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Instructor Interview 

Part 2: “Riding the Winds of Opportunity Alone” 

Masaaki Mori 



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.