Have you ever wondered about Hayao Miyazaki’s process? How he works? For 15 years, as head of Studio Ghibli’s international sales, Steve Alpert saw that up close. In his forthcoming memoir Sharing a House With the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli, he describes the famed animator’s methods.
Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book, which was heavily vetted by the studio prior to publication to ensure accuracy:
Hayao Miyazaki’s way of making a film was particularly stressful, and that was exactly how he thought it should be. He would often say that a person only does his best work when faced with the real possibility of failure and its real consequences. Several times after the completion of one of his films, Miyazaki would suggest that the studio be shut down and all the staff be fired. He thought this would give the animators a sense of the consequences of failure and make them better artists if and when they were re-hired for the next film. No one was ever sure if he was just kidding.
When Miyazaki signed off on one of its films and it was officially done, he preferred to never think about that film again. It was done. There was nothing more he could do to improve or change it. He always wanted to be moving forward and thinking about the next film.
To begin a new project Miyazaki would allow images and ideas to percolate through his imagination, capturing his ideas in drawings or watercolor sketches. Often he had ideas for two or three new films going at once. He would amass the images he had drawn and begin to refine them and work out isolated plot lines to go with them. When he thought he had an idea for a new film, he would confer with his producer, Toshio Suzuki, and they would discuss the possibilities. They would agree on an idea, tell other people in the studio about it, the people who heard about it would enthusiastically approve of it, and a week later the idea would have been discarded in favor of another completely different idea.
Eventually an idea would stick and the drawings for it became more fully rendered. Other artists were brought in to do concept art for the film. A formal decision would be reached and more artists would be hired to do background art, location hunting and more concept art. One or two of Miyazaki’s more elaborate drawings would be chosen to represent the film, and the studio would announce the film. Production would begin, the theaters it would play in would be booked, and almost exactly two years later the final film would emerge.
This process sounds a good deal smoother than it actually ever was. Hayao Miyazaki’s reputation in Japan was such that once the film was announced, every theater in Japan already wanted to play the film.
The film was almost always announced in December. Year-end was always a good time in Japan to get people’s attention. The film would play in theaters in mid-July two years later, the best time to play a film in Japan because every school in Japan would be on vacation. Miyazaki’s skill at delivering his films on schedule was the thing that made this kind of scheduling possible. But it was never like this process was easy, or even certain. But that was how Miyazaki believed animated filmmakers should work; always under the gun. The studio only missed the July deadline once, and there had been extenuating circumstances beyond the director’s control.
Early on in the production process things would proceed at a fairly leisurely pace. Miyazaki drew the storyboards for his films which Ghibli called the econte. The econte was a combination storyboard and screenplay, a complete menu for a film that served as a blueprint from which the film could be made.
Miyazaki usually divided the econte into five parts; A, B, C, D and E. These were not acts like in a play. Each was just approximately 20% of the expected length of the film.
Miyazaki usually had all of Part A and most of Part B in his head when the film was first announced. The images in Part A would be lovingly and carefully drawn in some detail. In his later films, when he knew the econte for all of his films were being displayed in the Ghibli Museum, Part A was executed in delicate watercolor. The drawing in Part B was also executed at a more deliberate pace.
Once Miyazaki began drawing Part C, the film would go into full production. The background artists and the composition artists would have already begun, but now the animators were beginning to draw.
Miyazaki was both finishing writing the film and beginning to meet with animators and review animation drawings. By the time Miyazaki started Part D, he would begin having doubts about whether the five parts and the length assigned to the film would be enough to contain the story. He usually had no idea how the film would end. He might have competing ideas about how it should end that he couldn’t resolve. Or he might have no idea at all. The animators would be catching up to Part D and the writing process would have slowed to a crawl.
A sense of impending crisis would seep into the studio. Miyazaki would stop writing and spend his time doing things unrelated to the film. He chopped wood for his studio’s Vermont cast iron stove. Someone would report it to Suzuki who would go over and try to get him to stop chopping wood and get back to work.
Part E had not yet appeared and the entire studio would be churned by an atmosphere of high stress. The theaters were booked. The production was behind schedule. No one knew how the film would end.
And then, a breakthrough. Part E appeared. Following a brief period of elation, the animators and back end production staff began violating Japan’s labor laws and working an illegal number of hours to finish the film. When the animators were ordered to go home and get some sleep, they either pretended to leave and snuck back to their desks, or just outright refused. The production support staff were keeping the same hours as the animators, even the ones that didn’t have any more actual work to do on the film. It was both about solidarity with your comrades who had to work, and the unspoken code of traditional Japanese peer pressure; if everyone else is working, so are you, even if you don’t have any work to do.
This was Hayao Miyazaki’s production process. Once the film was locked he traveled all across Japan to meet with theater owners and the press in local markets. His film was finished, he was free, and the chance to see all of Japan was something he loved. Then he took a month off and retreated to his small house in the mountains with his family. Before long he was already thinking about the next film and starting the whole process over again.
Though, while Miyazaki has a reputation for being a tough boss, in the past, he would sometimes generously engage visitors.
For a long time at Ghibli, even after the success of Princess Mononoke, anybody could just walk upstairs and stand in front of Hayao Miyazaki and watch him work. Miyazaki is an iconic figure in Japan. His usually smiling visage, capped with a shock of snow-white hair and adorned with a full beard and moustache, also white, large squarish black glasses, a wry grin and a twinkle in his eye, is a face at once recognizable to anyone in Japan—and a lot of people outside it. At work on a film, Miyazaki would sit in a tiny corner of the animators’ area at an animator’s desk that was identical in every way to any other animator’s desk in the room, though the aura emanating from him identified him at a glance as someone unique and special. Miyazaki would sometimes stop what he was doing, stand up, and shake hands and even chat with a visitor (if he was in the mood).
With increased security at animation studios, this most certainly isn’t the case anymore, but Alpert’s anecdote is a reminder of how relaxed even a high-pressure place like Studio Ghibli could be at times.
Sharing a House With the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli will be released on June 16. It can be preordered right here.