Interview with Akiko Saito (Computer Graphics Supervisor: A Detective Story) from The Animatrix (2003)

By Paul Martin September 5th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Animatrix

Archival interview with Akiko Saito from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: How did you get involved in computer graphics?

AKIKO-SAN: In university I studied animation production. The first studio I started working at was a small company; they were kind of the first in the industry in Japan to try integrating computers into their traditional hand drawn pipeline. Since they didn’t have a lot of work at the time, it fell to me to do some research and figure out how digital tools might fit into their work flow. So, by default, I became the one who knew everything about computers and computer graphics at the office. Then I was hired by Studio 4°C [Animation and Production Design studio for: SECOND RENAISSANCE: PARTS 1 & 2, BEYOND, KID’S STORY, A DETECTIVE STORY] to do computer graphics rather than production work, and have been here quite awhile. I’m now the Computer Graphics Supervisor.

MATRIX: Can you tell us some of the titles you’ve worked on?

AKIKO-SAN: The first thing I worked on when I came to Studio 4°C was a music video directed by Koji Morimoto called ‘Extra’. It used a lot of interesting 3-D, which was innovative for the time. Over the years I’ve done a lot of commercials here, as well as music videos, and directed the computer graphics for one of Morimoto-san’s movies called Noiseman. Most recently I directed the computer graphics for a feature film called Spriggan, which was produced entirely in house here.

MATRIX: What was your first reaction on seeing THE MATRIX?

AKIKO-SAN: From a technical standpoint I was really interested in all the visuals, and the special effects were like nothing I’d seen done before. After the movie was finished it left me wanting more, and wondering what would come next.

MATRIX: How did you feel when you first heard about THE ANIMATRIX and the possibility you might be working on it?

AKIKO-SAN: It was a combination of emotions: I was very excited in anticipation of being involved in a big project like that, but also felt pressure to come up with something different than what had been done on previous productions.

MATRIX: How has the experience been working with Maeda-san?

AKIKO-SAN: This is the first time I have worked with him, and he was quite different from the other directors I’ve worked with before. It was difficult to get used to his working style, but in the end he pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, even proposing some interesting ideas, since he also wanted to explore new ways of showing animation. In the end it turned out to be a very good experience.

MATRIX: What makes him unique in his working style?

AKIKO-SAN: Most of the animation directors I’ve worked with up until this point have all had an extremely clear idea of what they want to do, and have been pretty specific in directing my contribution to their work. In Maeda-san’s case, though he does have a clear idea of what he wants, he’s also very influenced by the people around him. In the end, you have a lot of freedom working for him, but at the same time it takes a while to figure out what he wants sometimes and how you’re going to contribute to that.

MATRIX: Where in the process did you come into the project?

AKIKO-SAN: I started about a year and a half ago [early 2001], when Maeda-san had just finished his first draft of storyboards; I’ve been involved pretty much from the earliest stage possible in how computer graphics are going to be used.

MATRIX: Were the storyboards for the computer sequences as fleshed out as the rest?

AKIKO-SAN: On the first set of storyboards, every scene was drawn to the same level of detail. After we had them in hand, Tanaka-san, Maeda-san and I sat down and tried to figure out which cuts we would do using computer graphics and, within those, what techniques we would use.

MATRIX: What was your first reaction reading the script and seeing the boards for THE SECOND RENAISSANCE?

AKIKO-SAN: My first impression was that it was incredibly violent with a lot of battle scenes. Spriggan also had a lot of battle scenes, but they didn’t use many computer graphics for that. It was pretty much in the plans from when I first got involved; that these big battle scenes with all the suits could only be done using computer graphics. So I was a little unsure at the beginning how I was going to pull off a lot of those shots.

MATRIX: Which shots did you find most difficult?

AKIKO-SAN: There were two aspects that were particularly challenging. One, SECOND RENAISSANCE needed a lot of 3-D characters, and typically the work that they do here in the computer graphics department is usually a lot of two-dimensional compositing and effects, and 3-D background work. Actual animation of fully articulated characters is not something they do everyday. That’s not only the case at Studio 4°C, but anywhere in the industry, so for me it was a big challenge because I had to do the set up and actual animation of characters myself. Also, this was the first show where a software developer was on site actually working with us to create software that would produce images that, though executed using 3-D, would look like hand drawn animation. It was interesting for me to work side by side with a software developer, to basically design programs that don’t exist.

MATRIX: What kinds of new software were developed?

AKIKO-SAN: There two main tools: one was designed to project hand drawn backgrounds onto 3-D geometries, so you could have a camera move within a 3-D environment where the elements would still look hand drawn. It produces a very interesting hybrid look. To make it work, I’d take a piece of hand drawn art work and then create 3-D geometry that conforms to the contours drawn in the artwork, and then re-project the artwork onto the 3-D geometry. Once that’s in place, it gives me quite a bit of freedom of camera movement in the scene.

The other piece of software was based on a tool that allows you to render 3-D data so it looks hand drawn. It looks like it’s cel animated with the usual ink, contour lines, and tones. The painted areas, rather than having smooth, reflective surfaces, look like someone inked and painted them. What we worked on together was refining that tool so I could use it to match their house cel animation style.

MATRIX: Describe how the 4°C pipeline flows once you get past the storyboards.

