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Blue Sky's Trip to Japan

Four lucky staffers from Blue Sky Studios visited Japan to give presentations, meet and greet, and uncover some of the secrets behind the beautiful and often mysterious tradition of Japanese animation. AndrMazzone recounts.

This is an account of a trip to Japan undertaken by three of my Blue Sky colleagues and myself during May, 1999. The purpose of the trip was in some part to publicise Blue Sky, but also served as a fact finding mission. Our aim was to uncover some of the secrets behind the beautiful and often mysterious tradition of Japanese animation and how their opinions differ from our western perspectives of the art. To this end we visited the renowned Studio Ghibli, creators of Princess Mononoke, NTV, Production IG and also gave presentations to Tokyo SIGGRAPH and Digital Hollywood. Our trip was only a week in duration, but in this short time we were all changed irrevocably. Before I begin, let me take a moment to introduce my Blue Sky travelling companions:

Justin Leach -- An animator specialising in rigging, he is one of the main proponents of Maya at Blue Sky. Steve Talkowski -- A senior animator at Blue Sky who has much standing, respect and experience. Cliff Bohm -- A Senior Technical director who has been with Blue Sky for longer than most of us can remember. Me, André Mazzone -- I'm a Production Programmer which basically means I write software for all those things that off the shelf stuff can't offer. By the way, I am Australian so if my grammar is a little strange or the spelling leans a little more toward the British, I hope you'll just chalk it up to eccentricity. Also I must add that there was a fifth member of our group, Ayumu Imanari. He does not work at Blue Sky but was perhaps the most instrumental in making our trip a success; he was our translator and social co-ordinator. Ayumu is a recent graduate student in computer animation and television production, so he was able to communicate for us much more effectively than someone outside the industry. For all of us, it had been a dream to visit some of the great masters of animation in Japan. They don't get a lot of publicity in the West (although that is starting to change) but they are highly respected in most animation circles. In fact we probably wouldn't have had the chance to meet any of them if Blue Sky hadn't won the Oscar for best animated short film in March of this year. It was this alone that gave us the foot in the door. So enough lead in let's start the account. In fact I should mention here that Steve graciously volunteered to be the camera man for this trip so you'll only see him in few of the pictures.

Day One

Because Cliff booked late he left a day earlier than the rest of us. He had checked into the hotel and had a day's sightseeing in before we arrived. So that's why he's not in this picture. Here we are, newly arrived in Japan after a relaxing 14 hour flight. We're in the ultra modern Narita airport which in actuality is quite far from the centre of Tokyo. Taking the train from the airport is quite relaxing and for much of the journey has a beautiful view. Here you see Ayumu and I in the train.

The culture shock is already hitting Steve and Justin who have been busily taking photos all over the subway station. Since I'd been to Japan before and of course Ayumu is a native, we were a lot more cosmopolitan about the whole thing. I'd love to add all the photos we have here but there just isn't room.


Since we were all pretty wrecked from the flight, we decided to go straight to the hotel. Ayumu had managed to swing a foreigner's discount at one of the premiere hotels in one of the most exciting parts of Tokyo, a place called Shinjuku. Here we met up with Cliff and took a look at our rooms. This is the view from the window. It's actually a government building that is quite impressive to look at and has quite a presence. Needless to say by this time we were all starting to feel a little giddy about the trip.

Shinjuku is a very exciting place which has some of the largest shopping centres in Tokyo and also boasts a fine selection of restaurants and clubs. It sounds like an obvious cliché but it's really easy to feel like you are on the set of Blade Runner. Here we are just outside the restaurant where we're about to eat dinner. After dinner we all went to bed because we had our first presentation the next day at Digital Hollywood.

Day Two

Digital Hollywood is a well respected school for computer graphics in Japan. When we were first broaching the idea of a trip, they were very enthusiastic and eager to have us visit and present some of our ideas. But the presentation was later in the day so we decided that we should see a bit more of Tokyo before we had to get to work.

