In this CGI era when craft means corralling pixels, we take a trip to a traditional animation studio in Tokyo to marvel at mastering the miniature. Among the models and drying paint we find that old-fashioned artworking is at the forefront of a business in rude health.
When you’re filming at 24 frames per second, a day’s work only makes you five seconds of footage; a week: 30 seconds at best. That’s how the time passes at Dwarf, Japan’s top stop-motion animation studio that’s based in Tokyo. In a world of minutiae, 4K and 8K television (the “K” refers to the thousands of pixels onscreen) and 3D computer-graphic animation, Dwarf’s founder and director, Tsuneo Goda, only ever moves his characters one millimeter at a time on set.
A life-changing moment for Goda, 51, came two decades ago when he was working for a television commercial production company. “One of the producers told me that nhk [Japan’s public broadcaster] was looking for a mascot and encouraged me to pitch in the competition.” Goda won and the mascot, known worldwide as “Domo-kun” (his name roughly translates as “Mr Thank You”) has been broadcast in 170 countries.
Since then, Goda has created dozens of characters and his stop-motion animations have won awards at festivals from London to Annecy and Seoul to Montréal. And the studio that Goda started solo in 2003 now employs 22 staff. They produce around 60 stop-motion animations a year including client work for television commercials and music videos (the audiences for most of the studio’s work are in their twenties and thirties).
Inside a former warehouse in the quiet residential neighbourhood of Nerima, dreams are realised and passions pursued. When monocle visits, Dwarf is filming a new animation, Mogu & Perol on Morimori Island. There are three studios, a workshop, storage space and a kitchen where women from the neighbourhood cook lunch and dinner during busy production periods. “We just posted a job advert in a library,” says secretary Tomoko Kitazaki. “It is important to keep everyone happy and strong as a team. It’s hard work.”
In the studio, the eight-minute film they started shooting in mid-October is coming to an end. Animator Hirokazu Minegishi is on the set, adjusting the angle of the arm of Perol, a cute raccoon-like character. “Everything is done by hand: we use our hands to move the sets and puppets are made by hand,” says Goda. He knows the advantages of using the latest digital technologies but shows no intention of abandoning the analogue craft. “Every image is touched by hand. There is a unique texture and warmth to it. We are shooting tangible things that exist.”
Goda recalls real life – childhood memories, emotions, textures and temperatures – to bring a real feel to his characters. And while he might have a fantasy world in his mind, he is fully aware of the reality of producing films. “There are many limitations. If you want a character to laugh in a two-dimensional animation, you can draw it that way. But in three dimensions what you can do is limited to what you have created: puppets and props. It comes down to your imagination and preparation.” At Dwarf there is no make-up room for the cast but there are packets full of characters’ eyelids and mouths in a range of shapes and sizes to express different emotions. Trees, plants and grass on the set are all artificial but soft enough for the animators to create a breeze with the stroke of a hand. They are gods to the small world they have created.
“It’s more than just moving things. You have to make them look as if they were alive. That’s what it means, to animate,” says Minegishi. When he needs to, he goes to Ueno Zoo to watch how animals move. He also times how long a particular sequence of movements takes his own body to perform and calculates how many frames he’ll need for a character on the set.
Minegishi has been perfecting this art for more than 40 years and knows that moving involves stopping. “My master once complimented the way I pause. In Europe, they keep moving the characters but we pause. It’s ma [space or room]. If the paused form is beautiful, you can create great imagery without moving.” He has even breathed life into a rice cooker in stop-motion animation for an advert. “It’s fun. That’s why I’ve been doing it for my whole career.”
Productions are a labour of love, then, and intensive teamwork. Goda creates the characters and story, and animators work closely with him to make the story come alive. “You have to understand the personality of each character to let them move in the most appropriate fashion,” says Minegishi. Dwarf’s skilful partners produce film sets and character figures from Goda’s drawings. “These are ball-jointed puppets. There is one person we always commission in Tokyo. We want a consistent flexibility,” says Kitazaki, noting that there is a mechanism running inside these fluffy dolls from head to toe (or tail) to achieve the most subtle movements.
Lights, camera, action! On the set, the director of photography is putting a lid over a palm-sized “blue-blueberry cake”. The 30cm-tall Mogu is standing by with his arm angled to snatch away the lid on cue. Goda and Minegishi are checking the visual on the monitor while behind them an artist is repainting a tiny slice of cake. The background greenery is placed just so to give a realistic depth to the scene. Focus is good, and then, “roll”. Repeat the routine. And again. Everyone in the team has to be on the same page in this journey of 14,400 frames of imagery that’s shot and edited for a 10-minute film.
Backstage, there are miniature props of everything from crockery to food, all made in great detail. “We actually cut the food props smaller to show the process of eating,” says Hiroki Ito, one of the producers. The tables are filled with tiny spaghetti, fried eggs (Goda ordered them sunny-side up with crisp edges), sandwiches and sliced lemons (before, during and after a squeeze) made by plastic-food specialists in Kappabashi.
Although Goda has introduced digital technology to the studio, he hasn’t lost his perspective. “The latest computer graphics will be old in 10 years,” he says, noting that stop-motion animation has never become obsolete. “What we do might be a bit primitive but this established technique cannot get any older.”