Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation at Musée Art Ludique

Animation is a strange and fascinating process, and just as strange to document and curate. Whereas the finished animated feature rarely lasts more than one hour and a half, its creation and process takes years, following meticulous, painstaking stages that will ultimately result in spontaneous, dynamic movement.

Maybe the reason I feel so strongly about animation and its display in museums is puposefully because it is so difficult to grasp from a single angle, but also because there is so much left to show and explore. Within an increasing trend in exhibiting animation, Musée Art Ludique has risen to the occasion in recent years, in sensitive, engaging and provocative ways. I loved their exhibition previously shown at MoMA, celebrating 25 years of Pixar Studios with lavish displays of concept art, storyboards and models that created a balance between Pixar’s technical CGI achievements and their artistic vision. In this exhibition the main impetus was truly to “dip” into every stage leading to the creation of an animated feature, but leaving little room for technical and in-depth exploration of each stage of the process. This time, the formula is different, taking a very precise and almost scientific slant while harking back to a much loved tradition: the art of the preparatory sketch.

The exhibition “Studio Ghibli Layout Designs: Understanding the Secrets of Takahata/Miyazaki Animation” is, indeed, very precise and focused on one particular animation process. Its very title shows that this is going to be an exhibition with a pedagogical as much as an artistic aim: to understand a very particular stage of animation, while admiring the mastery of such drawings. The exhibition was made in collaboration with Studio Ghibli as well as the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s celebrated films within the studio are known around the world and have a glowing thity-year record for hand-drawn animations that are known for their charm, creativity and insightfulness. As Miyazaki has announced his retirement and Studio Ghibli close their film production for now, this exhibition is a poignant tribute to their acheivements.

Layout design is a particular stage of the animated feature in between the rough storyboard creating the narrative and the finished animated scenes. It has a very specific technical purpose: to create defined visual references for the animated in terms of scenery, perspective and position of the characters. It will detail how these characters move but also how the camera may pan upwards, to the side, or zoom in on a particular moment. They are also used to define the exact timing of each scene and movement, as well as key notions in terms of lighting, shadow and mood.

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Howl’s Moving Castle © 2004 Nibariki – GNDDDT

At this stage I need to take a step back from a personal passion about animation and see it from a more general viewpoint: does it sound dry and perhaps too technical? At first sight, perhaps. But this technicity goes hand in hand with the virtuosity and masterful nature of these clean and complex sketches. Their precision and artfulness, setting the founding visual keystones to the final animation, brings to mind the drafts and preparations of old Masters. This is all the more relevant because Studio Ghibli is one of the rare studios that still creates hand-drawn animated  features.

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Howl’s Moving Castle © 2004 Nibariki – GNDDDT

The exhibition starts with a very theoretical overview of the key terms of animation layouts in japanese, but also basic terms of animation such as the transparent page on which the characters are drawn in motion (the celluloid), to be set against the immobile backdrop. At the same time, a range of tools of the animator are put on display. This is accompanied by a sweet short comic by the animators themselves detailling every stage as a small memo. A very didactic start, therefore, but that then allows time for the viewer to pore over the hundreds of layout drawings that have been classified in terms of animated projects, from the most recent to the oldest – with hidden gems such as the very beginnings of Miyazaki and Takahata at Toei Animation on television series. The entire display definitely revolves around these two figures, with a slight preeminence of Miyazaki due to the overwhelming popularity of films such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Chihiro’s Journey or Nausicäa.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service © 1989 Eiko Kadono – Nibariki – GN

Interestingly enough, for an exhibition revolving around narrative-building drawings, the content and narrative of the films was not introduced or explained in depth: this was definitely not what could be qualified as a beginner’s introduction to Ghibli, but mainly an exhibition for pre-existing fans. This would probably be a flaw in any other country than France, where respect for animation is stronger Ghibli films are usually well-known in a mainstream way that is not neccessarily true for the UK, for instance.

Yet the lack of introduction or explanation of the drawings themselves allows for more space for their purely visual appeal. The cleaned-up and neat process of the layout drawings, in coloured pencils still retains an organic, spontaneous appeal, the mapping out of colours and movements creating a strange visual poetry that the visitor learns how to decipher throughout the visit. Perhaps this particular charm also derives from the fact that these are the raw key elements of the movies, lived through and analyzed, corrected to perfection while retaining an emotional depth. Through the scribbling of japanese peppered with a few english terms, the hand of the “Master” Miyazaki emerges as some of his comments and critiques are translated. Some indicate that the pencilling is too rough, or that the movement is not natural. Others are small lessons in animation. This creates a certain tone of perfectionism mingled with intimacy and humour, translating only a fraction of the rigour and hard work of the Ghibli studio – who work as a tight-knit group. The problem remains of a single name obscuring many other skills: even though I can’t compare Miyazaki to Disney since the former is actively involved in the drawing process of many of these layouts, they do remain figureheads that blot out other names, storyboarders and animators that remain unknown. Having a little insight into their experiences would have been a nice touch. To perhaps gain a more global understanding of Studio Ghibli’s day to day life I would definitely recommend the documentary of Spirited Away’s making-of – here is a heart-warming small extract.

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Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea © 2008 Nibariki – GNDHDDT

Aside from acquiring the technical jargon neccessary to decipher the layout drawings in the first place, do we acquire any of these “secrets” to animation promised at the beginning of the exhibition? In many sense, yes. And the first is this: you need to cheat. This may come as a stab in the back or a consolation to many fellow artists but apparently perspective is also worthless in a geometrical/mathematical sense if it cannot be distorted to fit the requirements of the scene or the camera. For example, some elements can be distorted or made larger if the camera is creating a panning movement, such as a castle floating away into the sky, in order to create the illusion it is floating further away. Such examples always created a comparison between the finished production and the key layout sketches, allowing further deciphering of the scenes.

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Castle in the Sky © 1986 Nibariki – G

This exhibition could appear as a bit too specific for a person with little to no acquaintance with Ghibli but I think that the hugely popular emotional appeal for these films managed to trigger a deep desire to understand their technical side further…and also simply indulge in the visual beauty of so many imaginative world and stories “in construction”. It created a many-layered display that never became heavy-handed. In an arthistorical context it established these hand-drawn animators as the inheritors of composition and draftsmanship of Renaissance artists and Old Masters, while debunking the myth that japanese animation or “anime” is somehow less complex due to its stylized characters. The choice to focus on an oft-forgotten stage of the hand-drawn animated process allowed for a reminder that such films are works of collective craftsmanship, while ironically or paradoxically keeping Miyazaki and Takahata in the spotlight. Despite a few flaws, however, this harmony of poetry and technicality was a pleasure to visit before viewing these animated classics again.

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