Monday, May 14, 2012

Designing the Body: Spirited Away vs. Wallace and Gromit

In this blog post I will compare the designs of the characters in both Japanese and British animation, specifically Studio Ghibli and Aardman films. I will mostly be using examples from the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) from Aardman and Spirited Away (2001) from Studio Ghibli, both considered to be iconic films from each respective studio and country.

Where does one begin in a comparison of such completely different animated worlds? As a general rule, I've found that with Aardman, simplicity is a major feature while with Studio Ghibli, an attention to detail is stressed. But where does this aesthetic pattern come from? Perhaps the best place to begin is with the cultures of the creators themselves.

 In Studio Ghibli and many other Japanese animated films, clutter and detail is a prominent feature. This is reflected in the very location of the studios themselves. Most of Japan is very densely populated and as a result everything is designed so that as many things can be fit into as little a space as possible. Cars, streets, and stores are all considerably smaller and more compact than their western counterparts. Bookstores are literally crammed to the ceiling with books, and most books in Japan are in a smaller format than in the western world. 

Japan has a long history of being economic with space.

A japanese bookstore. Almost no part of the actual wall is showing, everything is either covered by books or advertisements.

This Japanese attention to detail in small spaces probably influenced Miyazaki’s tendency to have a lot going on in any given scene. He manages to put many animation and design details into many characters on screen at once. In many scenes there are dozens and dozens of characters, all animated with the care that a main character would receive.

An acute attention to detail in many Japanese aspects of life can explain why the characters are very detailed in Spirited Away.

The human characters have very conservative yet detailed character designs. They aren't very exaggerated proportion-wise. The only really caricatured aspect of Chihiro’s body is that she has very skinny arms and legs. Her parents share this realistic tone to the design of their bodies.

This is in tandem with many of the character designs that come out of Japanese animation studios: the vast majority of human characters have very standard bodily proportions. For the most part the only real discerning features between characters are the hairstyles (which can get pretty crazy) and possibly their eyes. Animal characters can have very unique character designs, but in Japanese animation non-human characters seem to be far less prominent than in western animation. In general, animated humans in Japan have very cookie-cutter designs.

A lineup of characters from "Death Note" by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Their bodies are all fairly realistic in proportion. 

A famous hairdo from "Yu-Gi-Oh!" by Kazuki Takahashi.

"Saki" by Ritz Kobayashi. Note that if the characters were to all shave their heads there would be virtually no difference between the characters' faces.

In Spirited Away it’s only when you branch off into the secondary characters do character’s proportions become more interesting. The frogmen who work in the bathhouse all have very squashed features, while Yubaba, the witch who runs the place, has an enormous head and gigantic eyes. Many of these characters are also incredibly detailed. Yubaba for example has at least one complicated ring on each finger that has to be animated in addition to her very detailed face and dress.

Some of Yubaba's minions.

The Frogmen.

Bathhouse ladies. They are similar to normal human women but with variously squashed and stretched faces.

Patrons of the bathhouse.

In contrast, Aardman characters are extremely simple. Their character designs, in typical western cartooning fashion, are boiled down to a few simple essential shapes.

The titular duo drawn by their creator.

The evil penguin from "The Wrong Trousers" (1993). He is literally made of several triangles with tubes to connect the feet to the body.

The characters of Wallace and Gromit are extremely exaggerated to an almost grotesque point. Surely if these characters were to exist in real life, they would induce a gag reflex in many a passersby. Aardman characters are notable in that almost none of them could be considered conventionally pretty. There are no disney princesses in Wallace and Gromit. Buck-toothed and bug-eyed, both females and males are all very goofy looking.

The majority of the cast of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). They aren't exactly beauty queens.

Despite their silly looks, however, the characters manage to look completely natural in the semi-realistic world that the artists create. Also amazing is that despite having skin and clothes that are very clearly a flat, almost textureless plasticine, they still manage to look at home in a world that is very realistically and richly textured. The slightly exaggerated proportions of the props and sets may help this, but it is still a feat that the sets and characters don’t clash at all.

Despite having a very cartoony body, Lady Tottington fits into her richly textured world well.

This also brings to point a rather important aspect of human stop motion character's design: their hair style. With stop motion it can be very tricky to give characters very long hair, as every strand needs to be animated by hand very carefully to avoid "chattering", or random movements of the hair caused by the animator's hands. The material used in the physical puppet is also very important in whether or not the feat will be feasible. As a result many characters in stop motion films have very stiff hairstyles, or no hair at all.

Two characters at the extremes of the hair spectrum in Wallace and Gromit. 

In contrast, it is relatively easy to have characters with expressive, flowing hair in 2D animation. Japanese productions especially take advantage of this, to the point that a gust of wind blowing through a character's hair has become a prominent anime cliche. 

Just because it's easier to animated hair in 2D doesn't mean it's easy. This scene must have been an animator's nightmare. 

One has to remember that these two studios specialize in completely different animation styles which will naturally influence the character design. Aardman’s trademark is stop motion animation (specifically using puppets made of modeling clay) and Ghibli’s is 2-D, hand-drawn animation. These two mediums present very different and specific challenges to the designers with the restrictions that present themselves. For 2-D animation, artists have to re-draw the characters every single frame in all of their detailed glory, but in stop motion an animator can simply move an arm and all the details of the body will stay in place and make sense. In 2-D, an artist has to keep track of every single detail of a character’s body and make sure they follow the form of the body and make sense spatially. 

Interestingly, despite these restrictions, Spirited Away still manages to have some incredibly intricate characters and most Aardman characters are very simple.

Yubaba's rings alone probably took an animator weeks to get right.

Water is also something that is incredibly difficult to animate in stop motion, but it's become something of a trademark for Studio Ghibli.

Also, the physicality of using modeling clay to animate means that characters with very thin limbs and fingers can often break or squash completely out of shape. This probably heavily influenced the designs of the characters in Wallace and Gromit, who all have tree trunk-like bodies and very thick limbs and fingers. Having wire or metal armatures inside the clay helps, but it is still ideal to have very thick bodies on the characters.

Nothing about Wallace is petite!

When comes down to it, both films' character design styles must suit their respective stories and tell the viewer who that character is. On a basic level, the character must be appealing and above all just feel right. In both cases I find that the films totally succeed. I really couldn't imagine either film to be any other way; both worlds feel rich and lush without being overbearing. The characters form both films come from worlds that are distinctively Japanese and British and have become beloved icons not only for their respective countries, but the entire world.

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