This article is a reprint from a special website on animation for the Japan Media Arts Festival overseas promotion, held by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Animationweek presents a series of special interviews with the 4 leading Japanese animation studios as part of a special program on the aforementioned website.
Considerable craftsmanship brought out by a talented stop-motion team
YASHIRO joined TAIYO KIKAKU Co., Ltd. in 1993. In 2012, while working as a director on numerous TV commercials, he completes his first independent stop-motion animated film Dear November Boy, which was chosen for public screening under the “Modern Japanese Animation” category during the 14th Hiroshima International Animation Festival.
Through his involvement in large-scale video productions, such as Expos, he came to realize that: “With video, what is important is creating an experience, and not being confined to a rectangular frame”. After experiencing the aurora spreading across the entire sky in 1999, he began working on a planetarium dome video, and in 2005 he produced the world’s first 360-degree spherical image at Expo 2005 in Aichi. He continues to produce works that appeal to the viewer’s sensibilities, such as interactive images and handmade stop-motion animation works.
TAIYO KIKAKU is a large, award-winning Japanese film production company with many achievements in TV advertisements for over a half-century. Their creative activities cover a wide area, not only involved in the entire creative process of TV advertisement, but also making promotional videos and web content, large-format videos for international exhibitions, events and museums, artworks with VR, interactive media and projection mapping, and creating CGI and stop-motion animation. From all of them, their creation of stop-motion animation with high craftsmanship are recently gathering attention from the Japanese and global animation industry.
“TECARAT”, established by TAIYO KIKAKU in 2015, is a small in-house team of talented creators for developing stop-motion films under the leadership of YASHIRO Takeshi. Mr. Yashiro, now leading TECARAT, was one of the directors of video advertising for TAIYO KIKAKU and has an arsenal of talents for creating stop-motion that include directing, scriptwriting, puppet and set creation, and animating. Since its inception, TECARAT has developed highly-acclaimed films, such as Moon of a Sleepless Night (Audience Award for Short Animation at Austin Film Festival 2016), Norman the Snowman on a Night of Shooting Stars (Grand Prix at Seoul Guro International Kids Film Festival 2017) and GON, THE LITTLE FOX (The 23rd Japan Media Art Festival Animation Division Excellence Award, “BEST STOP MOTION” and “BEST DESIGN” at the Animation Studio Festival 2020, First Place/Animation at the USA Film Festival 2020).
TECARAT’s social media has been receiving messages from many people overseas who were touched by their creations surpassing language barriers, which led them to their vision of the future: expanding their original IPs globally by producing feature films and series while keeping the benefits of short films, such as being enjoyable in a short time. By strengthening the brand power of TECARAT, TAIYO KIKAKU wants to produce stop-motion animation related to advertising as a company.
This is a special interview with YASHIRO Takeshi, the chief director, and OIKAWA Masaaki, the chief producer, of TECARAT on the cherished stories behind their creations and the roots of their originality.
“Created by, born from, and thought through our own hands”
Please let us know why and how “TECARAT”, the in-house creative team dedicated to stop motion animation with its own production studio, was organized within TAIYO KIKAKU.
OIKAWA Masaaki: TAIYO KIKAKU started operating as a company producing TV commercials and other advertisements. After that, an editing room, a CG team and a simple studio with cinematography equipment were set up in the company. We could then gradually establish video production capabilities within our company. Nearly 20 years ago, a team named “Kangaeru Kobou” (English: Thinking Studio) was founded for creating sets for the purpose of shooting TV commercials. At the same time, I started engaging in handling visual work for planetariums as a producer that has grown into a royalty business, distributing original works to other planetariums nationwide for a decade. Among the work for the planetariums, a stop-motion animation work titled Norman the Snowman created by Mr. Yashiro became a hit, which led to the creation of a team named “TECARAT” together with Kangaeru Kobou in 2015, due to great compatibility between them in creating stop-motion animation.
YASHIRO Takeshi: TECARAT, the name of the team, originated from the Japanese word “Tekara” (English: by our hands). Advertising projects have a very strict purpose, so at the production site we think about how to achieve that purpose as our first priority. Though it could be a powerful production site because of that, we, the members of TECARAT, do not only focus on the plan of the project but believe that a hands-on site itself allows significant moments of creating life for the purpose of filmmaking. We would like to value ideas that can come out from us only by continuously creating so much work every single day. So, our motto of “created by, born from, and thought through our own hands” takes the most important role to me as well as to my colleagues who are collaborating in creating work together. Hence, in order to make us remember our original intention again and again, I named the team TECARAT.
