The following interview was originally conducted with the help and translation by my good friend, Xin without whom this would not have been possible © 2017 Wave Motion Cannon
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– Tell us how you were brought on to work on Naruto Shippuden?
Before I came to Japan, I had already decided to try to be involved in the production of Naruto. Fortunately, Zhu Xiao, proprietor of Candybox, had worked for Studio Pierrot and had a good relationship with them, and we was gradually able to hand me cuts to work on for Naruto. Maybe it was because I had been copying Kishimoto’s style, but I got used to it very quickly. At the same time, it was my dream to meet Hiroyuki Yamashita for the longest time. Then I got the chance my last day working at Candybox. From there, Yamashita sent me an invitation to join the production staff. So that’s how I joined team Naruto.
– Studio Pierrot has been one of my favorite studios. A lot of the shows they produce are near and dear to me. What is it like working at studio Pierrot?
For me, I have to say the happiest thing is working with Yamashita because he is always a good role model. Without a doubt, there are so many advantages to working fully in Japan. I can ask my seniors questions at any time, which not only helped improve my animation skills, but also my Japanese as well. It’s important to have a learning environment. After all, being able to exchange ideas and communicate with others is more far more efficient than learning by yourself.
However, what most impressed me is how perfect, how smooth and professional all the departments work together. How production advances to different stages is a more mature proceses I’ve been a part of before. It’s really designed so that we animators can maintain a good mood and performan better at work. And as you can imagine, there’s a lot of stress that comes with pushing projects along. At the same time I also got chance to visit other departments like recording and editing, which made me consider more when drawing cuts.
– I wanted to ask you about your cut on Naruto Shippuden opening #18: How did you swap between characters and still have the hand raise so slowly? Did you animate two frames for every character, moving only the hand slightly before changing to a new character? How long did it take you to to animate that? Who’s idea was it to create such a scene?
This was the first thing I did after meeting Yamashita (who also directed this opening). It’s wasn’t difficult but did require a little patience. First I drew a basic sketch of a bare hand moving upward, than drew each character in sequence. It took a while to adjust the range and speed of hands moving. After that I just needed to focus on swapping between characters. As for the characters’ sequence, the first and the last one had already been decided by Yamashita, the other characters were freely arranged by myself according to five ninja nations and characters’ shape. It took about 4 or 5 days to finish, being my first experience of opening animation. I was so nervous that I couldn’t make it perfect. There were still few mistakes in the final part where all characters slowly move their heads down. Overall though, not bad.
– This cut not only includes effects and character acting, but also has a large amount of details like fabric fluttering in the wind. And the camera angle is interesting as well. Tell us about what went into this shot.
I don’t have strong personal style, you know, so I try my best to work on details to impress the audience. Just as you mentioned: flutters of clothes and hair, I often do that to make the scene more dynamic and fit with character’s emotional state. Also, imperceptible motions like shoulder slouching and head turning is my kind of style. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a Japanese acting style, a little different from Chinese and American animation. Especially the foe in this cut, it’s full of Naruto’s emotions and dialogues. First I decided where I should set character (thankfully Yamashita’ s storyboard which gives accurate instructions). Then added acting for Naruto with my personal understanding, (honestly, it was a procedure of making mistakes) and the in-betweens. Finally, with full animated( 1k） speed lines showing speed and space changes. This is the whole procedure.
– Your drawings have a very real sense of weight to them. Watching Naruto episode 477, the fight between Sasuke and Naruto felt super intense. What is your approach to animating action?
I have to admit that, to a large extent, it depends on Yamashita’s incredible storyboard and animation direction. I do my best to express that kind of atmosphere to stay true to his intention. Plus, Yamashita invited me here for the production of final battle at that time, so from 2016 everything I engaged in required my specific skills, such as portraying the movement of Naruto and Sasuke’s hair and clothes in episode 683, expressing pound of action scenes in 685, the ability to handle the lens as a producer, and showing of characters’ emotional side
– That scene also has some amazing effects animation. The smoke and electricity look super cool, not to mention the multiple character outlines that pop out when a character gets hit really hard. What’s the story behind animating that scene?
My weakness is still effects animation, to this day I can’t efficiently master the basic rules of nature special effects. So there are still some stereotypical cuts, but fortunately I had been working on smoke and thunder at the time, so came out naturally and unconsciously, yet I myself was not quite satisfied with it. But there’s a trade-off between meeting the needs of quality in the allotted amount of time given, especially for commercial anime. It was a radically extreme period for both my excitement and tiredness when I worked on the fated battle between Naruto and Sasuke. It was the first time that I undertook 70 successive cuts at a time. It was hard not to reach a mental extreme. That kind of fatigue rooted in heart of Naruto and Sasuke was what drove my performance. Maybe that’s the way you achieve full immersion. Also thanks to digital painting I got a lot of chances to try new things, and Yamashita offered me plenty of essential guidance and suggestions.