Akihabara is famous to anyone who has visited Tokyo with a view to going shopping. This is where all of the new and crazy electronic devices are sold at bargain basement prices. You get to see a preview of some of the products that will eventually be released to the rest of the world and some that will never see the light of day anywhere else. In fact we did get a chance to see the new Sega console, Dreamcast, way before its US release. The place is really, really crazy. On the day we went they had closed off some of the streets to aid shopping, and the place was crawling with people and street vendors who were selling anything from takoyaki (octopus dumplings) to Dual Celeron motherboards.

In fact it was so busy that we were starting to regret going there. We were all suffering from rather long flights and here we were deliberately tiring ourselves out before our presentation. But after a quick drink of Pocari Sweat and Vitamin Water, both of which are Gatorade style beverages, we were feeling pepped and ready to take on the adoring masses of fans with which we would soon have to deal. We were a little anxious because we were told that 200 people would be attending our first presentation.


Here's a picture of Digital Hollywood. The school was created in 1994 with the aim of helping students get a better grounding in various aspects of computer graphics. When we arrived we were met by Dr. Sugiyama, the founder, and he was nice enough to show us around. The school had a lot of equipment, most of which was really new -- we were quite jealous! After the tour we were given a little time to prepare for our talk.

I mentioned before that we were a little nervous. When we entered the hall it was full to bursting with people. But our fears were groundless, the presentation went off without a hitch. I think it was really helped by the fact that we did not have to speak in Japanese. As each of us gave our speeches Ayumu translated them into Japanese for us, paragraph by paragraph. Steve was first up and talked about the process of animating. Then Cliff talked about lighting and texturing and how radiosity was applied to our scenes. I was third and talked about the science of ray-tracing and Monte Carlo, radiosity followed by Justin who talked about his understanding of the different approaches that Western and Japanese animations take.

After the presentation was over, they threw us a really nice, fully catered party. Ichiro Tanaka and SGI of Tokyo were kind enough to organise and sponsor the event. We were introduced to all manner of people, students and professionals alike. In fact there were people from other industries there as well. One person had even come from Shiseido which is a cosmetics company. We were all presented with gifts. We could not have asked for a nicer reception. Here I must thank both Tomoko Hatanaka and Hiromi Ito for their invaluable help in organizing our presentation.

Day Three

On day three we visited NTV. NTV is short for Nippon Television and is one of the largest television stations in Japan. One of the interesting aspects of the entertainment industry in Japan is that TV is a much larger industry than film. Broadcast TV in Japan is responsible for weekly shows and other kinds of content just like in other countries, but it's also a large source of movies as well. Here we are in the lounge of the NTV studios. The decor looked like it was straight out of a Bond film. I love those chairs.

The person we were visiting at NTV here is their head of Computer Graphics, Yoshinori Sugano, who is leading the new wave of CG animated content at NTV. One of the reasons we were so excited to meet him was that he was the head of CG on Princess Mononoke. We received the grand tour of their main facility in Tokyo and it was quite impressive. We showed Bunny to their CG department and it was well received. We were then taken to lunch where we discussed quite a number of very interesting aspects of our respective work.

One of the most interesting things we discovered was that the popularity of anime (this is the term the Japanese employ for their animation) is declining in Japan. It seems that people are becoming tired with formulaic plots and character design. This is of course a problem that affects Western animation as well. One of Sugano's main challenges right now is to develop content that will make animation more popular. He was hopeful that CG might be part of the answer.

Sugano had questions for us too. He and his CG department have always wondered why American animation is always full of singing and dancing. This echoed our questions to him as to why Japanese animation is always so cinematic and serious. We were able to determine that American animation has its roots in vaudeville and is at its essence a theatrical genre. He then explained that the history of Japanese anime has its beginnings in manga, the pictorial story telling art that has been popular for centuries in Japan.

