HN: What did you focus on and take care in the most in terms of the visual design of the universe for the story and the characters? And what kinds of research did you do for the visual design process?
Masashi Ando: The environment design, costume design, designs arising from the cultures in the story, and so on is largely due to Mr. Shinagawa, who was in charge of the setting for the story’s universe.
The setting of the Aquafa Kingdom is based on an indigenous farming and herding culture, and the base colours of their costumes and goods are earthly colours. On the other hand, the Zol Empire is designed on the basis of a religion strongly-held in the country. Religious motifs are displayed in many places and are the sustenance of the people’s spiritual world.
Ethnic and cultural differences are important elements of this film and we had to elaborate in many ways to visualise them. For example, it is very difficult to portray ethnic differences only by the characters’ figure, and our intentions with the directing can be misunderstood easily if the visuals take too much influence from racial differences in the real world.
So, for the sake of clarity, we decided that the Zol people will have tattoos on their foreheads. In addition, to make a clear contrast in the cultural backgrounds of Aquafa and Zol, we made “red” and “blue” as the symbolic colours of each of them respectively.
We also took a lot of care in having recognisable contrasts at a glance in each character when we designed their visuals. We thought that if the silhouettes of the characters could make each of their personalities emerge when put next to one another, it was ideal. The basis of our idea for creating the visual differences among the characters, albeit very classical, are circles, triangles and squares.
HN: Hiroshi Ohno, the art director of the film, has worked for multi-award winning animated feature films by leading directors in Japan such as Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children (2012), Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai (2015), and Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (2017) and Lu over the wall (2017). What do you think is the appeal of the background art directed by Mr. Ohno, including this film, from your point of view?
Masashi Ando: As you know, Mr. Ohno is one of the most trusted art directors in the Japanese animation industry and is a leading artist who draws all styles of background art with excellent skill. I think the greatest attraction of Mr. Ohno’s background art is that, no matter which style he adapted for, all of them are very elegant. I think “delicate and transparent beauty” is the essence and true value of his artwork.
I believe the ending in this film is where Mr. Ohno’s excellent abilities really shined. I think the big factors of that are the fact that he has drawn most of the background in that scene by himself, and we made “a hopeful future” as the motif of that part and it matched his artistic taste.
In fact, the direction of his background art doesn’t seem to line up with stories having a hard edge such as The Deer King. I repeatedly requested him to “have stronger shading” or “make it sharper and edgier” or “make it weirder” during the production process. Even so, his sense of aesthetics took him in the direction of elegance and he seemed to be struggling with responding to my requests.
HN: I encountered many impressive animated moments in this film, such as the action scenes and the lifelike animation of animals. Could you let us know the scenes that you would like the audience to pay special attention to, and the animators who were in charge of those scenes?
Masashi Ando: Above all, I have to mention the chief animator, Toshiyuki Inoue. I have always had nothing but respect and admiration for his work. Once again, he did an outstanding job for this film. In particular, he did great work about animals in general. We asked him to animate the base movements of dogs, horses and flying deer (the Pyuika) ahead of time. And then all the staff used them as a reference when working.
Of course, Mr. Inoue demonstrated his outstanding animation skills not only in the animals, but also for a variety of scenes. These include action scenes such as where a pack of dogs wrapped in black fluids attacks the village where Van is resting, or a cavalry’s suicidal attack in the climax. It also includes important scenes that are low-key and require great deal of effort and time, such as Hohsalle’s first appearance, and the scene where Van climbing up a rope ladder in a salt mine.
To be honest, I often regret that if I had more directing ability, I would’ve been able to make a further leap of the scenes’ expressive power with Mr. Inoue…
I would also like to mention one more animator: Shinji Hashimoto. For instance, there is a scene where Van is chasing after the dogs who kidnapped Yuna; he then desperately reaches out to her but then was intercepted by an arrow shot by Sae in the forest. His work on that scene is vibrant and lively. It is a very powerful scene and that dynamism can be done by no other.
Without a doubt, I’ve truly appreciated the contribution from all the animators, including these two.
HN: What did you focus on or take care of, in terms of the music composition for the film. How was the work with Harumi Fuuki, the composer? And what was your first impression of the completed film with music?
Masashi Ando: To tell you the truth, we ended up having to ask Ms. Fuuki to compose music for the film within a very short period of time due to various reasons, and I am very sorry about that. Nevertheless, all the music she composed and sent us was wonderful and I’m very happy with the music.
What I’ve requested to her when I ordered the music for the film was to have an impressive theme song with a rich melody that symbolises Van, and would stay in the audiences’ head. My vision of the music structure for the film were songs that would represent each scene and character, deriving from Van’s theme song. We focused on melody rather than sound for the film and hoped that the melody would complement the story of the film. As this film has a story that mixes very complex elements, we thought that music would help clarify the core of that complexity.
Ms. Fuuki met our expectations accurately and quickly on a surprising level and I’m sincerely grateful for that.