– This episode (477) was storyboarded by Hiroyuki Yamashita. Did you follow his storyboard closely or add your personal touches to it?
Surly there are also my own stuff in there, but because Yamashita was right beside me. So basically I kept communicating with him everyday, exchanging ideas and expressing my thoughts until it turned into something higher under his instruction. One example is the scene were Sasuke throws three hand daggers. The first setting was to adapt what was in the manga, that darts hit Naruto’s multiple shadow clones directly. At last I made it the way ferret use it—with hand daggers rebounding together, changing the throwing trajectory to hit Naruto, in order to enhance the ornamental values of daggers in Sasuke’s hand, just one moment though, (laughs). When communicating with Yamashita, I clearly feel that he leaves room in every area for as much elaboration as possible. At the same, time he knows what he wants. To make choices and compromises also sets a wonderful example for me. In return, I try to figure out the logic of the performance. It’s a really positive communication atmosphere.
– How strong was Hiroyuki Yamashita’s influence on you? I know you two worked together a lot.
When I was in my college, I was deeply interested by Eight Tails (Bee) vs Sasuke, especially in showing Bee’s sword dancing. Compared to my hero, Hosoda Mamoru’s abilities as a director, I also adore to Yamashita was like witness his growing process from storyboarder to a director, then a supervisor. This made me know where I should be chasing in the future. I watch his cuts so many times… I did a lot practice to learn his style. My brain was so filled with how he depicted objects in motion to the point that people sometimes misattribute some of my early works as his. And he is super talented in anime, but is also very modest. He has good self control, a good balance between work and health. I didn’t just learn anime from him, I also learned how to behave in life.
– How you feel about working with big names of the industry like Naoki Kobayashi?
All of this has turned my awe into a solid road to my destination. My initial drawings are thought of as Yamashita’s. I saw lots of his work, so I imitated his key animation movements. Yamashita is a humble person. Good at his work, strict on himself, heathy in life. For me, he and I are more than coworkers. His way of coping with matters is meaningful to me.
This year, besides Yamashita, Kobayashi Naoki also offered me great help and guidance. Perhaps it’s because we are the same age, our conversations don’t have much of a generation gap.
I first worked with him on his last ED as a key animator, when he worked as a episode director. I got to work on the new Sword Art Online movie due to his recommendation. I deeply sense the great gap between me and the top animators. Kobayashi is not only good at drawing, he also thinks from every aspect of film. His timesheet shows his grasp of details, which requires more than talent, but he has such patience to elaborate on complicated projects. It impresses me a lot. As for this quality, he is on par with Babi JD. Both of them are gifted and hardworking animators and great role models.
– Comparing action animation and character animation, which do you find more difficult to express?
Actually, for me, both action and emotion have the level on beauty, and when reaching a certain level, they both have their own difficulties. To some extent, action animation is more attractive, so it often be labeled as ‘showing off skills’. I think it’s quite unfair to say that. Of course, both of them are pretty damn hard for me (laughs).
So, farewell to Minato. This cut is like a test I set for myself to conquer, and basically had three parts:
1. How to draw tears
2. Expression control
3. Trembling caused strong emotion
Before starting, I watched the live recordings to feel how seiyuu expressed their emotions, which really helps a lot. I even acted alone in front of mirror again and again (laughs). It reminds me of Disney animators, showing their expressions randomly to look for drawing references (laughs). So I began my work after having those experiences and got some inspirations from that. It takes a lot of skill matching up the shapes of mouth when speaking, especially focusing on a key point, synchronizing emotions between voices and characters. The close-up shot took the longest to complete for this cut. The rest of the work was easy, a little patience with a little time to draw key frames one by one. I ran into difficulties for sure, but we didn’t have time costs for a 10 seconds of lavish acting, after all it is a TV program. So plenty of recycling and compounds (by software) were included, which drove me crazy to finish for the timesheet; luckily it worked out.
– Rumor has it you chose to animate Neji’s death. What were your feelings on that? How emotional was it to work on that cut being such a longtime fan of the series?
A cruel battle has a way of making a main character more mature. I think loss is an important part of that and is necessary to push the story forward. But for the reader it can be completely devastating.