After bidding our new found friends at NTV goodbye, Ayumu had arranged for us to meet with Tadashi Yabe an acid jazz DJ from the group United Future Organization (UFO). Ayumu thought it would be nice if we met some people who had nothing to do with graphics. It was only coincidental that UFO was also one of his favourite groups. But since we still had some time to kill, we decided to see more of Tokyo. This was our chance to sample some peak hour traffic, so we opted for public transportation. One thing you have to realise is that everything in Japan is clean, elegant and efficient. Every train we took was immaculate. There was no sign of graffiti and it ran on time to the second.

The rest of our journey to our dinner appointment was on foot. We walked from a rather trendy part of the city called Ebisu toward Aoyama another nice area. The architecture is very new and unique. Most of the buildings in Tokyo are new due to the heavy bombing in WWII. Walking through the city gives you an idea of how incredibly huge the place is. It's also a very vertical city since the population density is also quite large. Tokyo itself holds 18 million people. This picture shows Ayumu with Yabe at dinner.

Day Four The first place we visited on this day is a traditional animation and CG company called Production IG. You might have seen some of their animation in The Ghost in the Shell (movie and game), Neon Genesis Evangelion, countless Play Station games, and you might get to see their work in two new movies which have yet to be released. The contrast between this place and NTV was substantial. Rather than the corporate atmosphere that pervaded the offices of NTV, Production IG seemed to evoke an image of guerilla warfare. Here people worked in cramped conditions and slept under their desks in the midst of deadlines. There were drawings and reference material everywhere, with the walls covered in story boards. It was clear from the raw vibrancy of the people, that they were here because of their love for their art.

We can't show you photos of the studio since they were working on a new movie at the time. All we can say is that it's going to be beautiful. Again we showed Bunny and got into more discussions about animation. Once more searching for the origins of Japanese animation, we asked them about their influences. Apparently one of the greatest influences on modern anime was from Osamu Tezuka who created Atom Taishi, or as we know it Astro Boy. Interestingly enough, Tezuka claimed much of his influence from American animation, Disney in particular.

Production IG showed us much of their work which often had CG characters interacting with traditional animation. It was of an amazingly high quality. But the treat was when they allowed us to see their new movie Jin Roh. This is currently being shown at various animation festivals the world over. If you get a chance to see it make sure you do. The animation and character designs are beautiful and the story is gripping, replete with subtle and crafty twists. When we were discussing the different production pressures that affected Japanese and American animation studios, the president of Production IG, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, raised one rather subtle and very interesting point. Since an animated movie costs a lot less to produce in Japan due to the smaller salaries paid to artists, and thus smaller production budgets, directors there have much greater creative control than their American counterparts. Because American animation costs are so much greater, larger investments are necessary and hence the number of people involved in shaping the story grows. In addition, to ensure a film's profitability, the story must appeal to a wide ranging audience. This can often lead to diluted plot lines. We all found this very interesting as it explains much of the sophistication of anime.

Later in the day we visited a new and small studio called Trilogy. Here we saw some of the best CG of the entire trip. They were working on a pilot for a larger project they were hoping to produce. They, with the help of Michael Arias of SoftImage toon shader fame, achieved a look that was nothing short of incredible. I wish I could describe it more but again we were shown this in confidence. Unfortunately, they were really busy so we didn't get to spend too much time with them.

The rest of the day was spent on the road as we drove toward Hakone. Ayumu had arranged some "R and R" at some of the hot springs closest to Tokyo.

Day Five Hakone is a beautiful town on the shore of lake Ashino-ko which is a filled caldera of an inactive volcano. This is an area famous for its volcanic springs, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and beautiful views of Mount Fuji. It's a popular holiday spot, especially in spring when there are a large number of flower festivals. Here you see the start of a shrine at the lake's edge. The large red gates are symbols of the Shinto religion.

The gardens are famous in Hakone for being well maintained and quite beautiful. Here is one of the paths leading to the shrine at Hakone.

The hotel in which we stayed had its own private hot springs. This is where Justin, Ayumu, Cliff and I became much better acquainted with each other. Since the Japanese have much different ideas about the taboo of nakedness, and of course coverings of any kind might pollute the water, clothing is prohibited in the baths. Sorry, no photos.

