In his forthcoming memoir, Sharing a House With the Never-Ending Man, we learn of the process to make a film for legendary studio Ghibli, from animation genius Hayao Miyazaki.
He says that a person only does his best work when faced with the real possibility of failure and its consequences. Several times after the completion of one of his films, Miyazaki would suggest the studio be shut down and all the staff be fired. He thought this would give the animators a sense of the consequences of failure and make them better artists if and when they were re-hired for the next film. No one was ever sure if he was just kidding.
To begin a new project he imagines ideas and images, capturing them in drawings or watercolor sketches. Often he had ideas for two or three new films going at once. When he had an idea for a new film, he would confer with his producer to discuss them. They would agree on an idea, tell other people in the studio about it, the people who heard about it would enthusiastically approve of it, and a week later the idea would have been discarded in favor of another completely different idea. Eventually an idea would stick and other artists were brought in to do concept art for the film. A formal decision would be reached and more artists would be hired to do background art and location hunting.
Miyazaki’s reputation in Japan is such that once the film was announced, every theater in Japan already wanted to play the film. The film was almost always announced in December. The film would play in theaters in mid-July two years later, the best time to play a film in Japan because every school in Japan would be on vacation. Miyazaki’s skill at delivering his films on schedule was the thing that made this kind of scheduling possible. The studio only missed the July deadline once, and there had been extenuating circumstances beyond the director’s control.
Miyazaki drew the storyboards for his films which Ghibli call the econte. The econte was a combination storyboard and screenplay, a complete menu for a film that served as a blueprint. Miyazaki usually divided the econte into five parts; A, B, C, D and E. Each was just approximately 20% of the expected length of the film.
Miyazaki usually had all of Part A and Part B in his head when the film was announced. By the time Part D started, he would begin having doubts about the five parts and the length of the film or story. He usually had no idea how the film would end. He might have competing ideas about how it should end that he couldn’t resolve. Or he might have no idea at all. The animators would be catching up to Part D and the writing process would have slowed to a crawl.
A sense of crisis would seep into the studio. Miyazaki would stop writing and spend his time doing things unrelated to the film like chopping wood for his studio’s Vermont cast iron stove. Someone would report it to the producer who would go over and try to get him to stop chopping wood and get back to work.
Part E had not yet appeared and the entire studio would be churned by an atmosphere of high stress. The theaters were booked. The production was behind schedule. And then, Part E appeared. The animators and back end production staff began violating Japan’s labor laws and working an illegal number of hours to finish the film. When the animators were ordered to go home and get some sleep, they either pretended to leave and snuck back to their desks, or just refused. All staff were keeping the same hours as the animators, even the ones that didn’t have any more actual work to do on the film, out of solidarity with your comrades who had to work, and the unspoken code of traditional Japanese peer pressure; if everyone else is working, so are you.
Once the film was locked he traveled all across Japan to meet with theater owners and the press. Then he took a month off and retreated to his small house in the mountains with his family. Before long he was already thinking about the next film and starting the whole process over again.
How’s your work, ONTD?