An­i­mat­ing the Souls of Ob­jects

Ja­panese di­rec­tor Shuhei Morita talks about his in­flu­ences and the mak­ing of his Os­car-nom­i­nated short, Pos­ses­sions.

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Ja­panese di­rec­tor Shuhei Morita talks about his in­flu­ences and the mak­ing of his Os­car-nom­i­nated short

Pos­ses­sions.

Shuhei Morita’s haunt­ing an­i­mated short Pos­ses­sions is ar­guably one of the most in­trigu­ing nominees in this year’s race for the Best An­i­mated Short Film Os­car. The 14-minute film is set in 18th cen­tury Ja­pan and cen­ters on a man who loses his way dur­ing a stormy night and comes across a mys­te­ri­ous shrine in the moun­tains. Af­ter he dis­cov­ers dis­carded ki­monos and aban­doned um­brel­las in this world, he self­lessly sets out to mend each one of them. Pos­ses­sions is part of Kat­suhiro Otomo’s Short Peace an­thol­ogy project, which also in­cluded Otomo’s 2012 short Com­bustible. Morita was kind enough to an­swer a few ques­tions about his ac­claimed short via email:

An­imag: Can you please tell us about the ori­gins of the project and how you cre­ated the an­i­ma­tion? Morita: It is a pe­cu­liar theme in Ja­pan that ob- jects pos­sess a spirit … I had con­ceived some projects based on this con­cept, for which I was in­spired by the pic­ture books cre­ated by Mr. Keisuke Kishi, a model/sculp­ture artist. I asked him to create some sce­nar­ios and il­lus­tra­tions of the Ja­panese tra­di­tional ghosts, and I be­gan to con­struct a sim­ple story based on them. Ghost sto­ries tend to have “fight” or “es­cape” themes, but while I was pon­der­ing it from other an­gles, an idea came to me. Then I was able to pic­ture

ev­ery­thing spon­ta­neously.

Can you elab­o­rate on the ti­tle of the film? It seems to res­onate on dif­fer­ent lev­els. Tsukumo-gami (the orig­i­nal Ja­panese ti­tle of the film) is an old thing pos­sessed by a spirit. Tsukumo, mean­ing 99 in Ja­panese, also means “long” or “many.” Pos­ses­sions, the English ti­tle of the film, has such mean­ings as oc­cu­pied or hounded by some­thing, which sounds quite good and ap­pro­pri­ate. Since the film can be en­joyed vis­ually and is not de­pen­dent on di­a­logue, it has re­ceived fa­vor­able re­sponses at for­eign film fes­ti­vals as well. The Ja­panese tra­di­tional ghosts ap­pear­ing in the film were a bit unique, or pe­cu­liar, so they may be rec­og­nized by see­ing the film re­peat­edly, say more than five times. I am happy that the film can be en­joyed in such a way.

When did you de­cide to be an an­i­ma­tor? When I was a col­lege stu­dent. I re­ally liked watch­ing for­eign science-fic­tion and fan­tasy movies. Mean­while, I felt that there were Ja­panese anime ti­tles of equal or bet­ter qual­ity than what I was watch­ing, so I thought, “I want to get in­volved in anime.” The more I un­der­stood anime, the more in­ter­ested I be­came in the pro­cesses (script, sto­ry­board and the char­ac­ters’ expressions) of cre­at­ing one.

How did you come up with the vis­ual style of the short? I be­lieve it came from be­ing born and raised in Nara, known to be a rich source of Ja­panese cul­ture. I was in­ter­ested in na­ture, cul­ture, his­tory, folk sto­ries and tra­di­tion there. Need­less to say, I love Ja­panese ghost sto­ries. Old Ja­panese folk sto­ries usu­ally don’t have big ac­tion scenes or sur­pris­ing twists; they are very sim­ple. But I was more and more in­ter­ested in this genre. I thought, “Isn’t this one style of new (but old) en­ter­tain­ment!?”

