HAYAO MIYAZAKI TALKS PONYO!
BY DOUG JONES
In anticipation of the upcoming release of Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki agreed to make a rare visit to America. As if making up for all the times he didn't come to the States, such as when he skipped the Academy Awards the year Spirited Away won Best Animated Feature, Miyazaki managed to do a lot during his time here. His first stop was the San Diego Comic-Con, where he received a standing ovation from Hall H's 6500-strong audience. Next, it was up to the Bay Area, where he accepted an award from the Center for Japanese Studies at University of California: Berkeley. Then, he traveled to Los Angeles, where he hosted a screening of Ponyo at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and endured a day of press conferences.
Throughout it all, John Lasseter was at his side. In fact, without Lasseter, Miyazaki's visit would not have happened. "I'm sorry, but I don't really like these sorts of events," Miyazaki told a small room full of journalists in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he was mostly gracious, answering questions and accepting accolades wherever he went. I was lucky enough to be present for two of his stateside appearances-Comic-Con and the Los Angeles press conference-and here's some of what he, and John Lasseter, had to say.
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ON DEVELOPING HIS FILMS
John Lasseter: Can you talk a little bit about how you develop your stories?
Hayao Miyazaki: My process is thinking, thinking, thinking. Thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know. (Comic-Con)
I do all my work by storyboard. As I draw the storyboards, the world gets more and more complex. As a result, my north, south, east, west kind of shift and go offbase, but it seems like my staff, as well as the audience, doesn't quite realize this has happened. (Press conference)
Lasseter: When I visit him, I'm always amazed. We work so hard at Pixar. We have a storyboard team, and we work very close to work and rework and rework our sequences. I go over to sit and watch him, and he sits down at his desk and starts. He just does everything himself, and his boards are so beautiful. They become the layout for his films, and it just comes out of his head. That's not really a question, I guess. I'm gushing because I'm sitting next to Hayao Miyazaki.
Miyazaki: I think working on a storyboard alone is a custom that we have in Japan in terms of animation. It's not just I that works that way, but since I'm slow, it seems like I'm working on the storyboard for a long time. (CC)
THE ORIGINS OF PONYO
Miyazaki: I know John Lasseter knows as well, but it's really hard to explain what becomes the motivation or the instigation to do a film. I feel that I was searching in my subconscious with a fishing net, and I happened to catch a goldfish in my net, and that was the inspiration for starting this movie.
There was a children's book, aimed for small children, that gave me a bit of a hint at the beginning, and I was thinking of perhaps using that as the original story to work from. There was a frog in that. But as I worked on the story, it became something completely different from that original children's book, so I didn't pursue that direction. [NOTE: He's referring to Elta the Frog by Japanese author Rieko Nakagawa.] (PC)
I couldn't work out a good character for a frog, so I turned it into a goldfish. I think I was lucky. It was good that I turned it into a goldfish. (CC)
Question: One of the stories that inspired Ponyo was the same story that inspired The Little Mermaid. What do you feel are the differences between your interpretation and the other animated Little Mermaid?
Miyazaki: I watched the video of The Little Mermaid many years ago when I was first given it, but I haven't watched it recently on purpose. I did not watch it in making my film. (PC)
ON SIGHT AND SOUND
Lasseter: The color in all your films is so beautiful. It really helps tell the underlying emotions of your scenes. This film is, I think, one of the most colorful films you've created. What was the idea behind the styling? You know, the backgrounds and colors for this film…
Miyazaki: I wanted to make it a simple story and to show simplicity through the colors. Also, since the main character is red, a goldfish, I didn't want her colors to overwhelm the other colors, so the other colors had to be bright as well.
Lasseter: The music in your films is amazing work by Joe Hisaishi. How early do you bring him in on the process?
Miyazaki: Fairly early on, I bring Joe Hisaishi to discuss what kind of film I'm going to make. I give Mr. Hisaishi some notes regarding… For example, Ponyo is a small goldfish. What kind of world does she live in? I give him indications of what kind of motifs I would like to have in the film. Then he composes the music as he sees fit in a free way, and then he makes it what we call the image album of the entire music that's going to be in the film. We don't necessarily use all of that music, but it's the music that he imagines would be best fitting for this story. Then, as the story develops and it gets farther on into the production process, we discuss more specific uses of his music. At some points we use the music; sometimes we don't use the music. Sometimes he loses the memo that I give him. Sometimes there are issues as we go along making the film. We do disagree sometimes. There is some music that I left out of the film My Neighbor Totoro, and he is still telling me that I should have used that. (CC)
TRANSLATING PONYO TO ENGLISH
Question: What did you want to be careful of in adapting the film for English language? What changes needed to be made, so you can get the same effects in the English translation?
Miyazaki: I entrusted the English version to my trusted friends, so I didn't worry about it. I just stayed in Japan and didn't worry about it.
Lasseter: One of the biggest challenges in taking and creating the English-language versions of Miyazaki-san's films… This is the third, no, the fourth one I've really worked on: Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Tales from Earthsea and now Ponyo. I don't ever want the English version to change anything in Miyazaki-san's story. The goal is to make the film for American audiences and just for the language to be very natural. You don't think of this as being a dubbed Japanese film. That's not what we want. We want everyone to just get swept away with the story.
