Artists share thoughts on inspirational director

Pete Docter
Director, “Up”
According to conventional Hollywood wisdom, the audience is concerned with one thing: what happens next. As filmmakers, we’re taught to move the story along; the audience just wants to know what’s going to happen to the characters. Miyazaki’s films show us that audiences also respond and connect to something they recognize: truth.

He finds this truth in beautifully observed details of nature and human behavior. Water running over a rock or wind blowing across a field of grass are not essential to the plot, yet they evoke the smells, the feeling of wind in your face. Far from boring viewers, these details make his films richer and draw the audience into the reality of the film. Similarly, Miyazaki captures specific human behaviors, which may not advance the plot or work as jokes, yet these details — the child hungrily gobbling a bowl of noodles in “Ponyo” — often get some of the biggest laughs. This is great acting, born of observation.

For “Up,” we made a conscious effort to learn from Miyazaki, especially in experiencing the landscape of the Tepui. As the fog clears revealing Paradise Falls, we took time to take in the beauty, to let the audience share Carl’s feelings about finally reaching this amazing place. They’re shots with no characters — just landscapes and details you’d notice standing there, like the waterfall turning into mist as it cascades, or clouds curling over the mountaintops.

[The third animator hired at Pixar, Docter directed “Monsters, Inc.” and “Up” for the studio.]

Yoshitomo Nara
Artist
I started to become aware of him naturally from going to movie theaters when I was in elementary school. The first Miyazaki work I saw was “Panda! Go Panda!” Personally, I like the films that began to have clear themes, especially “Castle in the Sky,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” and “Spirited Away.” I have not been influenced by his narrative manga, but I think part of his mental aspect (may have rubbed off). In an opposite sense, some viewers have said that the fish, Ponyo, in “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” looks like my early work, by which I am very honored.

[Celebrated as one of the stars of Japan’s contemporary pop art movement, Nara has exhibited his work (which often depicts cartoonishly-rendered young children) around the world.]

Chris Sanders
Director, “Lilo and Stitch”
I recently watched “Lilo” again, and even I was struck with how different it was (from other Disney films). I like to think it owes a lot to Miyazaki’s films. I would never liken it to a Miyazaki film, but it’s something to aspire to, and something we did aspire to. His films gave us the confidence to tell a different story and tell it differently, to get into the parts of a character’s story that had a little less intensity and a little more quirkiness.

I constantly reference a scene in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” where she’s going to take off on her broom. Miyazaki understood that the takeoff was interesting and could be glorious. (In) “How to Train Your Dragon,” the first time you see a dragon take off, it’s a big deal — and that’s because of the way Miyazaki handled the scene with the broom. He knew what was important and that there were bigger issues at hand, but he didn’t skip over that takeoff. One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by what he does is his attention to that kind of detail.

[Sanders is currently directing “How to Train Your Dragon” with “Lilo and Stitch” collaborator Dean DeBlois for DreamWorks Animation.]

Joe Grant
Animator, writer
I enjoy dreaming along with Miyazaki. His pictures have so much imagination: They’re filled with things you’ve never seen. “Princess Mononoke” is not a regular cartoon, but a work of art that moves; its pacing is beautiful and symphonic in its rhythms. It’s like walking through a wonderful art gallery.

Like Miyazaki, Walt (Disney) was a great advocate of pantomime, which you don’t get much of in today’s animated features: It’s all talking heads. There’s some very clever stuff done with prepared scripts, like “The Simpsons.” But one thing Walt did along with inventing personality animation was making the audience stop and look at a character in the drawing and the whole atmosphere. Similarly, Miyazaki makes his storyboards come to life. He sits there doodling and the thing grows and grows. He’s full of surprises and ideas.

I like Miyazaki’s films in Japanese: I don’t understand the language, but I’m flooded with all the wonderful visuals that come at me.

[One of Walt Disney’s most talented artists and storymen, Grant enjoyed a career that ran from 1933 to 2004. He died in 2005, a few weeks before his 97th birthday.]

Randy Haberkamp
Miyazaki has always been on the Academy’s radar as being somebody we really wanted to come and be part of the Marc Davis tributes. There’s a scene in “Spirited Away” when Sen is taking a trip on a train, and the amazing thing is it’s a very detailed and realistic depiction, but the train travels through about a foot of water and has all these spirits onboard that even though they’re drawn and would behave the way you would on any train, they’re entirely different. Usually you either have a filmmaker who’s trying to wow you with visual effects, or you have a filmmaker who’s trying so hard to be a documentarian that it’s kind of dull. With Miyazaki, it’s this odd combination of the two that makes it both recognizable and at the same time miraculous.