Tsukumo-gami is a folk­lore con­cept that ob­jects which have ex­isted for a long time be­come alive and have souls. I wanted to try to show these ob­jects in the shrine hav­ing real ex­is­tence. So, I fo­cused on the 3-D tex­tures of clothes and other items as well as the ba­sic con­cepts of the draw­ings in the hope that those char­ac­ters might have de­signs that gave rise to unique sounds, such as “ding,” “bang,” “crack,” etc. The ghost that ap­pears in the fi­nal part of the film is con- structed of these ob­jects. Though it looks com­pli­cated, we were able to create it rather eas­ily — in our way [laughs].

The ghost is made up of only about 20 com­po­nents, but us­ing 3-D CG tech­nol­ogy (LightWave soft­ware), we could make them look dif­fer­ent by chang­ing the an­gles and lay­outs. The “tra­di­tional” color pal­ette was not in­ten­tional, but came from our use of pat­terns. It would have cost a lot if we had it de­signed and col­ored by pro­fes­sional de­sign­ers. … For­tu­nately, I have a small child, and I was in­spired by the col­ored tra­di­tional craft pa­pers (called chiyo­gami). Like skin color for skins, blue for blue things, I se­lected the tra­di­tional colors from the ex­ist­ing craft pa­pers, within limit of the bud­get. I orig­i­nally thought the Ja­panese red and green were beau­ti­ful colors, and as a re­sult of us­ing those colors, the fi­nal col­or­ing was rather Ja­panese. Then I found a mole on a man’s face, which was not on the orig­i­nal de­sign or on the model, mys­te­ri­ously. It turned out to be a lit­tle piece of dirt on the craft pa­per and was scanned in by ac­ci­dent. It was an un­ex­pect­edly nice effect, so I in­structed the artists not to re­move it — I was lucky to have such an in­ter­est­ing ac­ci­dent!

How long did it take for you to fin­ish the short at Sun­rise Stu­dios? It took about four months to fin­ish with a small staff. We have worked to­gether for a long time, so I wasn’t wor­ried about team’s tech­ni­cal skills! I am still young in this field, so we did it with pure en­thu­si­asm. It was hard to com­plete a lot of work with so few staff, but we worked to­gether pleas­antly and flex­i­bly ac­cord­ing to the cir­cum­stances.

Can you tell us what you’re work­ing on next? For now, it is a se­cret, but I will an­nounce it in the near fu­ture. What I can say is that I hope to de­liver lots of big ac­tion and sur­pris­ing en­ter­tain­ment next time!

What do you en­joy about work­ing in the short-film for­mat? I be­lieved that the chal­lenge of pre­sent­ing Ja­panese folk sto­ries in an en­ter­tain­ment for­mat could only be done through shorts. In the case of short films, there are two ways of cre­at­ing them. One is to have a large vol­ume of ideas so that it over­flows from the plate, an­other is to con­cen­trate and sim­plify the story so that it will fit on the small plate. Pos­ses­sions is the lat­ter. We made it very sim­ple; noth­ing ex­tra is added. I’m at­tracted to flashy styles such as [il­lus­trated book] Hyakki Yagyo or [wood­block artist] Uta­gawa Ku­niyoshi, be­cause I re­ally like Ja­panese ghosts. But the time for­mat is too short for that, and it meant I couldn’t create the Ja­panese ghosts that I imag­ined. It was very chal­leng­ing to make it short, but I think I was able to vi­su­al­ize the en­ter­tain­ment of Ja­panese folk sto­ries.

Do you have any ad­vice for an­i­ma­tion stu­dents want to create orig­i­nal, artis­tic shorts like yours? I think be­liev­ing in your work and your abil­i­ties is very im­por­tant. I didn’t have any con­fi­dence when I was a stu­dent, but I had a strong de­sire to make an­i­ma­tion some day. There are so many tal­ented peo­ple in the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try. You need to ac­cept ad­vice from oth­ers, learn from oth­ers, grow and be­lieve in your­self, that you will make a film some day!

Shuhei Morita (above) tapped into his life­long in­ter­est in Ja­panese cul­ture and folk­lore in com­ing up with his Os­car-nom­i­nated short film, Poses­sions. The 14-minute film fol­lows an 18th cen­tury man who dis­cov­ers an aban­doned shrine with torn ki­monos and u

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