Sakura-Con 2017 – Live Drawing with Yasuhiro Irie

Something new at this year’s Sakura-Con, and to any convention I have personally attended, was the live sketch format. For almost all past panels, the main format included some type of Q&A with lecturing, as well as the occasional promotional video or full screening.

This live sketch Q&A involved Yasuhiro Irie having prepared live models from attendees in advance for him to draw while simultaneously answering questions from the audience. His ability to multi-task with rough sketching and talking set the bar high for future panels of this nature. He not only answered questions and directed the models, he  also did so with a cheery demeanor that maintained a positive atmosphere for the session.

*Any transcription below is provided first through a translator’s words, then paraphrased as needed by me.*

Yasuhiro Irie:

I am doing a live drawing. I will try to make a 30-second animation short today within a 2-hour frame. The animation you just saw was previously made, so I will now show you the rough state of the animation I am going to make today.

What you just saw were all rough models, so today we have all of these real models to pose for us. Models, please stand up and wave to the audience! I’m going to start drawing now, but if I keep drawing it will be boring, so we’re going to have a Q&A session at the same time, starting in a little while. Thank you for coming. Let’s start!

Sped up 4x

I’m going to use the rough sketch that I just showed you and…draw over with thicker, darker lines. I’m going to be using characters from Halloween Pajama, my original manga I’m drawing. Halloween Pajama is my original manga I started…in 2013-2014. The original manga is in Japanese, and the other day my Kickstarter project got enough funding to make the manga with English translations. Maybe there are some backers here who supported? If you’re here, thank you very much for supporting me!

The project will move forward with the English translations, so I hope you enjoy Halloween Pajama as it progresses. Halloween has a cultural tradition and is new to Japan, but I’m sure you’re all familiar with what it is. You might notice and say this is not exactly what Halloween is, but you can just assume it as my creative license. That’s how I imagine Halloween to be. We Japanese take in all kinds of cultures and traditions, including things from Buddhism and Christianity, such as Christmas and Halloween. I hope you can see how we perceive Halloween. My hope is that maybe some day my manga can be turned into an anime, like a TV series or something. If it does turn into a TV series or animation series, I hope you get to enjoy it.

As you can see, I’m drawing now. In a while, we will call on the model to come up front. Models, please wait for it more.

We’d like to move on to Q&A. Do you have questions for us?

Q: I’m really interested in where you got the idea for this manga and what caused you to be so interested in getting it translated into Italian?
A: Halloween is starting to get popular in Japan, starting a few years ago. I realized there wasn’t any anime based on Halloween culture. That’s how I came up with the idea of making it with that theme. People will get bored of seeing the same thing over and over, so I’m always looking for new things. I thought it might be interesting with characters doing fights with Halloween motifs. But if it’s just Halloween, it might be too weak in content. Halloween is something that people…are already familiar with. I thought it might need something extra.
I used to have nightmares. I thought maybe it can have a girl trying to solve or fight against nightmares. When I was really young, I woke up in the middle of the night crying and asking why I have this nightmare. I came up with a character who resolves those issues.
As for why in Italian, it is because I went to Italy and really loved the fish and white wine, and wanted to go back there again, so I started learning Italian. I asked one of my apprentices to translate into Italian, so that I could study [the language]. It’s my textbook for learning Italian. I first tried to translate it myself into Italian, but when I showed my friend, they said it was terrible, so I asked them to translate!

Q: When did you start doing manga? What influences got you to do what you do today?
A: I started drawing manga when I was in junior high school. But after I graduated from high school, I started working in the anime industry, so couldn’t draw manga. In 2013, I just finished a big project, and I really wanted to draw manga again. I had two years of just working on manga.

Q: I recently got to watch Scorching Ping Pong Girls and really enjoyed it; it was fantastic. What made you decide to adapt such a manga? Was there anything specific you wanted to focus on? Was there a favorite scene you worked on, and why?
A: I was asked by the president of a production company, “There’s this manga called Ping Pong Girls. Would you like to direct it?” That was how it started. When I read the original manga, I saw that these cute girls were doing intense ping pong matches and I really liked it. I decided to take the offer and direct the anime.
As for my favorite scenes, I really liked the communication of the friends in the series; they’re really nice. The friendship is one thing. I also like all the matches that they have, really intense matches. Especially in episode eight, when they have the doubles matches, I don’t think I have seen any anime before depicting a real doubles match of ping pong. I think I’ve done a fairly good job of doing doubles matches.

Yasuhiro Irie: Can we have the first model up here? Your name please?

Model: Mary.

Yasuhiro Irie: You will be a hand coming in, then you go out.

Translator: He needs to see your profile.

Yasuhiro Irie: Don’t look at me. Stare at the wall. I get too excited if I get lost in a beautiful woman. I think it’s such a wonderful job I have that I can stare at beautiful people and…draw them. Thank you very much for all the models who came here today. I’m very grateful.

