Inside the Animator's Studio with Aya Suzuki

Digital animation, dance scenes, Miyazaki, Kon, and more in our exclusive AnimeNEXT interview

At AnimeNEXT 2015, I was lucky enough to sit down and speak with layout artist and animator Aya Suzuki one on one. She's worked on a number of high-profile projects, including Wolf Children and The Wind Rises, and with such acclaimed directors as Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and Sylvain Chomet. In the transcript after the break, Suzuki talks about working with different directors, studio hijinks, how animating digitally matters artistically and morally, how that dance sequence in the Death Parade OP came to be, and much much more.

I cannot thank Ms. Suzuki enough for both fitting me into her very busy schedule and speaking with a rare blend of openness, humor, and earnestness. Many thanks are also due to those responsible for guest relations at AnimeNEXT as well as Chris Barber in press relations. Without further ado, I present to you the exclusive Ani-Gamers AnimeNEXT 2015 interview with Aya Suzuki:

Ani-Gamers (AG): How are you enjoying AnimeNEXT so far?

Aya Suzuki: It’s brilliant. I’m really enjoying it. It’s a really nice convention.

AG: Do you go to a lot of these?

Suzuki: No, this is probably my first anime convention. I’ve done New York Comic Con and that’s about it. I usually do animation festivals, like Annecy and stuff like that, but something that’s specific to anime? … this is a first for sure.

AG: How have you found the reception? I know you had a panel on Women in Anime.

Suzuki: And before that I had another panel: Inside the Artist’s Studio, which was probably the main one. They were brilliant. People were really responsive. They’re always eager to ask questions, and it’s always easier to do a panel when there’s lots of questions, I must say. Because you know what they want to hear a little bit more. If you’re talking at them, you don’t know if you’re covering stuff that they already know or stuff that’s a little bit too technical. So it’s nice when there are questions.

AG: Speaking of technical, you’ve worked as a layout artist and animator. What do you find particularly challenging about each role?

Suzuki: Every single project is always a challenge, because every single project has a different style, and it has a different director. And you have to cater towards the way the director works and the style of the film. So it’s always a struggle at the beginning of the project. There’s a lot of pressure there — trying to adapt and pick up the style. And I think that’s where every animator struggles: the beginning. Then eventually it becomes easier.

I think in Japan, with anime in particular, people think the animator is just making drawings and doing the characters and fancy stuff. It’s very very technical. It involves a lot of technique. At the layout stage, you need to know a lot about film and photography and editing and camera. So there’s a lot packed into each and every shot in animation, and that is always challenging.

AG: Regarding those techniques, which of the directors you’ve worked with have imposed the most constraint or been the most exacting?

Suzuki: Again, every director works differently. Satoshi Kon, he did all his layouts. I mean, he wanted it in a particular way. And the thing that he understood with his previous films, like Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, you notice that the animators really just wanted to animate. And the layout animators — most animators, not all of them … some people are incredible at it — just find layouts a little bit tedious. So he just decided that he was going to cop all the layouts, because he wants it in a particular way and he wants the animators to focus on the performance of the animation. I mean, that is quite tedious, saying “I’m just going to do it myself, because what’s the point? I’m just correcting everybody’s work anyway, so I might as well do it.” And then the animators can do what they really enjoy doing.

You’ve got Hosoda, who actually gives you quite a bit of freedom. His storyboards are roughly drawn, but there’s a lot of detail there. He knows where he wants the camera, what lens you’re going to be using for each shot. So there’s a lot of information there. It’s very easy to follow. It’s really easy to back that up. But still, his animation director, Yamashita-san, is particularly known for his layouts. He’s a very very strong layout artist. His animation is strong as well, but his layouts are what he’s very well known for. He will go in and just correct everything. He will just absolutely correct everything. So, yeah, that’s Hosoda’s way of working.

And with Miyazaki, his storyboards … you just trace his storyboards and you don’t question anything else. Everything about it, his boards, there’s nothing about it which is technically correct, to be honest, but that is how he wants it. He knows that, Miyazaki, and that’s how he wants it. So you don’t try to correct it. You just try to follow the flow of his line.

Everybody works differently. They’re tedious to a level and tedious in very different ways.

