Art Director × Art Setting

Junichi Higashi × Yohei Kodama (Part 2)

Picking up where we left off in our previous installment, we speak with Art Director Junichi Higashi and Art Setting Designer Yohei Kodama of the background art production company Studio Easter, which handled the art in general on "MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM THE ORIGIN" (hereafter referred to as "THE ORIGIN"). In this second part, we include Art Direction Assistant Takeru Odaka who ensured smooth collaboration with Origin Studio. We spoke about what needed particular attention or hard work in terms of art specifically because this was "THE ORIGIN," and their discussions with General Director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko.
- Now we'd like to ask about aspects of the art specific to this being "THE ORIGIN." First of all, as the art director, what was particular about "THE ORIGIN" that you paid attention to?
Higashi: First of all, we had to consider what position "THE ORIGIN" held as a work among Gundam series. Personally, what I myself focused on as art director when I worked on "MOBILE SUIT Z GUNDAM" and "MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM 0083" was that even though they were stories about mecha, robots, and sci-fi, we shouldn't make it all dark or somber colors. I think that's where I differ in direction from art directors who have handled other Gundam works. My personal thinking is that in a world where many varieties of color are being used, it's okay for there to be serious action and drama as you'd expect from mecha. In that sense, less than it being because it's "THE ORIGIN" and more because I'm the one handling it, on the art side we're tending to paint things with a lot of colors. But there's a lot of action coming up in the "Chronicle of the Loum Battlefield," so I think we should focus on more tense hues. I don't decide on the hues by myself, but I have detailed discussions with the directors of each episode, and I incorporate their wishes. As the art director, it's my role to try to ensure there are no inconsistencies between episodes.
Odaka: In terms of production, my role is to act as an intermediary between Mr. Higashi and the episode directors. The episode directors、 Mr. (Kiyoshi) Egami and Ms. (Nana) Harada, try to align their opinions, but naturally they have different sensibilities. Trying to synthesize those differences in terms of direction is something I work hard on every time, and it's a good experience for me. It feels like Mr. Egami places more importance on the atmosphere than details, while Ms. Harada is more focused on specific details and fidelity of the scenery taken in by the lens. So the idiosyncrasies of the directors have a great influence on the art direction.
Higashi: Each director wants to express their own sensibilities, and as an art director I have to support them in that. So being flexible and adaptable can be difficult. On "THE ORIGIN" in particular, everyone had strong opinions, so the actual production work was hard. Each and every background shot plays a crucial role. That basic element is very important.
- Char is the main character in "THE ORIGIN," so I think "red" is an important color that you have to focus on in the backgrounds. Was there any talk about things like that?
Higashi: In Episode 3, there was the character arc of Char starting to see himself as the "Red Comet," and I think that will continue. In terms of colors we associate with the character, Mr. (Yoshikazu) Yasuhiko definitely has a vision, and I hope the art direction side can maintain that.
- With regards to the background colors, do things like contrast change depending on the characters' personalities and the location?
Higashi: That's another thing where we have to pick up the preoccupations of the directors as much as possible for each episode. For example, in Episode 4, there's the scene of Char fighting in person as he responds to Lalah's Newtype powers, and the night battle scene with the mafia. We didn't simply make the background dark because it was night, but we focused on the depth of the hues, since the director was meticulous about each individual shot while crafting them. Those scenes are also greatly connected to the tempo of the story, so we couldn't just choose whatever we liked, but made decisions about the colors with faith in the director.
- Were there any specific scenes that were difficult?
Odaka: There's a scene in Episode 3 where Char enters the Federation control room, and we were really attentive to the colors there. There's the red lamp of a fire hydrant behind Char, and Mr. Yasuhiko asked that it be redone in bright red. He said, "This is where Char's 'red' stands out, it's a symbolic scene, so I want to make it thoroughly red." So we worked hard adjusting how red to make it, but when we made it fully red, he said, "This is good." Then I understood that rather than placing importance on a sense of realism, he wanted to make it impressive.
Higashi: It's not for me to decide whether a color is suitable or not, so rather than it being hard work, it's more like we're harboring a half-uneasiness as we do the job. As an art director, I'm self-conscious about what colors I'd like to use, and the dilemma of reconciling that with the episode directors is challenging.
- So "THE ORIGIN" is not a project where people just say, "I leave it in your hands."
Higashi: That's right. The episode directors and the artists have to make a balance between each other. It's not something that's created through mechanical operation, and we have our own feelings. So I think the way animation is made is in deciding how much of that to put out there and how much to suppress. As I mentioned earlier, I'm someone who wants to use a lot of colors in the art. Considering that people are living their lives within the story, I don't want continuous serious colors. That's why I always want to use a lot of colors. And I worry every time about whether the fans of the series and the General Director will accept that.
- In terms of art setting, what did you feel was particularly hard work on "THE ORIGIN"?
Kodama: I joined in the middle, starting with Episode 3, and Mr. Yasuhiko hadn't really been satisfied with the depiction of the space colonies, which are a symbol of the Universal Century. What I was then assigned to was the scenery of Side 7 which Amuro sees at the end of Episode 3. The 6-kilometer-diameter colony needed to leave a deep impression on viewers, so if I failed at that, the job would probably not go well. I felt the weight of that responsibility. In my case, my normal working pace is to spend one or two days on one drawing, but when it came to the art setting for the colony, I spent about thirty days on that one drawing while doing other work in parallel, such was the level of detail. The reward for that hard work was that Mr. Yasuhiko gave me the OK, and after that it felt like I could finally start. As a result, mutual understanding became easier, and I earned a certain degree of trust, so the start was really the hardest part.