Sorry, Mary, you can’t see it at all, but it’s progressing pretty well. It’s an animation, so frame by frame it’s a different angle. Maybe for a model it’s difficult to keep the same pose. The original rough model was bold, but now we have beautiful curly hair, so I’ll try to put that in the drawing as much as possible. Can you put out your left hand, push it backward? I’m getting nervous here, but I’m doing my best.

During the actual anime production, we don’t [usually] use models when we animate, but I think it’s fun to have models in front of you. I guess with an anime, we draw not just humans, we draw robots and monsters. It’s difficult to have models for monsters. We sometimes do have human models to base our animation on.

I realized I left the one side blank. I’m now filling in the left side. Sometimes that’s scary about digital is that the canvas is bigger than you thought. It’s almost like a tragic accident when you’re working on an anime project and you realize that your entire anime, the second half, is missing. When I’m drawing, it rarely happens, but something similar to this has happened before.

One time, I was told by one of the producers that all the cuts and frames were turned in and finished. There were like 300 of them. He said, everything is turned in, everything fetched. But then when I actually saw the animation, the movie of it, I realized that there were a few frames, cuts, that were completely black. I got really mad and asked why it was happening, that I thought all the animation was finished.  We figured out the reason was that the list got cut off on the monitor. When you scroll down, there are more things on the list. But we were able to finish the animation before the airing broadcast of the series, so we made it. But it was very scary.

I’m almost finished with the first model. Thank you very much.
So next question, and the next model can come up here.

Q: My question involves the level of detail you’re using and omitting. Clearly these are not as detailed as key frames as an animation would be, nevertheless, they are capturing the essence of the action. Where in the production in a completed anime would this level of detail and framing fit?
A: Each department in the anime production will have this kind of really rough sketch to check to see what the scene is going to be like, so they can share the same idea of what a scene should look like. That’s because once everything is finished, once you check after it’s finished, you can’t say this is not what I imagined it to be, this is wrong. In that case, you’d have to go all the way back and re-draw. In order to avoid that we use the rough sketch. We check first with our rough sketch and then move on to the next step.

Q: Do you prefer traditional or digital drawing? What advice would you give to someone making that transition?
A: When I draw, I prefer using pencils, because that’s what I’m used to. I’ve been using pencils since I was small. However, when it comes to anime production, I prefer working with digital because you get to see the previews, real time previews, as I draw.

Q: Regarding the concept of the anime and how much research is involved, like for this Halloween Pajama, what kind of research do you do and how do you decide to use it?
A: Since Halloween Pajama is my personal project, I do my own research and decide on things I like myself. That’s how I integrate my research ideas into my work. I base my story on Halloween multi-objects, drawing pictures and stories. I pick from those what I like.

Q: For Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a long running series, what difficulties did you experience making the show, especially since the studio was relatively young at the time?
A: The most difficult, or the things I had to be careful with, was that I couldn’t get sick since it was a long series and I was in charge as the director. I was very careful not to get sick. When the broadcast started, I got sick. I was hospitalized for one week. But since we had a terrific group of staff, the production went smoothly. So I was relieved to hear that, but at the same time, I was questioning myself, why am I the director here?
I’m so relieved that the broadcast went smoothly and ended perfectly.

Third model, please, and next question.

Q: I’m interested in your experience when you first began your career as an artist. What were your base challenges, and how did you overcome them to come to your present success?
A: I joined the anime industry after high school and wrote my portfolio to a production company and they got me in. The difficult part of working in the industry is that your job is basically to keep on drawing the entire day for many days. It was challenging for me to keep the focus, concentrating on my work. But since I love drawing, simply just drawing, it wasn’t actually difficult to me to keep drawing.
When you’re starting out, you’re not earning much. Your income is low. I really appreciated my parents for supporting me financially at the time. I think what’s important to keep going in the anime industry is to believe in your abilities and to get support from people around you.

Q: You’re both a great director and animator, and some people here might not know about the animation you’ve drawn. Can you tell us what the most challenging shot you ever animated ever was to finish?
A: The difficulty of animation depends on the title; each title is different. One of the most difficult cuts I ever worked on was from the Soul Eater opening. In that sequence, there was a long scene with a moving background. That was the difficult part for me.

Q: What’s your favorite type of program, application, to use to draw and animate manga?
A: I use Clip Studio Paint, and I just use it to draw manga and animate. It’s from a company called CELSYS.

Q: In Scorching Ping Pong Girls, one of the things that most stood out to me was the amount of detail put into the sweat of the character. It was unique and made clear to me the work the girls were putting into the ping pong. Where did that inspiration come from–the manga, real ping pong players, or somewhere else entirely?
A: As far as the sweat goes, it is a kind of a detail depicted in the manga. Looking at the real ping pong matches, you realize the players are sweating a lot. I realized that depicting sweat is crucial to portray matches. You might get a sense that the scene is being sexy or sensual, but it’s real! But I also realize that it’s necessary to depict it in a different way from the manga.
For instance, if you look at the screen, I’m going to draw some sweat. In case of black and white, you just draw a few lines to show the character is sweating. In the case of animation, when you draw in lines in different color, it’s not going to stand out much. You will need to add in more lines or shadows to bring it out more. That also means you need to draw a lot more. It means it’s going take a little more work for the animators. So we came up with this method of adding in lines and colors to the shirt so you can see the character is sweating a lot. The result is you can clearly see that the sweat is standing out a lot, and with a little less work. I hope you can understand.

