Unlocking the Magic of Studio Ghibli

I went to Tokyo’s heart-warming Studio Ghibli museum today, and I had an “insight” into the “nature” of “excellence” (quotes = ego self-check) that I wanted to share.

The museum is a Disney-esque collection of exhibits set in an appropriately whimsical mansion, which screams “childhood whimsy” from every nook and cranny. There are interactive exhibits on the studio’s films, and on animation, film, and lens technology. There is a small theater which offers half-hourly showings of a recent animated short (during my visit, a heartwarming adventure of a small boy through the meadows behind his house). Most interesting (to me), and the inspiration for this post, however, was the exhibit recreating the workspace of Miyazaki and of the crew at Studio Ghibli.

This exhibit, a series of rooms re-creating the sketching, storyboarding, drawing, coloring, and animating workspaces of Miyazaki and his studio, was an insight into creative genius (necessarily, not my opinion: if you accept that Studio Ghibli represents creative genius, then their internal environments are insights into creative genius. I’m not trying to be dramatic or controversial with this particular point). Much of the exhibit you can probably imagine for yourself: pencils and sketches scattered about, framed photos of family members buried under mounds of books, shelves of paint jars, ashtrays and empty coffee cups spread about.

What jumped out at me after a few moments were the books. I cocked my head to read the titles, and I noticed that a large majority of them were large, coffee-table style books full of photos of various places and times across history. There were books full of photos of French, German, English, and Japanese architecture, ancient and modern. Books full of pictures of fish, forests, plants, and animals. Books of illustrated fairy tales. Shelves of these, and much more.

I started to appreciate, for the first time, the tremendous amount of work and research that must go into creating the historical whimsy of a Studio Ghibli film. The movies leave an impression of such wonder that it is easy to get up with the impression that these worlds simply sprung from the animators’ heads, like some sort of animated Athena. I realized then that the truth was much the opposite, and that it was exactly this research that enables Studio Ghibli to do what it does.

The magic and whimsy doesn’t come from the magical and whimsical: it comes from the real and mundane being first accurately reconstructed, and then given a magical and whimsical flourish. It is by painstakingly and accurately re-creating our world (or our existing cultural fantasies), and then adding a few “fantastic” dashes of their own, that Studio Ghibli creates its magic. It is by creating a world you recognize, and then taking you one step beyond, that they manage to touch your heart.

If the creative minds at Studio Ghibli decided one day to skip the research and just cook up the craziest fantasies they could, my guess is that their movies would lose much of their power. My little ad-hoc theory here is that the power of a fantasy doesn’t come from any of its absolute qualities, but rather from its relative qualities. Studio Ghibli, through this research-heavy creative process, has managed to consistently hit the “relative fantasy” sweet spot.

That was the first thing.

Wandering further through that exhibit, I entered the section that re-created the workspace of the animators. Hung on the wall above the rolls of film, the cameras, and the miscellanea were a number of posters and animation-related references. Most of these featured various Ghibli characters, with three or four frames depicting them in various positions–seemingly to help remind the animators of the standard motions of their proprietary characters. Nothing surprising in that.

Alongside these, however, was a striking poster depicting a running dog. The poster consisted of about sixteen frames showing a dog running sideways, over sixteen frames showing the same dog running from the rear. The image quality was quite poor, suggesting that this poster was inspired by very old footage–from the early days of cinema, it seemed. It was strange to see this poster alongside all of the pictures of Studio Ghibli characters. There was something very… traditional about it, alongside all the modern.

Then I realized: the poster was there to remind the animators of their roots, of the fundamentals of animation. That poster represented the earliest efforts to understand the natural movements of animals, the earliest efforts to fit life into 24 frames per second. The movements of that dog weren’t arbitrary, weren’t a suggestion: they were how you fit life into 24 frames per second. They weren’t decoration–they were technical instructions.

Animation had always seemed like a fun and creative job–draw a lot of pictures. I never appreciated until that moment how difficult it must be for animators to really bring images to life, to mimic reality. While to the viewer it might seem as if these animators have enormous control over their work–after all, they draw everything, in reality it seems that they must operate at a tremendously high level of precision. To make a cartoon dog run at 24 frames per second, each frame has to depict the dog in exactly the right position–positions which haven’t changed since the dawn of 24 frames per second. These animators were trained, skilled masters of a precise craft.

This isn’t to say that animators don’t have creative freedom. They have a huge amount. But an exercise of creative freedom without a grounding in tradition can come off as discordant and uncomfortable, not transcendent. These particular artists seem to have realized that you should first master the rules, and only then began to bend them.

That was the second thing.

Walking out of that exhibit, I started to realize how the creative excellence of Studio Ghibli involved relatively little “creativity.” It started seeming that most of the work that goes into a Studio Ghibli film wasn’t creative at all, but rather imitative. Then I realized that this was exactly the point–genius comes not from going off on your own into the woods (literal or figurative) and doing your own thing. Genius comes from mastering the foundations that were established by those before you and then going one step further. That’s the key, the difference between “genius” and “crazy”: one step. The world is incapable of taking more than one step at a time; if you try and show them what lies two, three, four steps ahead, you risk being branded a crazy, a heretic, a fool.

All this closely parallels what novelist Umberto Eco wrote in the afterword to his much-lauded The Name of the Rose. Being set in a 14th century Italian abbey, Eco reflects on the tremendous and detailed research he did while preparing to write the novel. He recalled that the more he learned about the period, the history, the monk’s way of life, the less and less room he had to creatively invent the story. If he wanted to stick to the historical facts, he realized, he had very little room to invent. Eventually, he said, the story simply unfolded in front of him as he realized virtually the only way events could unfold while retaining historical accuracy. The result of this creative process was a novel of remarkable sophistication and achievement: a thorough body of research, with the critical creative flourish.

There seems to be an underlying structure to this kind of high-level creativity. First, conduct meticulous and thorough research into the existing knowledge and achievements of the field. Master and synthesize the disparate strands that have come before. Then, only then, add a creative flourish, and take one original step forward.

Heady stuff. Those of you who are following closely will no doubt see the heavy Wilberian influence in this line of thought. I realize I’m kind of swinging for the fences with this theory of mine, so I’d be keen to hear your thoughts. Does this hold up with the world you know?

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