One of the less public-facing key talents at the most publicly scrutinized animation studio in the world, cinematographer Atsushi Okui joined Studio Ghibli in 1993 and has worked on nearly every film from legendary director Hayao Miyazaki since, among them Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and his first feature in a decade, The Boy and the Heron

With that film now in wide North American release from GKIDS, we caught up with Okui to gain insight into the particulars of his job title, the process of working with iconic directors, and whether Miyazaki’s reputation for technophobia might be (a little) overblown.

With thanks to interpreter Nao Amisaki.

The Film Stage: You’ve been a director of photography at Studio Ghibli for over 30 years, during which time your title has evolved into “digital imaging director.” For those less-familiar with the animation process, could you explain what a DP does in animation, and how that job has changed over the course of your career?

Atsushi Okui: In terms of what I am in charge of as DP, not much has really changed over the years. Of course, back in the earlier days we would shoot on film. It was our job to print on the film what all of the [cel and background] artists had done up to that point––so “director of photography” was a title that made sense! As we transitioned to digital, there was a question of what exactly we would do with the title; what is “photography,” anyway, now that we’re doing digital [compositions]? It’s not that the essence of what we were doing changed at any point––we were still doing the same thing, compositing into the finished product whatever the animators and the background artists had delivered to us. It’s just that now we were compositing [rather than literally photographing] what everybody did. 

You’ve been a repeat collaborator for several major anime directors over the course of your career: not just Hayao Miyazaki but also Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty), Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam), and the late Isao Takahata (Pom Poko). What do you see as your job relative to the director of the film you’re working on? Do you find anything about your work changes working with one director versus another?

In terms of my work vis-a-vis the director, not much differs depending on who I work with. The way I see my job is the same: I must take full responsibility for what is shown on the screen. I will say that, following the transition to digital, there is a lot more that we have to do, making the position a more significant one.

Does your process typically involve an ongoing back-and-forth with the director, or is it more linear––you’re given the necessary materials and what you turn over is exactly what we see in the film?

It depends on what kind of scene we’re working on, of course––the more particular a scene is, the more back-and-forth there tends to be. In Mr. Miyazaki’s case, though, because his storyboarding is so articulate, so detailed and meticulous, that––adding to the fact that I’ve been working with him for thirty years now––[I find it] quite easy to tell what he’s aiming at just by reading his storyboards. I wouldn’t say I’m always 100% correct in answering to whatever he writes, but it’s not often that he comes back to me with any feedback other than “Okay.” It’s usually quite a smooth process, in that respect.

With The Boy and the Heron, is there anything you got to try in terms of techniques or imagery that you have not done before?

One aspect that we were especially meticulous about in this one is the darkness and shadows that you see. This was especially true for the opening sequence, in which we were trying to project Mahito’s interior world onto the screen––for this, the darks really had to be dark. This was exceptional compared to other films we’ve done up until now.

That sequence does feel like a striking departure in style from the kind of image an average audience member might expect to see in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

If the opening sequence is especially is impactful in that way, then we’ve done our job right.

I’d be curious to know if there are other animators or live-action filmmakers, past or contemporary, whose work you find especially instructive in the construction of images for your own work.

[Long pause] It’s not like I always have somebody else’s work in mind when I’m doing my own, but I will say that the catalyst to my joining this industry was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One of my favorite films!


Off the top of your head, if you could work on a dream project––with any director in the world and any subject matter––what would be exciting for you?

[Laughs] Hmm, this is not something I’d thought about! It’s a difficult question, because my work really hinges on the director’s work and the storyboarding…

And, of course, you already work with the best.

[Grins] If there were an opportunity to collaborate with an up-and-coming director, that would be interesting.

So, someone nobody’s heard of?

Yeah! I don’t have anyone in particular in mind, but a new talent would be exciting.

Hayao Miyazaki has something of a reputation for being distrustful of digital animation and computer technology. Under your tenure at Ghibli, however, the studio has opened its own digital animation department and used CG extensively in some of its work. Is Mr. Miyazaki’s reputation exaggerated? Did you at any point have to convince him of the value of or opportunities created by digital technology?

I do think the image of Mr. Miyazaki’s [technophobia] might be a little exaggerated. It’s not like we had to do a tremendous amount of convincing. But his concerns do make some sense: Mr. Miyazaki is an animator, so whatever he can do manually he wants to do. Where we draw the line at Studio Ghibli is with certain things that you can’t do with hand-drawn skills. To do camerawork capturing background scenery, for example, sometimes it’s easier to employ digital techniques. Of course a lot of movement needs to be done with sakuga key animation, but if you want that kind of background texture along with the movement, then often it’s easier to do it digitally.

In these parts, if it’s easier to do it digitally than hand-drawn, Mr. Miyazaki won’t have any problem conceding it––indeed, we’ve employed digital technology in [Heron] as well. We’ve gone to him saying, “For this scene, we’d like to employ 3D,” and he’s said, “Fine, no problem.” The thing is: I think he’s a little bit frustrated by things that are beyond his control. But it’s not like there’s a complete distrust or hatred of digital technology––that’s a little bit embellished, maybe.

The Boy and the Heron is now in wide release.

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