Part 2: “Riding the Winds of Opportunity Alone”
This is the second installment in a series of three interviews held to celebrate the final year of Masaaki Mori’s career as a professor at Tokyo Zokei University. Last time, we finished as the young Mori joined the animation/video content production company, Animation Staff Room, and was beginning to establish himself as an animator. Join me in looking back at the ups and downs of this chapter of his life. (Interviewer: Takanaka Shimotsuki, September 2020)
──The year you joined Animation Staff Room (ASR), 1980, was the beginning of the age of computer graphics (CG), with movies and TV commercials leading the trend.
ASR had a friendly rivalry with a company called Shirogumi*1. They were also in Aoyama then, but ASR was more advanced in motion control at the time. This was because of an outstanding creator at ASR, Noboru Fujii*2, who was already doing bulb exposure*3 using a rostrum camera with a computer-controlled compound table (Cel animation platform).
The title credit of Superman (1978) used a technique called “streaks” – where the letters leave behind ribbons of light as they come streaking towards the viewer. Since Noboru was skilled in the early CG technologies available at that time, as well as in developing and programming equipment, he had ASR install a pulse-controlled stepper motor using a computer on a compound table. That let us create shots with streaking and slit-scan effects.
Noboru was a director at ASR, while his younger brother, Akira Fujii, was a producer. When I joined the company, I was assigned to work under Akira in the production staff.
At that time, Noboru often told me, “The computer world is very interesting. There are so many possibilities being explored and from one of them, all of a sudden, comes a burst of development.” When I think about it now, computer technology has certainly developed in its own way like that.
However, I didn’t think much about it because I was more interested in motion control than CG. At that time, motion control wasn’t very good, and I really wanted to use a motion control camera like the one used in Star Wars and film freely with a crane. Unfortunately, the camera used in Star Wars was so outrageously expensive that even a big movie studio like Toho couldn’t afford to buy one from the United States. They used an inferior substitute for their 1984 film, Sayonara Jupiter.
The camera ASR had developed was the most advanced in Japan at the time. So, when Toho started the production of Princess from the Moon (1987), starring Yasuko Sawaguchi, they asked us to lend it to them. It was too heavy to move, so we told them, “We can’t carry it. Come and shoot it in our studio if you want to use it!” [laughs] ASR had to build a special studio for that purpose.
*1 Shirogumi Inc.: a movie and visual effects production company established in 1974. Making full use of their advanced CG and special effects technologies, they were involved in the production of many hit films, including Returner (2002) and Always: Sanchome no Yuhi (2005).
*2 Noboru Fujii (1949–): a film director who joined the Animation Staff Room after working at a commercial production company, APC. He built an early motion-control system from the ground up and is considered a pioneer for creating numerous motion graphics for commercials.
*3 Bulb exposure photography: a method of long exposure photography in which the camera shutter remains open for as long as the shutter button is depressed, allowing the camera to capture the trail of light from a moving light source.
Mori at his lonely work desk during the ASR days in around 1985, when he often worked all night. “This was before convenience stores, so I’d often go to Yoshinoya, which was open 24 hours a day, for a beef bowl and a bottle of beer.” [laughs]
──So, you worked in production, under the guidance of ASR?
I learned production work from the producer, Akira Fujii. We looked alike, so I used to introduce myself as Mori – the younger brother of Fujii. [laughs] I learned about creation from his brother, Noboru. Noboru really was an amazing person. Back when Fortran*4 was the major programming language for computers, he taught himself how to use it in his work at ASR. Since that sort of thing wasn’t my cup of tea, I’d just give directions to the crew: “Make it like this.” There were only about thirteen of us at ASR back then, so it was a fun place and everyone got along well. However, there was a long wait before we could run the programs for our system, so we often had to stay up all night, pointlessly. Thanks to that, I came to hate computers. [laughs]
I am truly grateful I came to know the whole workflow for making commercials, because I was in production. Thanks to this, three years after I joined ASR, I was already going directly to ad agencies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo, sponsors, and production companies for meetings. As soon as I was back at the office, I drew up storyboards, drew and made materials and sent them out for filming once they were approved. After picking up the developed film from the lab, I would extract the opticals*5, edit the negatives and finally deliver the prints. I even delivered the invoices. That is why my coworkers called me ‘a singing, dancing production staffer’. [laughs]
*4 Fortran: the world’s first general-purpose programming language created in 1954. It excelled at scientific and engineering calculations. The latest version is Fortran 2008.
*5 Optical extraction: a part of the process of adding special composite effects to a film with an optical printer (a copying device that burns the exposed film image onto another film). The work of cutting out portions from the original negatives where effects will be added, and creating instructions is known as optical extraction.