AG: And obviously that crosses borders as well. You also worked with Sylvain Chomet, and I was wondering if there was any marked difference between production in Japan and in France.

Suzuki: Well I worked in the main studio, which was in Edinburgh, for that. It wasn’t in France. It was in Scotland in the U.K. I think the main difference is that, for instance, in Japan, the layout artist and the animator is the same person, whereas most of the time in the Western industry, the layout artist and the animator are different people. So that’s one big difference. So we receive the layouts, which are already completed and approved, and we just animate on top of that. In Japan, you’ll just take a sequence and you’ll animate the entirety of your sequence, whereas in the Western industry … well, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you get a sequence-based production, but with something like The Illusionist, we were all cast to a character.

AG: Do you have a favorite Chomet film?

Suzuki: I still like The Old Lady and the Pigeons. That’s a really really inspiring film for me.

AG: What about it speaks to you?

Suzuki: I thought that when it came out it was particularly unusual. It really was different. I liked the line quality of it. I loved the performance of it, the humor of it. I still, to this day, love the work of Nicolas de Crécy, who did the artwork of it. He was responsible for a lot of the designs, the backgrounds and stuff like that. He didn’t work on The Triplets or The Illusionist, but even still The Triplets and The Illusionist are very much inspired by de Crécy’s work. But I think with The Old Lady and the Pigeons you see de Crécy’s artwork in raw form, and I really like that.

AG: You worked on the original Death Billiards. Were you ever approached to work on Death Parade when it was turned into a full series?

Suzuki: Yeah (laughs), I was. Madhouse contacted me, and then shortly after I met Tachikawa-san and Kurita-san and the team, actually, because they’re good friends of mine. I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule. It’s really bad, because I said I’d definitely work on it. Because when Death Billiards was in production, the director already had the idea that he wanted to make it into a series anyway — from the very very beginning — and hoped that everybody who worked on Death Billiards would be on Death Parade. But I was the only one who actually couldn’t do it. Most of the guys did go on to Death Parade. I really wanted to do it, but I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule. And Tachikawa-san was just like “Could you at least just take one scene in the opening sequence?” And I was like, “I’m really sorry I can’t.” And because he knows that on the side, I do a lot of dancing as well, he said, “If I put a dance sequence in the opening sequence, will you do it?” And then I was like, “Maybe.” [Laughs] And that’s why there’s a dance sequence in the opening, and I still didn’t do it in the end because I still didn’t have the time.

AG: You mentioned Kon before, and I know you worked on The Dreaming Machine. Are you able to tell me where you left off on that? Like how much pre-production was done on it or where you were in the storyboarding or key art.

Suzuki: Basically I was on it for about a year. So a short time before Satoshi Kon passed away. And then we were still on it for some time; we were continuing production after he passed away. We were fully into animation production of that for sure. It’s just that it had a lot of financial issues. This isn’t a secret, but Madhouse got bought by Nittere [Nippon TV, NTV]. So there was a lot of movement within Madhouse, and unfortunately the focus wasn’t on the projects; it was all about “OK, Madhouse is changing.” And then a lot of financial movement was happening, so it was basically a matter of “we just can’t continue because Madhouse is so busy, financially, it just can’t keep on feeding the project.” Because a feature film is so expensive to keep going on when a company is being bought by another company. I mean, it’s ridiculous to be continuing that, so it’s completely understandable that it had to be stopped. But it’s still incomplete. I don’t think that’s a secret at all. Some of the animation is done, but not at all in a stage where it can be presented.

AG: Was it left off at a point where it could be finished without supposing too much of what Kon wanted? Did he complete enough of his vision to let other people carry it out without distorting his intent?

Suzuki: Yes. I mean he didn’t work like Miyazaki or Hosoda at all. He finished the writing first. He always had a script writer, and he wrote quite a detailed script with the script writer. And then he went into storyboarding. Whereas with Miyazaki there’s no script. He just goes into it. There’s an idea, and it’s briefly written down, but he just goes into storyboarding, and nobody knows how it’s going to end. Whereas with Satoshi Kon, there was actually a solid script with an ending … always. So in terms of narrative, it was there. Satoshi Kon’s narrative is there. But whoever picks it up, it’s going to change the film — the way that it’s going to be. Because the Japanese animation industry is so heavily dependent on the director. I mean it’s not as much in the Western industry; you can kind of make a film without the director being there, and you won’t even notice that much — even if the director, in the middle of the film, changes. You don’t see it as much. But in Japan, the director is really such a dominant role that no matter how much information Satoshi Kon had left, it would change anyway if somebody else came in to direct.