AKIKO-SAN: The actual process can be different for each cut, but my basic job when I get the storyboards is to have a lot of meetings with the director and the art director to work out all the details of each shot. In live action filming you’d call it an effects break down. Because most of the work they do here is hand drawn animation, I do another pass asking “Is CGI going to lead this shot, or is hand drawn animation going to lead this shot?” Every shot is going to have some components of both, but you can prioritize each shot in terms of whether hand drawn elements are the main part of it, or whether the computer graphics elements are the main part. Then I start working with my team in the computer graphics group to actually assign shots to each person on the team. I’ll often do a lot of shots myself. The director and I work pretty closely together and throughout the course of the production I have to make sure that all the shots match the visual style of the piece, and are consistent with the director’s wishes.

MATRIX: How large is your team?

AKIKO-SAN: On SECOND RENAISSANCE I had three people working for me at Studio 4°C, and four people working outside at another company.

MATRIX: Proportionally, how much of SECOND RENAISSANCE is CGI?

AKIKO-SAN: At some point, every shot goes digital — whether it’s just ink and paint or a composite, it’s a hundred percent digital by the time I’m finished with it. But in terms of the actual use of 3-D computer graphics, on SECOND RENAISSANCE, about 40-45%.

MATRIX: So you’re not only in charge of every shot using 3-D software, but also oversee turning analog images into digital?

AKIKO-SAN: That’s right.

MATRIX: What were some of your favorite shots?

AKIKO-SAN: The parts I enjoyed the most were those when I didn’t have other people doing the work. Where I could get my hands on the material and lay out shots myself and plan everything, and get much more involved in the making of the images. In particular, I really enjoyed the scene in the car factory where the robots are manufacturing parts. I laid out the whole shot, planned it, and modeled the robots, as well as animated them. I also worked on some of the big background scenes, where you descend into the battlefield on a big 3-D crane for a couple of shots, and move around in the trenches.

MATRIX: How would you compare working on a mostly non-digital project like Spriggan, to THE ANIMATRIX?

AKIKO-SAN: The software I use has progressed quite a bit since I did Spriggan, so a lot of things the director asked me to do on Spriggan I couldn’t, because the software wasn’t there, or the staff wasn’t qualified to do it. On this project, I’ve actually been able to do everything asked of me; with technology having advanced quite a bit, there’s a greater sense of freedom on these ANIMATRIX shorts.

MATRIX: Was it any trickier because of the nature of SECOND RENAISSANCE?

AKIKO-SAN: It wasn’t so much a matter of there being so many shots or so many sequences, but one of the things that was difficult about this project — and it’s actually something you could say about all animation projects — was making both sides of the relationship, between the traditional animation set and the computer graphics staff, work smoothly. I had to work very closely with both the CGI and cel animation teams. As it happened, on THE ANIMATRIX there were a lot of first time computer graphics people who weren’t accustomed to dealing with cel animators, as well as some cel animators who weren’t used to creating shots that involved a lot of computer graphics. It was one of the challenges on this job to become the ambassador to both of those worlds.

MATRIX: Could you describe the process of going from analog to digital with the hand drawn art.

AKIKO-SAN: One thing is that, unlike traditional cel animation where a cel animator or supervisor will look at a storyboard and, based on that, do a hand drawn layout, sub-dividing that into various hand drawn elements, a lot of the shots I deal with start at the same place — the storyboards — but I’ll actually do a 3-D layout. With the camera in motion, I’ll decide at that stage which elements, 2-D and 3-D, to use. So I have a very different outlook on how 2-D and 3-D elements mingle. Obviously there are some things that work better hand drawn, and some things where there’ll be a lot of time saved for them to be done in 3-D; based on those time considerations, I’ll often request hand drawn elements from the staff of cel animators, and integrate those into something that’s already three dimensional. It’s very different from traditional cel animation, where it’s all hand drawn and all the pieces are fitting together by way of a hand drawn layout. In this, everything starts in 3-D and then some elements become hand drawn, and other elements, like some of the characters and backgrounds, end up staying three dimensional.

MATRIX: How would you describe SECOND RENAISSANCE to someone who hasn’t seen it?

AKIKO-SAN: SECOND RENAISSANCE is basically a history tale, rather than a story centered on characters. It’s a little different from a traditional story, but it makes up for that in its scale and the scope of its visuals. That’s something I’ve kept in mind while I’ve been doing the digital parts of the production, how to really open the story up, either through using 3-D elements, or using 3-D backgrounds, and to really try and push the scale.

MATRIX: Touching on the freedom that you mentioned before, where did you draw some of your inspiration from?

AKIKO-SAN: I have a hard time putting my finger on any particular thing or image that was more influential, or important, than anything else. One thing, in retrospect, is that I wish I’d realized how much freedom I had a little earlier. I regret not having tried a few more experiments at the outset, and not having realized Maeda-san was waiting for me to suggest some new techniques until fairly late in the process. Had I figured that out earlier, I might have gone further out on a limb and tried to push the 3-D images even farther.

MATRIX: What was your reaction to seeing the final picture?

AKIKO-SAN: All things considered, I was pretty satisfied with it.

MATRIX: Thank you, Akiko-san.

Interview by REDPILL


Translated by Mike Arias

July 2002

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