Mori while shooting his second clay animation using puppets made by an art staffer. “I was surprised by an armature popping out while I was posing it! I should have made everything myself.” Taken in 1987.
Shooting a clay animation commercial for PARCO’s Halloween Campaign. “I was really pleased with this one, because even though it was only my third clay animation, my own characters appeared for the whole fifteen seconds.” Taken in 1987.
Gradually, my bosses realized I could do both animation drawing and directing, so in my fourth year, I left production and was made a director. To put it another way, I graduated from being what is called a gofer. Once that happened, I started doing all kinds of things, including shooting various types of stop-motion footage and miniatures with motion control, with an attitude like “I’m going to make this project my own.” Since CG was still in its infancy then, I filmed the monitor screen frame by frame like with Scanimate*6. I also found it interesting to design various things using basic CG wireframes, but people would say, “That looks like you made it on a computer,” when I showed them the results.
That is why I started losing interest in CG. Around the same time, I met Tae-yong Lee*7, a commercial director who was the same age as me. At the time, he was a very popular director at a production company called CM Land. He was known for making a lot of extremely stylish commercials, including a hit whiskey commercial*8 that he collaborated on with a puppet animator, Fumiko Magari*9. I ended up joining his team, and since Magari handled shooting the puppets, I dealt with other ‘small effects’ animations and titles. I devoted myself to my work, and in time he started asking, “Can you come up with something better?”’ That was the start of our friendship. He knew I was originally a puppet animator and had been saying, “I’ll give you a chance someday.” And that is how I got the clay animation work.
*6 Scanimate: an analog computer video synthesizer system, and the video animation generated and processed by that system. It was used from the 1960s to 1980s.
*7 Tae-yong Lee (1955–): a popular commercial director who created many hit commercials with unique animations. He first worked for the CM Land production company, and later became a freelancer.
*8 Usagi no Mama to Arumajiro no Bartender no iru bar (1983): a TV commercial for Suntory Old Whisky and Perrier, directed by Tae-yong Lee. Manga artist, Katsuhiro Otomo, designed the characters.
*9 Fumiko Magari: a puppet animator born in Okayama Prefecture. Apprenticed under Tadahito Mochinaga, she is a veteran artist with a broad career, spanning from past TV programs, such as Ultra Q and Comet-san, to recent commercials, such as those for Contac and Docomodake.
Mori working on a 2.5D clay animation on a motion control camera’s lower platform for use in a music video. “Sometimes I press the shutter button with my hand in the frame, moving the clay!” Taken in 1987.
──So that’s how you became a clay animator. Even more amazing is that you were able to meet Fumiko Magari through your work.
Since there are very few puppet animators in Japan and even fewer freelancers, Magari’s presence is very important. She’s like everyone’s big sister and very outspoken. [laughs] When she gets on my case, I give it back double or triple. [laughs] Above all, we both like drinking and often drink together. That means we’re on good terms even if we sometimes clash at work.
Using not only clay but also seeds to make “seed-mation” commercials. “I made layouts of various seeds I collected and took stop-motion frames of them. I tried all kinds of animation.” Taken in 1988.
──And starting clay animation was eventually what led to your independence from the company?
This was when MTV*10 was all the rage and artists like Henry Selick*11, who had graduated from art schools in the U.S., were using various expressions of animation, including clay, to make music videos. I saw this kind of free-spirited animation flooding the TV, and began to get requests for “stuff like that” at my work.
The problem with clay animation is that you can’t split the work among different people. Puppet animation work in Japan is divided into making the puppets, moving the puppets and directing the animation. But in clay animation, the forms change constantly, so one has to be capable of both sculpting and animating.
In fact, Magari tried to make animation using latex foam puppets mimicking clay animation. But Lee said, “I want something more clay-like and viscous.” He asked me, “Can you make it?” In the beginning, I couldn’t get his confidence in my modeling. But I said to myself, “I will show him” and kept going. [laughs] Then, he was like, “You did it!” After that, they let me handle clay animation.
The thing about the commercial industry, or the movie and video production industry in general, is that once you get a chance to do something, it becomes your career. So, that was my first chance, and since then I’ve gotten more and more clay animation orders. Since I was the only one at ASR doing clay animation, I ended up having to give up my weekends to go knead clay at the office in preparation. When I complained that it was getting too much, the president, feeling sorry for me, said, “You can become an independent if you want.” That’s how I ended up leaving the company. I left on good terms, so I continued to bring my work there to use their motion control camera.
*10 Music Television (MTV): an American cable TV channel aimed at young people. It was founded in 1981 as a pop music station that became the hot topic, broadcasting music and video clips 24 hours a day.