How did you, who mainly successfully worked as a director of commercial advertising videos at TAIYO KIKAKU, a well-known CM production company, begin producing original films?
YASHIRO Takeshi: When I was a young student at an art university, I was in an environment where I could carry out my own work, but I did not have many themes that I wanted to create. So, after graduation, I was engaged in making advertising videos so I could make the best use of my skills, like a craftsman. While creating a lot of images for advertising, I found a variety of themes I like and dislike. And then, my child was born when I vaguely thought that I would like to create something on my own. This became the great catalyst for me to produce original films. Children take films they watch as they are. Explaining that “this film was made for achieving this purpose” or “I worked really hard on this point in the film” is not a good justification for children. When faced with that severe perspective of a child, I found it necessary to create something by myself. I wanted to make films that are not made for any purposes or for any reasons, but possibly represents myself, even if every part of me got exposed.
Please let us know why you chose stop-motion animation as a way of telling the stories to the audience.
YASHIRO Takeshi: The reason was that, for me, stop-motion animation is a visual medium where I could create my vision in a straightforward way. In live-action photography, it is likely that there are slightly different impressions between the raw images straight from the camera and the final images after editing. However, I do not feel such a difference in the production of stop-motion animation.
Also, by utilizing stop-motion animation, there are aspects that can be made to align exactly with how I want the characters to act. Stop-motion animation is a form of visual expression where I can create what I want to deliver to the audience through films, hitting exactly where I aimed for.
I personally think that I am not so good at communication. In the case of live-action videos, although I can create a work that matches my intended goals as a professional director by managing a large number of photography staff and actors, I feel that I am not always good at communicating within it. Among other directors, there are quite a lot of people who are skilled at making good, unexpected live-action videos by increasing the chemical reactions among each other and I’ve been thinking that I cannot compete with them in that kind of skill. On the other hand, I am very comfortable in creating works frankly with my hands on a small team. I can easily express in my own way in stop-motion animations.
“It is the use of [wood] that is fundamental in resembling a part of the intended objects we want to create, rather than simply copying the shape of the objects.”
Please let us know the reason why many characters are made of wood, and wood being frequently utilized in the design and materials of sets in your films.
YASHIRO Takeshi: Simply because I love wooden items. Wood has various visual characteristics which over a long time of use gives it additional charm, so that I think it is the use of the material that is fundamental in resembling a part of the intended objects we want to create, rather than simply copying the shape of the objects.
When making sets, we utilize the qualities of wood to show everyone the appeal of a wooden house. The reason why we use wood for our characters is the same. Human skin is regarded as the motif here, but we use the attractive characteristics that wood innately has, such as how they get decayed, scratched, or shaved, to enhance the personalities of the characters. In my opinion, works having these many symbolic analogies can be very expressive for representational art.
Wooden puppets play a very important part in my work, such as the leading and supporting characters. As the puppet’s faces have simple shapes and movements, it is difficult to imitate human faces. However, the textures of wood have a lot of depth that is common to the feeling of depth in human skin that is required for creating visually rich work.
For example, in live action movies where an older actor performs, the profoundness of that actor’s life would often lead to profoundness in the work itself. In stop-motion animation, puppets are created from scratch, so it’s easy to obtain a youthful, fresh and beautiful attractiveness. However, it is generally difficult for puppets to reflect how they have spent their “real lives” outside the work into the roles they are acting, whereas real human actors can do it naturally. Therefore, by using the natural character that the wood has obtained over the years, I’d like to give the characters in my work the depth that a seasoned actor can reflect into their work.
Please let us know about selecting the wood as a material.
YASHIRO Takeshi: I haven’t yet created as many wooden characters as the average wood carver would have, but my criteria in choosing wood have changed in just over 7 to 8 years of my experience in creating works. For example, in the most recent work, GON, THE LITTLE FOX, everything is made from the wood of camphor trees because they can be cut and sharpened easily. Even using the same kind of camphor trees, there are features such as the deep redness and the density or roughness of the grainy texture being unique to each tree, and I make use of these characteristics in producing work. In Moon of a Sleepless Night, chestnut trees were used to make the male characters, and walnut trees with dense, grainy textures were used to create the female and child characters. Chestnut trees have coarser, grainier textures than camphor trees. They are crackly, and their grainy textures are thick and coarse.
