- 7 March 2006
by Nicholas Rucka
Perhaps best known as the studio that made Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories, Ken Ishii's future-pop anime music video Extra, several key installments in the Animatrix series, and even a Nike commercial, Studio 4° Celsius, or Studio 4°C, has been the best kept secret in the animation world. Midnight Eye had a chance to interview studio head Eiko Tanaka in New York City on the eve of Mindgame's US premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Let's start with a basic question, when did Studio 4°C start?
I was looking at the timeline for 4°C. Was it started before or after My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)?
Did Hayao Miyazaki have any connection with the establishment of 4°C?
Up until that point, I had worked as a producer at the television animation company that Miyazaki had started. Once I stopped working there, I started up 4°C but would work occasionally as a freelance producer at Ghibli.
So, 4°C is really your company?
Yes it is.
At that time I imagine that the staff for the company was quite small.
That's right, I was basically it.
How many people do you employ now?
Our regular fulltime staff numbers around 45 people. When we are making a film we naturally increase our numbers, but typically it's about 45 people or so.
Would the director Koji Morimoto be considered fulltime staff or a freelance director?
He basically runs projects with me now. From inception through final execution of any animation that is done in-house, Morimoto is there. Since I am a producer, I didn't start the company to only do my own works.
So for the bigger projects you'll bring in a lot of outside help?
How about the folks who actually draw all of the animation cells; are they mainly freelance?
Yeah, that's about right. I mean, we do as much as we can in-house, but because we are essentially a small company, when we have a bigger project we bring in outside help - or we hire outside help.
Since Mindgame is such a complex movie animation-wise, you must have had to outsource a lot of work.
That's correct. We had to gather the right people for all parts: illustrators, background artists etc.
I saw that 4°C actually began in 1986, but seeing as Memories was your first proper studio production would you say that 1995 was the true beginning of your company?
After My Neighbor Totoro I started working immediately on Kiki's Delivery Service. It was only after this film that I was able to focus on 4°C. But it's safe to say that Memories was our first big production.
In so far as Memories is concerned, since it's a collection of short stories, and I know that 4°C did the first part, Magnetic Rose and the third part, Cannon Fodder, but you didn't make part 2, Stink Bomb, did you?
No, actually it was 4°C that made this part, we just asked the production company Madhouse to make it. You see, originally, Memories was supposed to be comprised of 4 parts, but we discovered that three parts was long enough for a film. But in so far as the actual production is concerned, what you see in the film is really Studio 4°C. Which is to say that while we might have some outside help working on sections of the film, the whole - as it is produced - was done by 4°C.
Do you have any affiliation with IG Productions?
IG Productions, Madhouse and all of the creative people and staff, I know them really well because we often work together.
From looking at your publicity materials I've seen that 4°C does just about everything: feature films, direct to video works, commercials, one-off super-short films - micro-short animated pieces, limited-edition CD-Rs for the fans and everything in between. So what exactly is the focus of 4°C?
Well, first and foremost, we're an animation company, which means we do all things animated. For example, if you look at a film company, they do all things that are film related, in so far as working with recorded images are concerned. In this same sense, we're an animation company and while we don't limit ourselves to children's works, we're really interested in putting out anything that falls into the category of animation. Basically, we'll do anything that we think sounds interesting.
I mentioned about the micro-short animated pieces just a second ago, why do you make them? And where do you show them?
Well, there are really three reasons for this. First, for those who have the ability and even the talent to make something new and different, they don't really have many opportunities to do make something. By making a number of smaller works, it is possible to discover and develop many new talents without breaking the bank, as opposed to making one big film with one talent. By making small films we can get a good idea of what this new talent is capable of, what kind of work they can make, and we can also use it as a kind of mini-promotion during our presentations. That's really why we make these micro-shorts.
Where do you show them?
Well, not every one of these works, you know. Some work really well and others aren't as successful. Naturally, we don't show the ones that don't really work. However, the ones that do work we use in our promotional packages, sometimes even to garner attention for the studio; it really depends. Our current project is called Genius Party and it consists of many short works - from 3 to 20 minutes in length - by many different directors that we are compiling. What we hope to do with this is be able to show the world what 4°C is capable of while also doing general promotion.
So the director of Mindgame, Masaaki Yuasa, came up in this manner?
Yes, in fact his work was a kind of noise piece called Noiseman Sound Insect, which we felt greatly demonstrated his ability as a director and an artist. As a result, we asked him to direct Mindgame.
