Art and Craft: Atsushi Okui on The Boy and the Heron
This article appeared in the December 7, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Boy and the Heron (Hayao Miyazaki, 2023)
Though not a household name like directors Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata, Atsushi Okui has been the cinematographer on almost every Studio Ghibli feature and short since 1992’s Porco Rosso. As the artist responsible for coordinating the process of translating storyboards into moving images, Okui’s influence on Ghibli’s look cannot be overstated.
As the animation industry has transitioned to digital tools and platforms, Okui has led the charge in incorporating computers into Ghibli’s meticulous workflow. The studio famously has refused to abandon hand-drawn animation, instead carefully integrating digital and analog effects into a seamless, frequently breathtaking whole. In what is now a rarity, Ghibli animators still often draw on physical media rather than tablets. While their visuals are converted into a digital format for the finished version, this process preserves the texture of the original paintings, as well as countless nuances that the animators introduce into characters’ movements. Computer-generated imagery is utilized carefully, not simply to save time but to create specific effects (like the demon worms in 1997’s Princess Mononoke, which look appropriately unearthly as they swarm around traditionally animated characters), or introduce a level of detail that would be almost impossibly time-consuming to render via traditional means (like patterns on curtains).
This fusion of old and new techniques has become more elaborate with each successive Ghibli film, and has reached a new visual zenith in Miyazaki’s latest feature, The Boy and the Heron, now in theaters. Despite Miyazaki’s age (the film follows one of the octogenarian filmmaker’s many retirement announcements), his vaunted imagination has yet to fail him. As a boy in wartime Japan embarks on a journey to another world to rescue his stepmother, he encounters strange spirits, a shape-shifting trickster heron, giant parakeet soldiers, and myriad other creatures, all vividly realized on screen by Okui and his team.
I talked to Okui over Zoom about his work on the film, the technical process of achieving the spectacular effects that are trademarks of Ghibli productions, and whether Miyazaki is as much of a perfectionist as his reputation might suggest.
You’ve been at Studio Ghibli since before the advent of digital animation, and you’ve played a big role in the studio’s adoption of digital tools. How has this use changed over the decades? How does Ghibli use these tools differently from the rest of the industry?
Miyazaki’s first film to use computers was Princess Mononoke. There, the parts where we used digital effects were only about 10 percent of the entire film. We would only use digital effects for special shots, and we used them to bring out the texture in the background, which would be hard to do with only camerawork.
With The Boy and the Heron, we of course start out with the animators and background artists, who still use paint or pencil on paper. After that is where we employ digital technology. But we don’t use any kind of 3D rendering when creating the characters themselves. That’s what we don’t do at Ghibli.
Some visual qualities of Ghibli’s films seem to have shifted throughout this change. In older films, the night, and darkness in general, are blue-hued, whereas in more recent projects, darkness is made of deep blacks, which often contrast with reds and oranges. The blacks, reds, and oranges are especially vivid in this film. How much of that comes from changing sensibilities versus changing tools?
Even though our process now involves converting the analog elements to digital, we’ve remained determined to render what’s on the paper right in front of us as faithfully as possible. We truly value the look of the original hand-drawn work. There’s a different texture that comes with shooting on film, and we want to preserve that texture even through the transition to digital. With The Boy and the Heron, it was a deliberate choice to bring out the blacks, because we wanted that darkness with the shadows throughout the story.
Certain fabrics and tapestries in the film appear to be hand-drawn but with computer-generated textures. It’s an incredible effect. How was that accomplished?
As you said, everything down to the keyframe animation is hand-drawn. We start with that base, and then we layer that with CGI, for which we use a 3D model, and mesh that layer with the hand-drawn work.
Was any new digital tool or method employed to do this? Did anything else in the film require that kind of ingenuity?
In the final act of the film, we have the tower that crumbles. It’s part of the background, so it has texture to it, and therefore we couldn’t rely solely on 3D modeling to animate the action. We also had to have the animators design how the tower would fall apart. We employed a kind of a hybrid method, with the sakuga [detailed animation] artists designing how the effect would look, and then combining their efforts with CGI.
Nothing particularly new was employed in terms of 3D tools. But with the digital compositing of the 2D, we did have to try some new things. But we didn’t do it in a way that you would be able to [notice]. It doesn’t necessarily stand out.
That seamlessness is a hallmark of Ghibli’s work. How much fine-tuning goes into that process? Miyazaki is well-known as a perfectionist.
I would say that my job as a digital imaging supervisor, put succinctly, is to bring to screen whatever is in Miyazaki-san’s head. Miyazaki-san is not as much of a perfectionist as you would imagine. It’s really more that he has this completed image in his head, and it’s up to us to meet his expectations—or hopefully exceed his expectations, if even a little. We do our work and turn that in to Miyazaki-san, and if he says nothing, then that’s our win. So it really comes down to rendering what’s in his head.
Daniel Schindel is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.