Q: I noticed that you have worked on a lot of shows with a heavy emphasis on mechanical animation, like The Vision of Escaflowne. I noticed that the animation has started moving towards CG for mechanical design. How do you feel about the move from hand drawn to more CG mechanics?
A: I think it’s a good thing that robots are drawn by CG. That’s because, design-wise, it was difficult to animate certain designs before with hand drawing, but now you can with the help of CG. There are also certain aspects where the hand drawn animation is better, compared to CG, so there are still good things with hand drawn animation.

To the model: your part is almost finished now. This is the preview I have done.
Next model, please.

Q: I’ve been wondering, as an animator, you’ve worked on a variety of things from Gunparade and mecha to Scorching Ping Pong Girls with sports and girls. What’s been your favorite subject to animate in terms of, for example, mecha, humans, and monsters? Out of all of them, what’s your favorite to animate?
A: I actually don’t have any preference on genre or subject matter. But I am more interested in depicting characters’ emotions. It can be either a robot anime, samurai anime, it doesn’t matter. I am more interested in the characterization.

Q: I and my friends work in the animation industry in Vancouver and we are flooded with work. What do you think of the current state of the industry in Japan, with the shortage of animators due to low pay and the high cost of living?
A: There are a lot of people who aspire, but find it hard to continue due to low income and other issues. I am aware of the current issues in Japan. The veteran animators are now realizing the issues and coming together to resolve it.

Q: Is there anything we as Western fans can do to help with these issues animators are facing in Japan?
A: I’ve never thought of a point of view from the overseas regarding this issue. What I can think of is for you to keep enjoying anime. I think it’s important for the people in Japan and for the Japanese government to realize that anime is popular outside of Japan. It’s going to be a start if they hear your voices and start making changes.

So now you’re finished. Next model please.

Q: One of the major contributing factors to the animator shortage is the increasing number of anime every year. Have you encountered any difficulties directing Ping Pong Girls versus past projects?
A: The difficulty is that because of the shortage in the animator pool, it’s important to have enough people before the animation starts. In the case of Ping Pong Girls, it was a TV series with a focus on intense ping pong matches. We tried to distribute animators for appropriate scenes. Some of the staff, animators, who are better at animating movement or action scenes like matches. Some others are more focused, better, at every day scenes like eating and walking. What was difficult was appointing the appropriate staff to the appropriate scenes. By focusing on what we wanted to show, we concentrated on making those scenes good. That’s what we did with Ping Pong Girls.

Q: I want to know a bit about working on Cowboy Bebop, my favorite anime. I want to know what it was like working on it.
A: I joined the team later in the production time. It was fun working with the team. By joining later and having seen what the great staff did beforehand, before I joined, was a great asset for me. I joined the team as an animator, but I also was able to draw up some storyboards. Having that experience with Bebop helped me greatly afterward when I became a director myself.

To model: I’m done, thank you!

Q: I know that anime and manga are very different mediums and that you do need to make some conscious decisions when adapting source material to anime. Have you ever had to alter or deviate from source material in a bigger way, like plot or storytelling? Do you ever consult the author or artist of the original source material? How does that process go?
A: There are two methods, one is making an adaption with changes, and the other is to follow truthfully to the original. In the case of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the core of it was very truthful to the original. In the case of Ping Pong Girls, I added more ping pong matches because I thought that’s where it could be expanded more. Before I did that, I did consult with the original author of the manga and handed him the script and storyboards and we got his approval to do that.

Q: What animators and artists inspired you when you first starting drawing and doing anime?
A: I was inspired to become an animator after watching Nausicaa by Hayao Miyazaki. Before Nausicaa, I conceived animation to be for kids, entertainment for kids. But at the same time I noticed similarities between Nausicaa, how the character is animated, with the title Future Boy Conan. Then I realized that it’s made by the same people, the same person. I was able to see the person through the works. Then I really got inspired to become an animator myself, when I realized it’s made by some person, a real person behind the production. I wanted to become that person.

Q: To my knowledge, a large part of the animation process is still on pencil and paper. It feels like a fragile system. For example, when I look at some behind the scenes, I see a person carrying a large bag of key frames in the car, and in my head, I think, what if that car crashes? …I wonder, does the industry intend to move to a more digital process, or is the superiority of hand drawing something that is worth the sacrifice?
A: I believe that the industry is heading more towards digitalization. I think the mixture of the two will continue for a while, because some of the animators are simply more used to drawing with pencil and paper. For them, it’s more productive. They can draw more frames with pencil and paper. It’s as simple as that. It’s better for them to work with that medium.

At this point, I had to leave early to make another panel that overlapped on the schedule. From what I gather, the animation was not completely finished by the end of the two-hour time slot, but the end product was still impressive.

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