Making Convincing Visuals, Preparations for a Complete Scene

Atsushi Okui

Capturing the world of the little people with a close-up lens.

Interviewer: At what stage did you start getting involved in “Arrietty”?

“From the moment it was decided that Maro (nickname for Director Yonebayashi) would direct, and the script was already drafted. At first, I wondered if ‘Maro would be okay,’ but after seeing the storyboard that came later, I thought ‘this might work.’ The storyboard depicted Arrietty’s emotional transitions very well.”

Interviewer: As the visual department, what did you think would be the crucial aspect of your job?

“How to portray the world of regular humans and the little people. When the camera delves into the world of the little people, it felt like capturing the world of insects with a close-up lens. It was essential to emphasize the depth difference between the human world and that of the little people. That was the initial thought. However, if we depicted the entire world of the little people in this way, it would be hard to sense their daily lives. I wanted to show their “borrowed” life, surrounded by handmade furniture, as rich as human life, but also emphasize that they are indeed little.”

Interviewer: A characteristic of close-up lenses is the very narrow focus range. There were many scenes where the character was in focus, but objects in the foreground and background were blurred.

“In 2D animation, if done poorly, it can look fake. At Studio Ghibli, we’ve always used a technique called ‘pan focus,’ which keeps both foreground and background objects in focus. But this time, we intentionally used a shallow depth of field to represent the world of the little people.”

Interviewer: I felt that there was a lot of thought put into the camera angles, not just in layout and art, especially with the depiction of plants. Detailed portrayals, showing even the underside of leaves, are rarely seen in works other than “Arrietty.”

“There are indeed many angles in daily life that are not visible to human eyes. How well the art staff brings a good background is essential. For the photography part, we emphasized how the leaves shimmer when penetrated by sunlight. However, being too realistic makes it stand out from the scene, so we were cautious.”

Interviewer: How did you perceive the brightness and lighting of the world beneath the floor where the little people live?

“It would be wrong to portray it as a completely dark world where no light reaches. The little people would’ve found ways to utilize light. From the initial image boards, there were designs that effectively harnessed external light. The art also depicted rooms where sunlight leaked in if it was sunny outside. In the filming process, we added some extra light to emphasize that it wasn’t a pitch-dark world.”

Interviewer: Cooperation with the art department is crucial.

“Yes, in the case of Ghibli, the art team focuses on drawing, and then the visual department adds effects to that material. We had thorough discussions.”

Interviewer: The background with overgrown weeds is drawn by the art staff as a single picture. Then, in the visual department, you extract each leaf, adjust the focus, and add blur effects. The more intricate the background, the more detailed the work in the visual department becomes, right?

“Yes, we could ask the art team to draw leaves separately according to focus areas, but that wouldn’t result in a complete artwork. It’s better for us to segment what we need from a comprehensive piece. Especially in scenes with flowers, we had to work hard to show the depth of the flowers. Including the treatment of light hitting the flowers, it was one of the most challenging scenes.”

Interviewer: It’s a world of manual work.

“Yes, manual work in the digital domain. The final screen may look convincing, but to make it look that way, a lot of invisible preparation is needed. This unseen work is our job, and if the behind-the-scenes work becomes noticeable on the screen, it’s considered a failure.”

Expectations for Director Yonebayashi’s Future

Interviewer: From the perspective of a veteran like you, Mr. Okui, how do you see “Arrietty” in the context of Studio Ghibli’s works?

 “While many members, starting with the director, were handling a feature-length film for the first time, key positions such as animation directors and art directors were held by veterans, including myself. For us, the challenge and goal this time was how to support the newcomers based on the experiences we had built up with directors like Mr. Miyazaki. Whether we succeeded or not ultimately depends on how the finished work is received by everyone. But I believe it was good that the entire studio worked with an atmosphere of supporting and uplifting Maro.”

Interviewer: Were there scenes that changed based on suggestions you made to Director Yonebayashi?

“Almost all of them, I would think (laugh). I don’t know how Maro initially envisioned the final visuals, but I believe many things changed as he discussed with the surrounding staff. Maro has been active as an animator until now, but he had no idea about the specific work of other departments or what kind of communication he should have when he became a director.”

Interviewer: This was his first time interacting with the film department, right?

“It’s difficult for a director to grasp all the tasks of the film department, but I believe that having experienced a full-length film will allow him to move on to the next step. I’m curious to see how Maro will address the areas he couldn’t quite nail in this film in his next work.”

Okui Atsushi. Born in 1963. He joined Asahi Production in 1982 and worked in cinematography. He has been responsible for the cinematography of Studio Ghibli films since “Porco Rosso”. In 1993, he transferred to Ghibli when its cinematography department was established. Since “Spirited Away”, he has been involved as a visual director. From “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” onward, due to the integration of the cinematography department, he oversees the film processing tasks.

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