”He drops everything and goes to chop wood”: Working with Hayao Miyazaki (Topic)

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”He drops everything and goes to chop wood”: Working with Hayao Miyazaki


We are used to talking about Hayao Miyazaki as a genius, and our portal is no exception. But have you ever thought about the process of creating Hayao's paintings? How does he work? Our experience with the gaming industry says that creating high quality projects is very difficult and can be maddening. The same probably applies to animation.

During his 15 years as Head of International Sales for Studio Ghibli, Steve Alpert has seen close work at Ghibli. And it looks like things are not so rosy. In his memoir Sharing a Roof with an Infinite Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli, he describes the famous animator's techniques.

Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book published by Kotaku, translated from Japanese to English. We have translated it into USA.

“The way Hayao Miyazaki's films are made from the outside can seem tense and complex, and that is exactly what they are. He often said that a person does his best job only when faced with a real possibility of failure and its real consequences.


Several times after completing a new job, Miyazaki suggested closing the studio and dismissing all staff. He thought it would give animators a sense of the consequences of failure and make them better and more experienced artists. And if the movie turns out to be great, they might be hired again. No one was ever sure if he was joking or not.

When Miyazaki was finishing work on one film, the author preferred never to think about it again. Point. There was nothing more he could do to improve or change it. He always wanted to move forward, immersed in thoughts of a new painting.

To start creating something new, Miyazaki presented images, flowing ideas through his imagination, and capturing ideas in drawings or watercolor sketches. Often he had plans for two or three new films at the same time. He collected all the sketches he drew, began to perfect them, and developed separate storylines to work with.

When he had an idea for a new film, he consulted with his producer Toshio Suzuki, and they discussed the possibilities of the studio. He approved of the idea, and they told other studio staff about it. They listened to her, enthusiastically approved and filled with inspiration. And a week later, the idea was thrown into the trash, instead of a completely different one that came to the head of Ghibli.


In the end, the studio still settled on one specific idea, and Miyazaki showed more detailed drawings. Other artists started to create concept art for the film. The decision was formally made, more and more animators began to draw, come up with backgrounds, individual concepts and locations. One or two of Miyazaki's finest drawings will be selected to be used to announce the new painting. The creation process will begin and the film will appear in almost two years. As soon as the official announcement takes place, the seats in major cinemas that will show the tape will be reserved almost two years in advance.

This has become the norm now. Hayao Miyazaki's reputation in Japan is such that once a film is announced, every cinema in Japan wants to show it.

Almost always the announcement took place in December. The end of the year has always been a good time in Japan to grab the attention of viewers. The film will hit theaters in mid-July two years later. This is the best time to screen a film in Japan because every school in the country is closed for the holidays.

Miyazaki's ability to start making and finishing films on a specific schedule was what made this planning possible. But the process itself has never been easy or so specific. Miyazaki believed that animators should always work in front of the audience. The studio missed the July deadline only once, and there were extenuating circumstances beyond the control of its director.

In the early stages of the production process, everything goes more or less smoothly and easily. Miyazaki draws storyboards for his films, which Ghibli calls ekonte. Econte is a combination of a storyboard and a script that served as a blueprint, from which a picture is created.


Miyazaki usually divided the econte into five parts: A, B, C, D and E. Each part is approximately 20% of the expected timing of the film.

At the time of the announcement, Miyazaki usually had Part A and most of B completely ready in his head. The images in Part A will be lovingly and carefully drawn down to the smallest detail. In his later films, when he knew that the econte of all works would later be exhibited at the Ghibli Museum, he painted them carefully in watercolors. The drawing in part B was also done in a measured and lengthy manner.

As soon as Miyazaki starts drawing part C, the film goes into full production. Backdrops and composers started working, and animators started to set things in motion.

After Miyazaki finished writing, he began to view the work of the animators. By the time Miyazaki took on part D, he was having doubts about the fifth part, and whether the film could fit the whole story. Usually he had no idea how the film would end. He may have competing ideas about how it will end, and he always cannot decide. Or he has no idea at all. Animators are catching up in Part D and the process gets more painstaking.

The feeling of the impending crisis begins to slowly but surely permeate the entire studio. Miyazaki stops writing ekonte, doing things unrelated to the film. He drops everything and goes off to chop wood for the cast-iron stove in the studio. Someone tells this to Suzuki, who arrives and tries to get him to stop chopping wood and go back to work.

Part E is never done, the whole studio is filled with a lot of stress. Cinemas are booked, viewers are watching every step. Production is behind schedule. Nobody knows how the movie will end.

And then, a breakthrough happens. Part E appears. After a short period of joy and inspiration among the animators, Japan's labor laws are violated and employees work so many hours to complete the film that it is illegal.

When the animators were told to go home and get some sleep, they either pretended to leave and returned to their desks, or they simply refused. The support department, like the animators, spent much more time at work, even though they had less work on the film. It was both about solidarity with your colleagues who were supposed to rework, and about the unspoken code of pressure from colleagues, traditional for Japan: “If everyone else works, you also have to, even if you have no job.”


This is the process of making a film from Hayao Miyazaki. When the film was released, he traveled all over Japan to meet with theater owners and local press. His film was finished, he was free, and the opportunity to see all of Japan was something he loved very much. Then he took a month's leave and with his family retired to his small house in the mountains. Soon, he was already thinking about the next film, and everything began anew.

Although Miyazaki has a reputation for being a tough leader, he used to be more kindhearted and even hosted.

For a long time in Ghibli, even after the success of Princess Mononoke, anyone could simply go upstairs and stand in front of Hayao Miyazaki to watch him work. He sat in a tiny corner of the animators' area at one of the many tables that was in every way identical to that of any other animator in the room. Sometimes he would stop, get up, shake hands and even chat with the visitor [if he was in the mood].

With the increased security in the studio, that's no longer the case, but serves as a great reminder of how relaxed working in a studio with the pressure of the Ghibli can be.

Completely the book "How to Share a Roof with an Infinite Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli" will be released on June 16 this year.

The Topic of Article: ”He drops everything and goes to chop wood”: Working with Hayao Miyazaki.
Author: Jake Pinkman