Studio Ghibli has been making animated features for over four decades since being co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, director of “My Neighbor Totoro” and the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away.”
The studio’s latest release is “Earwig and the Witch” now streaming on HBO Max, and an awards contender for animated feature. The story is based on the children’s book of the same name by Dianna Wynne Jones. It tells the story of an orphan named Erica (aka “Earwig”). Her character is adopted by a blue-haired witch, Bella Yaga and The Mandrake, who is something of a demon, both of whom are in touch with the supernatural side of life.
In a new step for the studio, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Gorō Miyazaki directs. It’s also the studio’s first-ever 3D CGI film.
Miyazaki explains out how the animated feature came together from its inception more than three years ago.
What was the inspiration for “Earwig”?
Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki handed me the book “Earwig and the Witch” and suggested making a film based on it.
It tells the story of a girl adopted by a witch who slaved away doing chores, drowning in sorrow, and waiting for a prince to save her. But Earwig doesn’t do that. She manipulates the witch, learns magic, and tries to fulfill her wish. She doesn’t fit the mold of a good girl — instead, you can call her a bad girl — but that’s what made Earwig fascinating.
When did you decide you were going to use 3D CG?
I had decided at the beginning that this film will be in CG. That is because I saw the possibilities of CG animation when I worked on the TV series “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter.”
I wavered whether to do it in full 3D CG or cel-shading because the latter has a deep-rooted popularity in Japan, and there are not many instances of domestic 3D CG films succeeding. That was when Toshio Suzuki said, ‘If you’re going to make in CG, it has to be in full 3D CG, right?’
The process of bringing a character to life with animation is to travel the world with the character. I feel this way every time I create, be it a film or a TV series. I am not breathing life into her but instead holding the camera to spend the same time with the character. That way, you can get to know the true nature of the character.
What challenges were posed in using that medium?
The biggest challenge for me is how to use 3D CG animation to create the mood of hand-drawn animation that I have become accustomed to and loved from a young age. When I speak of the mood, it’s not merely the art style but the emotional feeling that the film itself brings. In the end, I realized that there is no clear answer to this challenge.
What about animating Bella Yaga; the witch — what discussions went into bringing her to life?
Bella Yaga is a character closer to my age than Earwig. So I can understand how she feels as she lives her daily life, like being sick of the mundane and redundant everyday routines, complicated relationships, unlikeable clients, and cheeky youngsters (lol). That’s why bringing her to life was a process of empathizing with her.
What was your favorite moment to work on?
For me, it was when each character began to move with such alluring expressions. In particular, I was delighted to see the process of Earwig slowly showing various facial expressions at the hands of young and talented animators.
In terms of a scene, I loved when Earwig and the Mandrake talk. I also like the scene in the rain where the younger Earwig’s mom and Bella Yaga fight.