Hayao Miyazaki doc: An analog animation master finds new technical challenges

debuted last year).

Throughout a short hour-ish run time, this documentary maintains a very narrow focus.  really only consists of footage of Miyazaki at home or at the studio, and it relies solely on interviews directly with the man or with collaborators on this project.

The approach allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about why this work remains great and what makes Miyazaki tick rather than having any longtime observers or contemporaries spell such things out.

Miyazaki and CGI

If you’re a hardcore Studio Ghibli fan, you’re likely saying, “Wait, he’s definitely used CGI before.” That’s correct— was simply the first time Miyazaki relied on it entirely for the final product. In his film’s linear notes, director Kaku Arakawa explains. “Mr. Miyazaki was very skeptical about CG animation from the get-go. He first implemented the technology in the movie , then later successfully blended it seamlessly with hand-drawn animation in . But he parted ways with CG after . In the following films and , he went back to traditional hand-drawn animation. He has always made animation with this challenge foremost in his mind; how much can the human hand draw?

“Since he’s strongly convinced that ‘[anime] has to be hand drawn,’ I don’t think he was expecting much from the technology when he met these young CG animators. What drew him to the opportunity was that he saw something in their eyes; their strong ambition and desire to accomplish something meaningful in their budding field. He told me, ‘They remind me of my old self.’”

Even at this age (in his 70s), Miyazaki has an incredible dedication to detail, for instance. To make a less-than-15-minute short about a caterpillar, he’s putting insects under a microscope and working through several hand-drawn interactions before anything shows up on a computer screen. In early film footage showing pre-CGI life at Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki stands over young illustrator shoulders and offers nuanced feedback: “It’s important to draw full human beings, you’re drawing people not characters,” he tells them, soon offering slight critiques on a character’s running form or how they hold a bundled up blanket. Later when working with CGI, Miyazaki may not understand or have comfort with the tools and medium, but he continues to share similarly micro observations. “The turning motion is too adult like,” he says, watching an early render of Boro looking around his landscape. “Babies don’t turn their heads so sharply.”

Miyazaki seems to know he’s a throwback and never shies away from this—he smokes cigarettes still and insists initially on having the background landscape for drawn by hand—but what makes him an all-time great is perhaps the man’s desire to make contemporary work, things that take advantage of all these new techniques and abilities, in spite of those urges. “You think CGI offers new possibilities? That’s not it,” he says when asked why bother when fans would inevitably turn out for more of his previous stuff. “I have ideas I may not be able to draw by hand, and this may be a way to do it—that’s my hope. It’s a new technology.”

This challenge clearly energized the creator. Colleagues joke Miyazaki seems to be siphoning energy from the young people around him given the age difference with all the CGI animators. director Kaku Arakawa even observed physical changes in the animator: according to the film’s linear notes, Miyazaki started drawing Boro with very soft pencils (6B) “to compensate for his weakened grip.” Over time, “as he got fired up making the CG animation and got absorbed in creating the short, he was drawing with 2B pencils again without realizing it… Mr. Miyazaki was embarrassed to admit it and exclaimed, ‘It’s not that easy to regain strength!””

This film clearly has long-time fans in mind. doesn’t spend much time at all catching viewers up on who Hayao Miyazaki is, how he’s built his career, or what impact his films made. Such history seems contained to few short film clips and a sequence with Miyazaki flipping through old scrapbooks while acknowledging how fortunate he was in retrospect that his deeply personal ideas and tastes found larger popularity (“If we tried to please, we’d be forgotten,” he says). For someone who’s only seen a few of the big works (), the film leaves you wanting a bit more historical and outside perspective. It’s easy to imagine a documentary that does better to contextualize the obvious legacy here in a way something like last year’s on raunchy comedian Gilbert Gottfried, did for watchers who know the name but not the whole story.

That said, this film still works as a small portrait of an all-time great still seeking a new challenge, a study of someone anxious to know whether the abilities and ideas that garnered such acclaim can work in what’s admittedly a new playing field. never comes out and says this, but the documentary continuously hints that technology has changed animation forever and may one day render the very thing that made Miyazaki—his unparalleled ability to translate the ideas in his head to paper through impeccable artistic skill—useless. Late in the film, for example, someone’s pitching Miyazaki on AI-enabled animation that will be able to emulate human painting within the next decade.

“We can’t stop CGI from taking over animated films,” Miyazaki says early in  He’s sketching out the lush world for coming to terms with this new reality for his beloved medium. “I did such a detailed layout not because I don’t trust them, but I want them to create something even better.”

Maybe CGI ultimately will win out—debuted to much fanfare, and certainly studios like Pixar have become the premier names in animation today. But analog illustration offers something different even if the process itself isn’t as efficient, and it’s hard to imagine admiration for that ever totally evaporating. After all, while you may be able to find playing nearby, you’re perhaps even more likely to find or too.

Nathan Mattise Nathan is an Austin-based Features Editor at Ars Technica. He edits and contributes posts on a variety of topics like lost short films that ran before , how NASA kept the Shuttle program going against Hurricane Katrina, and why Apple no longer loves indie bands. He also hosts and produces multimedia, like the Decrypted podcast season on or the new Tech on TV video series.
Email[email protected]//Twitter@nathanmattise

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