Do you change the film’s direction after you take a look at the completed puppets or sets?
YASHIRO Takeshi: I do it to a great degree. In the case of work that I write a script for, after outlining the story and sharing it with my staff, I consider “what kind of actor would be assigned to play this role?” while creating one or two heads of the main character puppets as the first step. So when the main actors are somewhat decided, we can further imagine the scenario and then see what the story would look like. From there, we draw a storyboard and make decisions on the detailed staging.
“By not dividing work during the process of making an animation, we can value our judgement on-site rather than by having a blueprint, thus it becomes easier to pursue the best by looking for the greatest points of making a high-quality work.”
What are the features, strengths and preferences of TECARAT?
YASHIRO Takeshi: To me, what differentiates TECARAT is the fact that we do not have specializations within work. Although there are greater or fewer members depending on each project, we work as a small team of less than 10 people, from puppet manufacturing and set production to shooting phases. Depending on their own strengths and weaknesses, they are assigned to a certain task. However, there are no clear divisions such as the cinematography division or directing division, and there are no borders that separate what you should or should not be doing. As a director, I create a rough story, and then work with members to fill in the details. I think our current work can be made possible because of this organization style.
For example, the set-making division can build a house that looks very good on camera, however the cinematography division cannot shoot a scene because the camera is blocked by a wall of the house. If there is a strict border between the set-making division and the cinematography division, the camera crew would have to ask the person who is in charge of sets whether they can cut out the wall of the house to allow entry. If the member who makes the sets and the one who shoots are the same person, you do not have to hold back or make discussions to cut it. And because they know how to create sets, they can take an aggressive attitude that enables them to cut the wall to the very ends, where they can put it back to an original state after the shooting of the scene.
Also, if an animator and a lighting technician are separately assigned members, the light is applied where an animator would prepare enough space to possibly place the next tool and come into operation. If the animator and the lighting technician are the same person, it is possible for them to think, “this time, I rather have the lights be more beautiful than making animating easier and I will put the lights as closely as possible to find the best lighting effect, no matter how small the working space could be.”
As usual, a story or a storyboard is regarded as the blueprint, and set production and shooting are means to an end. However, at TECARAT, we may change a part of the story if we come across any interesting points in the set that were already made to show much more. By not dividing work during the process of making an animation, we can value our judgement on-site rather than by having a blueprint, thus it becomes easier to pursue the best by looking for the greatest points of making a high-quality work.
Please tell us about the vision and future outlook of the studio, both in Japan and overseas, and the personnel and challenges you are seeking.
YASHIRO Takeshi: As a professional business, we have to sell our work substantially to make a profit. Although currently the films lasting less than 30 minutes are our main focus, we also want to make feature films that make it easy to access the mass film market. Even so, I would not like to change my stance and approach in creating films.
Regarding the efficiency and speed of production, our current working style of having a small team size without dividing labor is a bottleneck. For example, if we have to spend many years making a feature film, simply through consideration it would take us three times as much work as a short film; we would lose the freshness in our mind during the production. We find it possible to keep the motivation in making the same film for 3 or 4 years, but we cannot do that for 10 years; that is not acceptable. So I think the challenge is to create a system that would allow us to save much more working time while maintaining the quality and the good points of our work.
In terms of human resources, I don’t think the number of creators will increase significantly for the time being. Having said that, I think we would need someone like a production assistant who can manage the production workflow, as the scale of the projects has grown bigger recently and most of our staff are creators who use knives to carve wood to make puppets and sets, move the puppets and press the shutters of their cameras, and manage the schedules of an entire project, all by themselves.
OIKAWA Masaaki: One of the challenges of the studio is that the amount of content we’ve made already is small. Moreover, I think TECARAT and YASHIRO Takeshi are still not well-known both in Japan and overseas. Since TECARAT is a department of TAIYO KIKAKU, we will be working on both advertising videos and original content, but we would like to make a breakthrough somewhere and connect it to branding. TECARAT has provided not only works for entertainment such as GON, THE LITTLE FOX and Norman the Snowman, but also original content such as kanjigram that can be used in education. So, we would like to try focusing on the education field as well.
[Interview Date: 8th May, 2020]