The rest of the day was spent at the lip of the crater that forms the lake. There's a cable car that takes you to the top. The day was a little hazy so we were only able to get a small glimpse of Mt. Fuji. This is a view from the cable car, looking over the lake.

Day Six

This was our second to last day in Japan, and also the day that we would visit Studio Ghibli. Ghibli is perhaps the most famous animation studio in Japan. They have produced such movies as Laputa, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, Totoro and Princess Mononoke. The studio was founded by Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki when they decided that the only way they could make the films that they wanted to make was to open their own studio.


As soon as you walk in the door you are greeted by many of the characters from Ghibli's movies. What's also striking is the design of the place. Miyazaki had a lot to do with the architecture of the studio, and it has a lovely feeling of openness and the amount of natural light everywhere is surprising. After a brief tour of the studio we were taken to another building where, barely three days before, a film projection room had been finished which could project the 35mm copy of Bunny we had been carrying around with us.

The studio's staff is so large, we had to show Bunny twice to accommodate everyone. Still, we were told that Miyazaki is often very busy and that we probably wouldn't be able to meet him. However, as the first audience was entering we noticed a certain grey haired gentlemen take a seat at the back of the theatre. Unannounced Miyazaki had come to see Bunny. After the second screening we were told that we had been invited to Miyazaki's personal studio, seen here on the right.

Miyazaki sat down with us and talked for almost three hours. We covered all kinds of topics: childhood education, the current trends in media mass marketing, social trends in Japanese and Western society and of course quite a lot about animation. He asked us a lot of questions about Bunny. He also asked about our lighting techniques and how our approaches differed from his cel oriented ones. At this point he paid Bunny a great compliment and remarked that he had never seen such emotion evoked purely from the eyes of a character. He followed this by saying that we were all too young to have portrayed such sadness in an animation.


He then showed us around his own studio (which he also designed) and discussed his plans for future projects, particularly a museum devoted to cel animation primarily for young children. Talking with Miyazaki was one of the most inspirational moments of my life. So inspirational that we made ourselves late for SIGGRAPH Tokyo!

Well it wasn't entirely our fault. Tokyo traffic was also a factor. This presentation did not go as smoothly as the one for Digital Hollywood. We were late to start with which is always bad. The other problem was that the place where we were presenting closed early so we had to get everything done quickly. However everyone was most forgiving and made us feel welcome. SIGGRAPH members were also nice enough to have a modest gathering afterward where we met some more interesting people, in particular some of the designers of the Play Station 2 graphics engine and one of the people quite involved in the production of the game Pa Rappa The Rapper.

Day Seven

On the last day Justin and I visited Polygon Pictures while Steve and Cliff went to do some extra shopping. Polygon Pictures is a small shop and I knew a couple of people there so we thought it'd be nice to stop by. They liked Bunny and were kind enough to show some of their work too. Afterward Justin and I went out on the town and visited Roppongi which is a rather famous area of the city which like Shinjuku has a lot of clubs and bars. We had coffee at a Starbucks there and relaxed. After this we all reunited for one last bash at Blue, where we had previously been invited by Yabe, from UFO. The mix of music was really good and we spent a large part of the night dancing away. We all had flights leaving early the next day but it was a great way to spend our last moments in Japan.


Our trip was a most rewarding one. We had the opportunity to learn a great many things, experience a wondrous culture so different from our own and meet some of the living legends of Japanese animation that have inspired us in so many ways. To say that this trip changed our lives would be an understatement, it was a rare opportunity that is bound to provoke reminiscences within us for quite some time to come.

Born and raised in Australia, Andre has worked in the CG industry for 5 years, two and a half of them at Blue Sky Studios, in Harrison, New York. After briefly training to become a spelunker, he quickly discovered his true calling as a professional geek. His past times include snow-boarding, hiking, snooker and contemplating the proliferation of mental conceptualisation.