- Depending on how convincing the colony under construction looks, the viewer's last impression will differ drastically, so it's certainly a very important point.
Kodama: When drawing the setting design for the colony, it wasn't just one drawing. I drew all the buildings under construction, and the cranes and things, separately and put them together afterwards. In terms of how to depict its huge size, there was a gap between what Mr. Yasuhiko was thinking of and my ideas. So, by figuring out how distant our visions were from one another, I worked to find a point of compromise that Mr. Yasuhiko would agree to. That was difficult. In terms of process, before I drew roughs, I offered something like proposals, and based on the roughs, we confirmed the differences in how it was seen, and as I revised it I made continuous alterations to make it more precise. When drawing, I tried to give it a sense of vastness through the feeling that it's taken with a super telephoto lens, and putting in a wide-angle lens effect. With this shot, it's almost like the scenery is the protagonist, so Mr. Yasuhiko himself put a lot of effort into it too. What Mr. Yasuhiko asked for was cool drawings, and within his standards Mr. Yasuhiko has definite desires about what's cool drawing and what's fresh. Trying to make those a reality was difficult.
- What are your thoughts on working with Mr. Yasuhiko?
Higashi: He's a true veteran, so my first impression was that he was powerful and energetic despite that. He's just as dedicated as when he was young, and his creativity hasn't diminished at all, so I think he performs his work admirably in every aspect. That's precisely why, although I was not involved in creating the story, I want to meet Mr. Yasuhiko's expectations from my support position on the visual side.
- Do you sense any clear difference between him and other directors?
Higashi: From our perspective, the degree of completion of Mr. Yasuhiko's storyboards was very high. With such high-quality storyboards, you couldn't help trying really hard to ensure the completion level of the film wouldn't drop. Looking at those storyboards, it wasn't just us, but the animators and the episode directors, all of us felt we wanted to try to make the film reflect the degree of completion of the storyboards, and I think that's something special about "THE ORIGIN."
Kodama: Compared to Mr. Higashi, I'm still fairly early in my career, but I've had experiences with various types of directors. Even among them, I truly believe that Mr. Yasuhiko is a special and unique person, the likes of which I've never met before. My immediate impression was, "I've never seen such an amazing person." In any case, his sensibilities are absolutely incredible. I talked before about how the colony was seen and presented. The way he thought about that logically, and uniquely, and how it was made to look cool as well – I was able to relate them to my own feelings in many ways. He has such a clear vision, and he says, "I want it to be expressed like this," so you understand that he thinks deeply about the story and puts that into the work. Some other directors only have loose images without a solid detailed vision and leave things in our hands, but that clear vision Mr. Yasuhiko has is completely different. He possesses extraordinary logical reasoning, so it makes me feel tense working with him, and that tension is different.
Odaka: I read "THE ORIGIN" for pleasure when it was serialized in "Monthly Gundam Ace," starting around 2001, and I loved it and kept reading it. I met Mr. Yasuhiko, the original author of this comic that I loved, as the general director, but the initial impact was like, "I've met a god!" I knew how amazing he was, so I was far more enthused than usual, and I felt that I mustn't disappoint him with any of my work. After I actually began working with him, I keenly felt the vision inside Mr. Yasuhiko's head was already formed at the time he drew the storyboards, and I would try my best to make our work faithful to his images.
- Being involved with the project, I think you've looked at the original manga, but what were your feelings when you actually saw it?
Higashi: I first looked at the comics when I got the job, but I was able to predict that this was going to be an epic undertaking. I've been working with the people at Sunrise a long time, and I wondered how I would fuse Mr. Yasuhiko's creative sensibilities with those of previous standard Sunrise works. Mr. Yasuhiko himself added color to the world in his color pages and such, so I wondered how we could express that. I thought it would be difficult.
Kodama: I hadn't read the manga before my involvement with the production either. But when I heard I would be on this job, they said to me that he was amazing. I've always liked the Gundam series, and I was acquainted with the "MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM" TV series and its spinoff titles. When I actually read it, my first feeling was that it was a classic. It's drawn in a slightly different way from the trend in manga now. But as I started reading, I got that incredible sense of classic consistency, and with a glance at those flowing lines that express emotion and atmosphere, I really thought it was an amazing manga.
- Finally, since you will continue to be involved through the "Chronicle of the Loum Battlefield," could you tell us what to look out for in terms of the background art?
Higashi: It needs to be developed following the flow from Episodes 1 to 4, and it must also evolve. I'd like to be able to present the most dynamic art possible. The story depicts fierce battles, so I'd like to present a worldview that contains as much tension as possible. Because the battles take place in outer space, I think the sense of tension on warship bridges and in warship interiors is important, so I hope people pay attention to that.
Kodama: As for the process of art setting design, I think I'll keep working as I've been doing so far. For each episode, there should be some points that Mr. Yasuhiko specifically wants to emphasize, and there will definitely be areas the episode directors are focused on. As the Zabi family gains power, the art setting will be connected to that, so there will be more and more buildings that have an overbearing, domineering, fascistic, aloof, hard image. I hope to do a solid job on those. I hope people will sense the fearsomeness of the Zabi family from the art setting.

Next in our Relay Interview series, we speak to Junji Ohno of the manga "MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM THE ORIGIN MSD: Cucuruz Doan's Island."