I wanted to draw the part were Naruto holds Hinata’s hand, but it it had already been claimed by someone else (laughs). So I had to accept my second wish: Naruto being slapped by Hinata, and Neji’s final words. That was my first time doing 38 cuts at one time. Most of them were speaking cuts, but like I said before, I prefer drawing cuts with meaning in the story, in this case the first time Naruto experienced what it’s like to lose friend. I put my whole attention into character expressions; it was the least I could do for the character.
– Naruto episode 467 was your debut as an animation director: how was your first experience in a new role?
I still lack of enough experience to have good control over the whole episode, although my ambition is to be an episode director. So being an animation supervisor definitely widened my view. It made me clearly realize where I should work harder.
Having somewhat decent drawing skills helps a lot in keeping the episode consistent. An animation supervisor has to make compromises on how to allocate supervision time to keep all 20 minutes of animation consistent. It is totally different from working as a key animator who only needs to worry about 2 dozen cuts.
Even if I only took charge of 100 cuts, it can still be emotionally exhausting by the end of the say. The work is tedious. Just make sure characters’ poses and faces aren’t extremely changed. I almost have no time to revise other works like: camera indication, x-sheet, but I am quite confident I’ll get better as I gain experience doing it.
– Your work on episode 19 and 22 of Kuroko no Basket seems much more subdued than your other work. How animator draw actions?
Basically my rules are: do the key animation based on content of story and with the director’s intention. My personal first concern is digging into the personal qualities of a character in a specific scene. Emotion decides his reactions and performance. First, I make myself think as the character in the scene, feel the surroundings, then go to the key pose, keep correcting between details, like subtle shivers or expressions.
Sometimes I also, like Disney animators, act it out first to feel the rhythm of the character’s movements. When I go to actually draw it I sometimes end up with more exaggeration and obvious rhythmical movement. It’s probably a combination between the accumulation of experience and inspiration. My theory knowledge is quite poor, so I keep conscious memories of basic movements and patterns in my head.
– You publish a lot of genga on Weibo and Twitter, how strict is Pierrot’s policy on that?
I kinda skirt around that since Naruto was originally a manga. While I was drawing Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale I would use my leisure time to practice, and since I worked on Naruto I naturally started drawing Naruto and Hinata. I’ve wanted those two to become a couple since the Chunin Exam. I was pretty happy with the ending as a fan.
– Where do you think you future lies as an animator, staying at Pierrot or doing feature films and series freelance?
My goal is to be a director. But I lack quite a bit of knowledge and experience, so I want to keep working with Yamashita and devote myself to that long term goal, waiting for chance. It is because Pierrot and Yamashita that I am able to get some many chances, they are great benefactor for me. As a Chinese person in Japan, I want to do my best to bridge China and Japan though anime, plus spare no effort to deliver audiences all over the world more happiness .
– You recently worked on the new Sword Art Online movie.
Sure we can talk about it now. I was really nervous about transitioning into the next job. I thought that 2016 would end with the end of Naruto. It’s was a pleasure to join in the production of Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale and I am grateful for Kobayashi trusting me.
When I saw such dense key animation for the climax, more dense than the final battle in Naruto, I was astonished. Taking this job has been an opportunity to improve, it might have been beyond my skill level, but I would have regretted not taking it. So that’s that. The staff of A1 give me, a freshman, a lot of patience and trust, and I really appreciated that. I gained some experience animating spectacular battles. It was the first time I saw so many special effects and movement for an animation supervisor to correct. I really learned lot and wish to apply it in the future.
– Anything you would like to say to the Chinese animation industry?
I don’t think I am as good as what people online say. I only can say that I am enjoying the process, facing the difficulties, progressing, and being filled with satisfaction when my work is seen by audiences when I work as an animator. Right now I am unable to create magnificent things like other famous animators do, and nor do I have outstanding skills and abilities. But as a professional, I have much sense of responsibility and attitude to do it better, maybe that’s one reason people back me. So I want to stress that talent is not the only thing that allows a person to reach the summit of the industry.
To take root in this industry, solid effort and patience is most the important thing. I was lucky and got to step onto a famous platform and be recognized by a lot of people. A lot of great animators who are better than me are contributing to the anime industry. For the Chinese animation industry; commercial anime cannot just rely on one person or a few, it is a long term team effort. Perhaps we need more stubborn people, innocent people, to do practical work. We need to get rid of biases for different brands and hostility for resources. And we need to be patient for the anime industry to improve. We are all trying to reach the same goal by different means. We all want to make great work, and share with you.