AG: On a fun note, do you watch the anime Shirobako?

Suzuki: No. I know of it. Do you recommend it?

AG: It’s a fun series. It dramatizes anime production. It’s an anime about making anime. And it features production assistants and the trials and tribulations of the artists.

Suzuki: Ah, I have to see that. It’s funny, because it’s like one of those jokes animators used to tell each other before that came out. Like, “Wouldn’t it be really funny if somebody actually made an anime about anime production?” It’s always been one of those things, because there’s so much surreal drama going on in animation production. You wouldn’t even have to come up with an original idea; all the drama’s around you and you just make a series out of it. So somebody actually put their hand up and did it. Good for them. Well done.

AG: Without naming names (or naming them if you can), do you have any specific stories of such drama that went on in some of the studios?

Suzuki: The Illusionist was quite a pressure cooker kind of project, because the quality was very high and everybody wanted to make that film very beautiful. And I just remember, at spurs of moments, we’d just have a huge paper fight in the studio. We used to have these giant recycling bins for paper, and then at one point, somebody would just snap and start rolling them all up and literally lobbing it all over. And we were like, “Shhh, ok, I’ll join in.” (Laughs) And it comes to a point where people are starting to make shields out of cardboard boxes. Somebody was trying to make a paper ball cannon.

This is about the other guys, the TRIGGER guys who are here, by the way. I know them from Japan, and every time they come to the U.S. they apparently have to buy these marshmallow guns, which we were playing with last night. And I said, “What are you going to do with those?” And they said, “We’re going to play with these marshmallow guns in the studio! We’re gonna shoot marshmallows at the animators!” Stuff like that seriously happens. We’re just a bunch of kids.

AG: Do you have any specific influences as an animator? What originally made you want to get into the industry?

Suzuki: I was quite fortunate, because I grew up in the U.K. So it wasn’t just Japanese animation that I grew up watching. I mean, Japanese animation obviously was a very strong influence. Miyazaki films, obviously, with any animator, are a strong influence, but I used to watch quite a lot of animations from the world on TV. So as a kid I remember watching and loving Watership Down and Hedgehog in the Fog. So that’s British and that’s Russian. And I remember Fantasia as a kid was a really big influence as well, and just many other things. Then, I think, there was a point in my life where I decided to become an animator, which was when this whole wave of really successful animations came out. And it was kind of during the ‘90s, where for the first time the Japanese media put a lot of attention in the production side. Before that, nobody knew the behind the scenes as much. There wasn’t much focus on that. It was all about the projects and the voice actors and that was it. But around when Princess Mononoke came out and Evangelion came out, you’d watch on the news a lot of footage of the artists actually working behind the scenes with these films. And that’s when I decided I’d like to get into that.

AG: Did you see the Miyazaki documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness? Or is that something you’d shy away from having already worked with him?

Suzuki: No, I haven’t seen that yet.

AG: Do you have any stories about working with Miyazaki? …any humorous stories.

Suzuki: (Laughs) It was very interesting. It’s not particularly with Miyazaki as with Ghibli. When I graduated uni[versity], I applied to Ghibli. And even after I applied a few times and I didn’t get a place, I thought, “Well, OK, obviously my drawing style isn’t suitable for them.” But I just remember when I was on Wolf Children I received a phone call saying, “Hi, this is Studio Ghibli. We’d like you to work on Miyazaki’s new project. He’s requested you to come in.” That’s an unusual phone call. That doesn’t happen every day! They were saying how with people within the studio, my name had come out a few times, so they looked at my website, and Miyazaki liked my drawings. And that’s how it happened.

AG: How hard is it to get your name out there? In the age of the Internet, personal promotion via websites and the like is kind of the norm. How do you try to differentiate yourself from other in the marketing sense?