It sounds like 4°C is a kind of graduate school for animators; kind of the way Disney was once upon a time.
Disney's ability to make such beautiful animated pieces for families is something special, I think. But being able to do some many different types of things, where you don't have to only make family friendly fare, I think is also important. For us, we want to make something that we can call... let's say, 'Studio 4°C cool,' that people will think of when they think of us. Something that is unique enough, cool enough, and different enough for us to make our own name. There's plenty more room for other types of talent and animation in the world, I believe.
Do you have any plans to distribute any works overseas?
Yes we do, but I can't really talk about it right now...
It's still under wraps?
Yes. But from this point on... um, well, our works have only been available within Japan, but we're planning on doing works that would be for the world market - maybe with international help.
Recently there was your work in the Animatrix, right? And in fact, with that collection and the short in Kill Bill, it seems like people in the West are finally getting that animation is not just for kids. That there can be works that are smart, creative and geared towards a mature market.
We'll definitely release something abroad and it seems inevitable that if this trend continues that this will come to pass, I think.
Turning to Mindgame, how did you decide on this project?
At first, there was an original comic, which I thought was really something. It was so good that I really felt more people should know about it and there was a quality about it that lent itself to animated film. But it's the kind of work that really has rough edges that one wouldn't think, at first, would work for an animated movie - and considering it was released in such a small print run and as a result many people hadn't seen it, one would think that this would be the case, too - but it does work. But ultimately, I felt that if we made it, people would understand why it is a special work.
So how exactly did you decide on Masaaki Yuasa as the director of the film?
We asked him. But he was a little tentative, since he hadn't directed a feature before, "You sure you want to go with me?" he said. After he read the comic he said he'd try it.
Did he come up with the radical combination of animation techniques in the film? All of the new ideas?
Yeah... At first, we actually thought of starting the film with live actors with all of the stuff at the beginning with the sex and the gun incident and all of that - keeping that in the real world, but leaving all of the rest in animation. But then we realized that it would be a problem to do that from a storytelling point of view... So then Mr. Yuasa started looking into alternative techniques for starting the movie and that's how he came up with the 3-D CGI mixed with still photography mixed with rotoscoping and all of the rest! It's really pretty amazing, actually.
Not to mention how radical the story is. I don't want to give away the beginning of the film, but I was shocked by what happened.
It's true. You don't typically do that with your main character...
But when you look at the character of Mio, she's quite the anime stereotype, with the exaggerated figure and all. At first, I thought that it would be more of the same, but it really isn't. Are you making a comment on this female stereotype?
Yes. But basically, I wanted this story to surprise the audience and really take them in a different direction. I think that before you see the film you have one idea of how it will be, but by the end you're expectations have been subverted. However, as a producer, if this work weren't interesting, I wouldn't have done it! [Laughs]
Can you talk about the difference between producing for animation and live-action? Because for live-action there's a whole job of the producer making sure that the film is made in the most cost-effective manner - for example, finding shooting locations that are nearby so you cut down on the number of company moves.
It's basically the same, but what you're mentioning there is the line producer. But in animation we do the same sort of thing. For example, during Memories we took the original screenplay and broke it down into what needed to be done by order of department and priority. The general producer does a little bit of everything and makes sure that the whole production is on track from the inception to completion.
So in your case, you're like the 'master' of the production? Even down to the meetings to find financing?
Can you draw?
No, I can't...
How long did it take to make Mindgame from the beginning through its first public screening?
From the first writing the script... was maybe, two and a half years or three years.
That's really fast.
Well, we already had the original material. We even started making it before we had the money in place.
Did you show a micro-short of Mindgame to raise the money?
We just went looking for the money. [Laughs] Because, especially with Mindgame, if there's no sound, then you won't get it.
That's true, especially with this film. If you haven't seen it all, you wont' get it!
It was actually really hard to find the money for this film. It was... anyway, really tough. But with this film it is about winning people over one by one: from film festivals to even how it was received when it was released in the theater. The thing is, once people see it they love it and they tell people about it. The word of mouth has been good and has been essential to this film's success. Now with it showing abroad in places like New York, we hope the word will be spread far and wide. The thing is we want this film to be for everyone, not just animation fans.
Do you have any last words?
I would love for Studio 4°C to become known internationally as a studio that produces many different kinds of quality animated works; some are for families and some are not. We are trying to reach out to international film festivals and also are in discussions with different TV networks. By doing this we hope to achieve a larger and more diverse audience. We would love to have people excited about our upcoming works and anticipate them.