SDCC 2009: Disney Animation Round One - John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki
This week, I'll be running a series of transcripts here on the site that took place as part of the roundtables that took place upstairs after the Hall H Disney Animation presentation on Friday at Comic-Con.
I'm not fond of the roundtable format in general, but when you're given the opportunity to sit in a room with John Lasseter, Hayao Miyazaki, Kirk Wise, Ron Clements and John Musker, and Lee Unkrich all at the same time? YOU TAKE THAT OPPORTUNITY. That's a pretty remarkable line-up of some of the names that have shaped modern animation, and I decided to sit in and see what they had to say for themselves.
In the following transcripts, I'll indicate when I asked a question. Otherwise, it was one of the several other journalists at the table. The first transcription I've got for you features both John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki, who were together for the whole press day. I got the feeling Miyazaki was nervous about the entire Comic-Con barrage, but Lasseter's presence went a long way towards making it all tolerable.
The two came in and sat down across from us, along with Miyazaki's translator, so keep in mind that all of Miyazaki-san's responses are through a second party:
QUESTION: Could you explain a little bit... you talked about taking the movie and bringing American audiences into it to the same level the Japanese are...
JOHN LASSETER: Right.
QUESTION: ... and what did you mean by that?
[more after the jump]
JOHN LASSETER: Well, you know if you've seen "Spirited Away"... "Spirited Away" is set in a very, very Japanese sensibility, and so to Japanese audiences when Sen would walk up, the main character, and look at this big building with a flag on it with Japanese writing on it, everybody in the audience knows what the building is. No one in this country would know what that building is. So these are the kind of things that we look at and go, in order to be on the same level of understanding, we had to add a line off-stage where the character went, "Oh, it's a bath house." Like that. So it's those small little things. I absolutely don't want to... I strive very hard not to change Miyazaki's vision, right? Because his movies are so deep and so unique and sometimes some of the stuff, we don't quite understand, but that's how he intended it. So I'm not going to sit there and clarify and add story to his stuff. I'm going to leave it where he wants things explained and where he wants it to be ambiguous. You know he's that way, so kind of get out of the way and then try and cast the actors and do the performances so it feels just natural for our ears, you know? Even though we don't change the characters' names. I have a funny story... when we were doing "Spirited Away," it's a very clever... that the name... if you know the story, they go into this world and the witch kind of changes people's names. Takes their names. And the names they give them are the task which they do at the bath house. And it's very clever, right? And so we're sitting there going, "What do we do? Do we change the name, or do we keep the Japanese name and do something else? So I called... I sent a message over to Miyazaki-san and said, "What would you like us to do with this?" And he said, "I think for American audiences to truly understand my movies, they should all learn Japanese." And I go, "Miyazaki-san, that won't do." And he said, "John, I trust you. Do what you want." So what we did is, we kept the Japanese name, but as soon as you've introduced a character you kind of say, "Oh, the boiler man," you know? Or whatever like that. And try to achieve sort of the same thing but keeping the name. So I like to keep his original names. It's like the boy in Ponyo's name... Soskai, which it took me a long time to be able to pronounce properly. But it's "So-skay."
QUESTION: Miyazaki San's films have not really been... I don't want to say they've been critical smashes here in the States, but they haven't done the same box office as they have done overseas.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, absolutely.
QUESTION: Do you think that's directly related to the fact that American fans are more interested in perfect heroes versus heroes who tend to be more noble and try to overcome their flaws and character like many of the films that Miyazaki makes, like, say "Spirited Away" or "Mononoke," where they have certain flaws or certain challenges and they try to overcome them versus embracing them like we see here?