*11 Henry Selick: an American animation artist. In addition to being the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), his masterpiece, he is known for animating, directing and producing a wide variety of films.
Mori working on a foreign commercial. “We used a pretty big set to shoot clay animation on. This was my first encounter with brightly colored clays in animation, and I have been using them ever since.” Taken in 1988.
──You became a freelancer in 1989. How was that different from being a company employee?
The biggest issue I had with becoming a freelancer was deciding how much to charge for my work. If you fail a commercial job as an independent, they will never use you again. When I worked at ASR, I had the backing of the company, and didn’t have to worry about getting paid at least. When you work at a company, you know how even if you think, “I did just such-and-such”, you should never say, “I messed up.” Once you become a freelancer, you have to keep on going, and eventually your mistake gets caught along the way. So, I realized I couldn’t use the same methodology as I would when working for a company. When I make a mistake, I have to sincerely apologize to the client and work things out, and then I can retake everything the next day. That’s just one example of the many things that I experienced while working on my own. If there are any setbacks in work, they are in social relationships. I have several people I never want to work with again. [laughs] It also made me realize you can somehow overcome the troubles you run into on the job. It was also good that I was able to work with a variety of people in many different places because of being independent.
On the other hand, there were times when I wondered if I should have put together my own crew, a family, like Obayashi-gumi*12 in the film industry. When I was asked at a shooting location if I had a designated cameraman, I used to say no, because I wanted to work with a variety of people back then. But after a while of working as a freelancer, I started to reflect that maybe I should have worked with the same people so we could have grown together. However, there is a bad side to it too because, if you fall, you bring your family down too. [laughs]
Mori at his new office in Nakano, right after becoming a freelancer. “The first thing I bought was a work table! The shiny universal vice – a commemoration gift from Noboru Fujii, – is dazzling!” Taken in 1989.
──After being an independent, you founded Mori Craft Animation, LLC., and took on the management role of president.
Prior to that, when I became a freelancer, I was able to continue the good relationship with ASR, since I didn’t have a falling out with them nor take their projects with me. In the year I left ASR, or the year after, I was suddenly asked to do the opening animation for Tunnels no Minasan no Okage Desu*13. After the first one, they said, “Now we are doing one with a song.” I was like, “Yes!” I made the video for “Gara Gare Hebi ga Yattekuru” by Tunnels. It was well received, and in the following year, another video I made for their song, “Gajaimo”, also became a hit. This was right in the middle of Japan’s economic bubble, so it was smooth sailing for me. Things lined up one after the other and that led me to get out into the world.
Even though I managed my own company, it was just me and an assistant. And I had a degree in accounting from Chuo University. [laughs] I did all the bookkeeping and accounting, and sent it to my father (who did tax accounting), and it would be taken care of. [laughs] I’m sure anyone else would have had a hard time doing all of that, but in my case it all added up.
Since I had originally joined ASR in the production staff, I understood the whole production process. So, when I got a call from a potential client who had never dealt with clay animation before, I could tell them how long it would take, how long for preparation and where to film. It also allowed me to take the lead on budgets and ask them how much they were looking to spend (laughs). Since that was how I generally ran things, I had little concern about having my own company.
*12 Obayashi-gumi: a nickname for the regular crew and actors in the movies made by the film director, Nobuhiko Obayashi (1938-2020). An actor, Toshinori Omi is one of the members.
*13 Tunnels no Minasan no Okage Desu: a popular and legendary TV variety show broadcast on the Fuji Television Network from 1988 to 1997. It was hosted by the comedy duo Tunnels, Takaaki Ishibashi and Noritake Kinashi, and featured a variety of guests.
──So, everything worked together to get you on track. How do you feel as a creator, rather than as a business owner, about making clay animation your career?
This is something that I came to realize as working with clay animation. With clay, you constantly need to break it down and reshape it. As I made animations, modeling more and more, I became convinced it was the job for me. [laughs]
On the other hand, there were no textbooks on clay, and since there was no YouTube in those days, I had to develop my own techniques. In my case, I had a lot of fun because my work was recognized and some became hits. When you work on your own, you can add your own flair. And since you know how much you can handle, you can turn down orders when your plate gets too full.
In my case, I had no intention of expanding the business and becoming a manager while making the youngsters do all the work. However, my problem is that although I get passionate about a job when I’m asked to make specific things, I have a hard time getting through projects when I’m handed a blank sheet of paper and told to do whatever I want. [laughs] Back when I had my company, there were many times I tried to plan my own projects, but that never went well. [laughs)]
──Thank you again. I look forward to talking with you in our next and final interview.
Crouching in front of a giant motion control camera in the studio, Mori sets up a clay animation for a video game’s opening credits. Taken in 1995.