I’ve been reading around in Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point, 1979-1996, a collection of short pieces by and interviews with Miyazaki. Among them is a speech he gave to Japan’s Association of Scenario Writers in August 1994. He observes (p. 103):
So, why don’t we script the film in advance? Well, it’s mainly because this is the way my brain has been trained to work. I’ve tried writing the story out many times before, but even if I think a story works great in text, when we render it in continuity sketches it’s usually unusable. It just doesn’t work, and usually reveals how shallow my original ideas were.
A bit later (p. 104): “In the old days, we always thought getting the sketches first was essential, but the problem is that drawing the continuity sketches seemed to always get behind schedule…” [ellipsis in the original text]. What emerges from this discussion is that Miyazaki and his colleagues start animation before the story has been completely worked out in continuity sketches (that is, story-boarded). “If you keep working, making adjustments here and there, in the process you really develop a much better understanding of the characters you are trying to animate.”
Though Miyazaki doesn’t discuss either the voice acting, the musical scoring, or overall sound design, I assume that that isn’t done until the film is completely animated. Given his “work it out as we go” improvisational process, Miyazaki’s not going to have a speaking script until it’s all done, nor will he know the sound effects required nor the music.
What I find so interesting is that this process is quite different from what I had understood the “classic” process to be, the process that used by Disney, to name an obvious example. In that process full animation would be the last part of the process. Before that could happen a script would be written, characters and settings would be designed, a complete storyboard would be worked out, the actors would voice their parts and the music would be composed and recorded. Then the animators go to work, synching their drawings to the sound where necessary. Of course, things might not quite work out as planned up front, so some revisions might be necessary along the way. But the basic idea is to create a detailed plan – storyboard and sound – before starting to animate. That, I assume, is what Miyazaki had in mind when he asserted that in “the old days” they did the sketches first.
I have assumed that this classical process arose, at least in part, as a way of coordinating the activities of what, in a feature film production, would be a very large team of artists, animators, writers, inkers, actors, and so forth. What Miyazaki found, however, is that it didn’t work for him.
Is this merely a difference between his personal style and Disney’s, for example? We know that Disney stopped drawing in the mid-1920s and thereafter functioned strictly as a director, albeit as a director who demanded control over every detail and often micromanaged his projects into chaos. Miyazaki, however, has always done a great deal of drawing in his projects, often doing most of the story-boarding himself. But it’s not entirely obvious to me how that difference would itself translate into the very different overall management styles, the classic and the Miyazaki.
The fact is, nothing about the process of making an animated feature film is obvious to me. Frankly, it seems impossible, coordinating all that artistic work. But somehow it gets done.
Let’s consider a third animator/director, Nina Paley. Though she has done only one feature-length film, Sita Sings the Blues, it is of such high quality that I have no problem including her work in this discussion. That is to say, if the issue at hand in the process by which first-class animated features are made, then Sita qualifies Paley for consideration. Fortunately, Paley’s said quite a bit about how she made Sita, and evidence is scattered through-out the web – at her website and blog, the Wikipedia article about her contains useful links, and, of course, the interviews I’ve posted on New Savanna.
As is well-known, Paley wrote, designed, animated, and directed Sita Sings the Blues herself. The film emerged gradually as a response to the breakup of her marriage. Here’s her account of those early events:
Originally, I hoped to expel my demons of heartbreak with a single short film, Trial By Fire (2003). This set a pivotal scene from the Ramayana, Sita's walk through a funeral pyre, to Annette Hanshaw's 1929 rendition of Mean to Me. Trial By Fire won 2nd Place in New York's 2004 ASIFA-East Animation Festival, and screened in festivals in San Francisco, Latvia, and Red Bank, but I refrained from promoting it further. Audiences loved the design and animation, but were not sufficiently familiar with the Ramayana to really understand the story. Furthermore, my demons weren't adequately expressed; I was still tormented by grief and heartache. When another relationship failed in November of 2004, I saw only one course of action: I had to tell the whole Ramayana story from Sita's point of view. Sita Sings the Blues, a 72-minute feature, would be my salvation.
I began production in December 2004. I have since completed 20 minutes of animation, comprised of 6 musical chapters. In April, a popular weblog called BoingBoing reported on my work-in-progress; within hours, thousands of viewers were downloading the movie clips I posted online, temporarily shutting down my web site. Reviews began appearing on hundreds of other weblogs, all positive.
At roughly that time, with only 20 minutes of animation complete, she applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship and was successful in the 2006 round of funding. In her Guggenheim application she described a general plan for the film that finally emerged. That plan mentioned four visual styles and the running parallel between the events of her life and the events of Sita’s life. I have no idea how much she had planned out in detail at that time, but here’s my guess: not much.
The film emerged over time. There was never a detailed plan. Since Paley didn’t even start with the idea of creating a feature film, her overall process seems even more diffuse and improvisational than Miyazaki’s. Yet the final result is as tight and as well-formed as films by Miyazaki, or Disney. The demands of first-class art are unyielding; but the process by which one gets there, that can be flexible.
Finally, I note that Paley couldn’t have made Sita herself without computer technology. That brought the workload within the capability of a single person. Is it possible that Miyazaki’s relatively fluid process depended on decades of industry experience with the more rigid classical process used by (indeed, invented by) Disney and others? I don’t really know, but I suspect the answer is Yes.
Beyond that there is the question of aesthetic possibility: How is that affected by the process used to create the film?