JOHN LASSETER: Yeah, it's interesting. It's a very good question. I haven't really ever thought of it quite that way, though it's an interesting observation. The way I look at it, and frankly it's a simple fact, too, also that the box office equals the number of theatres it was in. I mean, it was in 100 theatres nationwide, so now we're going to be in 800 theatres... a nice medium-size release, so we're so excited about that. I believe in this one thing... that I've been a big advocate within the Disney company of trying to get Miyazaki's films out there before the DVD releases as well as the theatrical releases, because I believe that once you watch a Miyazaki film, you get hooked. You think about it well after you've seen it, and you want to see it again. My sons... I have 5 sons... and they've all grown up on Miyazaki films. I came back in 1987 with his films on Japanese laser discs, and we would sit and watch them in Japanese, like "Totoro" and all those films and "Nausicaa" and "The Castle Of Cagliostro," and they communicate. It's unbelievable. Chuck Jones always said that with great animation, you should be able to turn the sound off and still tell what's going on. And by and large, his films... you can watch and just sort of feel what's going on in these films. But there's some subtlety and depth through the language, and that's what we strive to get, but one of the things you tapped into with your question, which is a very good one, is (to Miyazaki) I love the positive messages in all of your films. (to the journalists) He gets into pretty deep issues of the environment, of growing up, of moving on. All these things. And he handles it so beautifully, and in fact, it's almost like this thing... you don't quite realize that he's getting to you in those ways. And my sons just... it's their favorite movies. They're constantly taking our DVDs over to friends' houses and introducing them to "Princess Mononoke" and "Totoro" and "Spirited Away" and "Laputa," or "Castle in the Sky," so they're great. So his films have been... one of the ways that they've been tremendously influential to me personally and as a filmmaker... one of the things that Miyazaki does that has been so inspirational... and, actually, Hollywood movies, I think, keep going the opposite direction... is he celebrates the quiet moments of a film. If you watch his films, there's always this lull before some action. It makes the action that much more, and if you watch "Up," it's really, really influenced by that. And I think it's really great.
DREW MCWEENY: Well, obviously animation in general is important to you, but since Pixar/Disney have both come under the one banner now, you've certainly become the ambassador of animation in general. Also, you pushed the Disney brand to bring back hand- animation. The art form at large... I think it goes through periods of ebb and flow...
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, it does. Right.
DREW MCWEENY: Where do you think it is right now and do you think it's going to get healthier or are we contracting?
JOHN LASSETER: Oh no, I think we're getting healthier without question, because I don't think the animation industry... it's in one of the best places it's ever been. Look at all the studios that are making animated films now. And they're really quality films. You have great filmmakers, you know, that are doing films in lots of different studios. I think the work that's being done at Blue Sky with Chris Wedge and his crew... I think DreamWorks is getting better and better... I think that Fox and Sony are all producing great movies. I think Miyazaki-san in Japan... to me, I'd much rather be a part of a healthy industry than being part of a dead industry. Being the only player in a dead industry? That's what's really important to avoid, because there are so many great artists out there, and the goal is to make great movies, right? To be successful... quality is the best business plan, I always say. And the more you can make these great movies... that's why I'm a big supporter of the industry as a whole. It's a great community, and you want all these artists to stay in animation. You don't want to lose them to other mediums, and as the industry would shrink down, then we'd lose those artists.
DREW MCWEENY: And it would be horrible to watch every time.
JOHN LASSETER: Yeah. So I think, actually, we're doing really well. I think 3-D has been a big kind of... for computer animation, a big kick in the arm, because it's something that animation has kind of grabbed hold of, 3-D, before the live-action films, and we're starting to see some really great live-action films on the horizon which I'm excited about.
QUESTION: How far along on "John Carter Of Mars"?
JOHN LASSETER: Oh, we can't talk about that right now, so...
QUESTION: When you create films do you create films with social commentary? Or is it purely story?
MIYAZAKI: There are all kinds of values that I put in the films, but I don't make films to be message films.
QUESTION: Where does your inspirations come from, because they're very original? You bring in a lot of elements like art, but where do your inspirations come from?
MIYAZAKI: From my everyday life. I get inspiration from my everyday life.
LASSETER: Let me help you with that one. (to Miyazaki) With "Ponyo," did the little school next door to your studio, did it inspire you at all?
MIYAZAKI: When I say I get inspiration from my real life, I think of my real life as extending about 300 meters radius out from me, so what I see within that area is what inspires me. In terms of "Ponyo" having gotten some inspiration from the pre-school next door... there's a nursery school that we made for children of employees of Ghibli, and that just opened up while we were making "Ponyo," so it might be reflected in the next film I make... my inspiration from having... watching little children in the pre-school right next door to my office.
LASSETER: Yeah, the pre-school is so cute. He showed me it, and you sit there and the kids are the cutest... just unbelievably cute. We were standing there and watched this little girl... there's a little pond right there, and this little girl just stepped right in it with one of her shoes, and it was just how she dealt with this wet shoe. It was one of the funniest things you'd ever see.
* * *
"Quality is the best business plan." Can someone print that out on a banner and fly over Hollywood all day long, every single day? Please?
I'll have more of these short conversations all week, along with my exclusive one-on-one conversation with Miyazaki-san, conducted just after we introduced the special HitFix screening of "Ponyo" to the rabid Comic-Con audience.
"Ponyo" open Friday, Aug. 14th, nationwide.
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