Suzuki: Funnily enough, the Internet is a great place to show your work, and it’s great that you can put your portfolio online and you can have anybody from all over the world see it. But when you’re actually in production, you’re always a little bit suspicious of names that you don’t know. Because once you’re in the industry for 10 years, you kind of know the animators that are going around. I mean, if you go to Japan — the big projects, it’s actually the same kind of freelancers moving from one project to the other. You get the common names. You get people’s names that you see all the time in credits. Toshiyuki Inoue is one of them. Sushio is one of them. And you realize that it’s not thousands of animators in Japan. It’s actually less than 100 animators who are actually very very good. And it’s the same everywhere you go. So actually, when somebody puts an incredible portfolio or showreel online, and you’ve never heard of them, I find, personally, that studios are a little bit suspicious. Because you can fake it so easily. You can steal other people’s work so easily and just edit it together and claim that it’s your own. I haven’t shown my showreel to studios in a very long time in my career. I haven’t updated it for three years actually, which is really really bad. But I’m always getting job offers, and that’s because I get inside recommendations. And that’s the way forward in the animation industry, mostly. Because if a number of animators say, “This animator’s actually very very good and they work on time, they’re serious about their craft,” that recommendation is more important than your CV or your showreel online, because you just don’t know if it’s true or not. So inside recommendations is the way that you can stand out. At the end of the day, all my friends within the industry are the people who are allowing me to make a living out of animation. So having a lot of friends in the animation industry is the way forward … and having a good reputation.

Wooden Island from Monica Gallab (with animation direction by Aya Suzuki) on Vimeo.

AG: It seems like you’ve built one. You’ve worked with some amazing people and produced some amazing works.

Suzuki: Yeah, I mean I’ve probably got a really bad reputation in Japan now for not replying to enough emails. Because I get so many emails, because there are so many projects in Japan at the moment, and there just aren’t enough hands to cover it. And I’m constantly bombarded by offers by email, and I used to email them really nicely: I’m sorry. If you contact me another time, maybe I’ll be available. But sometimes I’ll get an email saying, “Regarding the email sent a few months ago, are you now available for this project?” I’ll be like “Who are you, and which project was that?” (laughs) I completely lose track of it. It’s come to a point where I’m not able to email back in time. That’s awful. I’ve probably got a bad reputation because of that. Like somebody who does not respond to emails.

AG: With that workflow, how does that work? Do you work from home and send everything electronically or by mail?

Suzuki: Well, I’m now based in London, and pretty much all the work that I do in London I go into the studio and work. I prefer to be in the studio. I like to be surrounded by the artists. For Japan, obviously because I’m in the U.K., I’ll animate from home and send it by email. That’s the only way I can do it for Japan at the moment.

AG: How did you come to meet TRIGGER?

Suzuki: First of all, I met Otsuka-san, who’s the founder and CEO and producer of TRIGGER. Otsuka-san I met at … There’s an animator’s meetup kind of gathering. Everybody in the animation industry is invited on a Sunday evening for food and drinks. And he was there, and I remember meeting Otsuka-san there. Just briefly. And then I worked on Death Billiards, and Death Billiards is an Anime Mirai project, which Little Witch Academia was part of as well. So we were actually the same year Anime Mirai. So I met a few of the TRIGGER guys. I always had some kind of … Well it’s the same with all studios; you’re always next to the other studio, aren’t you? You always know somebody from TRIGGER.

Most recently, they knew that I’d been working in Japan and London, and somebody informed them, saying that I no longer work with paper anymore, I work digitally, and I have experience in digital 2-D animation in London. Because London, the U.K., is pretty much all digital. I’d say the whole of Europe. Paper is just gone, and there is already a pipeline set up which is working. And Japan has been trying to become digital for some time but it hasn’t been able to, because it’s so difficult to set up a pipeline for an industry so big and spread out and that has so many projects going on. It’s very very difficult to say, “Stop everything! Put in the computers. Get rid of the papers.” It would be too disruptive. So it’s taking forever for Japan to become digital. And TRIGGER contacted me, saying “Would you consider doing some consulting for us? Teach us how we can set up a digital pipeline.” So I went into TRIGGER, and they hired me to help them out and advise them on how to set up stuff digitally there. So I was mainly talking with Yoshinari-san, the director of Little Witch Academia, and Imaishi-san, the director of Gurren Lagann. And so they were really interested. And for some odd reason, since then, I’ve just been good friends with them. They’ll sometimes ask me stuff regarding digital animation, and I’ll just let them know “OK, so this is how we do it.”

