveyed their mass and fitted their alien surroundings, though the details limited their movement. The insects had segmented bodies; the animators connected the segments by elastic, giving the sense of parts moving together organically. Two decades on, Howl’s castle was similarly textured to give it mass and “harmony” with its surroundings, while CG made it easier to animate.

Chateau Ambulant

As anyone who’s seen old cartoon ‘making-of’ films know, animated characters are overlaid on backgrounds. As we saw with Mononoke, character animation is reflected in the layouts. A Totoro layout, for example, shows multiple little-girl Meis picking acorns across the paper. In the Spirited Away display, several drawings show Chihiro in the ghost town scene. These drawings don’t show the background at all, but map out Chihiro’s frantic poses as she looks for her parents.

But sometimes backgrounds must be overlaid on characters, or on top of each other, even if they’re not animated themselves. An example would be if an animated character walks behind a tree, requiring the tree to be overlaid on the character. Such an overlay is called a ‘book’ in anime (don’t ask us why). ‘Books’ are an important part of visual effects. For example, in Whisper of the Heart, a girl dreams of flying with a magic cat. The dream gives way to the girl running down a hill, the city spread below her. If you check the shot, you’ll see part of the city – the closer part, the ‘book’ – is moving upward, whereas the farther part (the drawing’s lower layer) is moving down. This enhances the feeling of space in the girl’s world.

There are more elaborate ‘book’ techniques in Takahata’s work. In Only Yesterday, look at the scene where the grown-up Taeko is being driven by a friend into the countryside. When it’s moving, their car requires seven overlays (‘books’), all piled on each other. You might see it as an elaboration on the Ohmu’s moving parts in Nausicaa, but the Ohmu was a fantasy creature. In Only Yesterday, Takahata goes to great lengths to recreate a ‘mundane,’ real-world object.

Princess Kaguya

Again in Princess Kaguya, some of the most difficult shots involved not moon magic but humble trees. Takahata wanted the trees to ‘move’ independently, as the perspective shifts with the characters. The director ended up personally cutting out individual trees and pasting them on different ‘book’ layers, calculating their intricate geometry. For both Yamadas and Kaguya, the layouts were purposely drawn on smaller sheets than usual, then blown up to emphasise the rough drawings and linework.

Even the cartoonishly stylised Yamadas required extremely accurate planning. Some of Takahata’s details are so subtle you can miss them even on multiple viewings. For example, at the start of Fireflies, spot how the station architecture changes almost subliminally, as a 1980s building turns into one of 1945.

The exhibition is richly suggestive about what Miyazaki and Takahata share, and how they differ. As the exhibit explains, the layout approach is something they arrived at together. In early anime TV shows, it was commonplace to have different episodes made by different staff, with many drifting styles. To counter this, when Takahata directed his landmark TV Heidi in 1974, not only did he employ the same staff through the series, but he designated Miyazaki to draw the layouts. These further ensured a unity of style, and allowed both the animators and art division to work from the layouts in tandem.

In fact, Miyazaki drew all the layouts for Heidi, 300 drawings per weekly episode for a year. Legend has it Miyazaki worked so hard that he only got home once a week, on the night the episode aired. Layout drawings had been used before Heidi, but the series – a ratings hit – systematised and popularised the approach in the industry.

Launier sees the layout approach as blending Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s outlooks. In Launier’s view, Takahata (who famously does not draw) has the artistic viewpoint of an indy live-action director, whereas Miyazaki is a draughtsman. We saw above that Takahata puts an emphasis on realistic detail, even in an emphatically ‘drawn’ film like Kaguya. In contrast, the museum includes a video interview of Miyazaki stressing that the world we experience is not the ‘reality’ of a camera lens or an architect’s blueprint.

In particular, Miyazaki hates straight perspectives, as we see when he pans up or down in his films. In Laputa, when the kids gaze up at a giant tree, it’s deliberately drawn with two vanishing points – at the tree’s base, and again in its upper branches – to give it a ‘distorted’ appearance. You can also see such subtle distortions in ‘down’ pans, as when Chihiro peers down from a bridge early in Spirited Away, or when we pan down in Wind Rises from Jiro and Caprino on a plane wing to the city of Nagoya.

The Ghibli exhibition follows previous exhibits at the new museum on Pixar and Marvel movies. Launier has exhibited many other artists at his Arludik gallery in Paris, from Mamoru Hosoda and Satoshi Kon to H.R. Giger (Alien) and John Howe (Lord of the Rings). “I wanted to show the art behind the art,” Launier says, “because I think those people are the most amazing contemporary artists of the time, and sometimes no-one knew about them.”

The exhibit opens as Ghibli’s future seems in doubt. Launier notes that the volume of work on display makes abundantly clear why Miyazaki has earned his rest. But Launier adds, “When Miyazaki came to Paris, he loved to walk alone in the street, seeing things… He loves to watch and contemplate. I think maybe he decides for a while to be contemplative, and I hope he will come back.”

And if not, could there be a ‘next’ Miyazaki? Launier believes the successor to the director could come from anywhere, from inside anime or out. “The genius of Miyazaki is of course Japanese, but he’s talking to all the planet. I had the luck to meet a lot of directors. They all love Miyazaki and try to understand that magical spirit inside… He shows the poetry in life. I hope his legacy will be everywhere, like a spirit in the wind.”

Thanks to the staff of Art Ludique for their kind help.

“Studio Ghibli Layout Design: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata and Miyazaki Animation” runs until March 1st. Art Ludique is located near Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, in the “Cite de la Mode et du Design” complex beside the River Seine. Full directions are on the museum’s website here. The exhibition is closed on Tuesdays but open all other days. Opening times are as follows: Monday 11am to 7pm, Wednesday 11am to 10pm, Thursday 11am to 7pm, Friday 11am to 10pm, Saturday 10am to 8pm, Sunday 10am to 8pm. Standard tickets are 15,50 Euros (including an audio guide). Concessions are available; see here for details.

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