However, there are sometimes things that Japanese audiences will understand visually that American audiences won't. In those cases, what I always strive to do is to make sure the American audiences will be at the exact same level of understanding at that one time in the movie as a Japanese audience would be. An obvious example of that is back on Spirited Away, when the main character is walking and when she's exploring the village, she looks at this building. All Japanese members of the audience would look at it and know right away it's a bathhouse, but no one in this country would know that's a bathhouse. So you just add a little line of "Oh, it's a bathhouse." It's little tricks like that. That's not changing anything. It's just keeping them understanding.
One of the things to understand is in Japan, especially with Hayao Miyazaki, he always records the original dialogue after he's finished the animation, which is different from what we do in this country. We always record the dialogue before we do the animation. So the lip-sync is somewhat on the rough side anyway. It helps us fit the words in there. But we try very hard working with the actors to get the lines of dialogue to fit with the right mouth movement, because you don't want to have someone sit there talking and nothing's coming out or saying a whole bunch of words, but there's no mouth movement. You want to try and fit it in there.
The goal is the lights dim, the audience in America is taken away, is swept away by this beautiful story and visuals and the characterizations. So we work really hard to make it seem as natural as possible.
Question: You mentioned Tales from Earthsea. Miyazaki-san, since your son directed that film, and it occurred beforePonyo, what has he been doing since in carrying on the family tradition? And Mr. Lasseter, I didn't realize you had already prepared a version of that. I thought there was a rights issue with the Ursula Le Guin estate. What is the status of that?
Lasseter: We're just kinda wading through that, and there's a time limit. It will be released at some point.
Question: But the version is ready to go?
Lasseter: It's ready.
Miyazaki: My son is now in childrearing.
Lasseter: Which is very important to Miyazaki-san.
Miyazaki: That's a very important process.
Question: Is there anything more to be said about your son's interest in animation?
Miyazaki: It's a difficult question, but I don't see myself creating a directors dynasty, unless he can crawl up to be a director on his own. It's up to him. The first hurdle right now is raising his children. (PC)
Question: After using computer technology on a couple of films, Ponyo marks your return to completely hand-drawn animation. Was there something specific to Ponyo that inspired that? Would you have done that with whatever your next film would have been?
Miyazaki: Actually, Studio Ghibli had dissolved the computer graphics section before we started production on Ponyo, so we had decided at that point to stick with hand-drawn animation. Just as John Lasseter and I are different, I think I can leave the computer animation to him.
Question: Would you like to make a 3D movie? Would you ever permit one of your movies to be converted into 3D?
Miyazaki: I don't think we would make a 3D film. At least, not while my producer, Toshio Suzuki, and I are alive. (PC)
JOHN LASSETER'S FAVORITE MIYAZAKI MOMENTS
Lasseter: You know how when you watch a movie and you see something in it, a vision of something you've never seen before, something you've never even thought of before? I always feel like in Miyazaki-san's films, there's probably five or six of these in each of his films. (CC)
The first thing I saw of Hayao Miyazaki was the first film he directed, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. I was so taken by the humor and the heart of the film. And also the way he staged action, and it was a hand-drawn animated film. I was so interested in that, because there was a car chase towards the beginning of the film that, to me, is still one of the best car chases on film. It's so sophisticated and simple how he created depth, tremendous depth, using hand-drawn animation. He would have foreground… like parts of the foreground were hand animation to give a sense of moving them around. It was a mountain road, and he animated the road, and then the mid- and background levels were split up into many levels, and he would slide them sideways. It gave this tremendous depth, three-dimensional depth. I was amazed at how simple the solution was he did. I was so excited about it.
We've studied many of his action sequences and how he does what he's able to achieve. It's been very inspiring for us. There's a rescue in Laputa: Castle in the Sky where Sheeta, the girl character, gets rescued at this fort, and it's one of the best rescue sequences. It's just fantastic. (PC)
MUTUAL APPRECIATION SOCIETY
Miyazaki: Watching John Lasseter's films, I think I can understand better than anyone what he's doing is going straight ahead with his vision and working really hard to get that vision into film form. I feel my understanding this is my friendship toward him.
Lasseter: That's sweet. I would say the thing that has inspired us at Pixar, probably more than anything else… The best way to describe it is Miyazaki-san celebrates the quiet moments in movies, which is very opposite of Hollywood tendencies, you know, of loud and faster, more and more and more, quicker cutting. If you watch his films, there's a few places where-and they're really beautifully strategic about where the action and everything is-there are these beautiful quiet moments. What he does is it actually sets up sequences that come right before or right after because of the contrast. I think if you watch Up, Pete Doctor and myself were so inspired by this that there are some beautiful moments in Up that are really, very Miyazaki-like in the quietness of it.
For me, I have for a long time wanted American audiences to discover Miyazaki-san's films. I've dedicated myself to try and do what I can to bring these movies to American audiences. Once you watch one of them, you get like… They kinda blow you away and you want to see more. (PC)
This article is cross-published at Twitch.
ABOUT DOUG JONES: Based in Los Angeles, Doug Jones is Senior Programmer of the Los Angeles Film Festival, the first to screen Miyazaki's Ponyo in the US.
Various extra photographs as shot by Doug Jones.