Another thing is, because Little Witch Academia is supposed to be set in the U.K., the concept is that it’s a school set in the U.K., but strangely enough nobody has been to the U.K. from the team, and they’re wanting to come over to do some research because they’re hoping to make a Little Witch Academia franchise kind of thing. They’re trying to make it bigger. And I was advising them as to where they could go. Like there’s some schools they can go to which are still very old buildings and stuff like that. At one point, I remember I was in Japan for a couple of months and then I had an emergency job from London and I had to animate a commercial really really quickly. And TRIGGER offered to lend some desk space for me. I was with Yoshinari-san and Imaishi-san, animating away at the studio, in TRIGGER, but not working on a TRIGGER project. And people were like, “Who’s that person animating digitally at our studio?” Sorry, I’m just using your Internet and some desk space. Ever since, whenever I go to Japan, I always visit them and have a cup of tea with them, and they show me all the new latest stuff that they’ve got. And I’ve been good friends with them ever since.

AG: I’m going to guess “research” is code term for “going to buy toys exclusive to U.K. stores?

Suzuki: (Laughs) Eh, yeah. Yeah. It’s funny, because there’s five of them this time [at AnimeNEXT], and they’re all so different. Three of them are really into toys, and one of them is just not interested. (Laughs) Asshole! (More laughter) And one’s just interested in taking pictures, and that’s it. He’s interested in going to the stores, but he doesn’t buy anything. It’s funny, though; they’re all so different. They’re really good, because it’s a really young studio run by a bunch of young people, and so when they come to a place like this, they don’t shy away. I think the typical Japanese thing is to become very shy and become very modest. Where they’re just really really open and outrageous and just really loud and they really kind of absorb the energy that this convention has and they play with it a lot. And people love them for it.

AG: You mentioned working over the cusp of the paper/digital transition. Do you still have longings for paper, or have you fully acclimated to digital? Are there any shortcomings for either?

Suzuki: No. I know this sounds really bad, but I really don’t see a reason why I should go back to paper. Like I said, I do get a lot of job offers from Japan, and there’s been a few I’ve been really interested in working for. Even though my schedule is pretty much packed, there were projects I was willing to sacrifice my weekends and evening for it. But when I ask them, “Can I work digitally,” a lot of the studios don’t like it. So they say, “No, you can’t.” And when that happens, I’m no longer interested in that project. I really am not, because paper is just too much work. With digital, you really really can improve the speed you can work at. Because I’m able to produce animation a lot more quickly, it allows me time within my schedule to improve the quality of my work. The thing about animation is it’s always a battle between you and the schedule. You have to deliver it on time for the specific date. So that’s when you’re negotiating with yourself: what quality can I afford with this budget with this schedule? So most of the time, a lot of the time in Japan, you have to let go of work that’s not quite perfect — not up to the standard you want it to be. The time limit doesn’t allow you, so you have to hand it in the way it is. Whereas if you go into digital, I don’t think the schedule … I’m not saying that productions are shorter nowadays. It’s actually almost the same amount of time, but you can produce much better quality work because of it. So I think if I went back to paper, the quality of my work would definitely drop. It’s really really improved my work. It’s allowed me to take my animation to the next level.

I’m helping out several studios in Japan. So Studio Wit (Attack on Titan) really really wants to try and move their productions to digital animation. I think Attack on Titan is the perfect project, because they use a lot of 3-D camera work as well. And at the moment, what they’re doing is really tedious: they’re printing out the 3-D and they’re animating by paper and scanning it again. It’s too much. I really think, for a project like that, becoming digital would save them a lot of time and money. And the reality is that animation in Japan is poorly paid. It really is. I mean, everybody knows that. I would like to see Japan move to digital, because I think it can really really improve the salaries of the workers without having to increase the budget. This is where I’m pushing, and this is the reason why I’m pushing it so much. It really would improve animators’ lives and that’s why I think it’s really really important.

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