We go along with it because the spirit world is behaving in a very humanistic manner, even though they look completely different. He’s such a great observationist, and even despite the fact that he’s drawing all this stuff, it is almost like he’s got a documentary going on in the back of his head that comes out in a completely different way.

[Haberkamp serves as AMPAS’ special projects coordinator, organizing such events as July 28’s Marc Davis Celebration of Animation lecture, featuring an in-person discussion with John Lasseter and Miyazaki.]

Jean Giraud (aka Moebius)
Graphic novelist
When I was living in Los Angeles during the 1980s, I became a huge fan of Miyazaki’s film “Nausicaa.” My son was at a school where there were quite a lot of Japanese students, and he came back home with a videocassette which had no opening credits. When I saw the film I was gobsmacked with admiration. For me it was a non-identifiable object which I watched over and over again. It was not until a few years later that I discovered the director was Miyazaki.

Not long after that my daughter was born and my wife and I were looking for a name and we spotted Nausicaa, which my wife thought was wonderful. I then told her about Miyazaki’s film. It’s funny because my daughter has since turned out to be a bit like the Nausicaa character in the film, who is incredibly brave but slightly bad tempered and bossy.

There are two scenes of transformation in Miyazaki’s films which I think have an extraordinary poetic force and show just how outside the mainstream he has succeeded in keeping himself. The first one is in “Porco Rosso,” where the character of the pilot who has a pig’s head fleetingly turns into a human being because the young girl who is watching him perceives him thus; the other is in “Spirited Away” where another young girl, Chihiro, watches her parents change from human beings into pigs.

[In 2004/05 Giraud and Miyazaki were the subject of a joint exhibition put on by La Monnaie de Paris spotlighting “two artists whose drawings come to life.”]

Nick Park
Director, “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit”
The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was “Porco Rosso” at the Annecy Film Festival about 15 years ago. What imme
diately struck me was his love of aircraft. It reminded me a bit of Tintin and the way Herge loved to draw the shapes of boats or planes. What I pick up on in Miyazaki’s films is not so much what the stories are but what they’re not. He’s got such a different worldview. For all the fantastical things in his films, I just love the way he depicts the wind blowing through the grass, or the clouds scooting by overhead. He seems to enjoy things for their own sake — not everything’s got to be story-driven.

I know he’s influenced by European fairytales, like Grimm. There are things in his films that are probably quite terrifying for children, though not in a nasty way, like the old lady with the giant head in “Spirited Away,” which would have kept me awake if I’d seen it as a child.

I was really surprised to find out he doesn’t work with a script at all; he just works from storyboards. He never knows what the ending of a film is going to be like when he starts. I haven’t done that since I was student.

He’s probably the most respected animated film director in the world right now.

[Studio Ghibli recently struck a deal with Aardman Animations to distribute Park’s four “Wallace and Gromit” shorts in Japan theatrically and on DVD.]

Jacques Dubrulle
Programming director, Film Festival Ghent
The first time I saw a film by Miyazaki was “Spirited Away” at the Berlin festival in 2001. It immediately blew me away. I never thought a Japanese animated film would appeal to me, but its universal themes and the visual beauty of it was just overwhelming.

As a humanist, I’m particularly fond of the social dimension in Miyazaki’s work. Compared to Disney, this moral side is translated in a more subtle way into animation. Miyazaki has the power to tell stories about pacifism, environmentalism and even politics in a very aesthetic and epic way. His films are like fairytales for adults: beautiful to look at, but with a strong message.

The Belgian animated filmmaker Raoul Servais, who won the Golden Palm in Cannes for his (short) film “Harpya,” also has this feel for humanism and pacifism in his work. Although Miyazaki and Servais have completely different styles, they both share these universal themes in their storytelling. That’s why Servais’ work has also been appreciated and awarded all over the world.

[In October, the Ghent fest will stage an exhibition entitled “Anime! High Art — Pop Culture,” providing a panoramic view of landmark Asian toons, including Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.”]

– Interviews conducted by Charles Solomon, Tobias Grey and Peter Debruge

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