Home Channels 3D CGI Toonzone @ MCM London Comic Con May 2016 – Michael Arias Panel

Toonzone @ MCM London Comic Con May 2016 – Michael Arias Panel


michael-ariasWith Anime Limited’s Jeremy Graves presiding as MC, the Michael Arias panel offered a rare chance for insight on this veteran of the Hollywood and anime industry, including his recent adaptation of the Project Itoh novel Harmony.

Michael’s earliest memories of anime were watching televised dubs in his Southern Californian childhood, titles such as Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets. Although unaware of its specific origins at this time he was perceptive of the fact it was clearly different to the Hanna-Barbera and Disney productions airing and screening alongside it (a sentiment echoed by contemporaries such as Ciro Nieli).

His actual entry into the anime industry happened after having resided within Japan for some time. At this point Michael was involved with the production of animation software and experimenting with attempts to make rendered CG animation better resemble the aesthetic of its 2D progenitor. The specifics of these experiments were brought to the attention of both DreamWorks and Studio Ghibli by a colleague. His Ghibli involvement included Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbours the Yamadas. Working with both companies and others opened several doors for him and led to him working primarily for Studio 4°C between 1996-2000. Although he served in a software role primarily the projects he worked on during this time also drew on his earlier cinematic roots and techniques.

Said techniques origins can be found in early home made modelling projects he undertook with friends, utilising the popular technique of kitbashing (mixing and matching parts from off-the-shelf models to produce new designs) to produce science fiction vehicles and locales which were then filled with a mixture of firework gunpowder and chemistry set mixtures to be filmed exploding. Influence from science fiction cinema such as Fantastic Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey further inspired this passion. Although briefly pursuing a linguistics degree at college he dropped out and instead came to join VFX studio Dream Quest Images. Initially serving as an intern before being hired as a camera assistant, his involvement would include famous titles such as Total Recall and The Abyss.

One project had additional work occurring in Japan, with the director of said project bringing Michael along based on his prior linguistic studies to act as an informal interpreter. In doing so he was able to engage with his counterparts within the Japanese VFX industry. Although his studies of the language had given him an eventual interest to someday visit, his moving to the country was more motivated by seizing the opportunities the chain of events had granted him. On the issue of culture shock, for those who might wish to follow in his footsteps (his initial response being a jovial “Don’t do it!”), his personal experience makes him feel that there is little to fear and that Japan is a welcoming, great place to live.

Although initially lucrative, a declining demand for the kind of practical effects he had worked on in America juxtaposed with the rise of variety and demand for computer effects is what led him to transition into that side of the industry. This was further impacted by the global industry switch from analogue to digital, remarking that an optical printer he and his colleagues had used now resides as an archaic keepsake in said studio’s entrance. Given his roots in hands on practical effects he mourns the loss of these techniques in modern filming and animation.

The path to directing began with Arias’ involvement in the Tekkonkinkreet pilot film, an attempt to adapt Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga which had had a profound influence on him. Although the project didn’t advance beyond said pilot film, his passion and willingness to steer a project was apparent. This would in turn lead to his involvement as a producer for The Animatrix, Warner Brothers Japanese led animated tie in to The Matrix film trilogy.

When Harmony was initially floated he opted to read the English translation to familiarise himself, admitting a preference to read fiction in his native tongue as it allows it to flow more naturally than attempting to translate it from the original Japanese. When asked for his opinion on optioning it for a film adaptation he was optimistic but feared given the reserved budgets of the Japanese film industry that a live action approach would not be able to do it justice. Eventually the rights to Harmony and Itoh’s other two major works (Genocidal Organ and Empire of Corpses) were secured by Fuji TV’s Noitamina anime block. Michael was asked if he’d be interested in directing the adaptation of Genocidal Organ but declined, due to a mix of what he felt as the story’s ‘soldier of fortune’ theme being outside of his comfort zone and the block’s intent to present these adaptations as 4-6 episodes rather than a straight presentation. He hinted strongly to the producer that he’d much rather direct the adaptation of Harmony, a matter that was resolved by reassigning the originally planned director for that to Genocidal Organ.

At this point the dubbed trailer for the film was shown:

The floor was then opened to questions. Asked about the original plans to release the adaptations as television mini-series, Arias explained that he was always clear with Fuji TV that he was treating the production as a single narrative and hoped that in some form the final production would be released in such a direct format. Along the way this changed and the decision was made to release the three adaptations as a trilogy of films. He feels that Itoh’s original novel was actively attempting to communicate morals but for his part would have been happy explaining less of the story and leaving interpretation open.

For those with directorial ambitions, he advises simply to spend your time working consistently on key skills such as storyboarding. A director is required to blend all the elements of a scene together (actors, framing, sound, etc) so the more practice with harmonising those the better. Continuing from this was a question regarding moments of animation which have impacted him the most. He explained that although one should aim to impact the viewer, he believes that the art of storytelling is experimental and thus you can never be sure if what you’re doing will resonate with viewers and hence this was an excellent reason to try varied, new ideas. Providing specific examples of works that have stuck with him included the opening sequence of Akira and Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s ‘Running Man’ & Katsuhiro Otomo’s ‘Construction Cancellation Order’ shorts for the anthology film Neo Tokyo.

Anime Limited tentatively plan to release Harmony on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.