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Character Designer Katsuya Kondo Talks 'Ponyo'

Longtime Studio Ghibli animator Katsuya Kondo returns as supervisor on Ponyo and tells Bill Desowitz what it's been like collaborating with the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.


Watch Kondo-san's work come to life in the trailer for Ponyo.

Katsuya Kondo is best known for his character design work on the Studio Ghibli films Kiki's Delivery Service and I Can Hear the Sea, as well as the PlayStation game Jade Cocoon. His character designs are considered the epitome of the Studio Ghibli style. He recently returned as animation supervisor on Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo (Disney releases the English-language version on Aug. 14). Kondo has worked with Miyazaki for nearly 25 years, beginning with Castle in the Sky. He offered his thoughts about Ponyo and Miyazaki by email through an interpreter.

Bill Desowitz: You've collaborated with Miyazaki for nearly 25 years. How would you describe the experience of making Ponyo and what distinguishes it from your past work together?

Katsuya Kondo: It has been a long time since I worked with Mr. Miyazaki as a supervising animator, so I enjoyed it very well. The hard times on creating Ponyo, I don't seem to have any particular. Not just Ponyo, but it can be said for all the films, because creating a feature film itself is a matter of hard work. If you look at it objectively, each film may have a different atmosphere, but I am just doing the same work as before. If I were to say one thing about Ponyo that is different from the past titles, I would say that this one is aimed for young children.

BD: This is definitely a movie aimed at young children. Did this energize Miyazaki more than usual?

KK: There is no doubt that Mr. Miyazaki was energized by making this movie! He was much more emotional than usual. I guess that is because of his strong will that says "I want to show this movie to the children!"He sure had so many things on his mind. He couldn't stop thinking about many ideas and he would joke about himself going over the top with so many different ideas of the film.

BD: What were some of the inspirations for the character designs and the overall look?

KK: Characters are based on Mr. Miyazaki's storyboards. I kept on trying to show Ponyo in a way that "casts her radiating emotion and desire into shape."

BD: What were some of the biggest animation challenges?

KK: My tough ones are always "showing something that looks as if it is there." It doesn't just apply to Ponyo, but to the entire animation world. To show someone's presence, you have to make him/her move a lot. It may be a slight movement, or it can be bold. It can be both, or different variations.

BD: What kind of staff did you have?

KK: There are about 50 in-house key animators, and there should be more staff if you count the other divisions. There are so many little things I don't remember what I contributed, but one important advice I remember giving to the staff is to make Ponyo look like "a soft, chubby girl."

BD: What were some of your own contributions?

KK: I used my skill built up during my animator's career. Not just drawing key animation, but the whole production is about delivering each staff's individuality. Like I said before, I did contribute on small points, and answered in my own point of view when asked for advice. Our job is to put Mr. Miyazaki's perspective of the world in shape. We do sometimes fatten his ideas, but that's because there's his basis to it. Mr. Miyazaki is always the base of everything.

Ponyo has sprouted arms and legs and races with her siblings to the surface of the sea.

BD: Your character designs are considered the epitome of the Ghibli style What's it been like to be a part of the experience there?

KK: I think I am lucky to have the same orientation as Ghibli's. My philosophy of "What I would like the animation to be" is the same as Ghibli's. With the same vision, I was able to be involved until now. But you know, the Studio is a collection of individuals; I guess I gave them a lot of influences… both good and bad. I am not sure that should be counted as an evolvement of the Studio, though.

BD: How were your experiences working on Gummi Bears, Rainbow Brite and other children's works helpful to you on Ponyo?

KK: At that time I was not yet a member of Ghibli, but worked for a different company. My involvement to these projects was not my decision, but the company's! But those days there weren't any restrictions on the number of pages to draw, so I had a lot of fun doing what I wanted to do. If you are asking how it helped on Ponyo, I cannot really say. It's nearly 25 years ago! I don't think I remember anything particular.

BD: What do you like best in Ponyo?

KK: I like the scenes where Ponyo grows her hands and feet out, becomes human in the "water of life," and jumps out with the little sisters and was seen by Koichi. Also, what I adore is where Sosuke and Ponyo call out their names and seals their bond with each other under the senior home. I cannot tell which particular scene I am proud of. My job is to make sure with the entire film is the best quality, so I cannot make a choice about a particular scene.

BD: Miyazaki said he closed down the CG department because it was ultimately counter-productive. What do you think about the format?

KK: [CG] must have its own unique way of storytelling. The way only [CG] has. I think for each film there is a technique that is most suitable for it. So using the technique (it can be 2D or [CG]) that fits is the best. I did once a character design for a [CG] film, but I left the rest to all the professionals. I know nothing!

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.